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In a quest to grow their wholesale operations, brothers Jason and James Reardon, owners of Supply New England, which operates 18 branches in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut along with seven retail kitchen and bath showrooms and two Kohler Signature Stores from the company headquarters in Attleboro, Mass., decided to get bigger by way of getting “smaller.” Or, more appropriately, by taking a decidedly narrow and more focused approach to the brands they distribute.
Products from “premier vendors” is how the wholesaler puts it on the company’s website.
“We’re a true distributor,” Jason explained. “We get 100 percent behind the products we choose and grow from there. We’re focused on building a partnership both with our vendors and our customers.”
In some cases, that really does mean just one line. For bathroom fixtures, it’s Kohler. Backflow preventers, Watts. And for power generators, Honeywell. For many other plumbing and heating lines, contractors can generally count on one hand the choices stocked by Supply New England.
‘Not purchasing agents’
“Another way to think about it is that we are not purchasing agents for our customers,” James added. “We don’t want to just stand there and take orders. If we’ve decided to get behind a product, we think it’s the best one. And if we think it’s the best one, then we have to learn all there is about the product so that we can articulate why it’s the best to our customers.”
The brothers first started putting this philosophy into place in the 2000s when they began the process of leading the business that their father, John, built over the years with the Reardon Cos., along with a strategic merger with David Corcoran and his R.B. Corcoran Supply. (The company marked its 70th anniversary last year; for more on the distributor’s long history, be sure to read our related sidebar.)
“The Wholesaler” stopped by Supply New England to see how they get behind one product, in particular, Navien, for its condensing boilers and tankless water heaters.”
Supply New England began distributing the line in 2010, just a few years after the Korean manufacturer established its American operations, and the supply house has since become one of the vendor’s VIP Wholesalers.
“Certainly, we’re in a traditional type of heating market,” James said. “That means almost every boiler is cast iron and sits on the floor along with the traditional tank-type water heater.”
The distributor gladly markets those products, too, but also recognized “a clear movement” as Jason puts it, to wall-hung condensing boilers and tankless water heaters.
High efficiency was a definite driving force behind the trend. Take a look at the company’s tankless units. All Navien tankless products feature Energy Factors above 0.96, in this case, achieving greater energy efficiency than any other gas tankless water heaters on the market. Meanwhile, Energy Star requirements that went into effect last April require all tankless water heaters to have a minimum EF of 0.90; Navien’s NPE-S provide an industry-leading 0.99 EF. (No surprise then to learn that the “PE” stands for “Premium Efficiency.”)
Still, condensing boilers and tankless water heaters remain relatively new to plenty of contractors.
“Tiny boilers, smaller heat exchangers and a lot of critical parts,” Jason explained. “We had to be very specific about how it was piped, what circulators were connected to it, what water it was trying heat and for what application. We had to answer a lot of questions to make sure that such installations go seamlessly for our customers.”
A strong partnership
We met Tim O’Brien, a sales rep for David Gooding Inc., a manufacturers rep based in Brockton, Mass., prior to our meeting with Jason and James.
“Supply New England has really taken the Navien line to the next level,” O’Brien said, who grew up a couple of miles from the Reardon’s main location at the time and remembered the common refrain of “Get it at Reardon’s,” for any plumbing and heating supply one would need.
David Gooding Inc., itself, has been instrumental in promoting the Navien line within its trading area, which covers the New England states along with New York and the Mid-Atlantic states.
The strong partnership between the sales rep and distributor cannot be underestimated in creating the success of a product line. The sales rep plays an important role and works very closely with their distributors to ensure that product features and benefits are thoroughly understood. They, too, make frequent job site visits when there is uncertainty on the part of the installer.
O’Brien is just one of the Gooding team who works closely with Supply New England to make sure all of the nuances and new product innovations of the Navien product line are clearly understood and ready to be taught.
When asked what sets the wholesaler apart from its competitors, O’Brien didn’t hesitate with the answer.
“It’s the company’s in-house training,” he added. “Nobody knows more about the Navien line than Nancy does.” So much so he says that it’s not that big of a secret that even other wholesalers that market Navien equipment tell their customers to head to one of Nancy’s classes. Or if there’s a problem, just call Nancy, and she’ll talk you through it.
“Nancy” would be Nancy Imhoof, HVAC sales manager, who has been a key to educating the trades about all the company’s products since she joined Supply New England in 2009 after working for a large local plumbing contractor.
“We go over everything a contractor will need to make a proper choice – since there is no one piece of equipment that is right for every application,” Imhoof explained. “But after the choice is understood, we go through everything to ensure a proper installation.”
Depending on the class, installers also get the chance to break down and rebuild boilers or water heaters because “when you open up a piece of equipment that is something other than a traditional combustion boiler or tank-type water heater,” Imhoof said, “it can be intimidating. So we take that fear away.”
A quick look at Imhoof’s upcoming training schedule shows a variety of general classes on generic topics such as “Duct Sizing,” “A/C Startup,” and “Boiler Piping.” However, there are several full-day classes solely on Navien.
“The Navien line is a new spin on heating equipment,” Jason added. “So when the line was new, we quickly realized that we needed to educate the contractors. That's really where Nancy came in. But we actually hired a whole department to bring this message to the contractor, and walk him through each installation until they become comfortable and they're able to do it on their own.”
In other words, the wholesaler does about everything it can short of installing the equipment.
“We're teachers on how to do the installation,” Jason said. “That's how we get behind Navien. We saw that this is a little different than the traditional heating equipment. If we didn’t explain these things, it would never take off.”
Imhoof got a big boost in educating contractors last year when Supply New England opened up its live-fire training center at the company’s headquarters. The live-fire training center outfitted with the distributor’s heating lines does the job of not only replicating the real-life experience making a service call, but also actually provides power to the building.
“There are some places that have heating equipment that are just models,” James added. “With this training space we actually have the ability to truly show the contractor the performance of the heating capacity of whatever we want to run.”
The live-fire equipment room, which sits behind the classroom, includes seven boilers, an on-demand water heater and a variable-speed furnace with a modulating heat pump.
While education may be Imhoof’s forte, she also heads up the department Jason spoke of, which includes a design tech to handle the chore of helping the contractors put together a complete packaged system. The team also includes a radiant expert and additional personnel to offer technical support over the phone as well as in the field. They support an equal amount of both commercial and residential projects.
“If a contractor is putting in a Navien product for the first time,” Imhoof added, “we’ll come out with them and basically be their helper for the day.”
Keep in mind, Imhoof is also responsible for training that takes place in all the company’s branches. However, the star of the show certainly sounds like it’s the year-old live-fire training room for which contractors from as far away as Nantucket fly in to attend.
In selecting its product lines, Supply New England ultimately builds onto the business plan of its key vendors.
In a roundabout way, Jason places Navien, a company relatively young in the United States, alongside its well-known plumbing line, Kohler.
“The philosophical reasoning and strategy behind Kohler and Navien are mirror images,” Jason said. “Both companies have a finely crystallized vision of where they want to take their companies. We can see it, too. We're charging in the same direction.”
Jason went on to explain that it stands to reason that anyone who wants a fashionable bathroom also wants to provide endless hot water to that bathroom in the best way possible, too.
“If you look at the demographics of our residential market, we’re really more into the mid- to upper-range products Most of our residential market isn’t repairing a 20-year-old toilet; they’re gutting the bathroom or doubling the size of the room and putting in awesome bathrooms and kitchens and awesome heating systems.”