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Joe Jacob, president of Pipe Valves Inc., can pinpoint the moment he decided Pipe Valves was the company he had been searching for. “I didn’t know anything about piping, but when I heard the previous owner talk about what they did and how they took care of customers, the light bulb went off,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is called customer service. I’ve been doing that for years. I know I can do this and be a good steward of this company.’”
That was the year 2001. Now, 23 years after Joe Jacob and his brother Bill Jacob became the third owners of Pipe Valves, the brothers are proud to be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the business.
It all started when fraternity brothers at The Ohio State University, Jack Crowe and Dick Greiner, went to work for an industrial PVF supplier based in West Virginia. There, they met George Baldock, and the three men decided to use the PVF knowledge and skills they had gained to start their own distribution business back home in Columbus, Ohio. With the backing of three silent partners, Pipe Valves was born in 1963.
The company hit the ground running when Crowe landed a five-truckload order of pipe from a friend who happened to be the owner of Buckeye Pipeline. For the next 23 years, Crowe and his partners focused on growing the business; in 1986, they sold Pipe Valves to Columbus natives Jim, John and Mike Finn.
Jim Finn took over as president, continuing to grow the business for the next 14 years. When Finn began looking for a buyer in 2000, Pipe Valves employed 30 people who served industrial PVF customers out of a single location in central Ohio.
Enter Joe and Bill Jacob. The Jacob brothers learned all about running a business from their father, Pete Jacob, who had built a very successful ink manufacturing business selling to large commercial printing companies. Both brothers had worked for their father, learning the sales and customer service techniques that had helped the ink business enjoy steady growth.
Taking over the ink manufacturing company from their father seemed the obvious choice. However, when Pete Jacob started thinking about retirement, desktop publishing was just starting to revolutionize the publishing and printing industry. The future for big print runs requiring large volumes of ink was uncertain, so father and sons agreed that the ink business should be sold while it was still growing.
“We didn’t know what the future held for the ink industry, and we felt that selling was the right choice,” says Joe Jacob.
With the decision made, the Jacobs family began researching local business opportunities. “It’s hard to find a business that, in essence, seems to be worth buying,” explains Joe Jacob. “Especially when you don’t know anything about the business.” However, when they happened upon Pipe Valves in 2000 and began acquisition discussions with Jim Finn, they could envision the potential.
Although the three Jacobs were PVF novices, they were impressed by Jim Finn’s candor, honesty and focus on customer service. They learned Pipe Valves was a profitable company with a solid customer base and good, loyal employees. “Everything Mr. Finn told us about the company was true,” Joe Jacob says. “There were no surprises.”
Moreover, before planning to sell his business, Finn had the foresight to hire an excellent sales manager, Tim Collins, who had vast industry knowledge and knew the Pipe Valves business. Joe Jacob explains: “Mr. Finn hired Tim in 1998. He told us, ‘You’ll really want to rely and trust him. He knows the industry and he knows what he’s doing.’”
The Jacobs took over ownership of Pipe Valves on Jan. 2, 2001, with Pete Jacob as president and Joe Jacob as vice president. Bill Jacob remained a silent partner until 2016 when he sold his established CPA firm to join Pipe Valves full-time as treasurer. Pete Jacob had successfully sold and retired from his ink business and then spent 10 more years working at Pipe Valves until he retired again.
“My dad provided great advice, great coaching and great mentoring,” Joe Jacob notes. “And he did it with no salary! There’s no questioning his love and commitment to his family.”
Growth and Acquisition
During the next 10 years, Joe Jacob, Pete Jacob and sales manager Tim Collins grew the business by 138 percent, added eight additional employees, and moved the company to a much larger warehouse to better serve its customers.
Joe Jacob credits Tim for much of their success in those first years. “Tim’s industry knowledge was extremely helpful, and we relied on him heavily in many areas,” he says.
Between 1998 and 2003, Pipe Valves added both steam and valve actuation specialists to the team, and the sales growth in those areas was impressive. In 2011, they added a live steam lab and began offering full-day classes to customers. In 2020, Pipe Valves acquired Process Division, adding sanitary stainless items to its product mix.
“We keep looking for additional products that our industrial, commercial or contractor base of customers would want to buy from us to expand our business,” Joe Jacob explains. “Over time, our one-page line card has grown to a binder of line cards.”
As the company continued to grow, more employees were added. At the same time, the core group of dedicated employees who were instrumental to the success of the business was starting to approach retirement age. The Jacobs family recognized there was a lot of work to successfully replace the retirees and add the right people to continue to fuel the company’s growth.
First on the agenda was defining the qualities current employees had that helped Pipe Valves succeed.
