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Growing up in Cleveland, Louis Schlessinger was a young man with administrative skills and financial acumen. He befriended Frank Lifshitz, an owner of a local hardware store involved in building and repairing boilers.
“As the story goes, they were having a difficult time getting pipe nipples for boiler repairs,” says Alan Lipp, co-CEO, who, alongside co-CEO Marc Schlessinger, represent the third-generation of family members in the manufacturing business. “And our grandfather said to Frank, ‘If I can source the parts to build a machine, do you think you can construct it?’ And Frank said, ‘Absolutely!’ And with that proclamation, they started the Perfection Nipple company in 1937.”
Word got out about the small company, which focused on quality and customer support producing pipe nipples, and the phone was ringing for customers from near and far. The company then expanded into brass and copper nipples.
“They would put in long hours during the day and, in the evenings, deliver pipe nipples in burlap sacks to various jobbers around town,” Lipp explains. “They would go home, get a few hours of sleep, and do it all over again.” It was the start of something big.
In 1945, the men sold Perfection Nipple and started another company —Reliance Tubular Products — using the same know-how and perseverance that helped their original company succeed. During this time, Lou received a call from a friend who was part of a family business called the Acheson Brass Mfg. Co, located in Pennsylvania. The company was one of six or seven full-line manufacturers of brass threaded fittings in the United States and needed assistance. The company had internal strife, and the family realized the company wouldn’t survive. Would the duo be interested in purchasing it?
As family lore goes, Lifshitz and Schlessinger weren’t interested in crossing state lines to operate a business, but they would be interested in buying the inventory. Once the deal was done, it is believed that Perfection Nipple became the first master distributor in the PVF space. “With that purchase, they had several years supply of brass fittings,” Lipp notes. “It forced them to expand their horizons, which was the beginning of a national focus.” Beyond brass nipples and fittings, the company expanded its offerings to include gas stove connectors, air filters, and plumbing tools.
In 1961, they sold that company, too. As they say, three times is a charm; family-owned and -operated Merit Brass Co. was born and today, arguably is the nation’s largest manufacturer of stainless steel, brass, chrome-plated brass, and aluminum nipples.
This year, Merit Brass is celebrating 85 years in the PVF industry. It continues with its reputation as a highly respected manufacturer of pipe nipples and a master distributor of related fittings, flanges, pipe, tubing, tape and valves. The third generation — Louis Schlessinger’s grandsons, Marc Schlessinger and Alan Lipp — is now guiding the company and delivering on the tagline of “Directing the Flow of Quality.”
Out of the Ashes
When Lifshitz and Schlessinger started Merit Brass Co. in 1961, the name came from Schlessinger. He passed by a Merit Drug store on his daily drives. The name was strong and encompassed what the duo had done in business — built it on their hard work and merit. So Merit Brass became the new company’s name.
In 1963, the company was building up its clientele and product line and was very successful. Life was good in Cleveland, and both families grew up together, adding the second generations to work within the family company. Growing up, cousins Marc Schlessinger and Alan Lipp sat around the same family dinner tables and heard stories about the family business.
One day in 1971, young Schlessinger and Lipp were at the local swimming pool when they heard their mothers’ names announced over the PA system. “As an 8-year-old, I thought it was so cool to hear our moms being announced, but little did we know that the Merit Brass building was on fire, and we had to get home immediately,” Marc Schlessinger says.
Several employees and owners were running in and out of the burning building, saving anything they could. The fire destroyed the building and its contents — everything was gone. And the company did not have insurance.
“Shortly after that, I remember everyone at my grandparents’ house, calmly discussing the event and possible buildings available to rebuild the business,” Lipp recalls. “That Sunday, we all got in cars and did a three-car caravan looking at the possible locations. One was selected and on Monday, they started again.” There was never any doubt they would’nt start again.
Something amazing happened next. As the families were known for their hard work, taking care of their employees and customers, and solid company culture, their competitors did something in the true sense of honor in business.
Several years ago, while the family was going through Louis Schlessinger’s belongings, they discovered letters addressed to their grandfather. The letters were from competitors who had written to the only manufacturer of threading equipment that could make pipe nipples at the time.
