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To reach 150 years as a highly successful — and still growing — plumbing, heating, HVAC, PVF and industrial products distributor requires visionary leadership and a motivated team dedicated to making it a reality. Longevity of this sort also can be attributed to a culture based on respect of the company’s legacy, accountability and results from the team, open communication, and a desire to leave the company in an even better position for the next generation.
This has been the case with the F.W. Webb Company throughout its history — of which not only the ownership, but the entire team, is extremely proud. Much has been documented about the company’s early years and leadership (including an article in The Wholesaler, May 2016 issue), and history buffs might be interested in visiting fwwebb.com for a detailed timeline, narrative and historical photos.
The company’s name comes from Frank W. Webb, who first became affiliated with the company in 1888; long-time owner John Pope often refers to the company as “Frank’s company.” In the midst of the Great Depression, John’s father, Roger Pope, led an acquisition of the then-plumbing and heating wholesaler with a single location in Roxbury, Mass. John Pope took over the reigns as president in 1961 and turned them over to his son Jeff Pope in 2003.
Under the leadership of three generations of the Pope family, the company has become the largest distributor of its kind in the Northeast – with more than 80 locations in nine states from Maine to Pennsylvania, along with nearly 40 Frank Webb’s Bath Center showrooms. Using a combination of strategic acquisitions, organic growth, highly efficient centralized distribution and product diversification, sales have grown from $222K in 1932 to nearly $1B in 2016, the company’s 150th anniversary. And, the march forward continues.
F.W. Webb is, by all measures, a large successful company. It has assembled a team that is among the best, most knowledgeable, and relationship-driven in the industry. There is a culture of accountability and dedication throughout the company; its loyal workforce averages well over 15 years of service.
One of the keys to their success lies in their ability to be nimble. They operate in a big business environment with the relationships, buying power, operational efficiencies, and customer base to back them. But at the very heart of the operation, they have a small company feel and culture. They can and do make decisions quickly.
The company has grown its core offerings to a total of 15 related specialties – deliberately and strategically formulated over time to address all the needs of a building, from the street to the rooftop.
I recently had the chance to visit their headquarters in Bedford, Mass., Central Distribution facility in Amherst, N.H., and South Boston branch and showroom to meet with executives and learn more about their culture and what drives their commitment to F.W. Webb and the industry. Following are excerpts from our conversations.
Jeff Pope, President
MJM: As the third generation of your family to lead F.W. Webb, what’s been your route?
Jeff Pope: I started in the Pipe Fabrication Shop during the summers when I was in school. By high school, I knew I wanted a future in the company. The people were great and it was important to me to keep the family legacy going.
Dad thought it would be better to have others manage me early on. (Former President) Jack Hester guided me along the way. He always helped me remember that with my last name came great responsibility but also terrific opportunity. Each position I held gave me a greater understanding of our operations and the industry, which helped me prepare to become president.
The death of my eldest son in 1997 changed my outlook, helped put things into perspective, and gave me a sense of what’s really important in life. I stopped sweating the small stuff and developed a thicker skin when dealing with issues.
MJM: How does your style compare to your Dad’s?
Pope: We use the same approach for the most part. When he asked questions of the team, he was mostly looking for data to follow up on. Now, we have a tremendous amount of easily accessible data, which gives me the information I need to ask the right questions.
My dad and I both really believe in our people and their capabilities, and in rewarding them for doing their best. We’re both very proud that our people are so loyal and believe this is the best place to work.
MJM: How has the company’s growth changed the way it is managed?
Pope: We approach operations like a triage — we study the best and worst of all our locations and all the factors involved in operations. We learn from the top achievers and try to replicate best practices with the under-performing locations. For those in the middle, we keep encouraging them to give their best.
Our geography presents another set of challenges. When all our branches were in New England — and we didn’t have nearly as many — my dad was personally involved and available to them. Now that we have locations as far away as Pennsylvania, I often rely on the expertise of the executive staff, regional managers, and sales staff. These leaders help keep everyone fully engaged and connected to the way we do business.
We’ve expanded the hiring qualifications for general managers, the title we give those who run branch locations. GMs are required to understand the business from both sales and operations aspects.
MJM: There is a mutual fondness between the leadership and employees. What created this bond?
