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In the 1940s, if you lived in Jasper County, Iowa (the eastern side), chances are you knew your state senator Jim Nesmith. A man of great determination, Nesmith enjoyed representing Iowans, but to do so, he needed to supplement his income with a more 9-to-5 job. Nesmith took a job with A.Y. McDonald, a manufacturer of plumbing pumps and waterworks, headquartered in Dubuque, Iowa, and traveled the state representing the company and its industry.
During the late ’40s and early ’50s, Nesmith observed Iowa City’s growth — the expansion of the University of Iowa and hospitals and other community-building industries popping up in the region. With growth comes development, and he saw the need for a wholesale plumbing company to support the area.
On May 1, 1951, along with his wife Gladys, Nesmith established Plumbers Supply Company (later renamed PSC Distribution), quickly becoming known as a place with everything a plumber needed.
The company flourished, and in 1969, Nesmith’s daughter and son-in-law — Nora Lee Balmer and Wayne Balmer — assumed control and guided the growing business for 30 years. Retiring in the late 1990s, they were succeeded by their two oldest sons, John Balmer and Jim Balmer. In the mid-2000s, the brothers began the succession discussion.
On the radar was Tom Balmer (John’s son), Jennie Wunderlich (Jim’s daughter) and her husband Ben Wunderlich to take the helm. The goal was for the trio to come back into the family business where, ultimately, they would own and guide the company into the fourth generation.
In 2007, Tom Balmer had established roots in Kansas City, with a family and a successful career as a financial analyst, when he received a call from his father asking if he would consider returning to the family stomping grounds in Iowa to rejoin the family business. It was pitched to him that the family was looking into transitioning the role of leadership to the next generation. After much consideration, Tom and his family moved back to Iowa City, where he took on the role of chief financial officer.
Around the same time, Jennie and Ben Wunderlich lived in Hawaii, finishing out their years of service in the Army — both having graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Jennie Wunderlich served as a quartermaster officer and Ben Wunderlich as an ordinance officer. They completed several missions overseas and were coming upon the end of their military commitment, contemplating their roles after military life.
The couple received a call from Jennie’s dad, asking them to consider returning to Iowa and learning positions in the family firm; Ben would train under a long-time employee in a sales position, and Jennie would join the showroom team. It was a big decision. With their skillsets complementing each other’s and understanding the ask, they returned to Iowa.
While Ben Wunderlich didn’t have a background in wholesale distribution to draw upon as did cousins Jennie and Tom, he was up for the challenge. He started in the warehouse and worked his way up from there. For Jennie, she was back working at the family company she grew up in and understood.
“The three of us have different skill sets, and our parents were generous enough to give us the chance to do something in the company,” Tom Balmer says. “They wanted to give us the opportunity to be a part of the legacy.”
The trio joined the company around 2008; in 2021, it was made official that the cousins would be the fourth generation at the helm — Jennie Wunderlich as president, Ben Wunderlich as COO, and Tom Balmer as CEO.
Under their leadership, PSC Distribution — the wholesale distribution company providing plumbing, HVAC, hydronics, geothermal, cabinetry, countertops, and lighting supplies — along with its luxury showroom Studio H2O, continues to deliver best-in-class customer service as a family-owned and -operated wholesale distribution firm.
For the road traveled, the path ahead is steeped in customer excellence, community involvement and engagement, and enrichment of team members. These are the compelling reasons why The Wholesaler magazine celebrates Studio H2O as its 2022 Showroom of the Year.
Foundation of Trust
As PSC grew, so did the plumbing showroom, which expanded and rebranded in 2010 to Studio H2O. The one-storefront, 6,000-square-foot luxury products showroom serves with an emphasis on the luxury service and experience for its customers — contractors, builders, and their customers.
The showroom serves eastern Iowa, where its customers are primarily local contractors and builders. They are taken care of by a team of 10 showroom employees, who are the backbone of the operation. The family-like feel of the company and its culture are steeped in the company’s motto: Personally Serving Customers since 1951.
And it shows. The level of commitment and experience from the showroom team is tangible — from the reviews on its website to Google recommendations. The team, empowered by ownership through education, training and its family-like company culture, ensures that their knowledge and experience provide the stellar experience customers come to expect.
The showroom is by-appointment-only, pairing customers with consultants on their projects, allowing for the relationships of service and trust to thrive. “Our team members live our core values of being trustworthy, customer-focused, and growth-oriented,” Jennie Wunderlich says. And it starts the minute one walks through the front door.
On the day of my visit, the showroom’s receptionist Lorraine greeted me; it was her first day on the job. I asked her why she chose to work at Studio H2O. She had one simple reason; she connected with the company’s core values.
