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Earlier this year, Chat Howard Jr., president and owner of Savannah, Ga.-based Sandpiper Supply, stood at a podium during Southern Wholesalers Association’s annual convention. As the organization’s President, he gave a speech encapsulating his involvement in the organization and the industry. Woven throughout was an amazing outpouring of thanks and gratitude – to the organization, its members, and the industry. Spoken from the heart – with laser focus, simplicity, and direct delivery- Howard thanked the membership and the organization for being able to serve.
What he received in return – the friends, the support, and the encouragement- were priceless. His speech lasted approximately 12 minutes, but its impact will be felt for a long time.
What we learned from the speech, as well as subsequent conversations with industry collogues, was that Chat Howard is more than an industry volunteer. He is a changemaker. Howard’s principles, built on faith and servant leadership, guide him as he looks to help others on their path, be it in business or personal life — paving the way for health, growth, and prosperity. As he forges ahead, he leads others to follow — encouraging and supporting them along the way.
Change happens when one takes action, and the efforts from Howard, a second-generation owner and operator of Sandpiper Supply, will be felt for generations to come. He is genuinely a community builder in the PHCP industry and his beloved Savannah. For these reasons and many more, we honor Chat Howard as The Wholesaler Magazine’s Person of the Year.
Born and raised in Savannah, Howard grew up helping at the family-owned and operated wholesale distribution business his parents started in 1977 — a single-location, family-owned and -operated plumbing wholesale distribution firm. It was very much a family business from the start. “My dad [Chat Sr.] did all the ordering, the counter sales, the warehouse — you name it. My mom, Carol, ran the office and had the joy of dealing with the billing and collections,” Chat Howard Jr. recalls.
Chat Howard Sr. is now vice president of the distribution business, and his wife, Carol Howard, still serves as the company’s CFO., Howard Jr. and his sister, Christy Ellis, now the showroom director at Sandpiper Supply, recall how they helped their parents in those early days.
“My dad would bring home the giant price book, and we would lay it out on the living room floor,” Howard Jr. recalls. “I would call out the item on the ticket, Dad would find it in the book, Christy would go extend it out and hand the ticket to Mom, who would total it out and double-check the math of two kids who probably shouldn’t have been doing paperwork in the first place. They are great memories, which was a great way to grow up.”
From 1992 through 1996, Howard Jr. attended college at The Citadel, the military college of South Carolina, where he was leaning toward a military career. During his junior year, he was offered a job with a software company in Greenville, S.C., and accepted with a start date of post-graduation. His senior year, on Valentine’s Day, he met his soon-to-be wife, Tricia. Post-graduation, they would start their lifelong journey together and move to Greenville.
Howard Jr. was off and running at the software company, “It was a great experience, and I was able to make a great deal of money in sales my first year, but I wasn’t enjoying the job,” he says. Knowing it wasn’t his calling, he moved back to Charleston and joined a software management company specializing in making software for nonprofit organizations. The move was a financial hit, but ultimately Howard Jr. was searching to fill his soul.
“I was fascinated by the culture of giving and the companies we were helping,” Howard Jr. explains. “I worked my way up the ladder and became a consultant, and I was able to visit nonprofits around the world. I was amazed to see the work they were accomplishing; it was moving.”
With a wife and two young children, Howard Jr. realized as he was advancing up a ladder of opportunity built by others he wanted to make a change and be in business for himself. “I called my dad for advice, and he said he was the wrong guy to ask as he was in the process of selling the family business,” Howard Jr. notes. The sale fell through, and Howard Jr. told his dad that before the company went back on the market, he wanted to come back home and look at the opportunity.
He found it was a small company with a “nice little loyal customer base, doing about a million dollars a year in sales,” Howard Jr. says. His father, alongside his mother, had worked very hard building the business, but as the big-box chains had come into the area, they were pushing out the independent wholesale distributors around town. Howard Sr. was tired and ready for a change — as was his son.
“I asked my father, ‘What are the odds of me coming and working with you?’ Howard Jr. says, to which his father smiled. “I never pushed my children to enter into the family business,” Chat Howard Sr. states, “If they wanted to come into the business, they could do so — it would be under their request, but it was never an expectation.”