Pope: It’s part of the company’s long heritage and my own family legacy. We show our employees that we recognize their value and encourage them to share ideas to help us improve. In the late 1980s, the company began offering a profit sharing program. It makes all employees feel engaged and actively contributing to the company’s success and profitability. And, it helps them save for retirement. There are only two Popes in the company. F.W. Webb wouldn’t be as large or an industry leader, without our dedicated, hardworking team.
MJM: So where do you go from here?
Pope: We’ve got a lot on our plate and big plans for the future. Now, that we’ve rounded out our offering by entering the water works business, we can provide customers a one-stop experience for all the plumbing and piping they need from the street throughout the building. We’re aggressively pursuing growth opportunities in product categories and geography. This includes acquisitions and new products to carry based on what we believe will be both a quality offering and meet customer needs. We are also building a significantly larger CD facility to meet the increased demand generated by these efforts.
Ernie Coutermarsh, Senior Vice President, Industrial Business Development
MJM: You’re one of the longest-tenured employees at F.W. Webb. Describe those early years and some of what you’ve experienced along the way.
Coutermarsh: I joined in 1969, three years after the company’s 100th anniversary. The first thing any of us noticed when we came to work for John Pope was his respect for the company’s legacy. This became part of our DNA, too. John taught us to pay attention to changing trends and the opportunities they provided. He emphasized we weren’t just limited to our original markets. He would often say, ‘Distribution is a function.’ He believed if we could excel in our distribution methods, we could distribute anything. Customers in every product category need the same thing — a reliable source of quality material.
The company was on the cutting edge in so many significant ways. A unique concept for its time was centralized distribution (CD). John got the idea driving past a major retail distribution center. No other distributors had a CD and many people thought he was crazy, but he believed it was an investment for our future. It’s doubtful we could have grown to more than 80 locations as quickly as we did without central distribution. Today, our CD operates under three high service standards: (1) keep branch locations supplied with the products needed to serve our customers, (2) 100% on-time accuracy, and (3) completeness of order.
To support the need to have incredibly high fill rates, we began investing in inventory, trucks, people and locations — and that momentum continues today. At least 85% of our business comes from unplanned events, so customers rely on knowing we have what they need, when they need it. It’s a great feeling of accomplishment when a customer comes to us with a problem and we solve it, or a demand and we address it.
MJM: What impelled the company to expand beyond its core plumbing and heating business into the industrial side of the business?
Coutermarsh: So many manufacturing processes are encapsulated in piping systems and we knew we could be of great service to in-house maintenance staffs and contractors. Our strategy was to build capabilities in inventory and expertise that would cover PVF, pumps, automation, controls and instrumentation. We looked at providing solutions for the entire process. Our value to the customer is as a true single-source partner that is always working with them to improve their process and provide better solutions.
MJM: How significant is the industrial business to the company today and where do you go from here?
Coutermarsh: Many of the region’s industrial and facility management professionals rely on us as their authorized MRO (maintenance, repair, operations) vendor. We also provide mechanical engineers and commercial contractors with the materials, solutions and expertise they need for building, remodeling, upgrading and maintaining commercial facilities.
We are deeply committed to our industrial customers and work hard to maintain strong relationships across the industry. In addition to meeting their demand for quality products, we’ve enhanced our offering with value-added services, such as digital ordering and inventory management systems, total-cost reduction programs, pump repair, onsite calibration services, and 24/7 emergency service — to name a few.
We’ve never sought to rest on our laurels. We continuously seek to offer innovative products and better services. We are open to new technologies that meet our quality standards and fill customer needs.
Recently, we expanded our steam products and solutions offerings and made a commitment to serve the region as a full-service steam solutions provider. Two years ago, we became the exclusive distributor for the NIRON PP-RCT Pipe and Fittings System — the next generation of PPR piping.
We’ve also invested in our Process Controls Division, staffing it with a highly qualified team — many of them engineers — to bring quality offerings in the instrumentation, measurement and controls category. Customers also appreciate access to full lines that they can’t get anywhere else in the region. For instance, we are the exclusive distributor of the complete line of Georg Fischer highly-engineered plastic piping. We support this line with well-trained associates who can advise on applications and train on installation.
When our customers need anything, they don’t google it, they call F.W. Webb!
So, where do we go from here? In the same positive, evolving direction. We are committed to our industrial base and will continue providing high-quality products, the most inventory, in-depth expertise, and the best customer service in the industry.
Bob Mucciarone, Chief Operating Officer
MJM: How do you so smoothly integrate acquisitions and new locations into the F.W. Webb organization?
