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Sitting on the western border of Wisconsin and positioned alongside the Mississippi River sits the city of La Crosse. According to Visit Bluff Country, during the second half of the 19th century, La Crosse grew to become one of the largest cities in Wisconsin. Today, it is the largest city on Wisconsin’s western border.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the city became a center for education, with three colleges and universities established between 1890 and 1912. The area was booming with new industry and expansion — meaning there was a need for building supplies and tradespeople. With the advantages of the city’s location adjacent to a major transportation artery — the Mighty Mississippi River — the possibilities were endless.
In 1897, a group of local tradesmen saw the potential to start their own wholesale plumbing supply company to help the trades and do business better- their way. The men combined their talents and hard work ethics.
One was a pipe fitter and well driller, one a delivery driver, one understood heating (but soon would exit the group), and one knew all about tradesmen and businessmen. To go all-in, each had to come up with the $2,500 seed money to start the venture. With those funds, tradesmen Reinie Wesson, Henry Poehling and Ed Roesler pooled their resources to create LaCrosse Plumbing Supply. For 125 years, the company expanded — and changed its name to First Supply LLC.
The tradesman with a background in heating who couldn’t financially commit to the partnership went on to make his mark as well. He was James A. Trane, the founder of Trane Co.
First Supply remains a family-owned and -operated wholesale distributor. It transitioned from its fourth-generation leader, Joe Poehling, now chairman emeritus, to the fifth generation: CEO and President Katie Poehling Seymour and CFO Todd Restel.
The company holds tight to the founding fathers’ principles of providing quality service, products and partnerships. It is known as the company Midwestern contractors rely on for their plumbing, HVAC, municipal, waterworks, well and septic, PVF and industrial supplies. In addition, its ties to its team members, vendors and supplier partnerships, as well as investing in local communities, are strong.
And it shows. The company covers the Upper Midwest with more than 650 team members taking care of its 28 distribution locations; four First Waterworks locations; 15 Gerhard’s Kitchen, Bath and Lighting Stores; four Kohler Signature Stores by First Supply; and one central distribution center located in La Crosse, Wis.
Growth through Risk and Reward
Since its formation, the owners were known to swing the bat and take risks — backed up by their hard work, determination to succeed and commitment to the manufacturing companies they partnered with. In the beginning, its investment in PVF would have a reoccurring theme tied to its growth, an opportunity to expand during difficult times.
Several company markers came about due to its investment in PVF. Just before the United States entered World War 1 in 1911, the wholesaler placed a large steel order to take care of inventory levels and demand needed during wartime. Funds from these sales allowed First Supply to expand into vertical diversification, purchasing companies specializing in water tanks and windmills. Several of those windmills still dot the Midwest landscape today.
During the 1930s, while deep in the Great Depression and the possibility of an impending war, Fort McCoy, a U.S. Army base located in Wisconsin, was gearing up for whatever lay ahead. It needed underground work requiring steel. First Supply was able to secure an order for the job, again setting itself up for future growth with a steel allocation during an unstable time.
Another risk-and-reward story told through the generations is again a perfect combination of hard work, fate and strong vendor partnerships. It goes back to Gerhard “Gary” Poehling, a third-generation leader in the 1940s. As the nation prepared itself for yet another world war, a pipe salesman from the Dakotas took a train ride to La Crosse to receive pipe orders from its customers, including First Supply.
While the salesman was en route back to the Dakotas — in December 1941 — the United States entered World War II. Family lore states the salesman added a “zero” to the end of the company’s order. “He knew we would want to take an aggressive position and that we had the capital to pay for it — and it set our pipe allocation for the rest of the war,” explains Poehling Seymour.
It also set the company up for expansion, she adds: “It gave us the financial footing to purchase the facility here in Madison and continue expanding in Rochester and Eau Claire. It gave us the financial footing for future growth.”
The founders valued the development of strong supplier relationships, and the maintenance of such, as paramount — including the many partnerships within their beloved state. One such partnership would span more than 100 years, another more than 80.
With the need to include plumbing fixtures within its offerings, the company struck up a partnership in the 1890s with a plumbing fixture manufacturer out of Sheboygan, Wis. The manufacturer provided tubs and sinks to be sold through the new distribution firm. The introduction and initial partnership provided a solid move for First Supply. The fixture company moved from Sheboygan to a town that would soon be synonymous with the family-owned and -operated company — Kohler.
In another strong formation of partnerships, First Supply purchased water heaters from a local Wisconsin company in 1940 that had patented the process of glass-lining a water heater tank and began producing residential water heaters a year earlier. That company is A. O. Smith, and the partnership remains strong today.
