More than 300 top executives from PHCP manufacturers and independent sales reps attended a vendor appreciation dinner, Nov. 9 in Madison, Wisconsin to mark First Supply’s 120 years in business.
For Joe Poehling, First Supply’s CEO, the dinner was practically a family affair – but not just his family. While his great-grandfather Ed Roesler, and his grandfather, Henry Poehling, started the business in 1897, there were plenty of other longtime family businesses that helped one another’s industries prosper.
“Supplying only the best, most innovative products has remained a mantra throughout our heritage,” Poehling said during his welcoming address. “Whether it was the glass-lined water heaters by another multigenerational family owned businesses from Wisconsin named A.O. Smith. Or classic wash fountains from Bradley or when the Seder family opened a valve plant in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, the list goes on and on.”
Or when another family name, Kohler, teamed up with First Supply to open the plumbing manufacturer’s first Kohler Signature Store in Edina, Minnesota in 2012.
Throughout the decades, First Supply often knew what contractors needed before they did. Who else was opening a plumbing showroom … 95 years ago?
“When automatic heat was being introduced into the home,” Poehling added, “my father, Gary, went out and swung tools and worked with contractors on how to install those new fangled coal stokers.”
A crucial part of the company’s commitment to innovation and knowledge of the markets were these relationships that stretched for generations.
“My brother Jim and I remember how especially important these were to our father with so many other family owned companies like the Michel’s, Meier’s, Soderholm’s, Stickler’s, Herkowski’s, Mullet’s, Seder’s, Kohler’s, Martin’s, Wang’s, Smith’s and so many more,” Poehling said.
In fact, Ajita Rajendra, CEO of A.O. Smith also gave a speech during the night’s festivities. (The company remains First Supply’s only vendor for glass-lined water heaters.)
“It is with the spirit of being a strong, regional distributor with a passion for innovation and a commitment to long-term investing in top quality talent, ideas and markets, and partnering with you,” Poehling told the crowd, “the select and very best of the industry, that our future together is very bright.”
The event also included remarks by Paul Kennedy, First Supply’s president and chief operating officer who reminded attendees that the distributor continues to grow, recently opening several new locations and adding a new state to its territory.
“Our 120th year is shaping up to be a great one for our company,” Kennedy said. “Not only from a performance perspective, but from an investment standpoint.”
In addition to the traditional new brick-and-mortar locations, Kennedy also outlined the steps the company has taken recently to grow its ecommerce presence by hiring a director of ecommerce to build a team in the coming months.
Closing out the night was Katie Poehling Seymour, First Supply’s chief operating officer of the kitchen and bath division. Seymour, along with her cousin Todd Restel, represents the fifth generation of family ownership.
With an eye toward the future, Seymour said her grandfather, the namesake of the Gerhard’s kitchen and bath brand, might not recognize today’s plumbing showroom, he certainly would recognize three tenants of the industry that remain the same.
Innovation: With manufacturers continuing to develop new products, Seymour said First Supply “will continue to strive to be your preferred path to market” for those new products. To that end, Seymour said the company is making investments into more sophisticated ERP and PIM systems.
Willingness to Reinvent: A necessary component of innovation is this readiness, according to Seymour. “As a nimble, diversified business with a long-term vision at our core,” she explained, “we will continue to reinvent ourselves to meet the needs of our employees, our vendors and our customers every day, every year and every century.”
People Business: Regardless of technical changes, people still want to do business with people. Seymour, chair of Affiliated Distributors new decorative products division, shared part of a presentation she gave the day before the dinner. Millennials represent an estimated $200 billion in annual buying power. But according to a Forbes survey, while most millennials use as many as three tech devices at least once a day, they aren’t using the devices to make purchases.
“Millennials value authenticity and knowledge,” Seymour said. “While most of their research and path to purchase is done online — making our online voice increasingly important — only 5 percent of their actual purchases are made online because people still buy from people.”
The November dinner capped off a yearlong celebration for First Supply. Last June, the company held customer appreciation events at every location and did the same for its some 660 employees last September.