The letters say, in effect: “Our competitor Merit Brass has suffered a fire. The pieces of equipment I have on order are due to ship next month — please send them to Merit Brass. We will await until our competitor is up and running again, then proceed with our order.“
“That blew my mind,” Lipp says.
The same competitors also sent letters asking for Merit Brass to put together lists of items and quantities, and they would fill Merit’s inventory until they were back up and running. “That shows how much respect Louis Schlessinger commanded in the industry, even amongst competitors, and it speaks to the quality of people in the industry,” Marc Schlessinger notes.
In the late 1970s, the same competitors that stepped in to help Merit Brass were having inventory issues. Marc Schlessinger smiles and says: “To those same competitors who contacted us when we were down, we said, ‘Let us send you whatever you need. You were there for us, and we are there for you.’ That’s the kind of business we are in.”
Building for the Future
Merit Brass reestablished itself post-fire in a 40,000-square-foot building. Manufacturing brass pipe nipples continued, and the company continued to grow its national market share of brass threaded fittings.
In the early 1980s, a local distributor approached Merit Brass and asked if it could make stainless-steel nipples. Times were changing and using stainless steel, a more versatile metal, was wanted and needed. “I remember our fathers thinking, why not? Let’s go ask ‘The Chief,’ Lipp explains. “The Chief,” as he was well known and admired, was Tony Roman, who is thought to be the first nonfamily employee at Merit Brass. The Chief managed the manufacturing plant, and he got to work.
Merit Brass understood that if it brought complementing products together, such as brass nipples and threaded brass fittings, it could provide more value to its customers. So they tried the same process with stainless-steel nipples to find a company to purchase stainless-steel fittings. After searching for sources in the United States only to be turned away because the companies did not want the competition — the Merit Brass name had preceded itself — they were forced to look internationally.
Sometimes, when a door closes, one opens — and one did in a big way.
The company received a letter from Yih Tai, a Taiwanese manufacturer of stainless steel 150lb fittings, that could help the manufacturer with its needs. The individual who signed the letter was James Yen, who would become vitally important to Merit’s future.
The partnership would grow strong, and one day Yen called Merit Brass to say it should focus on rounding out its stainless offering, and provided Merit with an excellent roadmap to expand their product portfolio.
“James taught us that we needed to broaden our sourcing horizons,” Lipp explains. By replicating Merit Brass’ success in the brass space – purchasing pipe, cutting and threading it into pipe nipples, then adding a line of 150lb threaded fittings, strategically rounding out the offering to become a one-stop source for stainless steel PVF, was a major defining moment for Merit Brass.
“We became more important to the wholesale distributors who were working with us because we not only had the best and most comprehensive threaded brass offering, we also began building a formidable stainless steel package they could bundle with their purchases,” Lipp says.
It was more than a partnership, it was a mentorship, with Yen guiding Merit Brass’s second and third generations — and now the fourth.
The brass nipple manufacturer was delivering on its promise of quality products and service equated with the Merit Brass name and had now expanded its customer base — and its customers’ customer base. After all, it is about delivering quality products and services down the line, the defination of “directing the flow of quality.”
“James Yen was very instrumental to our success,” Marc Schlessinger says. And the sentiment is mutual. Yen’s touches can be felt in the organization — from the beautiful artwork he commissioned that adorns the corporate office, as well as the close personal family connections he fostered. The ties of business and friendship run deep.
21st Century Merit Brass
Today, Merit Brass remains headquartered in its beloved Cleveland, with facility distribution centers in Reno, Nev.; Dallas, Tex; and Birmingham, Ala. It is also gearing up for another distribution center opening taking place in early 2023. With more than 240 associates across the country, carrying out the mission of quality and service, the manufacturer/master distributor carries an impressive line of pipe, tubing and pipe nipples in brass, stainless, aluminum and chrome-plated: flanges, fittings and valves. In addition, it offers engineered products CopperPress®, StainlessPress® and CarbonPress® for fittings and valves. Coming soon to the lineup will be CarbonPress fittings.
The company has been owned and operated by family members since its inception; the founders also brought in the next generations. Third-generation executives Marc Schlessinger and Lipp have been with the company for more than 40 years and operate as its co-CEOs.
