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Vere Hodges was a talented repairman living in Pontiac, Mich.; he put his skills to work at General Motors, repairing electric motors in the company’s motor repair department. Knowing he could do the same work for himself, he became an entrepreneur and opened his pump and motor repair shop in 1947.
The business was going well; Hodges even had a contract with General Motors to continue his work for his previous employer. Soon, he saw the demand in the area and from other customers to repair sump and well pumps.
“When customers came in to have their motors fixed, they also asked for other plumbing materials that went along with it,” explains Greg Brown, Hodges’ grandson. “From there, the requests grew to buy toilets and water heaters. The opportunities were expanding, and soon after, the company started selling more plumbing supplies.”
Greg Brown is the third generation to lead Hodges Supply, the family-owned and -operated wholesale distributor of plumbing, heating, pipe, valve and pumps, headquartered in Pontiac and serving the majority of the southeastern side of the state.
With Hodges’ keen ear for listening to customer requests and fulfilling their needs, the business grew —expanding into the two-storefront operation that is celebrating its 76th year in business as a full-line plumbing wholesaler.
“The funny thing is, we don’t repair pumps or motors anymore, and we sell very few well pumps as the local area is now on steady water,” he says. However, one thing remains constant, passed down from the generations: Listen to your customer wants and fulfill those needs — whatever it takes.
Today, with locations in Pontiac and Flint, Mich., two showrooms and 41 employees, Hodges Supply Co., serving local contractors and builders, is under the care of Greg Brown, who knew at 14 that he wanted to be in the family business.
His mother, Ann, Hodges’ only child, married Richard Brown, an engineer by trade, who attended General Motors Institute, a college GM owned in Flint to train people to become engineers for the automotive industry. “He was going to be a mechanical engineer, but my grandfather wanted him to come work here. He agreed, thinking it would be only temporary,” Greg Brown says.
His father joined the family company in and at 80 years old, he continues to work as the company’s CEO — albeit on a two to three days a week schedule. “My father never thought this business would be his living, but he so enjoys taking care of everyone, starting with employees and customers. He still loves it,” Greg Brown notes.
During high school, Greg Brown worked in the warehouse every day, putting away stock and sweeping the floors. He was familiarizing himself with the company. “After college, I went to work at the company; the only thing I ever wanted to do was sell toilets,” said he says with a smile and a grin. “I love this business, even at a young age; every day is fun and different, and it doesn’t feel like work to me. This is all I ever wanted to do.”
The passion for caring for people started with Hodges, a one-person operation for several years. “When the company started, there was only one employee, my grandfather, who would work until late evening either making deliveries, doing the books or growing the business,” Greg Brown notes. Hodges passed the same philosophy of hard work and the love of the job to his son-in-law, Richard Brown, who would take over as president in 1979 when Hodges retired. In 2006, when Richard Brown retired, his son Greg, who had officially started with the company in 1991, rose to the helm as the company’s president.
Powering the Ship
Empowering employees is at the core of Hodges Supply. “My dad always told me, if you take care of employees, they will take care of your customers, and if they are happy working here, customers will be treated just as you want them to be treated,” Greg Brown says. And while the quote may be one so many have heard before, it’s definitely in action at the distribution company.
Many employees have been with Hodges Supply for mile-marker years. Greg Brown, who worked his way up through the company and knew how each area should run, understands that micromanagement is a detriment for an organization.
“We employ talented and knowledgeable people who have been here a long time and know their jobs better than I because they do it every day,” he says. “If they come to me and say, ‘I would like to do XYZ,’ or, ‘If we can do this, we can pick up the job from this customer,’ I take their word for it, and we do it. We are small enough that we don’t need to conduct a meeting and go through channels. I trust my team, and we work together. While we have our specific duties, if we see a need at the sales counter or help is needed to unload water heaters — we all jump in and do what needs to be done to take care of the customer.”
In addition, the knowledge base of product use and application is vital. One needs to understand not only what a product is but what it does and other products that go with it. The Hodges team understands they are partners with their customers, asking the right questions to get to the right solution.
