In an industry driven by relationships and a rich history of family-led organizations, it’s not uncommon that many channel partners have done business together for decades over multiple generations. A milestone of one of those long-running partnerships occurred this summer when F.W. Webb purchased the 150,000,001st 70-100 Series of Apollo ball valves, and the leadership at Conbraco thought it was an occasion that should be appropriately commemorated.
So Wim Pelsma, CEO of Conbraco’s parent company Aalberts Industries, came all the way from the Netherlands to join Conbraco Senior Executive Vice President-Business Development Cal Mosack in Boston to present a mounted honorary version of the valve — which has been in production since 1968 — to a group of F.W. Webb executives.
A True American Legend
Conbraco has been manufacturing high-quality flow control products in the U.S. since 1928. With headquarters near Charlotte, N.C., their facilities in Pageland and Conway, S.C., produce a full line of Apollo branded products, including valves, gauges, strainers, actuators, backflow preventers, and more.
Long owned and operated by members of the Mosack family, Conbraco was acquired in 2010 by Aalberts Industries, a move that Cal Mosack believes will allow Conbraco even more opportunities.
“It was an ideal fit for us with Aalberts,” he said. “Most important, Aalberts understands relationships and respects the differences between the U.S. and European markets. The Aalberts philosophy is to buy businesses that are privately held and profitable, and then allow the former leadership to continue operating it like they own it. We would never have sold our business if we weren’t confident that Aalberts would support our dedication to U.S. manufacturing and our workforce. There are 1,200 families that rely on us for their livelihoods here in the United States.
“One of the nice benefits for us is that they have deep resources which are available to spend on acquisitions that will be a good complement to our business, along with continuing our commitment of making significant investments in our manufacturing facilities,” Mosack added. “In the last decade, we’ve spent roughly $70 million on new equipment and machining in an effort to improve our efficiency without compromising quality. In fact, many of those ideas have come from our people on the floor — they often bring us suggestions and we give them financial rewards if we’re able to implement them. Our people are dedicated to the craftsmanship of producing a quality product without compromises and are committed to serving our customers.”
Pelsma agreed, explaining why Conbraco was attractive to Aalberts and the growth that has ensued.
“We had a presence in the North American market with Elkhart Products and Lasco Fittings, but we had no position in valves,” Pelsma said. “We wanted to complete our product portfolio for our customers. So we approached the Mosacks with our plan for helping them grow faster with us, and they liked our entrepreneurial spirit.
“Since the acquisition, we’ve been able to invest nearly 40% more in capital goods at their facilities than they had previously been able to do — which was already significant — and that is creating even more opportunities for all involved. We’ll continue to grow the business together in North America — the investments we’re making in automation, machinery and R&D mean that we can offer best in class manufacturing and nearly 100% American-made products from our U.S. companies.”
Pelsma went on to say that there is a high level of trust between the Conbraco and Aalberts leadership — and, as a result, a great deal of empowerment.
“We believe in them and the way they do business,” Pelsma shared. “We have tremendous confidence in the management team at Conbraco, and so give them the responsibility to run their business as they have done so well all these years,” he noted. “While we do have weekly conference calls, we have very little bureaucracy or reporting; it’s really all about communicating with and empowering people. That’s the key to keeping our management in the U.S. so motivated.”
A Longtime Partnership
While Conbraco is continually looking for ways to improve their products through a very active in-house R&D department, they have stayed true to their core offerings — one of which is the celebrated 70-100 ball valve — and to their distributors.
“Although there are many quarter turn valves, in our opinion, there is only one Apollo,” said F.W. Webb Senior Vice President of Plumbing & Heating John Provencal. “From the early entry into the market, Apollo has never wavered from its quality, support and service. While others modified their product in an attempt to be more competitive, Apollo stayed the course. I remember years ago managing a branch where customers always ordered ball valves by name: Apollo. There was never the request for a cheaper version or one that would just do the job. The only request I ever received was ‘give me an Apollo.’ Consistency, quality and a commitment to be the best value have made Apollo the most asked-for brand. They’ve done it the old-fashioned way — they’ve earned it.
“Although distribution serves many disciplines, quarter-turn valves are probably the most universal type product used,” Provencal continued. “From the plumbing contractor, to the mechanical, gas, oil or industrial user, manual or automated, low pressures or high, Apollo is a product that is supported by most of these disciplines. If you’re in the distribution business, Apollo is a must.”
Mosack is extremely proud of the heritage of Apollo Valves, and the true partnerships that have been built with distributors over the years.
“This 70 series is really our flagship and the benchmark in the industry,” said Mosack. “We’re grateful for the support we’ve gotten from distribution nationwide. We keep a running total of everything we’ve ever built, and when I learned that we had sold our 150,000,001st Apollo Valve, I thought it was a good time to celebrate our distributors. This business is very personal to us and runs deep in our roots. We’ve had such a long relationship with the folks at F.W. Webb, and wanted to share our appreciation not only with the leaders at their headquarters, but to also recognize all the people at the branch level that make the sales happen every day. They’ve had a marked presence in Apollo’s growth; we wouldn’t be where we are in the New England market if it weren’t for F.W. Webb.”
