When people describe Gary Herbst, they say he was a people person and a visionary. In 1971, Haerbst worked for Honeywell on its City Desk. He was in charge of going out into the field and checking in with customers, problem solving and providing inventory to his market. His reputation as a people person and charismatic individual preceded him. In 1976, he saw a need in the HVAC market to bring clear information, reliable product, and expedited service to the forefront.
So, in 1976, Herbst applied the model he knew and trusted from Honeywell and established Control Supply Co., an HVAC controls master distributor based out of Long Island, N.Y. He combined his passion, personality, and industry expertise with a mission to provide the highest levels of technical service and inventory, supported by the most knowledgeable and technically sound sales force in the industry. But that was just the start.
Herbst was a go-getter and spent years traveling up and down the East Coast. Customer service and expertise were in his blood — and taking care of others was in his heart. His time on the road was well-spent, while back at headquarters, he had a full staff who held his same beliefs of product knowledge, customer service and drive. His wife Debbie was by his side building the business, as well as trusted friend Michael D’Annunzio, vice president. The company continued to grow in size and revenue, whole on the home front, the Herbst’s welcomed twin girls, Robyn and Lauren.
As Control Supply grew, it transformed into what Finn calls a regional re-distributor, with its sole customer base as that of other distributors. Employees worked hard to keep the vision and core values of superior customer service, product knowledge and application at the forefront. Herbst instilled a family-like culture, which is exemplified by the tenured employees – many of whom with more than 30 years of service with the firm.
When D’Annunzio announced he was looking down the road to retirement, Herbst knew that if he wanted to keep the company moving forward, he needed to bring in an individual immediately to glean expertise from D’Annunzio about the business. He approached his son-in-law Lewis Finn (Robyn’s husband) with the opportunity.
It was 2010. Finn was on track with his banking career in NYC — full of energy, charisma and a “do what it takes” attitude — when he was approached by Herbst to talk about Control Supply. Herbst wanted to make it a family legacy, but, more importantly, he spoke about the family relationship — in the company and in business. Imparting words of wisdom, he told Finn that there is more to life than just money, that one needs to find a balance between career and family — and it’s a bonus to do so in an industry where one doesn’t need to wear a suit, just a welcome smile while providing excellent service.
Finn jumped in and soaked up the knowledge from Herbst and D’Annunzio — he learned about the industry, the people, the products, and the service. When D’Annunzio semi-retired in 2016 (he still jumps in when needed), Herbst gave Finn leeway to run the company. Finn grew to love the industry and its people, and saw the opportunity to take the company from a regional powerhouse and to the national level.
Finn was promoted to chief operating officer and started to put his plan in place. Joining him along the way was Sal Bochicchio, handling inside sales and purchasing, and is his brother-in-law (Lauren’s husband), making the company truly family-owned and -operated. Control Supply was growing toward its national-level presence as a well-oiled machine when the gut-wrenching news hit — Herbst was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He passed away in 2019.
’Steady but Maintainable’
“Gary’s impact was, has and is felt everywhere,” Finn says. “It affected both families – the personal and professional. He was a tremendous individual who was highly respected and revered in our industry.”
Over the last 10 years, Control Supply has experienced many changes under the watchful eyes of its second-generation leadership. Sales have tripled, the number of employees has increased by 40 percent, and the master distributor has made significant investments into the commercial and industrial sides of the HVAC market. “We have always been an extremely efficient company but, just as Gary had instilled, we wanted smart growth,” Finn notes.
When Finn came on board, he developed a pathway to expand the company with steady and attainable goals, while keeping intact what was instilled in him by Herbst — to keep a balance between work and living. In doing so, the company made smart decisions. “Our key to growth, and for continued growth, is to not do it for the sake of bringing in money, but for the sake of building a better company,” Finn explains. “By doing so, we keep everyone healthy and mentally fresh — and keeps the balance. Steady but maintainable.”
Encyclopedia of Controls
Working smarter, harder, and more efficient is a cornerstone to the company, but at its heart — the bull’s eye is customer service in a multifaceted way. It starts by helping its distributor customers be more efficient and sell the products they already have on their shelves.
“Our core function is that we consider ourselves problem-solvers,” Finn notes. “It’s not just about technical advice or selling inventory or sourcing hard products. It’s about helping customers sell on the shelf, first and foremost. We want to educate our clients, to give them the information and expertise they need accurately and efficiently and make their day easier.”
He explains that success is a combination of partnerships between manufacturers, a staff who is a walking encyclopedia of product knowledge and educating customers. The company does extensive research into which is the “right product for the customer and not just the right manufacturer,” helping customers solve problems.
