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The year 2020 has served up unexpected challenges for most wholesale distribution businesses, forcing changes—both good and bad—and shifting views on the path forward. What has remained steadfast, however, is The Wholesaler’s commitment to being the trusted source of information for the plumbing, heating, cooling, and industrial PVF industries—a role it has played for 75 years.
In the midst of everything else that has happened this year, The Wholesaler magazine celebrates its 75th year as the publication that reports, serves, and supports you—the professionals that keep our industry moving forward during good times and bad. You are the reason The Wholesaler is turning another page in this memorable journey.
The World Looked Different 75 Years Ago
In 1945, Harry S. Truman was sworn in as the 33rd President of the United States, the average cost of a new home was $4,600, the average cost of a gallon of gas was $0.15, and a new car was roughly $1,020. As the U.S. economy began its recovery post World War II, there was a movement toward reestablishing American businesses and rebuilding American dreams.
Two gentlemen—Rufus Choate and Ed Scott—founded a publication titled Plumbing & Heating Wholesaler, which quickly became known simply as The Wholesaler among its readers. In 2005, Ed Scott noted, “In the months and years following World War II, American business and industry grew and innovated as never before. In this climate, literally tens of thousands of new ventures took root and prospered. Amid that flood of new business entities, and on a very moderate scale, the publication currently known as The Wholesaler first saw light.”
The plumbing, HVAC, and PVF industry shared that light as more and more businesses opened their doors, leading to the formation of buying groups and associations designed to solidify the industry as a power player in the U.S. economy. The Wholesaler magazine was there, every step of the way, establishing itself as the voice of the industry professionals and as a resource for their day-to-day business operations.
In late 1993, a gentleman named Tom Brown, who formerly worked for Scott and later founded TMB Publications, stepped into the arena and purchased The Wholesaler magazine. He laid the new foundation in which the publication stands today marrying the old with the new and creating an everlasting symbol of prosperity within the plumbing, heating, cooling, and industrial PVF industry.
“When I made the purchase in 1993,” Brown recalled, “I was hoping to be profitable and viable, but more importantly to remain active in the marketplace and be the best we could be for this industry. It was important to me to have a business where everyone enjoyed working with each other. It was important to build relationships, whether it was with industry associations, industry professionals, or industry vendors; building lasting relationships is the cornerstone of any good businesses.”
Building Lasting Relationships Results in Lasting Success
Tom Brown once noted that print publishing was in his blood. His grandfather was head of photography at the old Daily News in Chicago and his father was involved in advertising sales. What he learned from both was the power of building solid relationships. That’s exactly what he did with his former employers who in turn introduced him to all their connections within the plumbing, HVAC, and PVF industry. He nurtured those relationships and watched them grow the same way he nurtured The Wholesaler and watched the publication grow.
“I have had so many proud moments with The Wholesaler,” Brown said. “Every time I receive the magazine in the mail, and I go through cover-to-cover, I am overwhelmed with pride with the content we share with our readers.”
In 2013, Tom Brown stepped back and made way for his daughter Cate Brown, along with Dave Schulte and Brad Burnside to take over the helm of the publication. Still family-owned and operated, The Wholesaler continues to bring great content from cover-to-cover, month after month. As with any business with a great foundation, passing the torch simply meant expanding on the legacy. The three new owners recognized that although The Wholesaler remained a leader in print publication, to keep moving forward they needed to evolve. In 2017, they set forth to create a digital community for the plumbing, HVAC, and piping professionals, designing a state-of-the-art website—www.phcppros.com.
“We put our hearts and minds to work to create something that was meaningful not just to our readers, but the entire plumbing, HVAC, and PVF industry,” Cate Brown said. “As the businesses we serve evolve and come on to the digital platform, they will have one place to help them design, manage, sell, and compete within PHCPPros.com. At the same time, we have not taken any resources away from our print platform, but instead made it stronger.”
Keeping in Beat as the World Turns
As the industry continues to evolve, so will The Wholesaler. Always staying in beat with what is most important for readers, always building those relationships, and always being the trusted source that reports, serves, and supports you—the professionals that keep our industry moving forward during good times and bad.