A launching pad for growth came in 1970 when Gary Poehling was eying the purchase of Kewanee Boiler Corp., owned by American Standard. It was intriguing because working at First Supply were family members Ed Felten, a financial and marketing guru, and Jim Poehling, an engineer.
“My father saw an opportunity, as Kewanee Boiler was failing at the time,” Joe Poehling notes. “He knew we could fix the company business model, do it better, and advance it to the next level.” And they did, well beyond their expectations. Not intending to purchase and then sell, First Supply was able to turn the company around beyond expectations — and sold it back to American Standard at a handsome profit.
The investment and sale again cemented the company’s footprint and that of future growth. “It also allowed my father to consolidate ownerships, as he was in business with his brothers,” he says.
Behind the company name are the strategic focus on company culture and partnerships with team members and vendors, allowing First Supply to continue from generation to generation.
The company is deeply rooted in service. “It’s all about servicing the customer,” Poehling Seymour explains. “To that comes our guiding principles, which are ingrained in our business: people, performance, relationships. Those are the core of what we do — and our people being at our foundation.”
The company culture is familial in feel and guided by generations. In the late 1990s, First Supply started an independent board of directors, which wasn’t common in the industry.
“At the time, we had all family members —my uncles and father were on the board,” she says. “And they had the foresight to say we needed outside information and guidance. So we added an attorney, another strong businessman, and eventually another entrepreneurial businessman who brought us independent perspective and created the corporate governance structure that we have in place today.”
By formalizing a board of directors, the plumbing and PVF distributor could further focus on defining the company drivers, successes and uniqueness. With the help of a consultant, the company “uncovered” what had been present all along. “Entrepreneurship, education and innovation are overriding themes,” Poehling Seymour notes, and it plays out in many ways.
Focus on Education and Mentorship
Throughout the generations of First Supply leaders, education has been an overriding theme.
Gary Poehling, third-generation leadership, didn’t go to college but made sure every one of his children had the opportunity. Maybe it was inspiration from his wife Anne, who’s independent spirit and drive was present at a young age. She would frequently ride the train lines solo (her father was a conductor) in Wisconsin and Iowa to see friends and discover cities not yet traveled. One day, she told her parents she was going to college in Pasadena for her master’s degree - a bold move.
“I believe this kind of innovation and willingness to take a big risk drives us all,” Poehling Seymour notes. And this spirit is fostered through the leaders at the company today.
In the early 1990s, Ed Felten (husband of fourth-generation Cathy Poehling) headed the firm as president and CEO. He introduced the company to the educational offerings of the American Supply Association (ASA) and its networking opportunities for wholesale distributors. Felten, whose charm, mentorship and incredible knowledge base in numbers and opportunity would lead him to join ASA, eventually became president of the association in 1998.
His belief in its educational opportunities for wholesale distributors to grow and advance — not only in business practices but also the professional development of its team members — would start a long commitment to the organization.
Felten wrote a book that many refer to as a grail in business. “The Art of Supervising and Motivating People” can be found in the library of many independent wholesale distribution companies. His inspirational way of guiding others on their path, wrapped in educational opportunities and an occasional “Felten-ism,” would leave its mark on the company, his team members and those following in his footsteps.
“Stay close to the action” is one Felten-ism, and he took it to heart. While traveling from store to store, Felten walked nearly every inch of its spaces — from showrooms and through the aisles in the warehouse. This was a practice that the previous generation employed. While walking the buildings, both men made sure that efficiencies in the process were in place and made themselves visible to greet and converse with team members.
By “staying close to the action,” Felten grounded himself in the day-to-day activities and got to know the team members at each branch, while facilitating the family-like culture the company fosters.
In time, others from First Supply would follow Felten’s lead of mentorship and guidance through giving back to the PHCP-PVF industry. Upon Felten’s retirement, fourth-generation Joe Poehling took the helm at First Supply and led ASA as its president in 2009. Both gentlemen were bestowed with ASA’s Fred V. Keenan Lifetime Achievement award, given to those with a long history of service and dedication to the industry. The award showcased how the gentlemen were stewards of the company culture fostered through the generations.
Poehling Seymour also followed as a mentor in volunteering and guiding. In 2014, she, along with close friend Ashley Martin, executive vice president at NIBCO, were fundamental in creating and launching ASA’s Women in Industry program. Poehling Seymour will be the third First Supply leader to guide the association as its president in 2023.
First Supply understands that in order for the company to succeed, one must guide and give back in order to advance forward.
Championing Team Member Success
First Supply’s commitment to team members’ success starts during the onboarding process. Team members attend a meeting where they are told the company’s history along with its 10 commandments of success. “It level sets the foundation of who we are and where we want to be,” Poehling Seymour says.
