The Wholesaler Magazine enjoys covering the events in our industry, especially the annual convention of The American Supply Association. Traditionally, the Steve and Tom column would take on the voice of the PVF industry — but for this month we wanted to reminisce on the history of ASA, its evolution and initiatives. They always say to record the history from one’s elders while you can, so we took on this ambitious and hopefully interesting account with our mutual good friend, industry icon, economist and now historian, Morrie Beschloss, to help us. He, of course, agreed with great enthusiasm.
Tom Brown: Gentlemen, I have been involved in the plumbing, heating and PVF industry for more than 48 years. Steve you have been involved for more than 50; Morrie, you have been involved more than 60. Altogether, we have more than 160 years of industry experience … incredible! We have seen a lot of change!
Let’s talk about how the association came into existence.
Morrie Beschloss: ASA was preceded by two associations, the first being the American Institute of Supply Associations, a federation composed of eight regional associations, along with Central Supply Association (CSA), a regional organization that represented around 450 wholesaler members in the central states.
I found my way into the plumbing and PVF industry in the early 1950s, having just joined Hammond Brass Works. I never before had experienced such camaraderie as this industry provides. At my first CSA event at the Palmer House in 1956, I met Jim Perry and his wife, Judy. I immediately gravitated toward them, I was so impressed with their stature but also their general “paternal friendliness.” We developed a close friendship in the years to follow.
During this time Jim consulted with me on an idea for a national wholesaler organization. This was a grand initiative — to form a strong coast-to-coast national voice.
There were discussions between the two groups, as both had different ideas on how to structure the organization and could not come to agreement on how to do so. I suggested to Jim that he approach top wholesalers nationwide to garner their support. He did, and with their support, CSA and AI formed a new association in December of 1969, which we now know as the American Supply Association. Jim Perry became executive director of the association.
Our first ASA convention
TMB: The group took off running, creating a national convention, which brought together so many wholesaler distributor members. My first ASA convention was in 1977 at the Hilton Hotel in Chicago. It was Jim’s last year es executive director.
Steve Letko: My first ASA convention experience was in 1974 at, I believe, the Chicago Hilton. I had relocated from California to St. Louis, taking the position of national sales manager for the Midwest Fitting Division of Crane Co. Senior Crane management invited me to attend the convention, stressing that this was an event to network with prominent industry leaders. Indeed, it was, as it was the premier industry event during that time.
MB: I’ve been in this industry for many years, so naturally after the new association was formed, I had joined and have been involved ever since. Especially back in the early days, there was an amazing sense of camaraderie. Personal and professional partnerships were formed — and have lasted for more than half a century!
The early years, experiences and divisions
TMB: Steve, Your early experiences at ASA meetings must hold fond memories for you. How did the events help you develop relationships and friendships helpful to a young man in the industry? How did those form and was there a trade show in those days for manufacturers to show product?
SL: I became very active in ASA when I joined Dodson Steel Products in 1976. I found the association provided networking opportunities that were extremely helpful to me in developing relationships and close personal friendships that continue to this day.
Also during that time, a powerful tool ASA offered during its convention was the conference booth sessions. The booths were 8’ x 10’ for all participants. The sessions were a great vehicle to introduce Dodson Steel products to the industry, while giving us an equal platform with the larger and more established companies. The brand identity, which gained traction with our participation, helped our company and the association grow.
TMB: Gentlemen, both of you were involved in the formation of ASA’s Industrial Piping Division (IPD). When was it formed and what was the impetus? Who were the movers and shakers?
SL and MB: The IPD is the result of the vision Jim Perry had in the early stages of ASA’s development. He wanted to give a platform for PVF distributors, a specialized division to address issues that pertained to them. They would have a voice unique to the pipe, valve and fittings industry.
Key players in the development of the group were Bud Taylor, Taylor Engineering; Fred Keenan, president of Keenan Pipe & Supply; Jack Hester, president of F.W. Webb; George Keenan, president of Keenan-Cashman; Charles Dawes, president of Pittsburgh Gage; and our good friend, Morrie Beschloss.
TMB: Steve, I know you were intimately involved in the development of the Vendor Member division of ASA. What were its objectives and who were the other industry stalwarts involved?
SL: I worked closely with Jack Bittner, longtime publisher of The Wholesaler Magazine, to form the Associate Member Division within ASA. This division was formed to recognize and include manufacturers, sales representatives and master distributors who supply product or service to the PHCP-PVF industry. The Associate Member Division was renamed and evolved into the Vendor Member Division, giving equal membership to both the distributor and the vendor member.
The division has grown over the years, with the understanding of the symbiotic partnership between the wholesaler and its manufacturing and vendor partners. This division is a vital role to be nurtured and encouraged and provide opportunities for growth.
TMB: Over the years, ASA has made great strides in recognizing and providing tools to help the various channels within the distribution industry. What started in 1969 by the vision of Jim Perry continues to this day to champion wholesale distribution — from coast-to-coast and beyond.
Here’s to you, ASA; The Wholesaler Magazine looks forward to celebrating with you on your 50th.