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In 1945, Northeastern Supply Inc., started operating out of modest beginnings in downtown Baltimore. Subsequently, a satellite branch was opened in Elkton, Md. The company grew, taking John H. Cook III to run its Elkton location. John Cook was branch manager from 1964 until 1971, when he purchased Northeastern Supply Inc.. He has since retired.
His son, Steve Cook, became President in 1987. At that time NE had four branches. Steve has been President ever since and has grown the company to 31 branches, expanding NE’s geographic footprint to five states (Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania and West Virginia). There are 300 employees who currently work for Northeastern Supply.
Sarah Cimarusti: Are there some interesting old Northeastern stories? Any gems you’d like to share?
Steve Cook: In the early years, we operated out of a multi-story, inner-city hodgepodge of buildings with no storage yard, real parking or forklifts. You get the idea. It was a material-handling nightmare. But we worked hard, had fun and took care of our customers.
Over 20 years ago, I went to my Dad and told him I wanted to get Northeastern involved in NASCAR. His response was something along the lines of, "What?!" followed by "How much money?" But he believed in me, and we sponsored a car. It grew to become a major part of our marketing strategy that still holds strong today.
SC: Take us into your headquarters. What do the inner workings of your facility look like?
Cook: Our headquarters are located just outside of Baltimore City in Golden Ring, Md. The building is 120,000 square feet and houses 100 of our employees including our corporate management team, corporate specialists (accounting, credit, marketing, IT) and our Baltimore sales team (sales managers, inside sales, local outside sales, counter sales and warehouse).
SC: What have been some of NE’s key historical points that have initiated change and growth?
Cook: Northeastern is all about the people. We have been fortunate to have good people join our team, and this has allowed us to grow our business both geographically and by market segment. We have always listened to the needs of our customers — what they want, where they want us — and we have expanded accordingly, either through acquisition or by opening our own locations from the ground up.
SC: Talk about the products you offer, and how your sales are divided between product categories.
Cook: We offer virtually every product needed by residential and service plumbers, commercial plumbers, HVAC techs, water system specialists and customers in the multi-housing industry. About 25% of our sales are commercial, 25% are HVAC, and the balance is comprised of residential plumbing and repair, showroom and water systems.
SC: Steve, tell me about your background and the various roles you’ve held?
Cook: I have been working at Northeastern since I was about 12 years old. I have literally done every job — warehousing, driving, counter, sales, collections, purchasing — you name it. After graduating from Loyola College, I started at the company on a consistent, manageable growth path. I became President in 1987 and really took the reins in the early 90s.
SC: And, of course, please talk about your father’s long-time influence on the company and on you personally?
Cook: My dad is awesome! He guided the company in its early years with some simple but effective mantras: Keep the shelves full. Pay your bills on time. Keep the stores neat and organized. Make sure the trucks look good. Stuff like that. He taught me to "take care of business," but most importantly to take care of people, employees, customers, vendors, reps — anybody you come in contact with. He taught me to be fair and always do the right thing. Simple, but powerful.
SC: Could you give us a glimpse at some of the value-added services and customer support that you offer?
• 31 convenient locations, plus a 175,000-square-foot central distribution center that has state-of-the-art technology for quick and accurate delivery and fill rates
• 24-hour emergency service hotline
• Hot Water Xpress Program (24/7 Commercial hot water heater delivery)
• Specialized Water Systems division — NE H20
• Commercial jobsite storage trailers
• Specialists in the following areas: Basco shower doors, bath and kitchen design, builder sales development, commercial plumbing, commercial water heaters, faucet parts, HVAC, hydronic, radiant, steam and solar products, water systems, water conditioning, residential plumbing
• Northeastern Exposure, our quarterly publication
• Weekly e-mail newsletters that include info about special pricing, training, current deals, price changes, NE events, racing information, etc. (sign up available at www.northeastern.com/email-newsletter-signup)
• Customer Touch Program — A year-round marketing effort with events like football and baseball games, NASCAR races, hunting and fishing trips, and dinners that allow us to get to know customers better on both a business and personal level, and thank them for their business.
SC: How have your customers’ expectations changed over the years, and how has the company adapted to those changing needs/wants?
Cook: The nature of our society, including our customers, has become, and continues to be “faster and better.”
We have stayed on top of meeting this demand by:
• Maintaining a high standard for high fill rates, quick delivery times and accuracy
• Increasing electronic communication with our customers
• Having knowledgeable and responsive sales reps on staff
• Implemented a state-of-the-art central distribution center with top of the line warehouse management software, a conveyor system, guided vehicles and fast and accurate delivery of product to all of our branch locations and to our customers. Thanks to this technology, we are able to maintain over a 99% accuracy rate on items picked from the central distribution center.
• Added branch locations where there is a customer need.
SC: I know you’re very involved in auto-racing sponsorships. How did that start, and how has it grown over the years?
Cook: Back in 1993, we were invited to participate in a single-race sponsorship in what was then the NASCAR Busch Series (now the Xfinity Series). We tried it and liked the concept.
At the end of that season, On Track Marketing approached us to discuss a more serious relationship involving placement of sponsorship on an associate level with a race team that would represent us well in 1994.
That led to a full season of activity but concentrating on the races at Dover, Del., with the same car owner from the year before, who unfortunately ran into some issues with his driver at the time and was forced to end the contractual relationship.
On Track Marketing instead worked out single race sponsorships with other, top Busch Series race teams to finish out the season, one of which had NASCAR Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) Series star Sterling Marlin driving for a team at Dover in May. Sterling had just won the prestigious Daytona 500 that season under Kodak Film sponsorship and was extremely impressive when he appeared in front of Northeastern customers at a pre-race hospitality event.
This eye-opening experience impressed us, setting the stage for a full-season sponsorship in 1995 and each subsequent year. With our NASCAR sponsorship program now in its 22nd consecutive year, the customer and vendor interest has grown, and this project has become one of our most effective marketing tools.
SC: What do you think sets you apart from your competition?
Cook: Here at Northeastern Supply we are all about the people. We retain and enrich good talent and provide our talented staff with the tools, authority and responsibility to get the job done for the customer. Our mission statement of “working harder and doing whatever it takes to be our customers’ preferred supplier” is not something that we take lightly. We expect our employees to live and breathe it every day and we are fortunate that they do so.
Each year, we recognize those employees who most strongly fit this description by awarding them a “Bleed Burgundy Award.” The actions of our mission statement are evident in our customer relations, the loyalty of our customers, and our ability to continuously grow.
Secondly, our Touch Program gives us the opportunity to provide customers with unique entertainment opportunities while simultaneously enhancing our relationships with them by getting to know them a little better outside of the work environment.
Finally, our continued investment in geographic expansion and in technology keep us proactive in meeting our customers’ needs
SC: What are some of your biggest challenges and opportunities ahead?
• Instant access to products and information on the web
• Maintaining our family atmosphere culture while also expanding our employee base and our geographic footprint
• Staying ahead of various regulations ranging from employee-related (healthcare requirements), to industry-specific (lead-free, NAECA III)
• Changing with housing market and economic demands.