It also allows team members to see the big picture: First Supply’s organic succession planning and creating learning paths to help them succeed. Providing the educational and learning path to elevate team members to the next step on their career path benefits the company. “Our investment in the future is to develop our people,” says COO Scott Boehlke.
In addition, three years ago the distributor introduced its Rotational Training Program. The first six months of the program are spent on assignment in the warehouse; team members then transition to kitchen and bath showroom and showroom sales (retail, customer service and inside sales).
McKenzie Wolfe, a college graduate with a degree in Supply Chain and Operations Management, went to work for the company after being recruited at a local job fair. Shortly after joining, she entered into the year-long program.
“You see all sides of operation in the warehouse. You’re receiving orders, picking orders, handling returns, working at the counter,” says Wolfe. She explains that is the perfect backbone of the company as you move into different job opportunities, “You come to understand each role and how it impacts the company,” says Wolfe.
Post warehouse, one is transitioned to the kitchen and bath showroom side and then into showroom sales. “You understand the experience and (jobs) required to build up a company,” she explains. And in doing so, team members forge their career paths – today, Wolfe is the Inventory Management Specialist. And with a passion for the company, its process, and the people.
Nothing is off the table when it comes to ideas for improvement and team member growth. With an open-door policy, team members can reach out and present their ideas – and at times – what might be an offbeat idea is not so offbeat after all. “We are open and willing to listen to what they need to do in order to be successful,” notes Seth DePuy, chief strategy officer.
Another big swing of the bat came in the 1940s with Gary Poehling at the helm and looking for a way to better service customers in selecting their products. His vision was to create a “showroom” – a place where plumbing fixtures could be displayed beautifully to make for a more enjoyable customer experience. The idea would provide a resource for local contractors to send their customers in and make for a more enjoyable experience.
“I believe it was the first time a homeowner could come in and select home products and enjoy the experience,” Poehling Seymour notes.
“We have a picture of the original showroom, and it looks like a jewelry store, with a gentleman in a bow tie standing behind the glass cases filled with faucets,” she says. The displays and beauty gave customers an “experience.” They not only picked out faucets and fixtures, but also cabinets, which Gary (Gerhard) Poehling added to the showroom — no one was doing that.
It was a big time for industry and innovation as WWII ended and folks were investing in homes. “Folks went from boards hanging in a kitchen to having pretty metal cabinets,” Poehling Seymour says. And in typical First Supply fashion, the company recently acquired a local retail outlet of a cabinet making company – providing solutions for its customers needs.
As the showrooms would soon expand their footprint, in 1987, First Supply rebranded its showrooms to honor the gentleman who came up with the innovation. They are known as Gerhard’s Kitchen, Bath & Lighting Store, with 15 locations covering the upper Midwest.
Matt Durtsche, COO of the Gerhard Kitchen, Bath & Lighting Store showrooms, describes the feel of them and the culture and style that drive their success.
“It’s three things,” he explains. “First is the experience of the physical location — and the space to drive that imagination to walk in and say, ‘Wow, look at all of these possibilities!‘ The second is what we carry, which represents the partnerships we have with our manufacturers. We select the highest, most premium-quality products we want to stand behind. And the third — which is always the most important — is our team. We can make a complex and stressful situation better.”
And teams drive that experience, whether it’s being a liaison between the tradesperson and the homeowner, the plumber, the builder or the remodeler.
Michael Miller, general manager of the Southern Region, has been with the company for 32 years and underscores Durtsche’s affirmation: “We have always taken on challenges within the industry, and we discuss our company as being ‘A First.’ We never want to follow. We want to dive in and try it first on our end and allow other people to duplicate what we’re doing. And it’s apparent throughout the industry.”
Partnerships play an important role in First Supply’s history and in modern day. What started as a partnership for selling toilets and sinks from the Kohler Co. in the 1890s comes full circle. In 2012, the companies partnered to create Kohler Signature Store by First Supply. The first of its kind — anywhere.
The Kohler Signature Stores (four located in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Kansas) offer an experience as unique and fashionable as the name. By immersing customers in an innovative showroom experience with the brand, customers can learn about the entire product line from the manufacturer. Add in the excellence in customer service that both companies command, and it’s easy to see the nearly century-old partnership in action.
Company Culture – It’s the People
By all accounts, the team members and the company culture are a significant force in driving the company’s success. Restel, whose father-in-law is part of the fourth generation, joined the company in 2004. I ask about his interpretation of the culture. He smiles as he says that Joe Poehling is his mentor and has taken him under his wing. As is emulated in the company culture, Joe Poehling took Restel on road trips to see the facilities and meet with customers — and show him the caring in action. “That brought home the relationship aspect to the company,” Restel explains.