In 2002, Howard Jr. and his family moved from Charleston back to his hometown of Savannah, and he started at the family company as its vice president. Having a “nice little customer base,” he started organically growing the business by actively listening to its existing customer case — their wants and needs.
“In life, there are relationships — whether it’s friends, a spouse, a customer — it’s all the same,” he says. “You need to ask, ‘What am I doing right? What am I doing wrong? What can I do better? What do you need from me?’ You listen, learn and grow by having the conversations, in business and on a personal level — and hope to improve a little every day.”
What Howard Jr. could do was find his customer’s pain points —– what they ordered from others that he could carry and supply, etc. In doing so, company sales started increasing, and the company began to grow.
In 2018, Chat Howard Jr. assumed the role of president of Sandpiper Supply and became the company’s owner in 2021. Since joining the family company, the business has grown exponentially. Chat attributes that growth to the amazing team they have built carrying the company name.
Company Culture: A Healthy Company Environment
Providing a healthy environment where team members are supported, and happy is the core of Howard Jr.’s responsibilities. He learned from his parents that you never ask anyone to do something you are unwilling to do yourself: “I want to see the associates at Sandpiper Supply happy and healthy - if it is here, great! If it is somewhere else, I will do whatever I can to help them get positioned in a lifestyle and a career where one can be happy and healthy and thrive and grow.”
He describes how the team works together to support one another, demonstrated when the company navigated its way through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Howard Jr. recalls one struggling day at the beginning of the pandemic when everyone was trying to figure out how to operate safely: “Early on, each day, I would go out into the parking lot and set up a tent, and we’d set tables outside and drag our computers out to conduct business from a temporary open-air counter. We were all tired and stressed, and none of us knew what we were doing. Did any business owner know what to do?”
One day, in particular, he felt defeated before I walked through the door. “During the team’s morning meeting, Howard Jr. outlined the obstacles of the day, which started with bad weather moving in, and the company would need to shut down their open-air counter and switch back to curbside call and text-only service in the afternoon. It made it more complicated that the phone company had cut a fiber optic cable in the neighborhood, so all phones, internet, and texting were impossible.
“We were using my cellphone to run our entire business, and when I explained the odds to the three team leaders, they looked at each other, took a deep breath, and said, ‘OK, let’s do it,’” Howard Jr. recalls. “At that moment, I could focus on the task at hand, knowing that these guys were with me in the trenches, willing to do whatever was needed.”
Howard Jr.’s office overlooks the pickup counter and the parking lot, but you typically will find him at the counter helping customers or pulling orders in the warehouse. Leading by example, there isn’t a job he has yet to do or a customer he doesn’t know by name. During our interview, I had to get used to the many times customers waved hello.
When discussing company culture, Howard Jr. told a story of an associate who had been with the company for many years and had come to say he was moving out of state. Howard Jr. asked if there was anything he could do to help in the transition, and he heard the individual was looking at working at another wholesale distributor in the new area. Howard Jr. picked up the phone and made a blind phone call to the owner of a plumbing distribution company in that area, told him of the situation, and said if he was hiring to consider calling in his employee for an interview.
This effort embodies his mantra of helping people be happy, healthy, thrive, and grow.
Howard Jr.’s leadership style is unique for one with an educational background at The Citadel. Tradition would lead toward being regimented and a by-the-book type of leadership. I asked him to describe it, and he smiled.
“A few years ago, I spoke to a group of high school seniors in ROTC who were getting their officer rank,” he recalls. “When I first got involved in business, I would read the “Art of War” and “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” etc.
“However, the one book that probably influenced my leadership style the most is by Army Ranger Kirk A. Weisler, “The Dog Poop Initiative.” It’s written as a children’s book that tells the story of children playing a soccer game on a field. Parents on the sideline warn others before they go on the field to be careful of the dog poop in the corner of the field. He talks about how everyone is warning others to be alert and not step into it, but no one is doing anything about it. Fed up with no one taking action, Weisler reached in a garbage can, pulled out a bag, walked over to the excrement, picked it up, and threw it out while everyone else thought, ‘Why didn’t I do that?’”