Mucciarone: I’ve been with the company since 1984 and have a gut feeling when talking with owners if their company would be a good fit for us. A lot of it is whether we share the same mindset on culture and service.
Sometimes we seek out acquisitions; others come to us unexpectedly. For example, water works had been in the back of our minds for a long time and, in fact, we had communicated with Water Works Supply Corp., but nothing ever developed. Then, the owner of Water Works Supply e-mailed me out of the blue and we began talking. He was ready to get out of the business and it was a perfect deal for everyone. Their company had a great reputation that we could build with our brand. We believe we can take water works to the next level over an expanded footprint using some of our current locations to sell water works products and services, as well as more acquisitions.
Some of our growth has been through acquisitions and some organic. Acquisitions sometimes facilitate success faster because they give us customers, skilled employees, relationships and, in some cases, new disciplines instantaneously — versus building from scratch.
MJM: As F.W. Webb has continued to grow, have you made any changes to your sales structure?
Mucciarone: As we have grown and added more disciplines, the need to restructure sales leadership became more apparent. As a result, we moved pieces and created several new sales positions. For instance, we created the positions of Vice President of Sales, who directs cross-selling between divisions, as well as Director of Trade Sales, who is responsible for growing our core businesses. This complete sales leadership structure ultimately ensures attention to detail in every discipline.
We now have a structure and strong leadership team that not only will drive sales in their particular discipline but also work closely with other sales leaders when they see opportunities in other disciplines.
Ed Welch, Senior Vice President of Purchasing
MJM: You’ve been with F.W. Webb for over 40 years. What’s involved with your current role?
Welch: Since 2010, I’ve been working with sales leadership to select the best products available and the right fit for F.W. Webb and our customers. I’m responsible for our vendor programs and relationships — buying plans and programs, negotiations, etc. Our vendors are impressed by our growth and ability to efficiently move product across our nine-state footprint. Nobody can do it like we can in this region and nobody is growing like we are.
MJM: What has changed when it comes to purchasing?
Welch: Naturally, there has been significant change. We have evolved from a manual process — counting product in bins, making educated guesses on inventory needs, hand writing POs, etc. — to a data-driven one. The amount of reliable data available allows us to be far more precise in determining need; we can look at usage, seasonality, geography, and other factors.
MJM: Have you seen any impact from e-commerce?
Welch: All distributors are feeling it to some extent, but people still want to do business with people. Having good people and inventory where and when our customers need it still wins. Our new CD will allow us to enhance this winning formula by bringing an expanded offering to customers in all our locations and give us more flexibility in buying strategies.
Mike Michaud, Senior Vice President of Information Technology
MJM: Tell us about the depth of solutions your department provides the company?
Michaud: I am proud of the 37 people in IT who handle everything technology-related — Legacy ERP development, network, equipment, data/voice communications, e-mail, web development, barcode systems, technical support, data governance, security, and more. Our latest efforts involve mobile applications and rebuilding our e-commerce solution and CRM system.
F.W. Webb operates on a completely rewritten software platform. It’s a huge competitive advantage because we’ve designed it to fulfill our customers’ needs. I spend considerable time with customers, asking questions and listening to their pain points. Then, we develop solutions to help us most efficiently serve them.
MJM: How has personally talking with customers influenced your solutions development?
Welch: We make sure we have the customer in mind when working on any solution. While we deal with a wide range of customers, both internal and external, their issues are similar. I often go on sales calls with our team just to listen. Customers want to tell their story and are glad we care. If you ask customers what’s important to them, they consistently say ‘quality of service.’
I also stand behind the counter at branches and observe how our team uses the system, how it’s working, and what customers are saying. If someone manning the counter has to call us because their computer is frozen and customers are waiting, it’s stressful for everyone while we try to ask questions to narrow down the issue. Spending time at the counters gives me a better idea of what can happen real time, so we can fix problems quickly or prevent them in the first place.
MJM: What are some projects you’re most proud of?
Welch: The Workflow System in use by most of our employees provides a transparent view of sales orders, POs and transfers – from start to finish. This system was developed to ensure we fill customer orders timely and accurately. We’ve also developed many programs and processes for the successful and smooth integration of products, systems and people from new acquisitions.
Brendan Monaghan, Senior Vice President of Operations
MJM: How did you begin to develop the company’s standards and training processes?
