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Southeastern Louisiana has a certain kind of feel; people visit these parts mostly to experience New Orleans. The Big Easy, the Crescent City and the City that Care Forgot, are all affectionate nicknames for this petri dish of culture. Within it are tight-knit communities, bound together by tragedy and triumph.
One such community is that of Southland Plumbing Supply. This year marks 50 years of business for the company. With the next generation already stepping in, Southland has a lot to be proud of.
All in the family
John Vinturella started Southland Plumbing Supply in 1967 with just four employees. His son, Alan, joined the family business in 1972.
“I graduated from LSU in 1972 with a degree in chemical engineering. I had accepted a job as a chemical engineer, but three months before graduation my father offered me a job at Southland. I said, ‘sure! What do you do?’ I had no idea. Fifty years later, I’m still here!” Alan recounts. He received a map from his Dad with all the buildings and streets as a guide to help him during his first few days.
It may seem like he’s downplaying his role — and he probably is — but Alan is the president of Southland, and that is no small feat.
Alan reflects back to when he went to work for the business in 1972. They were in the midst of moving from a 2,500-square-foot location to a 10,000-square-foot one, which was a skating rink. “So, you can just imagine we laugh about it now, because if you were walking around the outside of the skating rink part, it was as if you were walking on an angle as it banked,” he says.
In 1975, they received the Kohler requirements for a new 1,500-square-foot showroom, their first one. Now Southland has two Kohler next-gen showrooms.
Standing alongside Alan is his wife Mona. Both as his wife and business partner, Mona is in charge of the design services and showroom sales. Fun fact: Mona and Alan have known each other since they were four years old! Now, working alongside them is daughter Loni, and son Chad. Loni heads up the human resources department while Chad is the vice president of operations.
Both siblings worked in other industries prior to joining Southland. Chad admits he didn’t know what he was going to do as he worked in the restaurant industry. “Sometimes I thought I was going to be in the family business, sometimes I didn’t want anything to do with it,” he says. “And then I went away and I worked in the restaurant industry for years, and he called me up and asked me if I wanted to run a new branch. The timing was just right. It was time to get out of the restaurant industry and time to try something different. So it all just kind of fell into place.”
Loni had the same career path in coming into the family business. She studied graphic design and advertising and lived in Memphis. When an opportunity opened to work at Southland as an “assistant” under brother Chad, she accepted. “But let’s just say that title didn’t last long,” Chad chuckles.
Alan notes how the siblings’ roles evolved and became more solid as time went on.
“Chad is a people person and he took it upon himself to learn the product and learn the business, and then of course he got all the problems because he could deal with them,” Alan says.
He notes that Loni has always been better at an administrative level with her graphics background. “She could start our marketing and our advertising, which was nothing but an aggravation for the rest of us!”
Both Loni and Chad attribute their success in the family business to their prior work experience. Alan attributes it to their close family dynamic. He knew that as the company expanded, he wanted his family members to be a part of it.
“Let’s put it this way,” Alan says, “if Chad hadn’t agreed to come run the north shore branch, I wouldn’t have opened it.”
And that close family bond came in quite handy when tragedy struck their beloved city. It’s difficult to imagine a charming, Sicilian family born and raised in New Orleans to be anything but giving and kind, especially in times of need; and boy, did their city need it.
2005 – Hurricane Katrina
At 10 a.m. on Aug. 25, 2005, Hurricane Katrina was deemed a catastrophic Category 5, with a direct path toward New Orleans. Mandatory evacuations began, the first time in their history, and some 26,000 people took refuge at the Louisiana Superdome. By the next day, the levees were breached and 80 percent of greater New Orleans was under water.
Two weeks later, Southland opened its doors. With a skeleton staff of 16 people, down from 50 as employees were scattered all over the nation. It got pretty busy, pretty fast.
“We were the first wholesaler to reopen,” Alan says. “We had 18 inches of floodwater in the showroom and a couple walls torn down.”
It was catastrophic when the hurricane hit the showroom. “We were operating on folding chairs, and we had a line about a block long every day to get into the showroom.”
This tragedy definitively changed the business model. Instead of selling to contractors or designers, Southland began selling to consumers directly. As most tradesmen were unable to cope with the shear amount of calls coming in, customers took matters of repair into their own hands. And that’s where Southland really started to give back.
“We were doing two and a half times the business with only one third of employees,” Chad notes.
Prior to Katrina, Southland’s customer base was 80 percent of the trade. After Katrina, when chains came in, Southland was the only one left. Alan explains: “After Katrina, when the trade didn’t really want to deal with homeowners trying to get in their houses, we made the conscious decision to sell to the public and we’ve still maintained our wholesale identity. Fifty percent of our customer base is direct to the consumer. The main focus of our advertising is local and family-owned, because New Orleans natives love New Orleans.”
Southland expanded its product offerings with products like the Kohler generator line, lighting, appliances, and a brand-new outdoor living center.
As of Aug. 1, Southland owns the outdoor living center in Covington, Louisiana. It has 6,000 square feet of showroom space, and will be outfitted with everything a buyer needs to have in their backyard. Mona is heading up this project, and will be in charge of the operation.
Natural shifts and celebrations
The vision for Southland was started by John and carried out by the following generations. And for 50 years they have not only been able to rebound from hurdles, but evolve around them.
The company celebrated its anniversary by inviting all employees and guests to attend a special celebration on Sunday, Sept. 10. Held at a venue overlooking the Mississippi River, the anniversary brings many emotions to the team.
“I think in the back of his head, my Dad thought maybe [the business] was something to keep the family together,” Alan says. “And — my dad was an old school Sicilian, and so was my mother. Family was everything and still is to us. We are very, very close, Chad, Loni, Robb, and our grandchildren.”
For more information on Southland Plumbing Supply, visit www.southlandplumbingsupply.com.