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In 1962, Long Island, N.Y., native William Breen Sr. was a salesman and manager working at Crest Good, a plumbing specialty house. A family man with six children, he wanted to strike out on his own and start a legacy that would support his growing family. Building on his experience, he began Best Plumbing Specialties, a distributor of repair parts for jobbing plumbers.
Breen and his wife Eileen worked hard at developing the new company — using a child’s bedroom as the home office and packing supplies stored in his car for orders and deliveries. “His daily routine would be to pick up products from local supply houses, such as washers, tank balls and other items that jobbing plumbers and multifamily housing units needed, and drive around to his customers on Long Island,” says Bill Breen, William’s son and current president of Best Plumbing Specialties.
The company found its niche, and Breen Sr. would soon move out of the bedroom office into a small brick-and-mortar location on Long Island. It was indeed a family business as all six Breen children worked picking orders and other duties as needed. The company was growing its presence in the New York area; in 1979, it hit its first $1 million in sales.
The company eventually outgrew its space on Long Island. Breen Sr. decided to move out of state where land and buildings were less expensive. “We didn’t need to be on Long Island,” Bill Breen explains. “Most of the items we sold were shipped, and we figured we could ship from anywhere in the United States.”
At the time, the company had a small sales office in Maryland. A suggestion from a family friend to look at relocating the company to Frederick, Md., hit a chord. “In 1986, we opened our first warehouse in Frederick and built a building for our headquarters,” Bill Breen recalls. In 1990, the location on Long Island closed, and the home front in Maryland continued to expand with sales into the New England and Mid-Atlantic states.
In 1996, William Breen Sr. retired, and his son Bill Breen ascended to the helm as president of the family-owned and operated distributor. “At that time, we were probably in 12 to 15 states, and our sales reps (we call them our boots on the ground) slowly started to expand the business,” Bill Breen says. “Our customer base was growing — from jobbing plumbers and multifamily housing boards to hospitals, colleges, institutions, school districts, federal, state and local governments.”
In 1999, Bill Breen purchased the company from his parents, simultaneously expanding the business south to Florida and out west. During this time, the company moved its headquarters again to Myersville, Md., where it continues today.
Today, the company has boots on the ground covering most of the United States and continues to grow its presence. It covers businesses and institutions such as commercial facilities, multifamily buildings, education, health care, hospitality, correctional facilities, etc. I asked “who” is their typical customer; Bill Breen smiled and said, “Anyone large enough to have an on-site maintenance individual.”
It’s easy to see how the distributor — which carries products from more than 2,500 different vendors — is celebrating its 60th year in business.
Sorting Out Stockrooms
The company understands that to take care of its customers, it needs to be at their front door, which is easily accomplished with the approximately 57 sales representatives who have dedicated territories across the United States. “We have a big support system for our sales reps — there are about the same amount of people in inside sales as there are outside,” says Bill Ballantyne, vice president of operations, who’s been with the company for more than 43 years.
With customer service at the core of the company, Ballantyne explains that technology might have evolved, but customer service is still about the one-on-one relationship and taking care of the customer. “We do not have voicemail here at the office; your call will be answered by a real person,” he notes. “The idea is to be with people, whether it’s face-to-face or over the phone. There are people here to take care of you.”
Solving problems for its customers takes on a new meaning for Best Plumbing Specialties, and I asked Bill Breen to walk me through the process.
“Problems are twofold,” he explains. “With a customer base of large institutions with facilities built over many years and fixtures from numerous manufacturers, it can lead to disorganized stockrooms. We start by helping our customers organize their stockrooms and put together metal kit boxes with repair parts for specific fixtures.
“If you’re in an office building, the maintenance shop will typically be in the basement. If you need to go to the 20th floor for a repair, how much material can you take with you? So we make these metal boxes with everything you need to repair a fixture on that floor. It makes the job easier.”
He adds that it’s easier and faster for his team member to write the restock order while processing a purchase order rather than the customer going online to place an order.
“And we are constantly looking for ways to enhance our visits,” Ballantyne says. “Each month, our sales reps are provided with several new items to show that may be a solution to a problem a customer is having.” He explains that Best Plumbing Specialties builds partnerships of trust with its customers. They understand that when a Best Plumbing rep shows up, it’s more than a sales call.
Another way Best Plumbing Specialties helps its customers is identifying and securing products for fixtures that no longer have a presence in the North American market. “We have sourced parts in Europe to do wire transfers, as well as do whatever our customers need to keep their buildings running,” Bill Breen explains. “And we’ve had people make parts for obsolete fixtures so our customers didn’t have to redo all the bathrooms.”