Provencal added, “None of what we accomplish could happen without the involvement and buy in from our branch and store managers. They are the front line of our company. They establish our presence in local markets and within those markets, they are F.W. Webb. There are two very critical components to our success — the customers and the branch & store managers. Without either, there isn’t a lot that happens. So, although it was our management team that received this commemorative valve, it’s on their behalf that we accept the recognition.”
F.W. Webb Company’s roots date back to 1866, and the company has long been owned and led by members of the Pope family. Today, F.W. Webb employs 1,800 people at 82 branches and 37 showrooms throughout nine states in the Northeast. They carry a deep and broad inventory across more than a dozen product segments, with roughly $200 million in stock at any given time — including about $2.5 million in the Apollo 70 series in sizes from 1/4" to 4".
One of their long-time vendors has been Conbraco, because as Senior Vice President of Purchasing Ed Welch described, “From the very beginning, Apollo Valves has been synonymous with quality and reliability, and that has not changed. Our customers consistently look for Apollo Valves in our branches.
“They also make it very easy to do business. Communication is key to any relationship with a manufacturer, and Conbraco exceeds expectations at every level from senior management to order entry and shipping. They are a true partner and a pleasure to do business with.”
Welch went on to praise Conbraco for the proactive role they took with distributors in preparing for the recently implemented lead free legislation.
“Conbraco/Apollo Valves was one of the first manufacturers that took the lead in working with us to navigate the transition,” Welch commented. “They worked with us at every juncture to ensure the best possible outcome in what could have been a painful and expensive process.”
And Senior Vice President of Industrial Business Development Ernie Coutermarsh emphasized, “Webb and Apollo have a strategic relationship. We partner on aggressive marketing and promotional activities such as counter days, trade shows, e-mail blasts, NASCAR and Red Sox sponsorships. Apollo is also Webb’s priority ball valve line for the industrial market. Being a domestic manufacturer they can and do invite our people and customers to tour their factories in North and South Carolina and to attend intensive in-house valve training.
“Cal and Glenn Mosack personally know the key people in the Webb organization. Also, they are extremely supportive of the wholesale industry through their involvement in ASA, AD and PVF Roundtable. They are also active with MCAA, where they have met and engaged many of our major mechanical contractor customers.”
A Special Presentation
Pelsma, who travels to the U.S. every few months for meetings, wanted to personally visit F.W. Webb and help share in this milestone.
“F.W. Webb has been such a good customer, and it was a pleasure to meet the whole management team, including John and Jeff Pope,” described Pelsma. “They have done a great job in selling and distributing our product for many years. We look forward to doing more business together!
“I try to meet a few customers each year on my visits to the U.S. I think it’s very important to meet with them, thank them for their business, and offer more opportunities to them through our portfolio. I really enjoy the chance to meet customers — they are what drives us.”
Provencal noted that everyone at the company was very appreciative of the gesture made by Pelsma and Mosack on behalf of Conbraco.
“The visit by Cal and Wim was an example of what makes doing business with Conbraco so much different than many other manufacturers; it’s about the personal touch and relationship,” Provencal described. “It’s easy to send a plaque or recognition letter, but to actually schedule time from what I’m sure is a very busy schedule to make a personal appearance says a lot about them. In an industry where there is constant consolidation and movement of key people, they maintain contact and personal relationships. I think it demonstrates that to Conbraco, the customer is more than just someone placing another order; it’s personal.
“Doing business with Conbraco is a chapter out of the past where business was personal, handshakes were commitments and your word was gospel. The value of being able to pick up the phone and call direct to the ‘corner office’ is becoming a thing of the past — but at Conbraco, the door is always open and your voice is always heard. They are a company where friendships still exist, and are still meaningful and personal. I think that those who do business with Conbraco realize the value of their relationship, and those who aren’t are missing what makes this business so unique.”
Bullish on the Future
In talking with Cal Mosack, it’s easy to hear the enthusiasm in his voice for the future, and the genuine love he has for Conbraco and this industry. When I asked him what still motivates him every day, he answered without hesitation: “It’s the people. I’ve made a lot of good friends over the years, and I get to do business with these people every day. And it’s especially rewarding to see how we are continuing to grow our business.
“Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of competition and challenges out there, especially with the increased amount of global sourcing and product available. But there are still a lot of opportunities, and we are consistently developing new products and ways to serve customers to capitalize on the needs of the market. We are realizing a significant demand for our lead free offerings, and seeing a lot of activity from customers in the oil & gas market. And thanks to Aalberts and the resources they are making available to us, we have the capability to grow through both internal expansion and acquisitions.”