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Private and family-held businesses heavily populate the plumbing industry. The leadership and transition between owners are issues that can make or break a business’s future.
Rep agencies, in particular, must carefully manage succession planning. The future of their teams, which are often small and very close-knit, is at stake. Their manufacturing partners take the issue extremely seriously because reps are their faces in the local marketplaces. Manufacturers work closely with agencies throughout the process so they can protect their brands.
Near the end of 2019, Stew Chaffee announced his retirement after nearly 40 years with Rich-Tomkins Co., a premier plumbing and heating manufacturers’ rep agency based in Philadelphia. Chaffee had begun a career as a mason when circumstances led to him to an introduction to Rich-Tomkins’ then-president Ken Holloway. He was impressed with Chaffee’s work ethic and attitude and offered him a sales position.
With that, the tradesman transitioned into a businessman. “Stew’s life and career completely changed — his attire, the purchase of a new car and studying sales techniques,” says his wife Jeanne, who is Rich-Tomkins’ CFO. “Every night, he came home and reviewed his notes, and would go over reports with Ken. He became a true student. It’s often said that you get out of something what you put in, and Stew worked really hard.”
As Chaffee got more comfortable, his confidence and capabilities grew. He was named a partner in the early 1990s and president in 2008. Chaffee surrounded himself with a good team and brought his experience as an athlete to the office. He coached his team to excellence and not settling for second place. He also emphasized the importance of integrity, doing the right thing for their customer and manufacturing partners and, of course, loyalty.
Chaffee surrounded himself with knowledgeable and reliable business partners. One of those was Jon Dartt, vice president of trade channel for Delta Faucet Co., one of Rich-Tomkins’ long-time lines.
“Stew has a passion for the manufacturers he represented,” Dartt shares. “He was ‘all in’ when it came to executing strategies. Stew is a strong communicator and has been a thought leader for our business and the industry as a whole. He has a sincere interest in making his partners like Delta better.”
Chaffee was also exceptionally close to the long-time leadership of Bradford White — for which Rich-Tomkins was one of their original agencies.
Speaking for the group, Vice President of Sales Jim McGoldrick shared: “Stew has been a long-time pillar of the manufacturers’ rep community; we appreciate his great contributions to Bradford White and our industry as a whole. His passion, resolve and vision are all key characteristics that have fostered his successful career; his passion for excellence in service to our customers has been critical to Bradford White’s success.”
Building from Within
Throughout its history, Rich-Tomkins has been extraordinarily successful by promoting from within as leadership changed. Stew Rich and Stu Tomkins started the company, and Holloway became a partner when Rich retired. Chaffee and Bill Bradshaw had made their mark selling and thinking outside the box, so when Tomkins retired, Holloway extended a partnership offer to the two.
A year ago, Bradshaw became president and CEO. And now, with Chaffee’s retirement, Alan Cohen has become Bradshaw’s partner as vice president of sales. Jeanne Chaffee also is staying on to help make the transition smooth by managing the financials.
“Everyone has their unique strengths,” Jeanne Chaffee explains. “With each subsequent president and CEO, Rich-Tomkins has become stronger — and we believe that will continue as we move forward.”
Bradshaw originally planned on a career in aviation. He was attending aeronautics school across the street from Rich-Tomkins’ original facility in southwest Philadelphia when he connected with the owners.
“I was getting ready to take my FAA test, but decided it wasn’t the career for me,” Bradshaw says. “I wanted to go back to school, and Rich-Tomkins offered me a job answering phones during the day so I could take classes at night. But after becoming part of the team and experiencing the cohesiveness between all of us, I never wanted to leave.
“Stew was an excellent coach, teaching us to slow down and think about different sides to every situation. He knew how to help us all be more successful. Part of that is failing. He’d let me fail and then tell me where I went wrong — and always picked me back up.”
Cohen started out as a sports writer and was looking for a career change. He answered an ad in the Philadelphia paper in 1992 and got called for an interview — with Stew Chaffee for a sales position at Rich-Tomkins.
“I didn’t have a background in sales, but Stew didn’t care,” Cohen recalls. “He said, ‘We can’t teach you how to talk to people. But we can teach you about products.’ Thankfully, I was smart enough to always listen to him — even if I didn’t agree at the moment. I got into his wake and rode it as closely as I could.”
Dartt praised Rich-Tomkins’ efforts to make succession a smooth process with its manufacturer partners.
“Rich-Tomkins did not wait for us to come to them to talk about succession planning,” he says. “They were very good about getting the firm’s future leaders/principals in front of us by requesting that someone from the agency who had promise as a leader be permitted to attend and participate in key Delta discussions. It gave exposure to the new talent early — and got Delta on board before the succession was even announced.
“We like to review the successor’s background and the skill set they bring to the agency. It’s beneficial to reach out to senior leaders from other manufacturers that the agency represents and get their opinions about the person being considered.”
Noah Dinger, vice president of sales at Jomar, another of Rich-Tomkins’ lines, agrees, adding: “Rich-Tomkins communicated its whole process with complete transparency. That’s very important to manufacturers. We need to know that ownership transfer will be seamless and that we’re in good hands moving forward into the future.
“Stew and Bill did a great job keeping us up to speed throughout their whole process. It gave us confidence that their focus on our business interests would continue without disruption, and set everyone’s mind at ease so we could continue working on strengthening customer relationships and increasing market share for the long term.”
The actual mechanics of an ownership transition are critically important to make it effective and seamless. And having a plan in place is now required by most manufacturers of the agencies representing them.
“Having a succession plan is mandatory for any new rep we hire,” Dinger says. “We need to make sure long-term plans are in place so our partnership will remain intact. Part of that involves seeing a written plan with any personnel, operational and sales changes being made and how those changes are being addressed. And then being able to discuss it together openly.”
Dartt notes: “Advance planning enables Delta to spend time with the agency on other business issues versus difficult succession planning discussions. We ask and encourage our agency principals to make succession planning part of their annual planning process and review the plans with our leadership team. An agency may have a succession plan in place they are satisfied with, but things change regularly that can make it necessary to modify the plan.
“Succession plans such as those at Rich-Tomkins also provide a best-practice example for other agencies to follow. Ultimately, most agencies would rather have the opportunity to learn from the seamless transitions of their peers than have manufacturers like us be heavy-handed in their succession-planning efforts.”