With its beautiful beaches, fresh seafood, casinos and nightlife, Biloxi and the Mississippi Gulf Coast has often been called the “Playground of the South.” In fact, the slogan for their tourism bureau is “Stay a while. You’ll get it.”
For the Schwans and Rochs of Mississippi Coast Supply, who were born and raised in the area, there was no question that they were staying.
Fred Schwan Jr. and Lanny Roch Sr. were practically raised as brothers, growing up and going through school together in Biloxi. They both served our country during the Vietnam War, with Fred in the Navy and Lanny in the Army. They also both chose to come back to Biloxi to replant their roots when their service was over.
In their 20s, Lanny managed an auto parts store and machine shop, while Fred founded a cultured marble business that was next door to his dad’s plumbing wholesale company, Mississippi Coast Supply. Sadly, Fred’s dad was diagnosed with mesothelioma in the mid-1970s and despite a valiant fight, passed away in 1977. Fred decided to acquire the company from other family members and soon after asked Lanny to join him as a partner at Mississippi Coast.
“It was quite a struggle for my dad to manage Mississippi Coast during his illness,” Fred shared. “The inventory levels had gone way down, there were only two employees left, and customers had turned to other suppliers for product. I didn’t want to see it go under, but I already had my hands full with my marble company. There was great potential if we could get Mississippi Coast on the right track, and the first person I turned to was Lanny. I knew I had the connections in the local building industry to get customers coming in the door, and I needed someone I could trust to take care of them.”
Lanny added, “I didn’t know anything about plumbing, and there was no one around to teach me so I just learned it on the go. I would listen to anybody who was willing to talk. I asked a lot of questions of our plumbers and reps. I wanted to learn whatever I could to be competitive and profitable.
“Building inventory and sales went hand in hand. It took a couple of years to really get a full inventory back in the store. Fred and I had always said that if we could cover our bills, we’d be okay. So when we were able to rebuild the inventory and actually start pursuing jobs— because we knew we had the product — we felt like we were headed in the right direction. It was a lot of trial and error, and a lot of long hours. The store was open from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m.; I’d get here early to do pricing, work the counter all day, and after we closed would stay and handle all the paperwork. But I grew up in a low-income family— our house was actually only 2 blocks from Mississippi Coast — and have never been afraid of hard work. The two things I learned early on were that all I could offer anybody was what I could do and that my word was my bond.”
Fred, too, was accustomed to hard work and the two have always been a very hands-on team who lead by example.
“Lanny and I both have the same style of management,” Fred explained. “We’re pretty relaxed with our employees and encourage them to learn and make decisions. We also work right along side them and don’t expect people to do things we wouldn’t have done. We’re very agile decision makers when things need to be done — although we do like to carefully consider our options when it’s something of major consequence.”
The men have also been joined at the business by their sons, Lanny Roch, Jr. and Fred (Freddy) Schwan III, who take great pride in continuing that legacy.
“We have grown from two employees to 20,” said Lanny Jr., “and are pleased to say that we have very little turnover here. We know that our continued success depends on the knowledge and happiness of our employees so we strive to create a happy working environment. They are like family to us.”
Freddy added, “Many of our employees have been here for at least 15 years, and several for 20. It is the familiarity with our staff — knowing they will see the same face each and every time they walk into Mississippi Coast Supply — that keeps customers returning.”
Mississippi Coast’s facility is literally in a peninsula in the heart of Biloxi. For many years, the city thrived with fishermen and canneries. However, after the city legalized riverboat gambling in the early 1990s, casinos displaced the old factories.
The company has grown tremendously with the casino business, tourism & hospitality, the rebuilding efforts following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and now projects like the ballpark for their Double-A baseball team.
“The Gulf Coast is really a niche market with a character unto itself,” Fred commented. “That’s why the major national players have only opened locations here within the last decade.”
Mississippi Coast is 100% plumbing-sales based, and fairly evenly split between commercial — mid-range projects like fire stations, libraries and medical facilities are their specialty, although they have been involved with some of the major hotel and casino projects — and residential, including new construction and renovation. One of their oldest lines is Delta Faucet. They had also been an Eljer distributor, and transitioned to American Standard after that acquisition. Some of their other major lines include A. O. Smith Water Heaters and TOTO.
“I’ve always believed that it’s a two-way street with vendors and us,” said Lanny Sr. “We need them as much as they need us. We try to work with them and make things as smooth and easy as we can. We try to be loyal to whatever brand we’re selling. If they know you’re supporting them, they’re more than likely to support you when you’re in trouble.”
They are also extremely proud of their involvement with Embassy Group Ltd.
“If we wouldn’t have joined Embassy, I don’t think we’d be where we are right now,” noted Fred. “The networking and financial opportunities have been so good for us. We try to support the vendors in Embassy and give them the first shot. They’ve been tremendous. We’ve also formed such great relationships from the people we meet and talk to. Just being there has been a big help for us. Embassy has been a great fit for us. The people and businesses involved are similar to us in many ways.”
