As with many things in life, there are iterations, changes and progressions made while traveling a path — and so it can be said about The Wholesaler Magazine. The publication has a long history — from its beginnings in 1945 as the Plumbing and Heating Journal, renamed in 1948 to the Plumbing and Heating Wholesaler, and its final evolution to The Wholesaler Magazine. How it got to where it is today is due primarily to Tom Brown, founder of TMB Publishing.
Tom had been in the print and media business for many years, following along the path many of his family members had taken. In 1971, he was working for Ed Scott, the second owner of The Wholesaler Magazine, among many others. Tom understood from an early age that hard work was vital — from building relationships with customers and partnering for success to being an active participant in the industry you work in.
“Print was in my blood,” Brown says. When Scott sold his business to another company — along with the numerous publications it held — Brown stayed on for a few years. As the new company struggled, Tom was let go. Seeing opportunity in challenges, Brown made a bold move. He struck out on his own in 1990 and formed TMB Publications, and its first magazine was one he had worked on for many years — Plumbing Engineer.
Fulfilling a lifelong dream of being an entraepreneur was challenging but exciting. TMB Publishing grew when in 1993, Tom Brown’s old friend, The Wholesaler Magazine, was up for sale. Fate was bringing the two back together. He purchased the magazine and nurtured and grew the publication - and the company. His family became actively involved in the business, and Brown made it his mission and mantra to instill in all his employees that you must be an active participant in the industry you represent.
In 2013, Tom decided it was time for the magazine to be placed in the hands of its new caretakers — the family members who had worked extremely hard to keep the magazine’s integrity and success on its upward trajectory. The company was passed on to Cate Brown, David Schulte and Brad Burnside, who keep the family-owned and -operated company true to its principals of active industry involvement.
So much has happened since that fateful decision in 1993 — and history is essential to know what the future will hold. I sat down with Tom Brown to talk about his decision to buy The Wholesaler Magazine, his vision for the trade publication and the company, and how each has evolved.
When Tom bought the magazine in 1993, It had a market share of 30 percent in ad sales. With concern for the numbers, he knew he had to make some bold moves and provide firm guidance for the magazine to survive and thrive.
“When I founded TMB Publishing, it was hard work in an industry I knew and loved,” he explains. “With that passion, we took it to new heights, growing the advertising and market share. I took a leap of faith on The Wholesaler — no question about it! We started with the October issue in 1993, and it had about 23 advertising pages — not enough to sustain any publication. I was nervous, for sure, but call by call, with hard work and trust among our industry partners, we inched forward. Within six months, we ran close to 50 ad pages — ah-ha! We became profitable! Yes, there was trepidation, but I knew we could do it, and gradually we became No. 1 in the marketplace.”
It was important for Tom Brown not only to be profitable, but also to be an active participant in the marketplace his magazines represented. This mantra was the backbone of the blueprint to position the magazine to where it is today.
“It was crucial for us to be visible in the marketplace as our customers (the readers and advertisers) saw our dedication to helping them grow,” Brown recalls. “That translated into our close partnerships grown from our participation in industry events — from association events, buying groups, regional events to being on hand to celebrate and witness the growth of wholesale distributors opening new showrooms and distribution facilities. Being visible and active has served us quite well and solidified our active participation and dedication. I think our industry appreciates that.”
Like any business, TMB Publishing has seen many challenges and roadblocks along the way. As the company and publication were growing, the Great Recession hit in 2008.It proved to be one of the biggest obstacles for the company. Tom was determined to keep the ship afloat — not only for his family and employees, but also to support the manufacturers and wholesale distributors and other industry folks the publishing firm represented. Keeping the voice alive was of utmost importance.
“To stay afloat, we had to readjust all our costs and tighten our belts,” Tom notes. “I believed in what we were doing and used my own money to keep the company afloat. It worked, and we made it through the challenging economic times while still supporting the industry. In every challenge, there is a lesson, and the one we learned was to keep an eye on cost.”
The Wholesaler has been reporting, serving, and informing the PHCP channel for 75 years. I asked Brown how, through his lens, it has adapted to changing times and needs.
“The biggest changes came in the digital age — communication has expanded into different platforms and sources,” he says. “The way we communicate with each other, with our accounts and all the various products we offer, has grown and changed. But what remains at heart is the connections we established and the trust of our audience. How we deliver has expanded, but we remain one of the oldest established print trade publications.”
Brown became chairman of the board when he transitioned the family-owned and -operated company to the next generation. At that time, the company would also go through a name change to PHCPPros, showcasing a wider representation of the channel segments it serves. I wondered what his proudest moments with the magazine were along the journey.
“With the magazine business, your product is right in front of you,” he says. “And, in publishing, we see the fruits of our labor every month.” Currently, The Wholesaler Magazine is read by more than 30,000 people each month.
“Every time I receive our magazine in the mail, I go through it and read the content, he notes. “I read the great stories and reporting, and take a look at the manufacturers who trust us by advertising and connecting with their channel partners. I get to experience this every month — how proud and lucky am I?”
As a generational legacy company, I asked Tom what advice he gives the next generation of leadership to guide them along the path to success. He was quick to respond: “I would say that the key in the business is content, content, content! Stay very close to the industry you serve, with the people involved and, above all, have a high profile and visibility. You have got to work your plan — hard work, day in, day out. There is no secret, just dedication. I am very proud of how Cate, Brad, Dave and everyone at the company and magazine work hard to keep and elevate the standards.”
Tom Brown acknowledges that being a part of the PHCP industry has made a positive impact on
“It has been incredible! I am an extremely fortunate person because I enjoy working and being involved in this industry, and with these magazines,” he says. “It was a great career — some days were better than others, but I must say I’ve never really had a bad day. We were always able to solve any problems that came along. We applied ourselves to the problems and came up with a game plan. For the most part, we were pretty darn successful! There were some setbacks here and there but not too many. If I were 10 years younger and if my ears were any better, I’d still be doing it!”
I wondered while Tom was contemplating the purchase of The Wholesaler if anyone ever told him the magazine would not survive. “If anyone ever told me that, I probably would have punched them in the mouth!” he says. “I think people wanted us to succeed; they viewed the magazine as being important to the industry. They appreciated the effort. Along the way, the employees and the next generation would invest in the effort. We aligned ourselves with the best in the business from our leadership to our talented staff — who are easily recognizable, provide a viable service relevant content to readers, and strong support to the PHCP and PVF industries.”
I asked Tom to go back to October of 1993 when he was purchasing the magazine — and what he would whisper into his younger self’s ear. “No fear,” he says. Those two words encapsulate the man, the company and the magazine.
After the interview, Tom and I were chatting about his schedule for the day – I figured maybe a round of golf or two. It turns out, he was getting ready to “interview” a contractor in Florida – laying the groundwork for a full interview by an editor on our team. The next family generation may be heading up the company, but old habits run deep in connecting with and serving the industry we love.
Tom, thank-you for shooting for the moon in 1991 to form TMB Publishing, and allowing its voice and personality to become a cornerstone in the PHCP industry.
Happy Anniversary to The Wholesaler Magazine! Here is to many more years of reporting, serving, and championing our essential industry’s success.