“Our customers don’t want a salesman, they want a partner in us — understanding parts and products to help with a problem,” Greg Brown explains. “Plumbers are the mechanics; they install products, and sometimes they don’t know all the parts that could go wrong— but our sales folks do.”
Several team members with more than 20 years of experience can help as they are seasoned professionals with years of product knowledge and application. And, by being a knowledge bank, it helps to strengthen the bonds between the company and its customers, knowing the company is making sure to set its customers up for success.
Greg Brown understands that taking care of the team is essential: “By doing my job correctly, I take care of the employees so they can take care of our customers. A little thing my dad told me a long time ago; when things get rough and tough out there, you have to take care of your employees.” For example, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit our shores, Hodges Supply shut down for two months, and employees were still paid their wages. “I might steer the boat, but they power the ship,” he says. It’s the understanding that you reap the benefits of success by working together.
And while working together, the fourth generation has entered the business, with Greg’s son Hunter Brown working within the company.
Understanding Pain Points and Fulfilling Needs
What sets Hodges Supply apart is its connectability with its customers — area plumbers, contractors, builders and mechanical engineers — and stands out from others by anticipating customers’ needs and having the flexibility to carry a high inventory of specialty items.
Having the capability of making the quick decision to say yes to customers and fulfill their needs, the company features a fully stocked, strong and diverse inventory, making it a one-stop shop. The company website states: “We have the flexibility to make such decisions without a board meeting first. Our smaller size enables this increased speed, flexibility and direct customer contact.”
“Never give your customer the opportunity to go elsewhere” is a saying Richard Brown instilled in his son, and the company follows suit. The Hodges team leans into its customer relationships by understanding the jobs they will be working on and the smaller or niche items needed — from one project to the next.
“We have a specialty area in our warehouse for products or parts that customers have asked us to stock,” Greg Brown explains. “A typical scenario would be a customer asks us to bring in a specialty item — it could be a part of a product that they only need a few of (for now), and no one else is buying that item. The customer knows he will need them throughout the year. So, we will purchase X amount and keep them on our shelf, knowing that we’ll be able to sell them to that customer.”
As Hodges team members listen to their customers, they can better anticipate needs down the road. Often, a customer will talk about working on a project with a builder and needing a unique item down the line; Hodges Supply will help its customer by bringing in the object. Working together, they have made their customers happy and their customers’ customers successful.
It boils down to working with its customers and knowing their pain points. The company will do it, knowing that not only are they saving the customer time in sourcing the product elsewhere, but Hodges Supply also will be the one-stop shop for the customer, not forcing them to go elsewhere.
And, with an 80,000-square-foot warehouse and its company-owned fleet of delivery trucks, the wholesale distributor can deliver the materials on time and where needed. If the project requires it, items will be shipped directly to the customer’s worksite.
I asked Greg Brown if he knew of the oldest customer partnership, and he smiled, saying that many of the accounts go back generations: “Many of our customers, either their fathers or grandfathers did business with us, and many customers were apprentices in their 20s still come in, but now they’re on their own or working for others. I think of it as a network of a big extended family.”
And it’s not only the ties with customers that run deep; Hodge’s manufacturing partners work hard at their partnerships, many of which have also lasted generations.
“Legend Valve wishes to congratulate Hodges Supply on 75 years of success!
“Hodges Supply, one of the industry’s premier independent wholesalers and IMARK members, has been led for 75 years by three generations of family members. Incredibly, the fourth generation is now on deck!
“We all want to thank you, Greg and family, for 35 years of support for Legend. We are looking forward to sharing in your success in the next 75! Bravo, well done!” — David F. Hickman, president and CEO, Legend Valve.
Celebrating 75 Years
Hodges Supply celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2022, and it did so by what it knows best — making it personal. The distributor held multiple events throughout the year, focusing on keeping them smaller so team members could enjoy the events with their customers.
“We had counter days with food trucks and multiple events where we invited customers for golf, food and drinks,” Greg Brown recalls. He describes how focusing on the smaller events brought a greater connection and celebration with all who have made the anniversary possible.
“This is a relationship business — it’s not all about price,” he explains. “It’s knowing that our customers want a relationship with whomever they are dealing with.”