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After years of service to the Charlotte, N.C., market, C. C. Dickson III and Joe Hawkins began a new chapter with the opening of Hawkins HVAC Distributors. Since its inception in 2017, Hawkins HVAC Distributors is an innovative company with a strong history in North Carolina. It is set on delivering Charlotte and the surrounding areas with the best quality products, service and support from friendly and highly trained staff.
Currently operating three locally owned and operated branches with strategic branch expansion plans in the future, Hawkins offers a management team with more than 150 years of combined experience, both domestic and international. The distributor combines deep historical knowledge with the foresight and nimbleness to launch a new digital platform, positioning Hawkins as a long-term option for residential and commercial HVAC dealers in Charlotte metro area.
We wanted to hear about the company’s journey into e-commerce, so we sat down with President Joe Hawkins and Vice President Melanie Cochran. Here is how the path unfolded into the digital age.
The Wholesaler: Tell us about Hawkins HVAC and your story.
Joe Hawkins: I worked with a large refrigeration company for 37 years and in the HVAC industry as a whole for about 45 years. After a series of mergers and acquisitions, I ended up starting Hawkins HVAC Distributors in 2017 with C. C. “Dick” Dickson III, who has since retired.
We are a young company based in Charlotte, N.C., committed to providing quality HVAC equipment, parts and supplies with our friendly and knowledgeable staff. We’re dedicated to being an innovative industry leader and serving the HVAC needs of our communities and our partnership with Affiliated Distributors (AD). Our e-commerce efforts are helping us transform to the ways our customers want to do business with us today and into the future.
TW: When did Hawkins join AD, and how does the buying group align with the company’s needs?
JH: We joined AD in November 2018. My former company had a strong relationship with the group, but when it was acquired, our relationship unfortunately came to an end.
I knew Randy Lee, who joined AD in 2018 as vice president of their HVAC division; that connection got us back into discussing a new relationship. It became clear that the group brought value to help Hawkins grow, and its progressive vision aligns extremely well with our long-term goals.
Before working so hands-on with AD, I never knew the full extent of what buying groups can do. They provide strong programs and resources — such as e-commerce, HR and procurement services — and they give us the tools we need to make educated and trusted business decisions with the best suppliers and service providers.
TW: Why did you begin exploring e-commerce options?
Melanie Cochran: Even though the HVAC industry might be a little behind the digital curve, every industry has been and will continue to be impacted by digital technology and customer engagement advancements. We wanted to be ahead of the curve instead of lagging behind while our customers pushed for a better buying platform.
Our goal is to become leaders — not followers — in the digital movement.
TW: Why did you choose AD’s e-commerce solutions?
MC: We wanted to be where our customers are, and that’s online. We need to be able to grow with our customer base, and our old e-commerce resources were not sufficient. The more Hawkins becomes well-known, the more we can gain larger customers — who expect us to have certain digital tools.
AD’s e-commerce program specifically stood out for its passion in helping us digitally mature with a robust and normalized SKU catalog, versatile member product information management system, access to vetted service providers, and a strong community of other e-commerce users for advice and networking.
TW: When did you launch your new e-commerce website?
MC: We received our product content in March 2021 and had our product information management platform ready in July. We started our soft launch in September and conducted a full website rollout in October.
For the soft launch, we reached out to some of our largest customers who have full purchasing teams to test the website and place orders. They provided a lot of helpful feedback before the widescale rollout.
TW: Tell us about the new website.
MC: Our old website could not take payment, so the biggest addition was online ordering. Quick order capabilities, a variety of webpage templates, order history and inventory management at a company and branch level are just some of the key additions.
We’re always listening to our customers and exploring new potential additions with service providers. We now look at our website as a digital branch with the benefit of store hours no longer being a hinderance.
TW: What are some of your early e-commerce successes?
MC: Our new e-commerce platform streamlined order entries for our team and positioned us to acquire and serve larger customers. Potential customers and purchasing departments now have an online tool to compare us with different distributors, check our inventory and conduct price checks between our competitors. This has elevated our self-service capabilities while delivering an improved customer experience.
One thing we didn’t expect is that the new platform has given our employees an easy-to-use resource for product information compared to our enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform. I’ve seen our new salespeople go to the website first to look things up instead of fumbling around the other system. Also, our ERP platform was down for a day and the website provided us with a resource to look up inventory and pricing in the meantime.
TW: How did AD support Hawkins’ digital journey?
MC: It helped us accelerate our platform by getting us attributed data and standardized product content quickly. We initially had an aggressive timeline, and with AD we were immediately able to access millions of SKUs to easily build our catalog through its product information management system. We also partnered with one of AD’s vetted service providers, Xngage, to help with webstore strategy and integration.
We wouldn’t have been able to do this on our own. We simply don’t have the expertise or personnel, and our product data would never be as consistent or robust without AD. Its e-commerce team was focused on helping us achieve our goals from the start. The team’s experience and professionalism made partnering with them a no brainer.
TW: What lessons did you learn in this process?
MC: First and foremost, we should have gotten started earlier. It’s important to engage with your product information management vendor from day one, not in the middle of the project, to ensure you have plenty of time. We learned to clean up the ERP platform before starting the e-commerce process to make sure the source system has the data needed. AD can help with that through their advanced eContent offerings.
Also, we discovered how important it is to take the time to learn the platforms and become experts on your product data before launch.
TW: What’s next on Hawkins’ digital journey?
MC: We’re looking to integrate our e-commerce platform into our bill pay system. Customers currently have two separate logins, and this would streamline their buying process significantly. We also want to automate real-time pricing for shipping; which our buying group has resources to help us integrate it into our platform.
JH: Our plan is to continue exploring AD’s partners. We’d like to expand how we leverage AD’s ecosystem of e-commerce service providers because they’re already vetted; we know we’re getting a trusted partner who understands the digital landscape.
TW: What is your advice for distributors who are on the fence about e-commerce or haven’t started exploring digital options?
MC: Choose strong partners. AD helped us navigate an area where we didn’t have the right technical expertise. It vets digital service providers so we don’t have to worry about that aspect. Their support in getting our platform off the ground and helping us deliver a strong product and customer experience is invaluable.
JH: Get started today. The world will continue to go digital, and you don’t want to get left behind. It may seem challenging and daunting, but you need to trust that the e-commerce journey will be easier than you think. When you start this journey, it’s like the blind leading the blind, but you can learn you don’t have to do everything the hard way.