Mississippi Coast does a robust counter business, with four to five people working the counter during the busiest times of each day. Mornings, in particular, are a very heavy traffic time for will call and counter business.
“We’ve got a very active counter,” said Lanny Sr. “It seems we’re busier than most others I’ve seen, and I think that’s due to our reps. They’re very involved and often put on training, counter days or just stop by to meet with folks. Our customers know that they’ll get the right advice on what products or repair parts they need when they come into our counter.”
Counter days, which are sponsored by a vendor, are hosted once a month. “We draw big turnouts — upwards of 150 people a month," Fred commented. "Just about all of our vendors take turns with the sponsorship and are always impressed at the crowds of customers we bring in.”
Even with such a busy counter business, delivery is still an important service. Mississippi Coast operates four delivery trucks that make runs typically up to 70 miles away.
“We still offer free delivery to our customers and keep our trucks on the road all day, providing customers with the ability to get all the material they need without running around to get it,” noted Freddy.
The company has an impressive 2,500-square-foot showroom with working displays for showerheads, valves, and whirlpools. They have two full time showroom consultants, plus others on the wholesale side who can easily step in as back up.
“We came up with the design ourselves based on what we had learned over the years,” Fred described. “We mainly cover the three Gulf Coast counties, however, we frequently have people come from as far away as Hattiesburg, Miss. Most of our showroom customers are homeowners. We also work very closely with homebuilders, who tell their customers to come in to our showroom and let them select what they want based on their budgets.”
Lanny Jr., described, “We have such a great atmosphere and do our best to always present excellent service, quality merchandise and personalized attention. You can’t service customers without good people, and we have the best.”
Freddy added, “We’ve created an atmosphere of trust. Many customers have been coming to this business since long before I was even born and trust that we will have the knowledge, and most importantly, that we will have the product. It’s that service and support that has made us who we are today.”
Like Father, Like Son
As Fred Jr. proudly says, “The future of the company is with Lanny Jr. and Freddy.”
Lanny Roch, Jr. has been with Mississippi Coast for 23 years, working side-by-side with his dad. He handles a variety of operational and management duties including decision making, problem solving, purchasing, marketing, customer service and taking orders.
“I always worked with my dad during school holidays and summer vacation,” he said. “It probably started when I was about eight years old. I stocked shelves, swept floors, washed trucks and served as the errand boy. This helped me to learn the products that we sold as well as the processes that were involved in the daily running of the business. Of course at that age, I also found ways to entertain myself as well. Dad would often find me using the PVC fittings like Lego blocks and building all sorts of things to pass the time. As I got older, learned more, and took on more tasks, dad continued to give me more responsibilities, and it just evolved naturally into a career.
“Being able to work side-by-side with my dad has allowed me a chance to see him far beyond the way a son usually views his dad at home. I really admire my dad for the way he took a small, three-person operation and worked hard to evolve it into the thriving, well-established business that it is today. One of the ways he did that was to create an organized inventory system — which we still use in part today.”
Three years ago, Fred Schwan, III joined Mississippi Coast after graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi with a Masters in Business Administration. He’s followed the same learning track that Lanny Jr. did when he came on board, working in receiving, deliveries, the showroom, and now handling inside and counter sales as well as some of the purchasing.
“I got started at about 15 working during summer breaks,” he said. “I remember riding around with the delivery drivers to drop material off at job sites, and learning the finer points — like leaving the air conditioner on full blast so you had instant relief from the heat when you got back into the truck! To this day, when I drive by one of those finished buildings, I remember them from the ground up. It was a logical choice to follow my dad at Mississippi Coast. It allows me to stay in my hometown of Biloxi and make a living, but most importantly, it allows me to continue a four-generation legacy that I think would make both my grandfather and great-grandfather proud. It gives me a great sense of pride to have such a deep family history in the company.
"I’ve got so much admiration for my dad’s work ethic. He works harder than anyone I know. On top of that, he’s got a wealth of knowledge on such a wide variety of topics. If I can figure out half of what he knows, I’ll be doing alright.”
Fred Schwan, Jr. is very optimistic about the future of both Mississippi Coast Supply and the Gulf Coast.
“Casinos continue to be built and renovated, tourism is getting back in full swing, and people are always working on their homes,” he said. “We also have an Air Force base here, and that is always a good source of business. We’re involved in the building a new baseball stadium for our local Double-A team, which is just two blocks from our office. The area that is considered the Gulf Coast is growing further north, which will bring us more business as well. The after-effect of Hurricane Katrina here is that many people can’t afford the insurance required to build or maintain a home or business close to the water. So they are moving further inland. There is still plenty of land to develop. We’re exploring some other products that would be a good fit for us outside of our traditional plumbing lines. The future is bright down here, and we’re looking forward to the opportunities that will bring.”