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In 1921, Cleveland-based water heater maker Sands Manufacturing was looking for an East Coast company to distribute its water heaters. Its president called Walter Morris, an acquaintance in Boston, to pitch the idea. In 1922, Morris opened his own company close to Boston’s waterfront and started selling Sands’ products.
A telegraph from the water heater company to Walter Morris said it all: “Congratulations, Sands Water Heaters Co. New England now a reality. Signed contract in mail to you, everything tends to big business this year. Cooperation between branches and home office very essential, we will do our part and let us pull together and put Sands heater on the map with large red letters.”
And get on the map, they did.
When the United States entered WW II, culminating in the scarcity of products and manufacturing for personal consumption, Morris pivoted from distribution and into water heater repair. At the war’s end in 1945, with industry and the housing market booming and many water heater companies coming back into production, he seized on the opportunity again to represent another water heater company – Pittsburgh Water Heaters. In 1946, he changed his company from repair to The Walter F. Morris Co., manufacturers’ agents of plumbing and heating products.
The company continued on its growth path, and in the 1950s, sons Robert Morris and Tom Morris joined the company. The company came full circle, again representing Sands Manufacturing, as well as adding Bock Water Heaters to its line card. With an ever-growing product line in water heating and the plumbing trades, The Walter F. Morris Co. became a standard in sales agencies in New England.
In the mid-1980s, the manufacturers’ rep firm was acquired by the Southern Union Gas Co., which ran it for approximately 15 years, and was looking to divest itself of the company from its portfolio. Long-time sales manager Joe McCarthy jumped at the opportunity to buy the firm. At the time, McCarthy was in his early 50s.
“My dad had come into Walter Morris from the manufacturers’ side; he was the national sales manager with Aqua Pure,” says Cullen McCarthy, president of Walter F. Morris and Joe McCarthy’s oldest son. “Many rep companies are formed by previous national sales managers or people who are intimate with a manufacturer and wanted to settle down to a certain territory that it didn’t have representation. So, similar to that story, my dad started working for the rep agency as their sales director in New England for that manufacturer.”
And when the opportunity to have his own business presented itself, Joe McCarthy knew it was the time to make that move.
At 52, Joe McCarthy went to his wife and persuaded her to put a second mortgage on the house and put in a bid for Walter F. Morris Co. At the time, Greg McCarthy was in high school and his two other brothers — Cullen McCarthy and Pat McCarthy — were in college.
“Our parents took a week and put in the bid,” recalls son Greg McCarthy, vice president of operations. “And that is a great story in itself!” They successfully won the bid and were to close in September 2001. As we struggled to understand the events of 9/11, the sale of the rep firm closed in October of the same year, and the company surged forward.
Having taken a leap of faith along with his personal belief and conviction of hard work and industry knowledge as a stocking rep for trusted manufacturers, Joe McCarthy used his relationship-building finesse and struck out on his own, headquartering the company in Foxboro, Mass.
He shared the passion of being a manufacturers’ representative with his three sons, who would soon join the company. Together, they expand the agency into different verticals, including plumbing, HVACR and water filtration.
The Walter F. Morris Company is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and there is no sense of slowing down. Its commitment to customer service, celebrating manufacturer partnerships and championing its customers is deeply entrenched in reliability and dependability — and proudly stands as a respected manufacturing representative organization in New England. The company is driven on delivering to New England’s wholesalers, contractors and engineers the best product lines in the PHCP industry for residential, commercial and industrial applications.
Commitment to Business,
“We are extremely fortunate to have the foundation we have and that we’ve been able to build upon it,” Cullen McCarthy notes.
Partnerships run deep with Walter F. Morris; today, it represents more than 30 manufacturers, many with long ties. At the cornerstone of the products it offers are Bock water heaters, having ties to the mfg. representative agency for more than 69 years; Aqua Pure, running 44 years; and many of its other partnerships span 15-plus years. And when one looks into the company’s 30,000-square-foot warehouse packed with products ranging from copper press fittings to commercial water heaters, to pipe — it’s easy to see the company’s motto of “Our mission is your satisfaction,” is accomplished through partnerships, reliability and trust.
