By Sarah Cimarusti
On Saturday, September 27th, Irr Supply, a leading wholesale distributor of plumbing, HVAC, refrigeration and electrical products that operates 32 locations including six showrooms throughout New York and Pennsylvania, celebrated 150 years. This is an impressive number even for our industry. It was an intimate gathering held at the Pierce Arrow Museum in Buffalo, N.Y., with over 500 people in attendance and a 62% employee turnout overall.
Irr Supply is a quiet company embedded with hometown pride. They were once a small company that made a home for themselves and continued to grow outward, inviting more and more people into the family business. The company has generally shied away from media in the past, predominately spreading their business via word-of-mouth and in their tight-knit circle around their customers and employees. The horn they toot after all these years still says, “We take care of our customers first. Everything else follows.”
Needless to say, they are truly proud of their 150th milestone, and it is a great honor to be able to share their story.
A ‘practical’ history
Joseph Irr, also known as the “practical plumber,” immigrated to the U.S. from France in 1860. In 1864, he established Irr & Son Supply in Buffalo (see sidebar on page 52).
Upon Joseph's death in 1908, his second son, William G., became the company leader until 1952. William G.’s son Harold J. subsequently owned the company from 1952 until 1958 when poor health forced him to retire.
The contracting end of the business initially consisted of plumbers providing any number of repairs, including and certainly not limited to pipes, beer taps, chandeliers and cast iron bathtubs, for houses located in Buffalo. This work went on for 50 years. Then in 1960, Irr Supply & Son became Irr Supply and sold the contracting end of operation, becoming a supply-only business.
Where service starts
There’s a part of Bill Jr.’s history that points to an important pattern in Irr Supply’s leadership. Bill Jr.’s father wanted his son to receive his master plumbing license and to understand the plumbing contracting business.
“Understanding the customer is what it’s always been about. I didn’t want to be a plumber, but I wanted to understand and relate to plumbers,” said Director William “Bill” Jr. Irr. “It was my dad’s mantra that you have to experience service first to understand the wholesale business and to better serve the contractors.”
This trend has been essential to the long-term success at both the individual and companywide level at Irr Supply. Many employees are former self-employed contractors who came into the business, adding to the colorful pool of technical knowledge that is of utmost importance at Irr Supply.
Continuous training has become a naturalized part of operations – not just for the employees, but also the customers so that they may grow their businesses and continue to provide for the overall industry. Large groups of customers and employees gather together a few times a month for these training sessions, which include tutorials on customer service issues, financing, technical assistance, design aspects, products, jobsite assistance, etc. Many of these sessions take place in a lab with live-fire equipment and involve employees helping customers with troubleshooting in the most hands-on ways possible.
Irr Supply believes relationships are the core foundation, and that building them is what has made the company last such a substantial amount of time. They are all about enjoying their customers and each other. Not to mention, they have a customer loyalty program and an incentive trip program. Trips and outings to further develop relationships have included sport games, cruises, fishing trips, etc.
Not only does Irr Supply care about celebrating achievements in their customers’ businesses, but they care about their personal achievements and obstacles. One example of this was shown at the Horseheads branch. One of their customers was hit hard with medical costs for cancer treatment, and the group volunteered to fundraise for this customer and his family.
“We have the long-view of customers and take a genuine interest in who they are and what they do,” said Glen Voigt, Branch Manager.
Employee commitments to last a lifetime
Bill Jr. will be celebrating his 40th year with Irr Supply in June 2015. Don Smith, Vice President of Purchasing, also has 40 years. President Mike Duffy has 30 years. They’re not the only people who have built a life at Irr Supply. In fact, 65 employees of 300 total have 20-plus years in the business. This is clearly not just at an executive level; all departments have high retention.
Southeast Regional Manager David Baldwin has been with Irr Supply for 25 years. He was a sales manager for Northrup Supply and joined Irr Supply during the acquisition. He currently manages five of Irr Supply’s branches. “The company gave all the employees all the tools to be successful,” said Baldwin. “Everyone helps everyone, and we communicate excellently.”
Voigt, who oversees the branch in Horseheads, N.Y., has been with Irr Supply for 21 years. Voigt voices similar sentiments on team cohesiveness, transparency and open communication.
“I don’t hide any information from the guys. They are a great group who come to work with the right attitude everyday. It helps that we enjoy what we do. No one can succeed without a good team,” said Voigt. “We help each other, and that makes us stand out.”
Another important quality of the team mentality is in how management takes the collaborative perspective on leadership rather than the more traditional one. Leaders at Irr Supply believe they are just other members of the team.
“No one works for me. They work with me. That’s what we mean when we say ‘service starts here.’ And that’s the culture we try to achieve,” said President Mike Duffy.
Perhaps the greatest testament of a collaborative leader is William Sr. He had been known to make impromptu visits to the various branches and slip in through the warehouse doors and begin working on something with one of his employees.
“Irr Senior had a positive influence on us. You couldn’t help but feel uplifted after talking to him. All of management seems to get this… seeing it coming from the top like that makes a difference in how you feel,” said Voigt. “As a result, there’s a serious sense of pride in working for this family.” Bill Jr. added, “Dad trusted people. That’s what made him a good leader.”
Every employee has a share in the company’s success. 14 years ago, Irr Supply became an ESOP company. They believe it made the company even stronger from an employee standpoint.
Vice Chairman and Former President Mike Stetter operates as a consultant and advisor to the team. He’s responsible for administering the team’s ESOP and 401(k) plan. “As our company has become successful, many of our employees have profited. Everyone has shared responsibility. Even before the ESOP, we’ve had the same give and take mentality. Mr. Irr has been a very generous owner who has always rewarded those who have helped us grow,” said Stetter.
Celebrating 150 years
Irr Supply’s 150th celebration was held at the Pierce Arrow Museum, which in itself is significant because William Sr. donated his old sports car to help get the museum started when it first opened. This celebration honored Bill Sr. and all that he has done.
“We accomplished everything we wanted to accomplish with the party. It built so much momentum and has proven to be a rewarding experience,” said Bill Jr.
Some of the highlights included the performance of the Mount St. Mary High School Gemstones, an all-girl choir who William Sr. had donated to over the years; a mountainous display of every cupcake known to man; a large buffalo statue covered in signatures from all the attendees, an Abraham Lincoln impersonator and a showcase of historical memorabilia on Irr Supply.
Overall, the celebration was a chance for employees from all branches, past employees, close family members and friends to come together and share Irr Supply’s accomplishments. It was a chance for those from separate branches who had been communicating over the phone for years to finally meet in person. “We used to be a small intricate company, where everyone knew everyone. At the party it was a matter of putting a face with a name,” said Bill Jr.
Irr Supply hosted a separate celebration for its many valued vendors about two weeks before the 150th birthday party
Cheers to the next 150 years…
Irr Supply is just warming up with its fifth generation. Duffy’s son, Patrick Duffy, Branch Manager for the Clarence, N.Y., branch has already made a dent in the continuation and has proven to be a great asset to the company. Bill Jr.’s son, Brendan, 16, just recently joined the family line.
There is much to look forward to at Irr Supply. The most current project is the expanding of the headquarters to allot for 80,000 square feet for extra warehouse space and for the addition of a new training facility that will hold 125-150 people.
The company has no time to waste; they’re ready for what’s next. “We’re no better than anyone else. We are simply a goal-driven company always looking to improve. History isn’t as important as what’s going to happen tomorrow. We’re here trying to chart the future,” said Duffy.