The company is deeply rooted in and continues to foster a familial culture, taking care of team members as well as empowering them to make decisions that ease customer pain points.
“We created, and drive, a culture where employees know that we care,” Boehlke says. He describes the culture as built upon honesty, ethics, transparency, collaboration and support. And it shows as many employees are the next generation of their families and hiring and promotion typically starts from within.
“The history and culture are our foundation for future growth,” adds DePuy. “We have trust and transparency with a bottom-up approach. We are all in this together, building on the past for a better future.”
With the ability to course-correct a customer’s challenges, team members feel appreciated and supported, and foster the mission of partnerships themselves. It is not uncommon to see social media posts from team members showcasing what is taking place within their showroom/building and doing so with pride. Building these connections with their customers and community drives home the familial aspect — families taking care of families.
And it’s felt all across the locations. Team members at the Green Bay, Wis., location bring in homemade chili for its customers. Members compete in a chili cook-off contest — and as one can imagine, the bragging rights are amazing. While having fun, they also joined in the company’s philanthropic effort, donating and raising funds for Old Glory Honor Flight of Northeast Wisconsin.
As mentioned, First Supply supports an open-door policy; the company entertains all suggestions. It allows them to hear what challenges they see and hear from customers and suggestions on doing things differently. “We empower our teams, which quickly brings solutions to the customers,” Boehlke explains. “We have created a culture where people want to work and make a difference, and in turn, our customers want to work with us because they know we can serve them at a higher level.”
“We’re putting the voices of our customers upfront and are conducting business the way they want,” DePuy says.
As with many growing companies, sometimes a step back to analyze how one goes to market will present both strengths and opportunities for improvement. Several years ago, Joe Poehling proposed an idea not common within wholesale distribution. The implementation and integration of a channel structure developed, where channel teams combine for a more integrated approach. “We combined sales and marketing with supply chain to create a consistent message to take to market. This, in turn, allows us to best understand the voice of the customer and create programs that they demand,” DePuy notes. It allows for real-time feedback with a more proactive approach.
Poehling Seymour adds: “It allows us to marry supply and demand to move quickly and be more aggressive with better information.”
The integration allows for a more proactive approach to purchasing and fosters robust connections, which was proven during the COVID-19 pandemic. “COVID presented an opportunity for greater communication and much more transparency with vendors,” DePuy says. He details how regularly scheduled calls allowed the company to understand vendor challenges and pain points and how best to go to market. This information integrated into the channel structure allowed for a more proactive approach and deepened strong relationships.
Another swing of the bat came in 2020 when First Supply launched its e-commerce program. “We have our eyes towards the future, and one nice thing about being a family business is you can drive change; and most of it is organic,” Restel says. “We listen to our customers and do business how they want to.” The plan continues to expand its platform to include video, vendor specs and other tools its customers want to use. It was so well-received, First Supply’s e-commerce platform won awards from its buying group, Affiliated Distributors.
Other cutting-edge strategies are being considered.
“We know the labor shortage is a challenge, and ask ourselves, ‘How do we introduce more robotics and automation into our systems to be more efficient for the future?’” Boehlke notes. “We’re thinking outside the box in every way to make sure we can grow and be more efficient and effective in what we do.”
Recently, the company was given an opportunity to acquire a family-owned and -operated lighting company in Wisconsin. It was at the end of its succession planning and looked to First Supply, as it is so beloved in its communities and already carries lighting in its locations. First Supply acquired the company, knowing that carrying lighting products makes it easier for its customers and grows into verticals its customers require.
And forging forward also means remembering the company’s connection to the communities it serves. The Gerhard’s Kitchen and Bath stores recently made a $25,000 donation to The McKenzie Regional Workforce Center. The center partnerships with area organizations and aims to train and connect the next generation to the skilled trades. From both company and associates, First Supply’s philanthropic outreach is palpable.
The company spent the first half of 2022 celebrating its anniversary by showcasing all that is good — from its team members, customers and community. Posts on social media reveal celebrations at branch locations for all and investing in communities across the regions they serve.
To honor the incorporation date on May 20, the company held a celebration event at its location in La Crosse — the city that launched 125 years of opportunity, expansion and development of the First Supply families that now carry on the tradition.
The Poehling family thanks the thousands of people and families that have helped shape First Supply over the past 125 years!
To bring it all full circle, Poehling Seymour comments about her stewardship: “I think about what we do well — we take care of our team to take care of our people. We value our vendor partnerships, support our communities and serve our customers. And I’m doing the same things that I believe the founders started in 1897.”
Here’s to the next 125 years of opportunity, teamwork and success!
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