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It’s been 68 years since Don Hulbert launched Hulbert Bros. Inc. when he bought out the Plattsburgh, N.Y., branch of his employer, H.B. Kimmey Supply Co. It’s been 55 years since the company has been featured in The Wholesaler magazine, 20 years since they joined the Omni Group Ltd., and five years since Hulbert Supply became a member of the Luxury Products Group. So, with the Omni and LPG conferences on tap later this month, the timing couldn’t be more ideal to showcase this now-fourth-generation thriving company.
In looking back at that 1961 feature article, some of the key business philosophies that had led them to success early on have continued to be at the core of Hulbert’s success today. One of these is an ahead-of-its-time quote on what now is labeled as “branding” from then-sales manager Robert Carroll: "Just about everything we do is designed to build a quality image for this company. When our customers think of Hulbert Bros. [as it was then called], we want them to associate the name with the highest quality of products and service."
Hulbert Supply has grown to six locations across Upstate New York and Vermont. As the company grew, it became necessary to brand itself under one name and logo — thus Hulbert Supply was decided upon. The Hulbert family continues to own the company, and today, seven family members across three generations play a role:
Beyond that, “the environment throughout our company is really like a family,” Betsy described. They have just over 50 employees company wide, with an average tenure of 20 years. “Every summer, we have a big company-wide get-together at various places like the Great Escape or AuSable Chasm,” Betsy continued. “Last summer we had a big picnic at a campground on Lake Champlain. It’s a great way to see people from the other store locations that we don’t get to see very often and to meet their families.”
Dale added, “Our continued growth and success all comes down to our people. We try to hire and keep quality people here. We have numerous employees who have worked for our company for 30 to 40 years! Our employee turnover has always been very low. They are valued members of the team. They're the ones who make it all happen.”
Continuing the legacy
Over the years, in addition to Don Hulbert, the company has benefited from the direction of many great leaders, including Larry Hulbert and Donald Hulbert (Don’s sons), Robert Miner (Don's son-in-law), Walter McGovern, Ken Pulsifer, Al Thompson, John Peria and Larry MacKenzie. And now, of course, grandchildren of the founder: Betsy and Dale Miner and Doug Hulbert.
“All of these leaders have made tremendous sacrifices to help ensure the success of the business, most especially the founder,” said Dale. “In the early years of the business my Grandmother, Mary Hulbert, underwent a risky surgery that removed one of her lungs entirely as well as a portion of her second lung. My Grandfather was somehow able to successfully run the business while taking care of their five children while she was hospitalized. He was a small man in stature, but a great man in fortitude.”
They have built a tremendous legacy at Hulbert, and continued to expand the business. There are now six locations across upstate New York and Vermont:
“Basically there are three large warehouse locations and three satellite locations,” explained Dale. “Plattsburgh is the largest store, with 13 doors of warehouse space and a 2,600-square-foot showroom. Our satellite store is Malone. Saranac Lake is also a large warehouse location with an 1,100-square-foot showroom. Their satellite store is Lake Placid. Burlington is a large warehouse store with Brandon as its satellite.”
The company’s extensive Line Card is printed in their corporate brochure and included on www.hulbertsupply.com. In a nutshell, Hulbert specializes in Kitchens and Baths, Plumbing, Heating & Air Conditioning, Water Treatment & Wells, and Industrial Manufacturing Supplies.
“We have a large truck fleet that includes everything from pick-up trucks to 24-foot box trucks,” shared Doug. “We transfer product between our locations daily, in addition to our customer deliveries. Our territory range is generally a 50-mile radius around each location. All locations have a strong counter business, backed up by an impressive inventory of product.”
Capitalizing on relationships
The management at Hulbert Supply is also deeply committed to educating their employees and customers — recognizing its value for all to improve.
“We hold several counter days throughout the year and try to incorporate education sessions into a breakfast or a BBQ on the grill outside when the snow’s not flying,” Betsy commented. “We have reps that bring in their own griddle and make breakfast sandwiches while talking to our customers about new products. We send our employees and our customers right to the factory whenever possible so that they see first-hand how products are made and installed. Our employees also take advantage of the courses provided through the ASA, Blue Hawk University and vendor webinars.”