“When we walked in the door as the new owners of Pipe Valves back in 2001, the employees told us three things: we aren’t perfect, but when we make a mistake, we bust our … to fix it; we don’t overpromise; and Pipe Valves is a place you retire from,” explains Joe Jacob. “We learned that our best employees don’t consider this just a job. This is a career where you come here and you don’t want to leave. In fact, we have 34 retirees with a combined 715 years of service!”
Joe Jacob started observing his best people being at their best and writing down what he saw. The resulting core values of integrity, service and satisfaction are supported by Pipe Valve’s “7 Behaviors that Define Pipe Valves Culture.”
“We spend time with our new hires to make sure they understand what these words mean,” Joe Jacob says. “We also try to take a moment in each of our meetings to discuss our culture and values. Typically, it is easy because there is usually a current event where our response was either a great example or perhaps a less than appropriate example, and it gives us a chance to discuss it as a group.”
He cites how one of the behaviors, blameless problem-solving, helped the Pipe Valves team come together to get to the root of an issue.
“One of our people started pointing fingers at multiple employees, blaming them for a mistake that he had just been chewed out for by the customer,” Joe Jacob recalls. “Ten days later, he was still pointing fingers and still had no idea what the root cause really was, but plenty of people were fed up with his attitude and accusations. Bill called everyone involved from multiple departments into the conference room and had them walk through the transaction.
“In just 10 minutes, the team calmly discovered the root cause and were able to get back to work with the problem solved.”
In addition to stressing the core values and behaviors during the hiring process, Pipe Valves has implemented a six-week training program to help new hires learn the basics about PVF products and warehouse processes. The company also takes advantage of many American Supply Association online training courses to provide advanced training, particularly when an employee may be transitioning from the warehouse to sales.
Mentoring and shadowing are also important parts of onboarding employees to set them up for success.
Empowering Additional Growth
For the first 15 years of ownership, the three Jacobs were adept at wearing all the different hats required to run a small business. However, by the time the company grew to about 40 employees, Pete Jacobs had retired, and Collins was getting close. It became clear the company needed additional management help to effectively support the business and give every employee the attention they needed to be successful.
That’s when Bill Jacob joined Pipe Valves full-time as treasurer to help with the company’s next transition.
“As a small business, you tend to wear multiple hats and do it all yourself,” Joe Jacob says. “Many times, it can prevent you from pursuing opportunities. At first, we just pursued taking off hats and putting them on other people successfully. It took some time to work through that, to let go and find the right people to do the job.”
Joe Jacob is proud to report that Pipe Valves now has a full management team in place, with a department manager overseeing each area to provide employees with the support they need. A new general manager also joined the company in mid-2022, allowing the Jacobs family to focus more on the organic growth of the company, as well as strategic acquisitions.
What’s more, Bill’s son David Jacob joined Pipe Valves in 2018 as a product specialist, project manager and management trainee. David Jacob is learning all the ins and outs of running the family business and most recently led the IT transition from on-site servers to a cloud-based system, setting the company up for greater success going forward.
“I’m proud to say we’ve got a great team,” Job Jacob notes. “I think everyone here is fired up to grow. We’re going to take care of our people. They’re going to take care of our customers. And we’re going to grow market share.”
60 Years and Counting
Today, Pipe Valves promises to be “Your Most Valuable Partner” to PVF buyers of both industrial and commercial piping systems. The company serves a wide range of industries, including mechanical contractors, food and beverage, oil and gas, chemical plants, data centers, power plants, automotive, health care, dairy, education, cosmetics and more.
The company employs more than 60 people between the branch in Canton, Ohio, and the main warehouse and operations in Columbus. More than 1,400 line items pass out of the warehouses each day to be picked up by customers or delivered directly to buyers throughout southeastern and central Ohio, western Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
In addition, the Columbus branch offers same-day pipe shop services to custom cut, thread, groove or bevel pipe to buyer specifications. No other PVF supplier in Pipe Valves’ market offers that unique service. Pipe Valves also offers a full selection of Milwaukee Tools at the Columbus branch to ensure customers obtain the tools they need when they need them.
However, as the Pipe Valves website says: “The secret to [Pipe Valves] success is our people. The product knowledge they possess and their willingness to go the extra mile are what make the difference. Yes, we have more inventory and more trucks and more selection than our competition, but none of that would be possible without the best team in the business.”
When asked how the company plans to celebrate its momentous 60-year milestone, Joe Jacob notes: “In 2021, we partnered with a local craft brewery to create a private label beer we called Industri-Ale. You know, like industrial? It was fun to give that to all our customers, friends and vendors. So, we definitely plan to do another label for our 60th, along with some other celebrations throughout the year.“
Cheers to the entire Pipe Valves team!
Deborah McKenzie is a freelance writer with a passion for learning new topics and connecting with business owners to tell their stories in their own words. Her experience covers a wide range of industries, including construction, retail, health care and tech. A sample of her work can be seen at clippings.me/debmckenzie. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.