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It’s always a special honor to induct the newest company into The Wholesaler’s PVF Hall of Fame. Over the years, some of the most innovative and successful companies and people in the industry have been honored — all of whom have been extremely deserving of this recognition. This year’s inductee — which operates out of a single location in Miami — has proven its mettle in a highly competitive market, and refined its business model by adding a division that focuses on exports. This diversification has proven extremely advantageous over the years, most recently during the serious downturn in the South Florida economy that began in 2008 and only recently turned around.
President Dennis Lehman is the worthy steward of Lehman Pipe & Plumbing Supply, which was founded by his parents Julian and Betty Lehman in 1946. When the Lehmans started the business, they primarily supplied hardware stores. Dennis came on board in 1974, and began to reinvent the company as a PVF distributor. It has become one of the premier PVF suppliers in South Florida.
During the late 1980s, Dennis began the company’s expansion into the export market, growing customers in the Caribbean and Central & South America. Lehman Pipe has remained a family-owned and operated business for the past nearly seven decades, continuing to grow at an exponential rate while maintaining its lcommitment to service. A far cry from its roots in a 5,000-square-foot facility, the company operates from warehouses totaling 100,000 square feet, as well as a 120,000-square-foot pipe yard. Their massive inventory ensures prompt, complete deliveries to customers.
T he Wholesaler’s Editorial Director Mary Jo Martin recently talked with Dennis Lehman about the company, its legacy, and what has helped Lehman Pipe & Plumbing Supply flourish.
MJM: What can you share with us about your father, his way of doing business and the lessons he taught you?
Lehman: My Dad was a hard-working man who truly believed that service and inventory mattered above all. We continue to keep that same mentality today when dealing with our customers and our inventory.
MJM: Would you please give us a look inside today’s Lehman Pipe?
Lehman: The company has changed dramatically since its inception. Lehman Pipe and Plumbing Supply started as a hardware supply house and has transitioned into a true PVF distributor spanning just over three acres close to downtown Miami.
Domestically, we currently service the Water Works, HVAC and Plumbing Industries as well as all of the cities and municipalities from Jupiter to Key West. In fact, we have been involved in some way with the majority of high-rise, airport and stadium jobs throughout South Florida for years.
We also service a number of industries in Central & South America and the Caribbean:
• Water Works
• Fire Protection
• Power Generation
• Oil and Gas
Lehman Pipe has 47 employees. Among our key staff are:
• Josh Aberman, our Executive Vice President, who has been with us for five years. He is involved in all business operations and has been instrumental in helping take our company to a new level through technology and increased market penetration.
• Ron Stauffer is the General Manager of our International Department. Ron has been with us for 18 years and has been the catalyst for us in the International Department.
MJM: Give us a little insight into your background, and your career at Lehman?
Lehman: After graduating from the University of Tennessee in 1970, I moved to Atlanta, were I began my career with R T Goldsmith & Assoc., one of the leading manufacturers’ representative firms in the Southeast. I had the responsibility for traveling the state of Alabama; after my first year and a half I also began handling Tennessee as well.
In January 1973, I moved back to South Florida and started working with my parents at Lehman Pipe. We were a very small local wholesale supplier to hardware stores and governmental agencies. After a very boring start, my father told me if I wanted to grow the business he would back me at every turn — but he added that I needed to “stop complaining and move forward.”
So I began my climb by calling on every gas & oil company. In a little over a year, we became the major supplier to all of the gas companies — natural and propane — in South Florida.
My next challenge was tackling the mechanical contractors. I did not know who to start with, so I finally found out who was thought of as the toughest company in town — Poole and Kent Co. I called on them for over six months and got nowhere. I eventually met a really bright project manager, Steve Jordan, who basically took me under his wing and taught me everything. Years later, Steve became president of Poole and Kent. Under his direction, Lehman started carrying cast iron soil pipe, weld fittings, large copper fittings, etc.
One of the more interesting periods of my career was when Steve emphasized to me the importance of carrying Weldbend. I tried very unsuccessfully to get Weldbend to take us on and eventually called Mr. James Coulas Sr. to ask for the opportunity to sell his product. He advised me they were not taking on any new distributors, and I asked if I could come up to Chicago and meet with him. He agreed and I flew up the next morning. After taking a cab to Weldbend and spending the morning there, I eventually left in the afternoon with Mr. Coulas agreeing to take us on as a distributor — and taking me back to the airport. We’ve now been representing them as a distributor for more than 35 years, and are one of Weldbend’s oldest and largest accounts in Florida.
I’m still as enthusiastic as ever about our business, and come in early every day of the week.
MJM: How would you describe your leadership philosophy?
Lehman: Over the years I have been very lucky to have so many great people working with me. I do not believe in running a business as a dictator, but much rather prefer to have an open forum with my key employees and seek out a majority point of view.
I am a 100% believer that employees make a business what it is. If you do everything you can to help your staff, the reward is far greater in the long run.
MJM: Do you have special training programs for employees to increase their technical knowledge?
Lehman:We believe in keeping our employees up to date with new products and even re-educating them on existing ones. We have implemented CEP “Continued Education Programs” where manufacturers come in and talk about different markets and the products they offer to service those markets. We also like to take it a step further and do more technical training so our employees can actually see how the products are put together and how they operate. Over the last couple of years, many of our employees have traveled to different factories for a hand’s on education.
MJM: How would you describe your relationships with your suppliers?
