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“It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.” It’s one of the most famous quotes from one of the most famous movies of all time, “The Godfather." And to Andrew Rich, president of Wal-Rich Corporation — it’s all wrong: all business is personal.
“When a customer calls for a quote or is calling to check stock — it is not merely a phone call,” he explains. “It’s an opportunity to get to know the customer — the challenge they are facing in the moment — and try to help. They could have called anyone, but they called you. There’s a reason for that.”
“For example, what does the end user want to do with this product? You become part of their experience and get to know more about your customer, their customers and the industry. Asking questions shows that you care. All business is personal,” says Rich.
The personal approach is what has allowed Wal-Rich to grow. Started in 1950 in a stockroom in Long Island City, N.Y., Wal-Rich now spans three generations and is a national manufacturer and master distributor of plumbing, heating and industrial specialties.
A Respect for History
The story begins in 1950, when Arthur Wallach, Sydney Waller and Murray Rich saw a unique opportunity: Their employer, one of New York City’s first plumbing specialty distributors, decided to move from metropolitan NYC to a location 30 miles away on Long Island.
“It was a catastrophic move,” Rich states. “Their product line was geared toward NYC, and they moved out.”
The three men formed a partnership to seize the opportunity. Renting a small stockroom in Long Island City, not far from their departed former employer, they struck out on their own. Two were outside salesmen, and the third was the buyer and administrator. They had the relationships. They had the knowledge. And now, combining their names, they had a company: Wal-Rich Corporation.
Showing off Wal-Rich’s first catalog from 1950, Andrew Rich recalls family lore about the early days.
“Times were different then. There were hundreds of independent wholesalers in the New York area,” he explains. “Murray and Sydney would drive out to Brooklyn, and one could park on one side of the street, and the other on the opposite side, and the two men would walk the block — door to door, on opposite sides of the street — calling on accounts.” Showing a black and white picture of his grandfather standing in front of a supply house, he continues, “Look at this! Look how they dressed. Three-piece suit, tie and hat. They were pros!”
Andrew Rich is passionate when he talks about the history of the company and of the plumbing industry itself. In addition to the vintage Wal-Rich catalogs, he shows off the catalog of its predecessor and various plumbing manuals dating back to the early 1900s.
“The history of the industry is fascinating. We take a lot for granted,” he says, displaying Wal-Rich’s current catalog next to the vintage ones. “The amazing thing is that despite how much has changed in the industry, many things have remained the same.”
He describes one of his favorite places to see the industry in action — the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in Manhattan. “If you think about human history, indoor plumbing is relatively new,” he states. “Most of the original tenement buildings were built in the mid- to late-1800s and had outhouses and a pump. The cool thing to see is how the plumbing came indoors. Toilets in the hallways. Soapstone sinks. Clawfoot tubs. They still exist, and we still have parts for them.”
Through the Decades
The second generation saw family ownership change from three families to two. And with Jerome (Jerry) Rich at the helm, the company grew considerably.
Not content to remain a N.Y.-focused company, Jerry Rich looked at the burgeoning manufacturer’s rep industry as an opportunity to grow and hired sales agencies nationwide. His background in electronics also gave him the comfort and foresight to invest in the company’s first computer system in the 1980s. And the product line continued to grow.
“I often think about that decision to embrace computer technology,” Rich admits about his father’s decision. “It’s a huge undertaking if you’re going to do it right. It’s not just the cost of the system — it’s the focus and discipline to incorporate it into each one of your processes. Not many in our industry were ready for that. He really was an early adopter.”
The adoption of technology extended from the office to the warehouse, where other processes were automated or enhanced. Personnel also expanded, with sales and warehouse staff added to accommodate increased demand and elevate service levels.
With growth, however, the focus on people never faded. “We’re a family business, and we treat people like family,” Jerry Rich says. “You’re in it for the long term.”
That long-term approach is evident in the master distributor’s customer, vendor and employee relationships. “When you treat people right, they stay,” he notes. Many Wal-Rich employees are long-term employees — with some recent retirees accruing more than 30 years of service. And with a third generation now on board — Andrew Rich, Daniel Rich and Randy Rich — they are ready to carry on the family legacy.
“The past decade has been interesting, to say the least,” Rich states. “One thing is for sure — you can never sit back and get complacent. You never know what’s around the corner.”
He thinks back to 10 years ago when an eminent domain action forced the company from its property. A new school was needed in Corona, and Wal-Rich occupied one of the few large parcels of land in the area. “It was a blessing in disguise,” he says. “We didn’t realize it at the time. With the financial crisis in full swing and Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the Tristate area, the last thing we needed was to be forced to move.”