Laser-focused on customer service, the company is known to go over and beyond to help solve problems. One of its customers was in great need of 1,000 feet of security fencing. Its vendor would only sell through a wholesaler, and therein lay the challenge – the customer couldn’t find one to place an order. While not a product carried by Best Plumbing Specialties, it stepped in to help — and called the vendor and had 1,000 feet of security fencing delivered directly to the customer.
“Anytime you have an issue where somebody drops the ball, it gives us an opportunity,” Bill Breen says.
An additional benefit of his boots-on-the-ground salesforce is that they can handle returns, a cornerstone of Best Plumbing Supplies service. “Companies don’t want to talk about returns, but everybody has them — and we try to make it as hassle-free as possible,” he notes.
In 2020, the company instituted a free freight policy to make it easier across the board, which is all about customer service and building loyalty, he says.
The company cross-trains its team members so they know what to do when they receive a customer call, whether it’s a question about a statement or invoice or other customer service issues.
“Our team members understand our processes — and have worked together as a team on how and what we should do,” Ballantyne explains. “Within that is a culture of support and trust. The more people know about the role of others, the more they trust the process and the person doing it.”
In addition, the company keeps shared files easily accessible, called Process Documents, and can be referred to by anyone who may have questions on how to do XYZ.
“We are not vain enough to pretend the only reason people buy from us is because it says Best Plumbing Specialties on the building; our customers know we train and support our team members who are taking care of them,” Ballantyne says. “Our customers come to trust us, and trust goes both ways.”
He adds that while mistakes happen, the relationships and trust Best Plumbing Specialties has built makes customers comfortable knowing the company is working hard to work together to find the solution. “And it’s an opportunity for us to show we can fix it and do the right thing,” he states. “Ultimately, you take care of each other.”
Offering solutions to customers’ challenges, regardless of if it’s in Best Plumbing Specialties’ scope of service, is another way trust is earned and respect given.
With trust and support at the root of its culture, the company fosters a family-like atmosphere that crosses over generations.
“We have had around 40 sets of family members working for us over the years, and right now, we have 11 sets of families — from husband, wife, brothers, sisters, in-laws, moms, daughters, spouses, you name it,” explains Henry Breen, vice president of marketing and contracts, and son of Bill Breen. He adds that many team members who left for reasons such as raising a family, returning to school, other jobs, etc., returned to the company.
And within the synergy, built on trust and support, is also a tip of the hat to culture. “Having family members recommend that others work at the company says it all,” Henry Breen notes.
To celebrate its team members, the company developed an Unsung Hero award, bestowed upon an individual who might not have had the opportunity for their work to be recognized. As a company-wide event, individuals are nominated and then voted on. “It’s all about being celebrated by one’s peers,” he says. “To recognize an Unsung Hero is very important — the hero keeps the company moving forward, and in turn, keeps us working as a whole unit.”
The company gives back to its communities through a program called Best Gives Back, in which each month, a $1,000 donation is made to a local charity. “While we have been making the donations for the past five years, recently we started to honor and recognize our top sales reps,” explains Henry Breen. “Each quarter, they select a foundation of their choosing, and we make the donation on their behalf.”
The Next 60 Years
Over its 60 years, Best Plumbing Specialties has only had three years without growth — the first was when founder William Breen Sr. retired, the second was in 2009 during the recession, and then in 2021 from the COVID-19 pandemic. Outside of those time markers, the company keeps its eyes on how it can serve its customers better, and the results speak for themselves.
The distributor knows it needs to meet its customers’ needs on many levels and keeping up with technology is essential to remain nimble. The company embraced technology — specifically its online presence, with a website that is customer-friendly and filled with products and information.
“We have embraced technology, and our website gets stronger every month with the addition of new products,” Bill Breen notes. “Right now, there are over 400,000 skews and will continue to grow.”
It goes back to offering something new to help its customers in their daily routine. And it goes back to always being a supplier for whatever its customers need. “If you need something and we can source it for you — we can sell it at a price you’re comfortable with, and we’re all good,” he adds.
To celebrate its 60th anniversary this year, Best Plumbing Specialties held a weekend event in Washington, D.C., where more than 170 employees, family members, vendors and special guests attended the festivities.
They came together to celebrate the company that started with a dream and the tenacity of its founder, William Breen Sr. Before the celebration, Henry Breen was reviewing old video tapes — many 30 years old — to show at the event.
“I watched them and realized what they were talking about and what was happening back then is pretty much the same things we are dealing with now,” he says. “Focusing on how we treat our customers, and to zero in on customer service — listening to what they need, not what you want them to need. We are still doing the same things today — so we are doing something right.”
Happy Anniversary, Best Plumbing Specialties — and cheers to your next 60 years!