Danielle Galian: What is your background? Ernie Carson: I am unique in that I am a native of Wilson, NC, where Ihrie Supply’s corporate offices are located. Wilson is a small, but growing, city and the county seat of Wilson County, which lies in the heart of eastern North Carolina along the state’s Coastal Plain region approximately 40 miles east of Raleigh. Once known as "The World’s Greatest Tobacco Market," Wilson has grown over the years and is now home to a healthy and diverse mix of agriculture, manufacturing, commercial, and service businesses.
When I graduated high school, I was given two choices: to get a job and move out on my own, or to go to college. I knew my career would go farther with an education and opted to go to East Carolina University to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a concentration in management. That degree has served me well, and a week after graduation helped me land a job working for Ihrie Supply Company, a first-generation, family-owned distributor of residential and commercial plumbing, heating, cooling and industrial supplies. Today, the company has eight locations throughout North Carolina and is an industry leader in the state.
DG: How did you get your start in the industry?
EC: Many of my friends were accepting jobs from big companies all over the country and most of them were going to have to sit behind a desk, wearing a suit and tie every day. At the time, I didn’t want to leave eastern North Carolina, and I definitely didn’t want to wear a tie every day. To tell you the truth, I really didn’t know what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I was fortunate, however, to become part of the Ihrie Supply Company family, which had a great reputation and was based in my hometown and offered me the potential for tremendous professional growth.
DG: Talk about your journey from the beginning of your career to now.
EC: It’s been an exciting, rewarding and challenging journey, for sure, and starting at the bottom was definitely an eye-opening experience. As I mentioned, a week after college graduation, I hit the floor running and began my professional career path in a position a lot of college graduates might not have considered at the time - making deliveries for Ihrie Supply. Although it wasn’t the choice many people would expect from someone who had just spent four years at a university trying to help advance his career path, working as a truck driver gave me the background I would later need to advance quickly within the company, as it allowed me to get my feet wet meeting customers, learning inventory, and taking in all I could about our industry from both the residential and commercial sides of the business. Within two months, I had proven myself enough to be promoted to Warehouse Manager where I oversaw deliveries and handled warehouse logistics. I found it all fascinating and, at the end of every day, I felt satisfied, knowing I had made an important contribution to our company’s continued success.
Within another two months, I was promoted to inside sales and worked the front counter. Not only did I work directly with customers, but I learned how to quote commercial plumbing jobs. After two more months, I moved into an outside sales position where I travelled from January 2002 until October 2015, continuing to grow revenue for Ihrie Supply until I became their highest-grossing salesman. Then, in October 2015, I assumed my current role as Vice President of our Plumbing Division where I am responsible for day-to-day plumbing business operations, sales and market growth, and customer satisfaction. I am often a fireman, keeping “fires” or problems to a minimum and solving them when they arise. I love the variety in my job, the people I work with, and our customers, and I feel blessed to have moved through the ranks of an amazing company.
DG: In your opinion, what is the most important quality in a leader?
EC: I am currently studying leadership as my MBA concentration at Liberty University and I love to talk about this subject, but to answer your question in simple terms, I believe leadership is learned, evolves over time and the essence of leadership is character and integrity. While there are many qualities and traits that make a great leader, I feel integrity is the most important one every effective leader must possess. Without integrity, a person cannot have character, and a team will not follow a leader they don’t trust or respect. Great leaders possess and portray integrity in everything they do.
DG: What’s your favorite part of working at Ihrie Supply?
EC: My favorite part of working at Ihrie Supply is the interaction I have with our team members and our customers. Without our loyal customers, Ihrie Supply would not exist. As for the team, I like helping and watching our employees grow from short-term problem solvers into long-term solution growers. Neither our customers, nor our employees are numbers on a piece of paper to Ihrie Supply. Each person has a name, a story and unique personality that contributes to our success and fosters our family atmosphere. It is a close knit culture with very little turnover. In the same breath, I love the fact that I learn from team members every day. They challenge our corporate staff to be the best leaders we can possibly be. Our stock, our buildings and our trucks are not Ihrie Supply Company. Our PEOPLE are Ihrie Supply. I once made the mistake of talking to Mr. Ihrie and referred to Ihrie Supply as “his” company. He abruptly interrupted me and informed me that Ihrie Supply was “our” company.
DG: What are your hobbies/interests outside of work?
EC: I love spending time with my family. I have a lovely wife of 12 years, Erin, and two little boys, ages 3 and 8, that keep me active. It doesn’t matter where we are going or what we are doing, I cherish my family and the time we spend together. They keep me busy coaching baseball, helping with Cub Scouts, and getting involved at our family’s home church. I also enjoy camping, hunting, and fishing with my friends and family.
DG: Do you have a “go-to” motivational phrase or motto?
EC: Absolutely. I love motivational books and have read quite a few, but the adage I live by is the one I remember my father emphasizing the most as I was growing up: “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.” Anyone can apply that motto in every aspect of life and I strive to do the same.
DG: What can millennials bring to this industry that others can’t?
EC: At Ihrie Supply, we have a good, strong mix of team members, who vary in age from 18 to 85, or span from the Silent Generation to Generation Y, i.e. the Millennials. Each generation has its strengths and the millennials are no exception. They are focused, optimistic, respect authority and have high expectations of themselves, as well as of others. They’ve known nothing other than computers and the Internet, so they challenge Ihrie to stay up-to-date with the digital age – for example, we have added an e-commerce section to our website. With information at their fingertips 24/7, they are also a smart generation and as such, not afraid to speak what’s on their minds. We appreciate diverse opinions at Ihrie Supply and believe that finding a way to mesh differing opinions can lead to the development of great ideas.
DG: What’s your favorite part about working with people/companies in the industry?
EC: I have made many new friends and met many new colleagues during my 15 years in this industry. I love attending our OMNI buying group meetings and learning from other members about their markets, their products and their go-to-market strategies. These friends have helped me over the years and have encouraged me in my new role. I also love interacting and developing long-term relationships with customers, securing solutions for whatever opportunities they may have, and helping them grow their businesses and become more profitable. You’ve heard it before, but it is true: customers’ success is our success. Ihrie Supply has grown consistently over the past 44 years as a result of these long-term relationships built on knowledge sharing, transparency, trust and respect.
DG: Top tip for ultimate success in the industry?
EC: I think this is true for most industries, but ours is especially one where you can’t be afraid or “too good” to roll up your sleeves and get dirty to get the job done. It is equally important to never forget where you came from and who helped you to get there. And, of course, if you don’t service the customer, someone else will. One of my favorite quotes is from Sam Walton who says, “There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”