The company was given six months to negotiate and find a new property.
“Finding a location that was easily accessible to our customers and employees was key,” Rich explains. “And finding the right-size building was going to be a challenge, in that many commercial and industrial properties in the New York metro area had been converted to housing.” The goal was to stay within the New York City limits, but it was not to be. Wal-Rich found its new home in Port Washington, N.Y., 15 miles away and into Nassau County.
“I give Daniel all of the credit,” he says about the move. He is referring to his brother, Daniel Rich, the current vice president. “He had a plan and executed it flawlessly. We moved an entire business and were only down for a day and a half. If there was a list of the 10 things you must do to have a successful move — he did 14.”
Rich also gives credit to his staff: “Everyone was on board. The dedication and commitment shown were heartwarming. You knew you weren’t alone to figure it out. Everyone had a role in making that move a success, and just about everybody made the move with us.” Noting the lack of public transportation options in the new location, “I was amazed at how people came together. Since we moved from an area with subway service to an area with so few options, we didn’t know what to expect. Guess what —people carpooled. In fact, I did, too.”
The move completed, the company now had the opportunity to experience the silver lining: more space, better logistics, modern offices and a clean, well-organized workflow. “Once we got over the initial shock of moving, we realized how much better off we were,” Rich notes. “Our new facility was much better positioned to service our customers. It’s a far cry from the one-way, traffic-jammed, railroad-abutting street we had to on-and-offload in Queens.”
The lessons learned while moving have been helpful in recent years. With challenges brought on by COVID-19, most organizations were stressed in ways that could not be anticipated or prepared for. Wal-Rich was up to the challenge.
“I’m afraid to admit it, but we didn’t have any staffing issues,” Rich claims. “What we found during COVID was that you had to think differently to function. We did send office staff offsite to work from home, but in our warehouse — we were able to stay fully staffed.”
He credits technology, specifically to online translation services. “In an area like ours, which is fairly diverse, there are always people looking for work, looking to improve their lives,” he states. He explains, “Using various online resources, we learned that communication is no longer an obstacle. It may take a couple of minutes longer to train or deal with employee issues, but it’s worth it. We also realized that women had many more opportunities than previously considered.”
The efforts to enhance communication also brought the staff closer. “As owners, we have always been available to every one of our employees,” Rich states. “I truly believe that the efforts we have made have been appreciated. I would also say that morale has never been more positive.”
Communication is Key
Whether a customer, vendor or employee — communication is the cornerstone of the Wal-Rich relationship.
“It all comes down to listening,” Rich explains. “When you take time to listen, you let the speaker know they are important and their needs are important to you. It’s not hard to do and doesn’t cost much. You might not be able to help, but the fact that you listened shows appreciation and respect.”
The same is true of customer communication. “One of the other things that’s happened over the past several years is the volume and nature of communication,” Rich notes. “COVID-related supply chain issues have changed the nature of communication at our company. We spend much more time responding to customer expedite requests and making similar requests of our vendors. Again, the key is to listen. And empathize. And be thankful.”
He admits: “And while we look for personal touchpoints, we know that the future is online. It always amazes me how much is done via email these days. My generation saw the adoption of it, but it has really become dominant over the past 10 years in our industry. I still find it a bit unsettling when I hear a quiet sales office — but email is silent.”
Recognizing the importance of the company’s website as a communication tool, Rich reveals that the current website is in the process of a major upgrade. “We have known for some time that our current site was not nearly enough,” he admits. “It has taken some time, but we plan on launching our new site in the fourth quarter of 2022.”
The new website will contain more interactive features resulting from years of customer input. Some features include updated imagery, specifications, live inventory, and a training and certification portal. “I am excited about the ‘search’ function,” Rich states. “Our goal was to make our website the most searchable, easy-to-use site for the plumbing specialty category.”
In addition to an upgraded website, the company is excited about making its content available to customers. He cites the example of industry buying groups, of which Wal-Rich is a vendor. “They’re all out there fighting the good fight,” he says. “If we can help them develop their online resources, then we are doing our job being the best partner we can be.”
All Business is Personal
Wal-Rich celebrated its 70th anniversary in December 2020 — in the middle of the pandemic. While a large-scale celebration was not possible, the Rich family managed to celebrate the occasion in small ways, such as partnering with a local craft brewery to create a private-label beer to commemorate the occasion.
“We have relationships that go back decades,” Rich notes. “Early in my career, I heard stories about how Syd would take you golfing, how Murray would bring breakfast. I didn’t get to know those guys. They would have been good guys to get a beer with. We hope that our customers feel the same way about us.”