In the past 10 years, there have been a number of developments and occurrences that have forever changed the way plumbing, HVAC, and PVF wholesale distributors conduct business. Everything from advances in technology to world pandemics and changing business landscapes have had an effect on the way work, the way we serve, and the way we engage. The Wholesaler has been there with you and will continue to do so for years to come.
“The Wholesaler has had to undergo changes no different than those of our readers, advertisers, and partners,” Brad Burnside said. “We really are all in this together. We’ve had to adapt to the changing business landscape whether it was brought on by acts of God or manmade technological advancements. As the world changes, our goal is to make sure you all are ready for the next chapter and that we at The Wholesaler can continue to be your voice and platform.”
Technology Makes it Easier to Keep Business Flowing
Since the dawn of time, businesses have succeeded because they provide a value to their customers. Originally coined in 1909, the phrase “The customer is always right” was typically used by business owners looking to convince their customers that they will get good service. The concept of providing good service isn’t new. What is new is the way in which a business uses technology to better understand the value it brings to its customers, how to better deliver good service, and how to do so more efficiently with less risk and cost to the business.
This is important to plumbing, HVAC, and PVF wholesale distributors because the very core of their business is to keep their customers satisfied so that they in turn can keep their customers happy. If ever there was an industry that needed to be customer centric, ours is it. This became even more apparent when the concept of omnichannel marketing and selling took shape in 2010 and the likes of Amazon began to sell more than just books. The family-owned businesses that once were the foundation of our industry began to feel the effects of technology both directly and indirectly, and The Wholesaler magazine followed the trends and brought you the information you needed to keep your business flowing in the right direction.
Data is King for Organizations Large and Small
In 2015, The Wholesaler columnist Jason Bader penned an article titled, “Big Data Isn’t Just For Big Companies Anymore.” He wrote, “We have all heard the expression “big data” in the context of retailers studying the buying habits of their customers. The premise is fairly simple. Gather data about the buying habits of your customers, look for patterns, then present products in a manner that makes them more attractive.” He added, “While this tactic was once thought to be available to only large organizations with sophisticated software, the reality is that strategic data analysis is available to even the smallest of companies… Companies are hungry for data and you should be, too.”
Data is king. The more you know, the more you can do. That is true for any business, but especially true for the plumbing, HVAC, and PVF industry. Information helps you manage inventory, track the supply chain, identify gaps in service, and forecast expectations and potential problems. Technology allows you to do all of that with real-time insights that enable smart business decisions.
Adopting the Right Technology for Your Business
As Amazon and other ecommerce organizations came to mass market, wholesale distributors have had to recreate and reimagine their business models, becoming more accessible to their customers and providing what they need, when they need it. There are many ecommerce software providers that work specifically within our industry to help organizations—large or small—create a platform that will serve their customers on their terms. The Wholesaler magazine has showcased a number of these providers throughout the years, including DDI, Insite Software, Epicor, and others.
But simply adopting an ecommerce solution isn’t enough. Technology enables more than just providing a different touchpoint with your customers, it enables making your business much more efficient and in turn, much more competitive. It seems each time we turn around, there is a newer, more advanced piece of technology that pushes the envelope just a little bit further and makes it possible to do just a little bit more.
In 2010, the migration of robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence technology outside the factory floor and into myriad new market applications began, and within the last five years, it has really accelerated within wholesale distribution. The technology has enabled more efficient product movement, order picking, and inventory replenishment while reducing cost and risk to wholesale distributors.
In 2018, The Wholesaler columnist Howard Coleman penned an article titled, “How Bots Can Change Your Warehouse and Distribution Center’s Lifestyle”. He wrote, “Mobile robots speed material flow to order fulfillment bin locations and between other distribution processes. They boost throughput, cut picking and put-away errors. They can help consolidate storage space and future-proof your distribution operations.” He added, “You need to keep a heads up on these developments. I can already see (and I’ve said this many times), the employment of bots will not be just for the big guys. It’s no longer a premature science offering bells and whistles, or a “wow factor.” Bots will become a “make-or-break” competitive advantage.”