The cousins are actively involved and engaged within the organization and the PVF industry; they understand the importance of fostering the continuous development of its rich company culture. “It is important for us to instill upon others that you treat people how you want to be treated,” Marc Schlessinger says. And they lead by example. Often you can find them in the warehouse working with associates’ side by side – leading by example and always learning.
And it shows. While walking through the facilities production area, Lipp introduced me to nearly every team member by name. We would stop and talk, and many associates have been with Merit Brass for a significant portion of their careers. Their passion for creating products to the high standards of Merit Brass, along with encouraging other members to be a part of a driving and winning team, is apparent.
“We have a great company, and we come to work every day and bring it!” Marc Schlessinger adds. “And respecting others and working hard, one will have an opportunity to move into other positions within the organization and to retire one day from Merit Brass. That is vitally important to us.”
A few years ago, the cousins understood they needed a succession plan to keep the engine running. While both have children in the business, they wanted to find a leader now that could step in and guide the organization into the fourth generation and beyond. “We have a lot of families here at Merit Brass to take care of, and their obligation is to help take care of us as well,” Marc Schlessinger notes.
They found Darren Hilliard, a seasoned professional within the plumbing manufacturing field, who came to Merit Brass in 2018 as its CFO. It quickly became apparent to the leadership that Hilliard had so much more to offer the company; his leadership skills and visions for the organization exceeded expectations. In 2021, Hilliard was named as president of Merit Brass, the first time in its history for a non-family member to hold that position.
“When I came on board, I joined a company with a phenomenal history and tradition,” Hilliard acknowledges. “I knew there was a lot of opportunity in front of us — in terms of expanding and growing beyond fittings and pairing it with pipe. The future is for us to continue to build out our products, portfolios and capabilities.”
The future Hilliard can see on the horizon includes Merit Brass’s commitment to improving its technologies and seeking out the newest to benefit its customers. As proudly stated on its website, “Staying on the cutting edge of technology enables us to provide our customers with efficient, accurate and cost-effective solutions.”
Earlier this year, the company took a big step in acquiring Supply Source Products. “Combining press technology with Merit’s rich 85-year history in the market provides us with an exciting opportunity to enhance our value to our customers and further solidify Merit as the PVF supplier of choice,” Hilliard explains. Adding press fittings into the company’s portfolio also allows Merit Brass to get to know the end-user.
“We are partners with wholesale distribution today, and in the future,” he stresses, “but being able to get to know and engage with the users of our products allows us to better understand our markets, and to better design our future opportunities.”
He adds: “From my perspective, the stronger the brand, the easier wholesale distribution sells it. And that’s where we’re focused: building that awareness and connection with end-users so that we’re becoming the supplier of choice. And when that happens, there’s a pull-through that comes through our distribution partners.”
Hilliard notes that Merit Brass has invested a lot in technology and systems so that its teams can be more proactive in identifying construction projects as they’re coming online. “If we can be at the forefront of those projects with design engineers and mechanical engineers, getting spec’d in and creating that demand at the job level, then pulling that back through our distribution partners, what a great synergy! “he says.
“Darren is very engaging, makes you comfortable and it is very easy to communicate with him,” Lipp remarks. “He listens, collaborates and is a forward-thinker.” And it shows.
Another example of Hilliard’s focus is developing and implementing cloud technology and business analytics into the organization. Starting with a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, the company is leading the way in strengthening the organization through data-driven results. While the task is anything but easy, it will allow Merit to be more agile with its data, which, in turn, is all about making itself partners with its wholesale distributor customers.
Another organizational role change to complement the forward-thinking path is director of analytics, held by Kevin Lipp (Alan’s son), who has been with the company for more than eleven years. Lipp is led by industry veteran John Durik (JD) who joined the company a year and a half ago as Vice President of Sales. “I’m amazed at the results JD and our team have achieved in such a relatively short period of time,” remarks Lipp. He continues, “He leads by the tremendous example he sets each and every day!”