Howard Jr. adds: “The way I laid it out with high school students was if you ever find yourself in a situation where they tell themselves that someday somebody needs to do something, stop. That somebody is you and the time to do it is now. And that’s what we’ve tried to convey to all our employees: If something needs to be done, and you see it, do it. We’ve modeled that for everybody here, and they embrace it.”
In 2012, Howard Jr. got a call from friend Richard Goldsmith of Sunbelt Marketing about attending the Southern Wholesalers Association’s (SWA) annual convention. He understood the power of networking with one’s peers for guidance, support, staying ahead of trends, and learning best practices as the company was a member of the IMARK (former OMNI) buying group.
“I enjoy spending time at our buying group event each spring and talking to others in different parts of the country about what is taking place in each market,” Howard Jr. says. “Joining SWA allowed me to meet with my peers in my area of the country and network, as well as have another opportunity to meet with my vendors face to face.”
John Aykroyd, president of IMARK Plumbing, notes: “Chat [Jr.] continues to impress me with his willingness to share with other members in our group and the industry. As the second generation of family ownership, he will continue the family culture at Sandpiper Supply. I believe, as does he, that the better part of becoming the owner is keeping everything local.”
Early on, Howard Jr. joined SWA’s Leadership Development Council, where he connected with up-and-coming leaders dealing with the same problems and challenges as he did. Soon after, he joined the SWA board of directors, where he volunteered for three years. “As I was rolling off the board, they asked if I would consider going into leadership and going through the chairs. I said yes,” Howard Jr. says.
“The opportunity to be on the executive committee and get to know the other leads, who are amazing people, was a blessing for me,” he adds. “During this time, the pandemic hit our shores. As leaders of an industry group, they had big decisions to guide the organization, including holding a virtual conference in 2020. In doing so, the group agreed that much of the benefit of being involved with the executive committee is having one’s presidential year, culminating with the celebration at the annual convention.”
In 2020, they agreed to stay in their chair positions to allow the current president to officiate over the next in-person meeting, resulting in Howard Jr.’s presidential leadership taking place in 2022, resulting in a five-year commitment to SWA’s board.
During his presidential leadership, Howard Jr. sought ways to broaden industry involvement. Working with the board, he launched SWA’s Women in Leadership Program — a big push in bringing the opportunity of mentorship and participation to a growing industry segment. In addition, he understands the power of networking with peers within one’s region and is an advocate for driving awareness and membership in SWA.
“We are launching a membership campaign designed to tell others about what our experience has been — and it is phenomenal. I want others to have the opportunity to experience it,” he says.
Leading any organization is a full-time commitment driven by a passion for guiding and giving back. It’s challenging for any leader to balance work commitments with volunteering. Howard Jr. was doing the same as the owner and operator of a one-location wholesale distribution business and showroom. It was a labor of love, for sure.
“Chat Howard [Jr.} dignifies the rich 94-year-old history of SWA,” Terry Shafer, executive vice president of SWA, says. “Over the years, I have had the pleasure of working with many great leaders in our industry. Chat is one of those leaders. He carries himself with great humility, cares deeply, and thinks very strategically. His passion for SWA and this industry is inspiring, and he sets the bar high for those following in his footsteps.”
Stopping the Talent Drain
Howard Jr. is grounded in faith, and his passion for children, education, and helping others be their personal best includes his beloved community of Savannah. He also understands the importance of fending off a talent drain that can plague any city – especially the smaller towns where local shopping is vital.
“I love my community; Savannah is a small town — and a talent challenge in a small town can quickly turn into a talent crisis,” he explains. “And if you have a talent crisis, it affects services in the community — resulting in a community crisis.” Howard Jr. realized something needed to be done to imprint upon others that taking care of one’s community is vital to survival — but how do you open the eyes of others and instill the hometown love and pride?