Technology Will Continue to Evolve and Our Industry Should, Too
When The Wholesaler magazine first began publishing stories and news about robotics and AI, the industry was still a little tepid to come along for the ride. Sometimes, certain things take a little more time to fully embrace, and that’s OK. The reality is, as an industry we have managed just fine doing business the way we always have and making incremental changes when necessary. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” has served us well. Afterall, The Wholesaler still gets delivered to your desk in hardcopy despite all the warnings that digital is the way of the future.
“The Wholesaler will continue to come to you in print format,” Cate Brown said. “But we still adopted a digital platform because we want to be able to better serve you, our customers, especially as we look to the future and laying the groundwork for that foundation today.”
Earlier this year, The Wholesaler columnist Jeff MacDowell penned an article titled, “Get Your Digital Strategy Right”. He wrote, “Consumers are still open to a brick-and-mortar store if it provides them a personal and digital experience.” The idea isn’t to drop one for the other, but to find a way to marry the two and provide the ultimate experience for your customer, while also learning to work smart and reduce your own cost and risk.
As we all have learned in the past year, reducing cost and risk, and enabling a better, safer experience for customers is the wave of the future. We can get on and ride it or watch as others pass us up. What’s certain is that The Wholesaler will continue to cover technology in all its forms and advancements and provide you with the most relevant information you need, when you need it, and how you want to get it.
Riding the Wave into New Frontiers
Most of us came into the new year with optimism, or at the very least, without the concern of a global pandemic screeching to a halt normal as we knew it. But now, nearly three quarters into the year, we find ourselves learning to adapt, reimagine, and recreate the way work as well as the way we live our everyday lives. We find ourselves riding the wave into new frontiers.
During the first three years of Trump’s presidency, the economy expanded, unemployment fell, wages increased, taxes were cut, and the stock market moved upward. But when the 2020 global pandemic swept in, we found ourselves in a spiral with businesses closing their doors, unemployment reaching 14.7% at one point, jobs declining, and consumer spending falling 17% from February to April 2020.
COVID-19 has caused widespread disruption and it has indiscriminately affected everyone in one way or another. It has literally sent shockwaves across industries and across borders. In April, The Wholesaler columnists Jonathan Byrnes and John Wass penned an online article titled, “COVID-19—How to Manage Your Supply Chain Shock Waves,” in which they wrote, “Supply chains throughout our economy will experience volatile shock waves of product supply and demand over the next year or more. Most companies’ automated supply chain systems are incapable of handling this level of volatility. This will create chaos in both customer fulfillment and supplier replenishment unless managers adopt a completely different way of managing their supply chains.”
They offered insightful tips including how to create a plan for a paradigmatic supply chain change, how to prioritize your customers and suppliers, and how to adjust your current systems. They noted, “This process is very practical and manageable, and it can be developed relatively quickly. Managers who accomplish this will ensure their company’s success and their customers’ loyalty both in today’s period of crisis, and in the years beyond.”
Operating Within a New Normal While Creating a New Future
If this current pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we need to be prepared for anything. It’s not just about managing our supply chains. As The Wholesaler columnist Jeff MacDowell told us in August, “Business Conditions Have Changed.” He wrote, “Since the consequences of the pandemic likely will be felt for some time, business owners should think carefully about issues that may affect their companies and protect themselves. They also should use this time to take bold steps.”
As we navigate all these changes and ensure that our businesses remain accessible and profitable, taking bold steps can be scary, especially with all this uncertainty. As business owners, your obligations extend beyond running a successful business, you are tasked with keeping employees and customers safe. While some of your workforce can work remotely, wholesale distributors within the plumbing, HVAC, and PVF industry were deemed essential, and therefore expected to show up onsite. Industry leaders exclaimed that this industry and all who represent it are critical to the infrastructure of this country and necessary to the health and well-being of its citizens.
That’s a tall order, and manufacturers and wholesale distributors met it head on, and with pride.
In May, The Wholesaler columnist Don McNeeley shared with us, “From the Ashes the Phoenix Will Rise”. He wrote, “I’ve observed great leadership in our PVF industry during this crisis. Afterall, ours is an industry that built this great nation and subsequently defended this great nation. The leadership I have observed in this difficult time wasn’t one of following the pre-prepared pandemic SOP manual for who prepares for a black swan event. By its very nature, a black swan event is something that cannot be anticipated. Rather, our industry leadership is responding by their own leadership intuition. Then again are we not the industry that survived two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, 12 recessions, and the Great Depression?”