With the next generation on board, the brothers were learning the industry and the art of being a dependable industry partner from their father. “Our dad knew and understood manufacturers and contracts,” Cullen McCarthy says, and he wanted his sons to learn those lessons as well — and from the bottom up. “When we joined the company, we started in the warehouse — and learned insides sales, customer service, then we went into outside sales.”
He went on to describe how coming onboard had its learning curve.
“Many of the people we were calling on in the early days became the executives in the industry we see now, he explains. “I credit the relationships made in the early days for a lot — they allowed us to make mistakes and figure out how to make things better and right, and to trust one another in doing so.”
Pat McCarthy joined the company in 2004 after graduating with a criminal justice degree. “I joined the family business and became more interested as I got more familiar and latched on to learning more,” he notes. What he soon would learn and realize was that the company was in his blood. “A sales manager had taken me under his wing and helped me understand and respect the nuances of our agency and how we market our agency as a good solutions provider.” From there, he was hooked.
Cullen McCarthy graduated from college with a business degree and wasn’t sure he wanted to join the family company. So, he struck out on his own in different industries. As fate would have it, the recession hit and his career path found its way back to the family company in 2008.
It was a natural progression, he recalls: “I saw Pat and my mom and dad having conversations about the family company, and I thought – OK, I’m intrigued, I can get involved in this.” It truly is a family company, with their mom working side by side with them, guiding others along. He says the decision for each son to enter the business on their own made for a stronger commitment.
“The pieces just fall into place, and in 2015, our dad hired a consulting company to do personality assessments, to take the burden off of him to decide who falls into what position within the company,” Cullen McCarthy recalls. It ended up being a natural fit through personality and passion.
“Pat loves the mechanical side of our industry, and what better skill set to handle our hydronics to water filtration to water treatment – he loves getting involved, and as a solutions provider, we want to be the person our customers come to where they trust us to have the ability to get whatever they need and to get things done,” Cullen McCarthy. Pat McCarthy serves as vice president to his brother Cullen’s presidential role.
Greg McCarthy, vice president of operations, also views their strengths and weaknesses as complementary. Greg joined the company in 2012 after spending a few years post-college working in email marketing — in the middle of a recession.
“We all live so close — and are so close and see each other often, Greg McCarthy notes. “During our get-togethers, many times people would talk shop — and I felt left out a lot of the time. And everybody’s talking about how branding is relationships and people. My brothers were enticing me, telling me they wanted me to get involved. So I said, “Let’s do this!”
The company culture is embedded in family values and the guiding principles of helping others along the way. Cullen McCarthy describes the family’s love of sports —especially basketball, a sport in which all three brothers played competitively in college. Growing up in a family with three close-knit siblings, things were often settled on the basketball court. It’s where they learned about settling scores, understanding partnerships and being part of a team.
“It goes back to a team mentality,” he says. “We have everyone’s best interest at heart.” And its starts from within the company.
The company office is 15 minutes from where the family grew up, and the feeling of community is felt everywhere. “We have a foundation and a circle of friends and people that we have grown up with, and are part of the company, that is organic,” he says. “Equating it again to a basketball team — how everyone has their role and it’s all about people taking care of people.”
Many team members at Walter F. Morris company have more than 15 years with the company. When it comes to bringing in new talent, referrals always come in from current team members who share their love and enthusiasm of the company with their families. And, like a typical family who grows up playing sports, everyone understands that teamwork makes the dream work.
“We grew up with the understanding of great coaches and cliches, and that the whole was always greater than the sum of the parts mentality,” Greg McCarthy explains. “Education in this industry is an enormous part of how to help our people get better and grow.”
Team members are encouraged to flex their skillsets — from sharing their robust product knowledge and product applications, to providing educational opportunities and problem-solving abilities to customers.
The company is focused on education: A better understanding of knowledge leads to better service. “Our customers know we might not be the experts on all things, but we have the reliability of finding THE answer and in a timely manner, and they count on us for that. And that starts with training,” explains Cullen McCarthy.
Walter F. Morris has a dedicated training room at its headquarters facility to deliver on educational and training opportunities.
“Our entire focus is for training our customers, whether that’s in heating or boiler applications, or water filtration, water quality — it’s always been the backbone of a lot of the things we get involved with,” Greg McCarthy notes. “So not only do we get that information out to our customers, but we also ensure that we’re as up to speed as possible internally. We thrive by being genuine people that other customers want to do business with.”