Monaghan: I joined the company when F.W. Webb decided to pursue ISO-9000 to standardize its procedures. I studied and became certified as an ISO lead assessor; I also completed Six Sigma training and participated in a Six Sigma black belt program. The company had experienced rapid growth through acquisitions, with many new employees. Reviewing and standardizing internal practices were needed. In the process, we developed a solid foundation for future growth.
ISO standards were geared towards manufacturing, so we developed the CIP-9000 program incorporating Sigma, Deming and best industry practices better suited to distribution. The entire company was involved and it gave us an opportunity to define and standardize operational functions.
MJM: Tell me more about your training and quality processes?
Monaghan: Our management training program is individualized to allow trainees to experience different branches and management styles. Most applicants are recent college graduates, but we’ve also had employees apply. There are 18 people in the program now. To be successful, they need to know the business inside and out, so they start by spending 26 weeks in the warehouse learning about inventory control.
Over time, trainees work in teams doing location site reviews. They learn how to use the tremendous amount of data available to us — the biggest lesson is to use data to initiate a conversation or inspection, versus reacting to the data alone. Many are appointed to branch management positions within a few years. We’re investing a lot in them, so it’s important we hire the right candidates — we want men and women who are grounded and committed to being here for the long term. It’s proven quite successful, as measured by our extremely low turnover rate and their success once placed into management.
After site reviews, a trainee is assigned to work with branch management on issues and opportunities for improvements. By working with general managers, operations managers and employees directly in the field, trainees build a network of colleagues for the future.
The main theme of the program is customer service. We strive to serve our customers in the most efficient and complete way possible. Everything we do comes down to what will help the customer. We measure ourselves the harshest way possible because there are no small customer service issues.
Ruth Martin, Senior Vice President of Human Resources
MJM: The culture you’ve built is evident upon visiting your facilities. From an HR perspective, how do you cultivate and maintain this culture?
Martin: Our culture is fully attributed to the way John Pope led the business. Mr. Pope is a humble, sincere man who cares deeply about the company and always sought to do the right thing for people. His son Jeff has continued to lead with the same principles. It’s a culture built on solid yet basic morals — the difference between right and wrong, importance of how you treat people, being fair in all your dealings. It’s a collaborative environment across positions and locations. Everyone possesses a strong sense of customer service and will go above and beyond for our customers. We all chip in to do what needs to be done; no one says ‘that’s not my job.‘ New employees quickly realize and appreciate our unique culture. Our turnover is less than 10% and I feel this can be attributed to our culture.
MJM: How do you manage communicating so well among more than 2,000 employees scattered throughout such a large trading area?
Martin: While it can be a challenge, the company’s leadership and I talk to people in the branches daily. We’ve built credibility among our employees by being responsive. My team and I try to never leave anyone hanging. We have an internal HR e-mail address that we monitor and respond to quickly. I have an open-door policy and encourage employees to contact me no matter where they are located. In addition to helping solve HR issues, I enjoy visiting the branches and sharing in the personal and professional successes of employees.
Since we have a large training facility onsite, we are able to host large groups of employees at a time. For instance, general managers, sales reps, showroom managers, and others will gather here for regular meetings and training sessions. These are excellent opportunities for employees to network, bond and share best practices, as well as meet and interact with corporate staff.
Other ways for HR to maintain a cohesive company atmosphere are through email, Intranet, internal newsletter, health and wellness fairs, and benefits sessions.
MJM: How do you attract a new generation of employees, as well as those who are more experienced?
Martin: Our successful management training program is an excellent way to appeal to college seniors through placement offices, career fairs, etc. For specialty positions, we often use recruiters. We have a good reputation and are known for promoting from within; people want to come work for us. Often, they’re already happily in a job but pursue us when they learn of an opening here. It’s rewarding to see the interest people have in applying here, the quality of those who contact us, and their willingness to relocate to take a position with us.
Greg Bodlovick, Central Distribution General Manager
MJM: What can you share about the exciting project you’re involved in right now?
Bodlovick: To keep pace and support the growth of our branches, we are building a massive new CD in Londonderry, N.H., not far from our current facility in Amherst, N.H. It will be much closer to the highway, the Manchester (N.H) Airport, and the FedEx and UPS distribution centers.
To put into perspective how much we’ve grown, our first CD was 135,000-square-feet and our current facility is 420,000-square-feet with 26,000+ products. Our new facility will be just under 1-million-square-feet. We’ll go from 27 doors to 80, making a huge difference in our shipping and receiving capacity. When our current CD was built in 2004, it was meant to last 20-25 years. But our sales grew quickly as we expanded geographically and added new product categories, filling us to capacity faster than anticipated.