“We made smart decisions into what companies we were going to stock and partner,” Finn explains. “We then learn more about the product, its application, troubleshooting — you name it. We know which product will work for different applications. If there is a question, a customer can call, and we can deliver the correct information — faster and delivered to you in a way that is understood and efficient. Our employee knowledge is amazing — we are faster than Google.”
“Finn recalls a belief he picked up in the banking industry. “A bank founder told me he was a proponent of creating fans — not customers,” he says. “A fan will stick by you — even when you make a mistake. We are all human. How you provide service and value to your customers will determine if they are fans and continue to support you. Control Supply wants to develop fans, not customers.”
During the summer months, when demand for heating products slows, the master distributor focuses on training and educating employees on all the products it carries — even down to the fine print in product instruction manuals.
“We do everything we can to educate ourselves and pass the knowledge on — and be the encyclopedia of controls,” Finn notes The pride in knowledge and service can be felt the minute a customer phones the company — where all employees answer the phones, a subtle touch that shows how all employees are all-in when it comes to ease of doing business.
New Fields of Service
Finn wanted to take the company to the next level — to move from a powerful regional presence in the tri-state area and onto the national platform. It had attained a powerful local presence through hard work from Herbst. “Gary started the process,” Finn explains. “Through the recommendation of a customer, he approached the WIT buying group and we were approved as a vendor — the first master distributor into the group.” When Finn came on board, he saw the power of advertising and marketing opportunities of buying group membership, as well as supporting other members.
“Our marketing has always been strong, but I wanted to change the focus and market ourselves more toward every wholesaler in the country,” he says. Targeted marketing efforts in print advertising and becoming a vendor for buying groups (The Commonwealth Group and IMARK) has opened up Control Supply to customers nationwide, as well as internationally. Finn notes that the company now ships to customers in Canada and, Mexico — even to Seoul, South Korea.
“We’ve expanded to 60 product lines now, which is a 30 to 40 percent increase from 10 years ago,” he says. A manufacturer partner that has been with the company since day one is Resideo (formerly Honeywell). The partnership goes back nearly 45 years, to the days when Herbst was working for the company and eventually modeled Control Supply after it. “Resideo is our first and our strongest manufacturer partner,” says Finn. He went on to say, “They are a partner in the truest sense – as their support for our company, as well as for our customers, is incredible.” It is partnerships, such as Resideo, that enable Control Supply to achieve its mission of delivering trusted products and exceptional customer service.
Control Supply can now offer wholesalers across the country the same exceptional service it provides to its local customers. The company has an interactive website that is easy to navigate, allowing customers to find technical information and place online orders through the site’s e-commerce platform. More than 98 percent of online orders are completed the same day as ordered.
The mix of HVAC manufacturers that Control Supply represents has helped the master distributor move from its residential roots to the commercial and industrial markets. . Through the acquisition of another local master distributor — the company’s first — Control Supply was able to secure the ASCO Valve line.
“We had been trying for many years to add ASCO to our line,” Finn notes. “It is another great manufacturer that is selective in whom it partners with. It goes back to offering our customers the right product for the right application; they trust us to guide them. We can do that because of our roster of reliable HVAC controls manufacturer partners.”
Finn adds that the master distributor searches for manufacturer partners with very technical products. “We learn the product from the inside out,” he says. “Only then can we help our customers with sizing and what product to spec for a certain application.”
The COVID-19 Challenge
Control Supply has enjoyed tremendous growth over the last five years. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, while challenging, was manageable. The company, like others, switched employees to split shifts in the office during the week, following COVID-19 safety protocols. They remained productive by continuing their education on the products the master distributor carries. Finn noted that opportunity exists in any type of change, but what cannot change is taking care of employees with a work/life balance.
“We developed two shifts of employees — and they rotate days in during the week,” he explains. “What we believe in and instill in our staff is that relationships are important to us. If we did not have good partners, good customers and good employees, we wouldn’t be here. We have not laid people off during the pandemic; we gave everyone early bonuses because we were able to. We want to show employees — and customers — that we are going to be here for the long haul to support them.”
When asked about how he would define success, Finn reiterates Herbst’s words and notes that opportunity exists in any type of change, but what cannot change is taking care of employees with a work-life balance.
“If I can get be kids and nephew into the business — getting the third generation to move us forward — that, to me, is a huge success,” Finn says. “Gary always taught me, and others, that there is more to life than business — enjoy family and life. Treat others like you want to be treated. That means you go above and beyond. You exceed expectations of yourself and for yourself — and do the right thing, always.”