“Lorraine is exactly who we needed in the role, and we’re so happy she is here!” Tom Balmer says. “We’ve been fortunate to continue to find people who embrace our customer-oriented core values.” And he is right. Only minutes beforehand, Lorraine welcomed a couple who wanted to walk the showroom without an appointment; she asked questions and took notes to help serve them. She jumped into the role which came quite naturally to her — taking care of customers.
At Studio H2O, the customer is the contractor, along with their customers, electricians, and builders. Jennie Wunderlich explains how it was an adjustment for her to turn away the DIY customers and those not connected to a tradesperson.
“One of the hardest challenges for me — who wants to provide products to everyone who comes through the door — is that we are primarily to the trade only,” she says. “But I have learned the value of selling to quality contractors because they ensure the items homeowners want will work, saving the customer time and money.”
Supporting our local contractors and plumbers is mutually beneficial, she adds. “We are in business to help our customers help their customers. Being appointment only enables us to better help both of those groups.”
They found that both contractors and homeowners appreciate consultants who guide them to the right products that suit their space and style. This happens because of consultants’ attention to detail and pre-appointment work with the contractor. “If we can be the liaison between the contractor and the homeowner in this beautiful space, we can help guide them to the products that will work in their projects,” Jennie notes.
Contractors often send their customers to Studio H2O to select finishes, and the showroom team will often call a tradesperson directly to ensure the products are the correct fit. “For instance, we have heard from plumbers when we call to discuss a project that the customer selected a certain XYZ faucet, and they can’t install it because there is an obstruction and it won’t fit, or the faucet height is too high,” Jennie Wunderlich explains.
Removing the frustration of individuals selecting incorrect fixtures without understanding the nuances of what is needed goes back to the mission of Personally Serving Customers since 1951. “We learned that its best if we can explain upfront what works, what won’t, and why — people will not get upset, and they appreciate the over-communication,” she says.
With more than 6,000 square feet of space in the showroom, the layout is bright and airy, with an easy flow by fixture, then manufacturer. Studio H2O features luxury plumbing lines such as Brizo, Graff, and Victoria & Albert, along with Plato Woodworks, Cambria quartz countertops, and locally manufactured Bertch Cabinetry. In addition to being branded as a Kohler Showroom, you can also find lighted mirrors with integrated TVs, custom closet systems, and plenty of cabinetry hardware.
“We’re unique in this area in that we offer such a wide variety of products in one space along with a team that can help homeowners pull everything together,” Jennie says. “Our team members’ knowledge, guidance, and customer service is how and why we stand out.” And they do so with an incredibly well-versed and respected team of showroom consultants.
“We are fortunate to have an excellent team led by two managers in our showroom: Bethany Nebel is our sales manager, and Kathy Rutt is our operations manager. They are the best of the best,” says Jennie. When Jennie moved into an ownership role, she had full confidence in Bethany and Kathy to continue leading the team and providing the best experience for customers.
“Kathy demonstrates a genuine and beautiful care for everyone that walks through the door as well as our team members,” Jennie says, “And Bethany adapts to each customer’s needs, building valuable relationships through listening and executing with precision. Together they create a dynamic leadership team.”
Knowing contractors have brand preferences, Studio H2O team members will phone the contractor to say, “I know your customer is coming in and you prefer they stick with XYZ brand, but that stock is delayed in transit. However, I can offer your customer brand ABC.” By providing the information in advance to the contractor, they can guide their customer through the process, make adjustments, and explain why, thus simplifying the process and making for an open line of communication between all parties.
“Communication and setting expectations are key,” Jennie notes. “If you set the expectation for the customer upfront — from product availability to delivery, to offering the correct substitutions — and why, it builds on the customer relationship.”
For these reasons and more, the company does not have an e-commerce site for its showroom. “Our company uses our B2B e-commerce site to assist our contractor customers 24/7, to easily quote, create wish lists or order anytime. But when it comes to the showroom, we want to encourage the customer to come to the showroom or make a virtual appointment to get personalized service,” she says.
The space is filled with natural lighting that sets off its beautiful displays, categorized by product type, then by manufacturer, and it’s easy to see the luxury lines and feel are well-represented. Each customer is paired with a consultant for their project, allowing consultants to form a relationship and help customers with as many parts of their project as possible.
The showroom includes a creative working showerhead display with 21 different showerheads controlled manually and digitally. Customers can experience how different pressures and designs will function in their space. In addition, multiple bathtubs and working hydrotherapies on the showroom floor are operational so customers can “view, hear and feel the various types of experiences,” Jennie explains.
Another standout is the two experience rooms, where customers can experience products in private bathroom retreats before purchasing. “Customers appreciate the opportunity to test the steam shower, sauna, Microsilk tub, and whirlpool baths to experience the benefits before buying. “Our goal is to create a unique and memorable experience for homeowners when they are here,” Jennie says.
