Ask Michael Lorber, executive vice president of finance at J. Lorber Co., what he loves most about this industry and he’ll provide the answer he once gave his 5-year-old twin daughters when they asked him what he did for a living.
“Every time you see a building, there is a product that our industry supplied inside of it, from plumbing to heating. We provide products that make our everyday lives convenient and comfortable,” he says.
If you then ask him, what has kept the family business thriving and growing for the past 100 years, he provides a similar answer then expands on it.
“There will always be a need for what we do, but the keys to J. Lorber Co.’s success has been its ability to adapt to an ever-changing environment. That is essential because what we do today might not be what we’re doing 25 years from now,” he says.
He points to the company’s rich history, as it celebrates its centennial anniversary, in support of this claim. The five-generation family operation got its start when father and son, Max and Joseph Lorber, immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe in 1908. Both were sheet metal workers by trade and quickly tapped into this skill to earn a living in America.
Together, the two operated a store on New York City’s lower east side. But when wanderlust struck Joseph in 1918, he decided to move to Philadelphia where he launched J. Lorber Co., a roofing and heating supplies business at 1932 Germantown Ave.
As times changed, the company evolved as well. Today, J. Lorber Co. may have the same name, but the business looks very different than it did 100 years ago.
Though as a privately-operated company, the wholesale distributor of plumbing, heating and industrial supplies doesn’t share actual revenue numbers, Michael reports 45 percent of its business is now in heating, 40 percent is in plumbing, and the remaining 15 percent is on the industrial side. A complete change from a time when most of the company’s business came from distributing roofing supplies.
In addition, instead of operating out of a single storefront, J. Lorber Co. now maintains four locations in Bensalem, Pipersville and Newtown Square, Pennsylvania; and Pennsauken, New Jersey. It also operates the J. Lorber Bath Studio showrooms at three of these sites, maintains 65,000-square-feet of warehouse space, and has grown from one employee to 40. Its customers range from the homeowner remodeling a bathroom or building a new house to large mechanical contractors doing industrial-style work.
Fire up the heating business
J. Lorber Co.’s heating business offers a key example of the company’s ability to adapt to market changes. J. Lorber primarily distributes hydronic heating products, meaning those that use hot water or steam, rather than forced air, to heat a building. It offers a variety of these systems for use in residential, light commercial and industrial applications.
Though its heating distribution story is 100 years in the making, the company’s current way of offering these products is not.
“Over the last 15 years, we have been doing a lot more with commercial heating and have seen that side of the business grow,” Michael says. “Within the last five years, we’ve branched out our commercial heating business and formed a separate manufacturing representative division that we call the JLC Group.”
This division employs technical sales reps and engineering sales associates who represent set product lines in specific territories. These reps and engineers call on industrial customers and design high-tech heating solutions utilizing a predetermined manufacturer’s product. The company reps for steam generators from CERTUSS, industrial boilers from Unilux, commercial burners from Webster Combustion and combustion analyzers from Ecom. This move gives the company the expertise to sell products into very specialized facilities, such as pharmaceutical plants, breweries or oil refineries.
“Traditionally, a wholesaler is a distributor of products,” he says. “You work with reps, you work with manufacturers, but you have a region you distribute their products to. But because of the complexity of the heating products we are selling, we’ve become a manufacturer rep for specific products.”
Michael admits when he shares this strategy with other wholesalers, they scratch their heads and say, “I can’t believe you are doing that.”
But, he says, “It makes sense because of the specialty of the heating equipment we sell. It must be sold through manufacturer’s reps. I equate a buy-sell rep as no different than a distributor with an exclusive territory. If you’re a buy-sell rep, you are a distributor.”
Focus on Family
Lorber family lore tells how Joseph and Max worked and saved money to bring Joe’s mother and sisters to America. But their goal was not to simply earn them passage in steerage; this simply wasn’t good enough in their eyes for the women of the family. “They brought the women of the family over when they had saved enough to send them second class,” Lorber says.
This idea of nothing but the best for your family not only extends to Lorber family members in the business but to all the company’s employees. Michael explains there are three generations currently working in the family business, but the concept of family goes beyond blood relations. He adds that this is another thing that sets the company apart and has helped it flourish over the decades.
J. Lorber Co. has made a mark with its family friendly atmosphere and culture; a fact that keeps employees there for many years and prompts existing employees to encourage their children and other family members to work there as well.
Though it’s easy to claim that every employee is “family,” Michael states it’s much harder to knit that philosophy into the fabric of everything a company does. Keeping a focus on family must be very intentional, he explains.
Michael and his father maintain an open-door policy and encourage all employees to come in and talk. They also strive to go above and beyond expectations as an employer, not just through competitive benefits and wages but by hosting activity nights for employees and sponsoring employees’ charitable endeavors. He explains, “You need to know who your employees are and engage them in conversations.”
He adds, “This is our family away from our family during the work week. Sometimes you need to keep things a little fun and lighthearted and have a good time. But at the end of the day, we’re all here for a common goal, and that’s to do what is best for our customers and the business to keep things going along.”
He adds the family focus also flourishes as Lorber family members maintain efforts to stay grounded and remember their humble beginnings. “We did not grow up with a silver spoon in our mouths,” he says, and family members, though they may work in the company as they grow up, only return to the business as adults if they passionately want to do so.