McNeeley and The Wholesaler recognize your commitment to not only our industry, but to our country as well. And we thank you for it. As we move through these times together, The Wholesaler will continue to provide resources that will help you meet your obligation and hopefully provide insights on how to do it safely, and more effectively.
Managing a Hybrid Workforce: The Do’s and Dont’s
In August, The Wholesaler columnist Jason Bader penned an article titled, “Managing the Remote Work Team”. This was specifically for those that have staff capable of working from home. He cautioned, “COVID-19 changed the very definition of work for many of us; I believe it will leave an indelible mark. In a time of vast uncertainty, I think I can be certain of this: A portion of our workforce will have adapted to, and now prefer, working from home. Given this potential, how do we adapt our management strategy to maintain productivity outside the four walls of our businesses?” He offers valuable tips and best practices in how to make it work for you and for your employees, including offering it as an incentive, as well as how to create boundaries and expectations.
For those that can’t work from home. The Wholesaler provided an array of resources ranging from webcasts and webinars that cover everything from health and safety to practical steps to managing warehouse flow, as well as a range of products that will help you do so. The Wholesaler Editor in Chief Ruth Mitchell jumped into action and held a series of conversations for The Wholesaler’s Off the Cuff podcasts with industry leaders on current events, business, leadership, challenges, celebrations, and so much more.
“These candid conversations have opened the door to topics that stretch far beyond our immediate concerns to being able to discuss diverse approaches on how to navigate these uncertain times,” Mitchell said. In celebration of the 75th year anniversary, Mitchell has interviewed a number of CEOs and leaders within the plumbing, HVAC, and PVF industry, including Tom Brown. Make sure to listen in by visiting www.phcppros.com/off_the_cuff.
The Customer—Yours and Ours—Is the Key to Success
Making sure that our supply chain and our workforce is fully operating is important, but at the end of the day, customers and their experience will determine success or failure. Out of challenge comes opportunity to be creative in how we move forward in providing a product and service to our customers.
In July, Jason Bader reminded us “Don’t Forget the Voice of the Customer”. He wrote, “Listening to the voice of the customer is something many distributors aspire to, but don’t understand how to do. Having a few of your salespeople reach out to their pet accounts and ask a couple of leading questions isn’t going to give you the best data. We have to do better.” He added, “In companies all across the world, teams are working on the challenge of adapting to the new normal. Innovation is happening whether we like it or not. I simply have one ask: Don’t leave your customer out of the process.”
In August, The Wholesaler columnist Ernie Coutermarsh penned an article titled, “Pandemic = Crisis = Opportunity”. He wrote, “Be the source of calm, clarity, enthusiasm, and accurate information for your customers.” He advised, “Don’t sit around a conference table asking and answering your own questions. Remember that customers are confused, too, and seeking answers. Engage them and get them involved in your discourse and process. They will welcome your initiative and respect you more for including them. What a unique opportunity! Only the customer can tell you what specific changes and circumstances are occurring and affecting their current and future needs for products, services, and support.”
The year 2020 has really taught us many lessons. Most importantly, it has taught us to step back, simplify our lives, and get back to listening to and understanding each other. “It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions with ups and downs,” said Dave Schulte. “But in the end, we have learned so much simply by starting the dialogue with each other and asking questions. This new frontier and the one that comes after it becomes a little less scary when we’re open to change, and we’re open to working together.”
Mergers and Acquisitions: The Industry Literally Joins Together
Our industry consists of a variety of different business models—everything family-owned and operated businesses to largescale enterprises. Each and every single one of them contributes to making the plumbing, HVAC, and PVF business landscape one to envy. Despite all the differences—and competition—we really are one big family and always find a way to joining together. Sometimes, however, joining together is a very literal expression.
There have been a number of high profile mergers and acquisitions over the past five years, including most recently when Ferguson agreed to acquire Chicago-based distributor Columbia Pipe & Supply. Ferguson has also acquired Blackman Plumbing & Supply, Wallwork Brothers, Davis & Warsaw, and Jones Stephens, among several others in the past five years. The company brands itself as the world’s largest specialist trade distributor of plumbing and heating products to professional contractors, and it continues to expand in reach.