As markets evolve, getting name recognition and quality assurance of products into the hands of the decision-makers is crucial.
“Typically, our customers are always going to be our wholesalers, but we know that getting the item specified is what will drive having our brands familiar in the marketplace,” Pat McCarthy explains. “We’ve spent more time with the engineers that are specifying the products, making sure that our products are marketed well to the specifiers, the architects, the designers, the mechanical engineers, and sometimes the consumers as well as the homeowners. In doing so, it helped get us noticed by our wholesalers because more people are coming and asking for our products, and more engineers are specifying them. The world is evolving very quickly; I believe being proactive and ahead of what could be coming down is always on our mind.”
Building and maintaining a company legacy of 100 years is challenging regardless of time but adding in the past several years of labor shortages, supply chain disruptions and other challenges can be devastating.
The Walter F. Morris Co. has dealt with the challenges head-on. That’s not easy when dealing with incredible shortages during a time of expanded growth in the Northeast. It all comes down to relationships — and at the foundation is trust.
“We represent close to 30 manufacturers, and we do inventory warehousing — so that, in a pinch, we have a product and typically a backup product of others as well, “Cullen McCarthy notes. Providing product to many of the independent wholesalers in New England, as well as having its own trucks to handle logistics, makes it easier for its customers to do business.
“We can be effective as our customers bring in new team members by constantly reinforcing who we are,” he adds. “We take some of the challenges off people’s plates; we can worry about those things for them. That is a big part of what we have been focused on in the past couple of years.”
And, with so many local ties to the community, it’s also easier to bring new talent through the front door. “Our people working here are huge advocates for bringing talent in as well,” Cullen McCarthy says. “After growing up around the corner, we have strong roots in the community from being in town for 40 years now, which is a big element to fostering our pipeline. And when the group is not working together, chances are they are together within their communities.”
Celebrating the centennial anniversary kicked off in March at the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors of Massachusetts’ (PHCC MA) annual convention. “We spent a long time planning a celebration event at PHCC-MA, and we were excited when we could celebrate our manufacturers, our customers and our company,” Cullen McCarthy says.
They do so with fanfare and plans to continue celebrating through the remainder of the year, including different facets of the industry – from golf tournaments to other events outside at local areas, “where our wholesalers, engineers and contractors are located and they have an opportunity to celebrate with us and learn a little more of our backstory,” he says.
He adds: “We are the guy behind the guy, but that only works when we have great partnerships in alignment with either the wholesaler, the contractor, the engineer, etc. We are constantly trying to be the one to help others build toward the end goal. Our customers are in competition with each other, so for everybody to join in the celebration at PHCC-MA made for a fantastic event. As an industry, we are together —, and we thank them for everything they do for us.”
With the company fully ensconced in its next generation of family ownership and operation, it’s easy to see how what started 100 years ago will continue with the same care and attention as when it was started. The legacy will continue.
I asked what piece of advice their father has given to the siblings, as they are now in charge of the care of the company and its legacy. Pat McCarthy pauses and smiles as he says the words of guidance his father had bestowed on the group.
“We are a stocking rep agency, and being the go-between for the manufacturers and wholesalers, we are in the middle,” he says. “And my father would tell us, ‘Don’t underestimate our value,’ meaning that we are solutions providers. As a middle child, those words rang true to me. We provide outstanding value in terms of resources for everyone — from manufacturers to the wholesaler to the end-user. And we are always listening because there is always something to learn.”
The future looks bright for the Walter F. Morris agency and the family behind the legacy. “We are nimble, especially as an independent agency, and can read the landscape and see the opportunity in the holes and misses where others aren’t providing value,” Pat McCarthy notes. “We like to say no one can execute at the speed and efficiency that we can! We are always able to because we know our market, our customers, and the foundation of our agency is built upon water filtration, water quality, water chemistry and more.”
And most everything is affected by water quality, drinking water systems and hydronic heating equipment such as water heaters. “Because we’re as knowledgeable about that as we are, it allows us to speak with credibility,” he adds. “And I think as we reinvest in our company, and our people, in training and providing information, that is the cornerstone of where we are and where we continue to have to be.”