Lehman: I always use the term “marriage” in terms of our partnerships with our manufacturers. We don’t believe in “dating.” We believe in partnering with the best manufacturers in our industries through good and bad times.
MJM:What are some of your major lines?
Lehman: We really believe in our inventory and that the best way to service the markets we supply is to have products that cover the full range of PVF in those markets.
Some of our major lines include:
• Wheatland Tube
• Watts Regulator
• Charlotte Pipe
• Cerro Copper
• Potter Roemer
• Ridge Tool
• Mueller Steam Specialty
• Mueller Water Works
• Watson McDaniel
• George Fischer
• Star Pipe Products.
MJM: How do you market your business and target potential new customers?
Lehman: We have an active Sales Department of outside sales representatives but a vast majority of our success is built on word of mouth referrals throughout our markets.
MJM: You have performed very well in a market dominated by large national competitors. What are some of the things that you have done differently that have allowed you to successfully compete?
Lehman: Every company is different. There are some who unfortunately seem to be driven mainly on price, but we believe that we have done a very good job competing against that philosophy because of the emphasis we put on our inventory and service levels. We truly understand the value in having local inventory with a knowledgeable sales staff. Our central location in Miami has also played a vital role in our continued success.
MJM: Talk a bit about your export business and how valuable that has been to Lehman Pipe?
Lehman: We have been involved in the export market for over 20 years. Our entrance began in the Bahamas and Caribbean, and has since expanded to all of Central America and a majority of South America. We presently have three local sales representatives in Central and South America and truly look forward to our increased penetration in these markets.
Our export market began truly on a word of mouth basis; however, it has grown thanks to the tireless efforts of our International Department. The international market is now a substantial part of our overall business.
MJM: How does the export side of your business differ from domestic sales?
Lehman: On the domestic side, we focus on a small geographical territory spanning a few hundred miles. On the international side, we service multiple countries. We have a complete International Department with a separate Shipping Department, Inside Sales Staff and local “In-Country” employees. Domestically, we are limited by the industry in a 200-mile radius; however, the international market has exposed us to several different markets and industries.
MJM: How have your customers’ expectations changed over the years, and how has Lehman Pipe adapted to those changing needs/wants?
Lehman: Customers needs and demands have not changed over time; however, the way we facilitate those needs and demands has changed. I remember the days when we used to write up orders by hand and replenish inventory based on how empty the bin was. Today, we let our computers do the work. Eclipse has allowed us to process orders faster, better manage our inventory, and process our receivables and payables. These changes have allowed us to become a better partner for our customers.
MJM: How has the roller coaster of metal prices affected your business, and where do you see it going in the near term?
Lehman: The volatility of the market has truly affected our buying patterns. We used to do large impact buys that were spread out throughout the year; however, with the insecurity in the markets today we are forced to maintain a leaner inventory and purchase more frequently. We truly feel we have developed a system that will limit our loss in a declining market and allow us to maximize our returns in a rising market.
MJM: What industry organizations have you been involved with?
Lehman: We are involved in our Local PCA “Plumbing Contractors Associations,” ASHRAE “American Society of Heating Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers” and the local “MCA” Mechanical Contractors Association, along with a continued membership in ASA and the Southern Wholesalers Association.
MJM: You’ve also been a long-time member of Embassy. Talk about your membership in Embassy, how that began and the various benefits you’ve realized from it?
Lehman: Lehman Pipe was very fortunate to have been invited into the Embassy Group from the early stages of the organization.
I attended the very first meeting over 20 years ago in Chicago. Embassy is comprised of the best and strongest wholesalers in the industry. We are a small, single-branch supply house and being able to learn from some of the largest supply houses in the country has been instrumental in our growth. Through our semi-annual meetings, we are able to analyze and address local as well as national changes and issues.
MJM: The South Florida market has gone through some difficulties in recent years. What is the status of business in your market area, and what do you see in the near term?
Lehman: South Florida is about to enter into a large economic boom. Five years ago we had over 30,000 condo units available for sale. Today you can’t find a reasonably priced unit on the market. There has been a surge of foreign investment primarily from Central and South America, Europe, Russia and China.
They basically acquired all of the available units. Today there is over $10 Billion worth of new high rises, hotels, hospitals and schools slated to be built within the next few years.
Legalized gambling for the state of Florida is projected to be on the ballot for 2016 and if gambling is legalized we will enter a boom that I believe can exceed the peaks of 2007/2008.
In addition, this past year’s extreme weather in the East and Midwest of the U.S. has now enhanced the interest of owning a place in South Florida.
MJM: Is there any message you would like to share with your suppliers, customers and team of associates as you accept this award?
Lehman: Our industry is an incredible one. I have been involved in the business for over 45 years. This is a business that will always offer a great living for anybody willing to work hard and change with changing times.
My father used to tell me that when the economy is down, if a woman needs new clothing she might have to put off a purchase for awhile, but if the piping or plumbing goes bad, they would call and get it repaired immediately.
Our success is because of the suppliers we partner with and our loyal customer base that has come to rely on us for the inventory and service we pride.
That success is managed on a day-to-day basis with what I believe is the single best team in the industry. I am proud to say that my team is responsible for bringing Lehman Pipe to its current level and in taking it to the next level. Without my employees we would not be in the position we are today, and I would like to thank them for helping me achieve such a prestigious position in our industry.
For additional information, visit www.lehmanpipe.com.