While touring the showroom, Jennie Wunderlich tells a story about a customer who came in on a mission. A woman and her child had read about Jason Microsilk tubs, and the mother believed the hydration would help her child’s severe case of eczema. They traveled several hours and booked an experience room. “ The child found relief from a simple bathing experience, backed by incredible science and technology,” she says. To take it one step further, the showroom contacted the manufacturer, and the company offered a medical discount for the customer to help the child receive the relief so desperately needed.
Showroom consultants attend as much manufacturer training as possible and attend industry events such as the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show, Lightovation, and the Luxury Product Group (LPG) expo to gain additional product knowledge and specialized training. “Continuous training helps us develop a deep bench of knowledgeable consultants, providing best-in-class service,” Jennie says.
New consultants are paired up with seasoned team members to shadow and take in extensive product training before they individually help customers. This immersion process “maintains the high level of knowledgeable service our contractors and homeowners greatly value,” she says.
The showroom team is a tight-knit group empowered to help the customer and their fellow team members. They develop and implement their own morale-building activities, including creative monthly challenges and stress-release exercises. By empowering the team who keeps a watch on one another, success follows.
And the showroom team delivers on customer service. Customers know if they have a question or problem with the product, the team at Studio H2O is a solutions provider. “Our consultants are project managers for our clients, from the selection process through installation and beyond to troubleshoot and help for years to come,” Jennie notes.
It’s not uncommon for the team to receive a phone call or text asking for help on a product ordered several years ago. The team provides one-stop-shop support to get it right. And it shows — reviews the team regularly receives on Google speak of the high caliber of experience and service.
In addition, support for the contractor is vital. “We know that texting can be more convenient for everyone, so we invested in a service to give our contractors one number to text anyone in the showroom,” she explains. “Contractors also can text pictures from job sites and get rapid assistance that is often easier than making a phone call.”
Support in the Channel
Studio H2O is a charter member of LPG and leans into the partnership to use tools to deliver on its core mission and values. “Being a part of LPG is fantastic; they help take us to the next level — and to stay relevant and remain independent,” Jennie says. “What is great about Jeff MacDowell [LPG’s executive director] is that he genuinely cares about the LPG members and wants us to be successful. He also strategically builds teams and develops programs that improve both member businesses and the industry.”
Being part of the buying groups keeps the company competitive via its buying power, but it also allows the company to try new things — from training to developing game plans, tools, and suggestions tailored for each company, allowing for it to rise to the top of its game. Jennie Wunderlich is on LPG’s advisory committee, stepping in to help other companies such as hers stay independent and competitive.
“Studio H2O is obsessed with improvement — they use the tools LPG offers its members such as soft-skills training and best-practice sharing to make sure they are creating a great experience for their customers,” MacDowell says. “While this time is particularly challenging for showrooms, the team at Studio H2O runs a business that keeps the best people in the market — which helps repeat business happen. LPG is thrilled to include them as part of the family and appreciate their contributions to the group over the years.”
Coming Full Circle
Studio H2O comes full circle by giving back to its community in unique and tailored ways. “We engage within the community to help other small businesses promote their companies and, at the same time, bring them into our showroom for engagement with our store and customers,” Jennie says.
Examples include hosting Women in the Industry pampering nights to builders’ and electricians’ events, hosted in the showroom with dinner, drinks, and rotating stations where attendees learn about unique new products. Events geared toward placing a spotlight on the channel include Young Professional events to encourage the next generation to think about a career in the industry.
It’s about keeping the health within the channel while taking care of your current and future customers. “We are trying to encourage the next generation to learn about the industry, and this event helped introduce young professionals to others in the industry in their age group, as well as meet and interact with seasoned remodelers to ask questions and gain wisdom,” Jennie notes.
I asked the trio to explain what it means to have been awarded The Wholesaler magazine’s Showroom of the Year award. Tom spoke first, saying, “I’m so happy with how the showroom has evolved and grown — it’s different, in a good way, and has become something real,” Tom Balmer says. “Jennie and her team are the reason that [The Wholesaler magazine is] here.”
“Ben and I had options inside and outside of the Army, but I believe the Lord brought us back to Iowa to a rare opportunity. He has continued to provide incredible people through the years to help us grow as individuals and as a business. And while Ben might not have been familiar with the industry before coming to Iowa, he’s embraced the challenges and brought new perspectives.”
Ben Wunderlich’s mark on the company is his intuitive ability to connect with people and opportunities — opening doors on the industrial and commercial side of the business and logistics.
The trio has kept the standards of excellence set by the founders and carried them through in their way. They bring a new perspective to the company, but they have a great foundation to build on. Many employees have been with the company for 20+ years—a few recently celebrated 40+. Jennie says it best, “We are fortunate to have had such great employees over the years, and we lean on them every day. They are the reason PSC has been so successful. We are striving to continue that legacy.”