Other high profile M&A activity includes F.W. Webb Company acquiring the Pennsylvania location of Collins Pipe & Supply Co., Robertson Heating Supply buying Valley Supply, Watsco buying Peirce-Phelps and N&S Supply, NIBCO acquiring Milwaukee Valve, and Main & Core acquiring Water Works Supply. This list barely scratches the surface of all the M&A activity over the past five years. What we know for sure is that activity is ever present indicating the vibrancy of our industry. The Wholesaler will continue to keep you apprised of all the news coming down the pipeline and what it means for the competition landscape.
Setting competition aside for a minute, let’s shift focus to what it means when all these businesses come together and form buying groups.
Buying Groups: The Ultimate Power Lies in Partnerships
The plumbing industry’s first buying group was formed in 1968 when C.L. Watt came to be. Many years later C.L. Watt merged with Affiliated Distributors (established in 1981) and is now known as the powerhouse buying group, AD.
There are several buying groups across the plumbing, HVAC, and PVF industry. All of which have been formed to amplify the voice of businesses and to serve their best interest in moving their respective organizations forward in a changing world. In February of this year, The Wholesaler’s Editor Ruth Mitchell wrote an article titled, “The Power of Partnerships”.
She noted that buying groups help members succeed by creating partnerships that would otherwise not come to fruition, as well as by providing tools for growth. “Being part of a larger collective provides strength in numbers, as well as partnerships for growth and success,” she wrote. “Such defines a buying group—designed to maximize purchasing power and provide members with multiple tools to strengthen its foundation through marketing opportunities, e-commerce support, and other tools to maximize success.”
The major players within the buying group segment include IMARK Plumbing, which formed as a merger between Omni Corporate Services, Equity Plumbing, and IMARK Group in 2019; Blue Hawk, which was formed in 2005; Delta Distributors, which was founded in 1998; The Commonwealth Group, which came to be in 2020 as a result of a merger between Embassy Group Ltd. and WIT & Co.; and AD, which today is comprised of more than 800 independent members.
The Wholesaler magazine has established relationships with all major buying groups as it understands the foundation of every business within this industry relies on the strength of its established partnerships. “These groups allow business leaders to put competition aside, if even for just a moment, and focus on the larger picture,” Mitchell said. “It shows the strength of our industry as well as comradery that exists within the ranks. This is why the plumbing, HVAC, and PVF industry will thrive for years to come.”
What’s Old is New Again and Will Always Come Full Circle
No matter the challenge, or frankly, the opportunity—the wholesale distributors in our industry will always rise to it. They do so because they, better than anyone else, understand what it took to get to where we are today. That even if all the technology in the world failed us tomorrow, the professionals within our industry—young and old—would know exactly what to do and where to start to get things flowing again. They would rely on the relationships they have built and the partnerships they have formed because that is the foundation of everything great in the plumbing, HVAC, and PVF industry.
“With every conversation I have, I become more in awe of how solid our network is,” Burnside said. “No matter how big we grow, what remains constant is the connection everyone in this industry shares.”
The Wholesaler has done so over the last 75 years, and will continue to nurture that network, serving as the platform for connection. Whether it’s through the sharing of success stories, the celebration of landmark anniversaries, the gateway to how-to tutorials and webcasts, or simply the handshake or hug at industry events, The Wholesaler and all who represent it are here to serve this network.
“Through the years we’ve heard that everything and everyone is going digital,” Schulte said. “We realize that there is a segment of our audience that is there and will likely stay there. But that doesn’t mean that we will ever turn our backs on the rest of our community that still finds value in print and in face-to-face networking and learning.”
As we all adapt to “new normals” and find different ways to work and live, The Wholesaler is committed to being the source that you can rely on in the way in which you want to rely on it—print and digital. “Everything that has happened over the last 75 years—change of ownership, industry partnerships, technology advancements, world pandemics—has brought us to this very moment today,” Cate Brown said. “We are stronger and more committed than ever to continue being your go-to resource to keep pace with whatever comes next.”