In 1955, four brothers and a buddy set out on their own and formed a wholesale distribution company focused on metal roofing and building products. They built the business with a simple mission: to provide customers with better service than they would find anywhere, any time.
What those five men found along the journey was a winning strategy, coupled with the roll-up-your-sleeves service style set the company apart — and fueled expansion. Guided growth led the company to expand with three divisions: heating and air conditioning, roofing, and sheet metal fabrication. Today, The Corken Steel Products Company, headquartered in Florence, Ky., has 15 locations with 18 branches (including fabrication facilities), covering a 100-mile radius that includes Cincinnati and Dayton in Ohio and Louisville and Lexington in Kentucky.
The firm recently transformed itself with an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), and the 300-plus employee-owners keep the mission at the forefront of all they do. It’s clear their drive is set on customer service; after all, the distributor’s tagline is, “The answer is yes. Now what is the question?”
The company’s customers span both the residential and commercial side. For residential, its customers include family-owned heating and air conditioning companies. Territory managers for Corken Steel Products reach out to customers on a regular basis, keeping in contact to maintain the high level of service built into the company culture.
The company’s commercial side is the fastest-growing segment, requiring the creation of a new division — Corken Applied Products, where sales engineers call directly on engineering firms with the goal of getting products specified at the engineering level.
“Once the projects are released for construction, a full inside support team manages the quotation and follow-up on each project,” says Jeff Corken, president of Corken Steel. “Once we have been awarded a job, we assign a dedicated project manager to handle the assignment from start to finish. These types of purchases will typically flow through our mechanical contractor base. The same territory managers who call on our residential accounts are also responsible for maintaining relationships with our mechanical contractors. We make an effort to develop a strong relationship with every mechanical contractor in all our markets.”
Partnerships continue, as the company also serves the multifamily construction market, which requires it to establish and maintain relationships with owners and property management companies.
With a laser focus on customer service, Corken Steel showcases a training facility in its headquarters location. It includes a classroom-style setting and several labs with the latest equipment available to allow for detailed hands-on training.
With a focus on providing the basics of fundamental training and up to elevated higher level training, the distributor provides its contractor and engineering customers a solid foundation as well as continued education to build knowledge and skills. “We recognize that classroom training is no replacement for infield experience; it is why we want to emphasize basic knowledge of the equipment and installation practices for which our customers can grow,” Corken explains.
As the country continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, Corken instructors conduct online training to help customers maintain their CEU hours. When appropriate, the facility will resume in-person training and, more importantly, allow for hands-on training to familiarize themselves with the latest equipment in the industry. Classes highlight topics such as gas furnace setup, geothermal, heat pumps, applied equipment, ductless equipment, inverter units and more. Vendors and third-party trainers cover other topics, such as business training, succession planning, HR/legal, people skills and field skills such as brazing. In addition to the company’s standard classes, it also offers customized NATE training, keeping its customers best in class.
The company’s tagline expresses the desire of Corken’s employee-owners to help its customers be best in class in their fields.
Fourteen territory mangers have the responsibility of calling on HVAC contractors, each with a primary goal of establishing strong relationships within their customer base. It’s easy to showcase how the company marketing events are educational as well as fun — and it sponsors three on an annual basis.
Typically held in the spring, the distribution firm holds a dealer meeting, showcased in a unique venue. “At our last event, held two years ago (due to COVID-19), we rented out the the Cincinnati Reds stadium,” Corken says. “Our dealers were given the opportunity to do a stadium tour and batting practice on the field. We added in three hours of business training, door prizes, some fun competition and awards, and celebrated our 200-plus customers over dinner.”
The company is a sponsor of the Home Comfort Expo at GeoFarm. With a backdrop of a 300-acre farm overlooking the Ohio River, the event, held in Aurora, Ind., provides six individual training classes on topics such and geothermal, indoor air quality, duct sizing, controls and mini-split systems. Customers are asked to select the type of training they most want — and need.
Sessions are held under large tents spread out across the farm to deliver a unique training experience. Each attendee is able to receive eight hours of continuing education for their Ohio and Kentucky requirements.
“This is a huge benefit to the 300 contractors attending the event because they can satisfy all their continuing education requirements in one day,” Corken notes. By combining education with a relaxed atmosphere, customers stay around and are able to unwind. It’s easy to see why the event sells out every year.
The third marketing event Corken sponsor’s each year is a trap shooting event held at Elk Creek. “We offer our customer base a standardized marketing program they can use if they choose to do so,” he explains. “The program consists of radio advertising, direct mail, consumer rebates, spiff programs, training, product display booths and trade show assistance.”
With both the company and customers sharing in the cost of the program, it provides marketing options customers might not have had the ability to develop on their own. “Everyone who signs up for our marketing program is invited to attend the trap shooting event, which is usually about 150 customers,” Corken says. It also is very well-received.
The company is developing a new opportunity In 2022, giving customers an opportunity to earn a trip scheduled to take place in September 2023. The all-expense paid trip will be a seven-day cruise to Canada & New England. Customers can earn all or a portion of the trip depending on the number of products they purchase. They receive quarterly updates throughout the year so that they know of status of their earnings.
Change in Ownership
With an unwavering focus on customers, Corken Steel devotes the same attention to its team members. In July 2021, Corken Steel became an ESOP organization. The change in ownership was done for several reasons, and it all comes down to Corken Steel’s people-first culture. The entire process took close to a year to complete and required a great deal of time and effort.
“Options such as selling to a large national company or organization or to a private equity group were never seriously considered as those situations often can lead to major disruptions in the workforce,” Corken notes. “We wanted our talented and dedicated employees to remain part of the company.”
In addition, the Corken family wanted to thank those employees for all their contributions to the success of the distribution firm.
“One of our goals was to continue operating the company in a way that neither our customers nor our employees could see or feel dramatic changes,” Corken explains. “We wanted to support our customers as before and continue to have their trust.”
A Hand Up
Understanding that partnerships are important, Corken Steel leans heavily into two industry organizations.
“HARDI and AD have been critically important to our company,” Corken says. “The organizations, and the relationships we form with the group, its members, partnerships developed and the exposure to ideas with the best in our industry have a value beyond measure.”.
He is quick to note that its membership in AD provides an additional cache: “Our membership and involvement in AD in particular has elevated our stature and gives us instant credibility as a high performing organization.” The importance of partnering with groups that provide tangible member benefits, keep members engaged, proved guidance and leadership is evident.
In a statement released at the time of the ESOP finalization, the company stated: “Thanks to all our customers for all you do and have done for Corken Steel since 1955. The confidence and faith you have given us to be a supplier and partner to you and your company will never be taken for granted.”
This is why it continues with “The Answer is Yes. Now what is the question?” mindset, supporting customers, team members/owners and its community with an all-in attitude.