Allison added, “When I first started selling kitchens I found that I had a lot of questions about installation, so I asked a good contractor of ours if I could go out on the job with him and watch him install a kitchen. It was an extremely valuable experience for me, and the contractor really respected that I wanted to see what kinds of problems arise during installation. These are the kinds of things that set wholesalers in general apart from the big boxes. Not just Hulbert Supply, but all wholesalers. We strive to be as knowledgeable about our products as possible so we can provide the best service to our customers."
“Our showroom traffic has always been mainly driven by our contractors. It’s those key relationships and the trust that we’ve built with them. They feel comfortable telling their customers to come here because they know we will take care of them. One of the most common things I hear from my customers at the end of a meeting is a huge sigh of relief (and often a great big hug, which I love!) Building a home or remodeling a major space in your home like your kitchen or bathroom can be a very daunting task for some people. Our showroom personnel knows how to break things down for our customers and keep them on task, so an experience that they were feeling apprehensive about becomes very pleasant for them. Our showroom people, myself included, have commented that we sometimes hate to see certain projects come to an end because we have formed such strong relationships with our clients. And sometimes those relationships continue on into lifelong friendships. This is a small community, after all.”
Hulbert Supply does its fair share of local radio and print advertising, and are stepping up their social media game and experimenting with Facebook content. They’re also working with a local developer who is redesigning the company’s website. “In the future we are looking at e-commerce and adapting our new website so that orders can be placed from it,” Doug said. “Our developer is making the website very user friendly, so we will be in control of keeping the content fresh, something our current website does not allow us to do.”
“But word of mouth, at the end of the day, is what really drives traffic to our business,” Doug emphasized. “It always comes back to the relationships we build upon every day. Many of those relationships have been forged because of the value-added services Hulbert Supply provides, including call lists. Customers have emergency contacts that they can call on evenings and weekends when they are really in a pinch, who will open the store for them. This is important when you live in an extreme climate as we do. When it is -20°F and someone’s boiler goes down, they can’t wait until Monday morning for parts. We understand that. We will also make special deliveries if someone is in trouble, and our employees are constantly dropping things off at a contractor’s house or jobsite on their way home, so they don’t have to leave the job to come to the store.”
Betsy added, “Customer expectations have changed over the years quite a lot. Everyone wants things more quickly and we have adapted to that. Larry Hulbert used to say that as a young boy, he could wait on the contractor counter because the fittings that the customers needed were relatively simple. The plumber would come in and point down an aisle and tell him what he needed. Just like everything else, the plumbing and heating industry is so much more technologically advanced that this could never happen today. Our counter salespeople need to answer technical questions and help trouble shoot a myriad of problems daily.”
In addition to their Omni and LPG membership mentioned earlier, Hulbert Supply has been a member of Blue Hawk since 2009. Describing the importance of this to the company, Dale said, “The benefits we receive include increased buying power, strengthening vendor relationships and sharing ideas with other wholesalers across the country. When you can openly discuss shared experiences with other businesses like yours, it is mutually beneficial.We do business with Omni and LPG vendors whenever possible, and we encourage vendors that we do business with who are not members, to become members. OMNI and LPG have been an important part of helping wholesalers like ourselves to be competitive in today’s market. Overall, our vendor relationships have always been solid, long-term relationships. We believe in loyalty, and that’s a two-way street. We are loyal to our vendors and we expect loyalty from them.”
The diversity of products they carry is a significant advantage to Hulbert Supply in their market. "When one segment of the business is sluggish, say for instance showroom sales, then another segment such as heating is doing well. And vice versa. Many of the products we sell are things that people need regardless of the economic situation, and that is very helpful. People always need toilets, heating systems and fresh clean drinking water. We also are lucky to live in a a part of the country that does not experience extreme economic highs and lows that other parts of the country have had to endure."
And today’s leaders of Hulbert Supply remain as committed to their employees and customers as their grandfather, founder Don Hulbert, was. “That is what sets us apart and has gotten us to this amazing fourth-generation milestone,” Dale concluded.