“My focus at the end of the day is to make us more efficient and try and save our salespeople clicks or keyboard strokes,” Kevin Lipp explains. While working with transitioning reporting over to a new ERP system, a labor of love that has been in the making for more than 18 months, Kevin Lipp also is the lead designer for the company’s customer relationship management software that launched alongside the ERP program.
“I try to identify what will make our wholesale partners most successful, and provide analytics our wholesaler customers -and their customers - would value,” he adds.
The Best Merit Experience
The company is proud of its culture, and an early example of it would be when the 1971 fire destroyed the building. While owners and associates were rushing in and out of the burning building to save artifacts and documents, one of those individuals was The Chief. Not only did The Chief help to save artifacts, but he also videotaped the event.
When the time came for Merit Brass to build its new headquarters (the one we know today), The Chief was helping the family design the building and incorporate items that were salvaged. Before his passing in 2021, at the age of 101 years, he stopped into Merit Brass headquarters and gave to Alan Lipp and Marc Schlessinger mementos he found in his desk. The longevity and the love of not only the families but of the culture came shining through.
“You will see managers and supervisors working side by side; that’s one of the things that keep us with that family feel,” notes Letice Nicholson, Merit’s human resource manager. “You have a manager, supervisor or leader willing to jump in.”
And it doesn’t stop there. “You leave your ego and title at the door when it comes to Merit Brass,” notes Glenn Bruce, vice president of operations. “Everyone has the same mission: to help serve their customers to be better.”
This can-do attitude extends to the fourth generation with Kevin Lipp and Kyle Schlessinger, employee engagement coordinator.
Kyle Schlessinger knew at an early age he wanted to be involved in the family business. Taking care of the onboarding and recruiting for all positions, he also understands that company culture goes a long way in retaining talent. “We want to ensure our associates have the best Merit Brass experience possible,” he says. This includes knowing individuals as individuals — and honoring their involvement within the organization, from luncheons, retirement party recognitions, etc.
Within the past two years, Merit Brass began to cross-train its warehouse associates to allow for a natural progression within their career paths, as well as to avoid burnout. The company provides career paths for all its associates, and promoting from within is common. “We are always trying to guide people on their path,” Kyle Schlessinger says.
He expounds upon how the company culture runs deep throughout the organization and how the organization celebrates its associates and their accomplishments with four opportunities to showcase excellence and caring. The Merit Awards Program is a nomination process where a supervisor and manager nominate an associate who has gone above and beyond expectations. When recognized, the associate receives a special bonus in their paychecks.
The app-based program Merit Brass uses is open to everyone, and provides an online gratitude program that gives managers and supervisors an opportunity to recognize a customer or associate via email or text.
The Customer Opportunities Program is designed to drive improvement and recognize associates for their efforts within the organization. The company celebrates the compliments and kudos bestowed upon the associate(s) each quarter, recognizing their efforts.
And lastly, the Service Excellence Award allows any associate at Merit to recognize another individual for going above and beyond. If approved by HR, the individual receives a gift card. “All the programs are a great way to celebrate people doing great jobs,” Kyle Schlessinger says.
He notes that there is collaboration amongst departments to put together opportunities for all associates to help local communities: “We get out there, in the community, and do good together.”
Merit Brass is charging forward, but with the understanding that partnerships are not transactional — they are earned. “Our customers successes are our successes,” Alan Lipp says. “If customers trust you and believe you are truly committed to their success, they will articulate their expectations and aspirations. It’s then a matter of listening carefully and communicating precisely what your capabilities and ideas are to help bring it all to fruition.”
Building on this foundation, Hilliard expanded the company’s management team to support the company’s growth, ensuring that all areas of the country can be served with the attention to detail required in a partnership. As the company’s former CFO, and now as President, Hilliard’s unique style of investing heavily in Merit Brass’s team and technology can be felt immediately. And the best is yet to come.
“The company is taking the technology step of launching a comprehensive new website that will transcend the brand experience from digital, social media, ecommerce and beyond,” Hilliard explains. It’s also about recruiting and employee retention, and having a consistent Merit experience.
“We have a phenomenal foundation to continue building on the Merit Brass brand,” Hilliard notes, “People see and feel the ease of doing business, the integrity and the legacy. That is what we are striving for.”
Here’s to you, Merit Brass; happy anniversary! l