“The family started a scholarship to invest in students and their education, be it in college or a trade school,” Howard Jr. says. He adds, “In reality, we wanted to instill hometown pride.” We started the “What Makes Savannah Home Scholarship,” where students from the local area entered the contest by writing an essay on the subject; the grand prize winner receives $1,000 in scholarship money, $500 for second place, $250 for third and $100 for Honorable mentions. My sister, Christy, has always had a passion for literature and does a phenomenal job running the program for us every year.”
This is the 5th year awarding scholarships to local students. Howard Jr. adds: “We have awarded more than $10,000 to date. It is such an honor to be able to help local students achieve their educational goals, but more importantly, we hope that the “What Makes Savannah Home” theme gives young people the opportunity to take a moment and reflect on the beauty and uniqueness of this amazing town we in which we live. We hope that when these young people are young professionals with their diploma in hand or having chosen a trade, they will consider Savannah as the place to call home and raise their families.”
Howard Jr. also understands that providing mentorship at all levels builds self-esteem and provides a foundation in one’s life that may not exist elsewhere. Jay Thompson, a friend of Howard Jr.’s whom he met through his men’s bible study group, is a founder of Xcel Strategies, a mentoring network founded in Savannah to care for young people between 15 to 25 years of age. Xcel exists to fuel young people with purpose and passion for reaching the fullness of their potential through a network of wise, seasoned and trained mentors.
“It was started primarily for young men who didn’t necessarily have a male role model in life,” Howard Jr. says. The organization would teach life’s soft skills: how to create a budget, how to build a resume, how to shake hands, and how to hold a conversation. He soon realized it would be a win-win opportunity if Xcel mentoring started a plumbing school where students are taught the basics of understanding parts and purpose — so they would feel comfortable walking into a supply house or a plumber’s shop and applying for a job. It wouldn’t take the place of in-depth training but more to get individuals comfortable with a basic understanding, which could build a career.
Xcel’s first venture into the trades began with teaching welding skills, and in recent years Sandpiper Supply helped it to expand into plumbing, mechanical, HVAC, and automotive repair. Working in mobile training trailers, the organization provides the tools for hands-on learning and understanding while supporting the individual’s soul—mentorship and purpose.
Recently, Xcel wanted to start a carpentry trailer and needed tools to fill it. “We hosted an event in our parking lot,” Howard Jr. recalls. “Xcel brought a training trailer, and we brought food trucks to provide a free lunch to all who donated tools. We ended up with hundreds of tools and were able to spread the word to the community about the program. Jay and his team are phenomenal. I love what they do — investing in young people and trying to teach those skills we desperately need in the workplace.”
While small but mighty, Sandpiper Supply is growing strong within its community. It was recently named Best of Savannah Kitchen supplier and was awarded the Luxury Product Group’s Showroom of Distinction award. One award that hits home is from its local neighborhood association, which, several years ago, had opposed Sandpiper Supply’s relocation to its current address.
Years ago, the company location was ten blocks from its current location, which is now the SCAD University for Creative Careers. A company offered to relocate Sandpiper as it wanted the land to build dorms for the school. In relocating to its current location, Sandpiper Supply was challenged by the community not wanting a warehouse within it. Howard Jr. and his father vowed to improve the community and its footprint.
“Six years later, a woman who had been at every city council meeting opposing our relocation came up to my dad and me and shook our hands,” Howard Jr. recalls. “She said, ‘I was the one who didn’t want you here. You both said you would improve the community and the neighborhood, and you did and stood by your worthiness.’ She had approached the City Council, and they awarded us the City of Savannah Golden Broom Award and Clean Business Seal for neighborhood improvement.”
However, the best award would be that of a family man, as Howard Jr. beams when he speaks about his wife, Tricia, whom he met 26 years ago in her beloved hometown of Charleston, and his children, Caroline and Andrew. “I couldn’t ask for a better partner to go through this crazy world with, and I wouldn’t be standing here today, literally or figuratively, without them,” he states.
Here’s to you, Chat Howard Jr. May your infectious love for family and community inspire others to build up their communities and support the spirit of others. And thank you for being a beacon in doing so.
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