Michael also stresses that being a Lorber doesn’t mean you get special treatment within the business.
He worked in the warehouse throughout high school and college but ventured outside the business after graduation. He started at Walt Disney Company in corporate finance, and later moved to Northwest Airlines. After the merger with Delta Air Lines he took a position closer to home with their strategy group in New York City before he felt the pull to return to the family business.
His father, grandfather, and great uncle still worked within the business when he returned, and Michael says he learned much from them. He also teamed with them on succession planning where it was agreed, “That nothing should be handed to you, just because you are part of the family. You have to work for it, and you need experience in another industry.”
He adds, “The experience I had working for a Fortune 100 company was invaluable. I had experience with major corporations, and it has helped me see things differently, and bring new ideas to the business.”
Tap into Technology
Today technology changes in the blink of an eye, and a company hoping to stand the test of time must stay abreast of it. In his role, Michael has worked to bring technological improvements that set up J. Lorber Co. for future growth in a fiscally responsible way.
To that end, J. Lorber Co. recently upgraded its ERP system to Epicor’s Eclipse ERP software, which provides it with real-time information that can be used in forecasting and purchasing. The company also has equipped drivers with iPhones, for paperless deliveries.
Michael says, “It’s now much easier to provide proof of delivery because the phone captures the signatures.” Likewise, if a customer is not present when a driver makes the delivery, the driver can use the iPhone to photograph the customer’s facility and package as proof of delivery. Finally, when trucks return to the central distribution center in Bensalem, this proof of delivery data is uploaded via Wi-Fi and the information is used to invoice the customer immediately.
The company has also equipped its delivery fleet with GPS to route drivers more efficiently. The routes are downloaded to the driver’s iPhone, after software is used to optimize these routes. The company also uses a product called Innovo Signature Touch to track vehicles in real-time.
J. Lorber Co. has also added RF (radio frequency) barcoding capabilities to its Bensalem location. Though handheld barcode scanning devices have been used in warehousing and distribution for years, the upgrade made good business sense once Epicor Eclipse was in place. “We now had the ability to utilize this technology in a way that helped us better serve our customers,” he says. “Moving to RF technology gives us better accuracy of inventory and better accuracy of pulling and putting orders away, so we can streamline operations, be more efficient, and above all, provide better service to our customers.”
The company has taken a phased approach to RF technology; eventually, Michael hopes to operate the scanning capabilities from a smartphone. “We just went to the barcode system,” he says. “But maybe five years from now, we’ll be scanning everything on a small, compact-sized smartphone device versus the larger scanning devices we are using today.”
Michael continues, “It goes back to being adaptable and evolving to keep pace with the needs of our customers. Technology is going to change, and we should phase it into our operations as it makes sense. It should be a tool to help us do what we do, which is servicing and supplying customer’s products.”
Build Ties that Bind
Though it’s safe to say J. Lorber Co. has had plenty of competition from other wholesale distributors over the years, many of these distributors have come and gone, while this company has stood the test of time. Michael credits its longevity to continual efforts to set the company apart from the rest.
“One off the things we do is show customers the value you can get from us,” he says. “It’s not just as simple as selling Product A to Customer X. It’s what you are going to do for Customer X after he receives the product and has problems with it? We try to help people with support before and after the sale and be an extension of their company.”
The company delivers products directly to the job site, construction project, institution or home in a move to go above and beyond. It maintains a diverse fleet of specialized vehicles, such as 24-foot flatbed stake trucks, box trucks, a van and boom truck with a large cantilever crane, to carry products to the job site.
“The boom truck with cantilever crane is a huge competitive advantage for us,” says Michael. “It’s one thing to have trucks. But our large cantilevered crane truck can take stuff on and off truck and deliver it to a job site so that our customers don’t have to rent a separate crane.”
That’s one big way that J. Lorber Co. can provide the ultimate in customer service, but Michael says added value comes in smaller forms too. The company offers business support services like notary and marketing services from screen prints custom T-shirts to websites, and more.
“We try to do more than just distribute supplies,” he says. “We want to provide benefit to our customers across their entire business. It’s about delivering on your value and your service. It’s not just about dropping a product off at the door and forgetting about it.”
Celebrate the Customer
Though 100 years is a great achievement in a world where companies can come and go, Michael says it would never have happened without good customers and excellent vendor partners. For this reason, J. Lorber Co. is celebrating its successes in a big way as it moves through its 100th year.
The company held a grand opening for its Newtown Square location in April, then hosted a customer appreciation event in Philadelphia with Bradford White Water Heaters, which the company has worked with for 70 years. Lorber Fest in Bensalem will deliver special anniversary activities in October, while Spring Bling and Summer of Swag has given customers a chance to take a spin at the counter and win prizes.
“The entire year is a token of our appreciation to customers and our vendor partners for making this reality come true,” Michael says.
He adds, “My father and grandfather always instilled in me that relationships matter. This is a very relationship-based business. We wouldn’t be around today if we didn’t have strong relationships and partnerships with customers and vendors. This is something to be celebrated.”
– BY RONNIE L. WENDT