MJM: Why has CD been so important for F.W. Webb?
Bodlovick: CD has given us purchasing opportunities that have led to exceptional efficiencies. The branches could never have stored this type of inventory. The facility is within two hours of most of our locations. Our fleet includes 30 tractors and 35 large 53-foot trailers. We run 158 separate routes each week to supply all locations, for a total 1.5 million miles in 2015.
MJM: Talk about the dedication of your team and what drives their sense of service?
Bodlovick: CD operates with three daily shifts. It’s a constant buzz of activity. There is truly a sense of community within our facility and our company. We’re in this together and we all prosper by serving each other and our customers. CD subscribes to Brendan Monaghan’s philosophy that the bar can always be raised higher. Overall goal is superior fill rates, currently high 90’s, and superior service. CD doesn’t subscribe to the expression ‘No’ or ‘we can’t do that.’ We challenge our team to find a way and they always succeed.
Alicia Criniti, Director of Marketing
MJM: The F.W. Webb brand is well established in the Northeast. What are some of your marketing challenges?
Criniti: The F.W. Webb name is highly recognized in New England and many parts of New York, and we’re making great strides in New Jersey and Pennsylvania where we’re expanding. In addition to our customers, people in general recognize our name because they see our trucks traveling the highways or know someone who works for the company. Boston Red Sox fans certainly know us from our highly visible position on the Green Monster wall at Fenway Park.
We work diligently to tell the full F.W. Webb story. Given the diversity of our 15 different market disciplines, we can provide customers with solutions from the street to the rooftop. Our opportunity is to expand perceptions of the F.W. Webb Company. When we’re successful, we leave customers saying, ‘Wow! I didn't know F.W. Webb did that!’ This is critical as we strive to grow business with existing customers and attract new ones. We want to show customers all the company’s strengths and resources to meet their diverse needs.
MJM: What sort of things are you doing to celebrate the 150th anniversary?
Criniti: This is a milestone year for F.W. Webb and, as such, we consider it a year-long celebration. We started planning in 2014. One of our big tasks in 2015, leading up to our big year, was to build a new company website. We have a big story to tell and wanted to better explain who we are, what we do, and how we can help our customers succeed. We worked hard to knit it together to present ourselves as one company that can provide a vast array of solutions across a single project. The new site launched in December, on the eve of our 150th anniversary year.
While the website project was underway, we gave employees the opportunity to vote on four possible anniversary logos. Things took off from there. Jeff Pope sent every employee a gift in December to thank them for all they do and to kick off the big year. We launched a 150th anniversary customer promotion in February and look forward to giving away 10 fantastic 150-themed prizes this summer, including a Ford F-150 pickup truck. Our new anniversary logo is everywhere, including on the Green Monster. Our revamped company history and profiles of our founding fathers make an interesting read on fwwebb.com. The list is long.
Two new television ads rolled out in our operating area to highlight what we do best — solve customer problems. Using mostly our own employees and locations, they depict true stories of the great lengths F.W. Webb will go to please and delight its customers. One ad depicts a day of a monster rain storm and a store manager who opened his location on Mother’s Day to provide pumps to a steady stream of contractors all day. A second shows how our industrial sales team jumped into action to quickly locate and deliver a large valve to replace one that stopped working and threatened to bring operations in a steam plant to a halt. Emergency averted.
It has been an exciting year and we’re looking forward to the next 150!
As we concluded our interviews, I had one last question for Jeff Pope: I’m sure you’ve had many lucrative opportunities to sell F.W. Webb. What motivates you to carry on?
Pope: We were under $100 million with 30 locations when I came aboard. At the end of this year we’ll be near $1 billion with 80+ locations. We’re continuing to grow and I have even more incentive to keep it going. My son Dave graduated from college this year and has joined our management training program. He has spent school breaks working in the warehouse and the counter. He loves the company. I’m excited he’s coming onboard, but I know the challenges as an owner’s son and want him to find his way.
Ultimately, ‘legacy’ sums it all up. My Dad’s goal — and now mine — is to leave the company better than we found it. We are the caretakers for our customers, our employees, our industry, and the company’s past leaders and employees. Frank’s company has been very good to a lot of people and this dedicated team plans to keep it that way. The future is bright.