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Brian Tuohey is president of the Collins Companies and serves as the current president of the American Supply Association (ASA). Having been actively involved for many years, he is a man with a vision and determination to help drive the PHCP-PVF industry forward. I sat down with him to hear about his background and talk about the high expectations the association has set for itself. Ruth Mitchell: Brian, the Collins Companies is celebrating 98 years in business. Started by the Collins family, how did you get involved with the company?
Brian Tuohey: It was started by the Collins family in 1920 as a small local plumbing supply house and remained that way until purchased by Larry O’Toole in 1973, where he converted it into an industrial PVF distributorship. I purchased the company from Larry, his son and son-in-law in 1998. At the time of the purchase, we were still a one-location operation serving western New England. Since then, we have been fortunate enough to grow the company to a nine-location operation, which services the entire Northeast.
It’s funny how it came to be. Coming out of college, I joined Consolidated Freightways (CF) in its management training program and my first job was in outside sales. I used to call on Collins and Larry O’Toole. Seven years later in 1983, I was running a division for CF in Buffalo, N.Y., and Larry tracked me down and told me that he wanted me to run his company. Slightly perplexed by the offer, I politely told him I didn’t think there was anything he could say to me that would prompt me to leave a great career at the biggest trucking company in the world to run a small PVF company that I knew little to nothing about.
His answer was perfect: “Brian, I realize you have a great career opportunity with CF but you will never own that company. If you join me at Collins, with a lot of hard work, you could own this company someday.” Fifteen years later, Consolidated Freightways was bankrupt and I did own Collins Pipe & Supply, so I guess I made the right choice.
RM: What drives your passion for the industry?
BT: My dream in life was always to own my own company and this industry, which is comprised of primarily family-owned independent companies, allowed me to realize that dream. I came into this industry with a lot of desire but no knowledge. The willingness and kindness that everyone has shown to me in helping me understand and prosper in this business have been extraordinary. This is a great industry because of the quality and generosity of the people that are in it. I cannot recognize or thank them enough.
RM: The company’s mission statement is “Consistently exceed the expectations of our customers and associates to allow us to ALWAYS contribute to the advancement of our company and our community.” What steps do you take to achieve the mission?
BT: Collins is a faith-based company that lives by two guiding principles — treat others as you would want to be treated and to whom much is given, much will be required. In support of these defining principles, I think the success we have enjoyed as a company speaks volumes about how we treat our customers.
But I believe the two best examples of our commitment to our mission statement are that we share the company profits with all our employees and every year, as a company, we make a considerable commitment of our time, talent and treasure to several charitable causes in our community.
RM: What is the best piece of advice that you have ever been given?
BT: Let money be the “byproduct” of a pure effort and people don’t care what you know until they know that you care.
RM: How long have you been involved with ASA — both as a member and in leadership?
BT: I joined ASA back in 2008 when I saw the promise of what a strong national trade association could do for both my business and our industry. I had heard about its efforts to create a strong strategic vision to position the association to become a real force dedicated to strengthening our members and our industry. I guess I joined based on that promise and what the future could be.
I first jumped into volunteer leadership when I joined the IPD (Industrial Piping Division) Executive Council and I served in that leadership group until last year. I was invited to join the ASA Board about four years ago and then the Executive Committee in 2015. It has certainly been a fast but fun ride since then.
RM: What did you want to personally accomplish this year as president of ASA?
BT: My goal was to ensure that we continued to challenge ourselves by setting meaningful, significant goals to help ASA better serve our members, as we all face a rapidly changing future. Challenges such as: keeping our members on the cutting edge of the trends and technology advances that will connect members to our industry customers; increasing the number of talented workers taking advantage of attractive career opportunities in our industry; and expanding our leadership voice and influence with government, industry and customer groups. These are just some of the big ideas that the leadership of ASA hopes to advance in the coming years.
RM: Tell me about ASA’s growth over the past year?
BT: Probably our most exciting advancement this year is the expansion of the ASA staff at its headquarters in Chicago. Over the next few weeks and months, we will be making several announcements of how ASA has strengthened our team to better serve the membership, and we look to the future and the challenges that face our members and our industry. I am very excited to announce two new programs that will significantly impact how we will be supporting our members.
The first is the strengthening of our business intelligence programs. In 2018, the executive board of ASA voted to commit the resources to hire a full-time business intelligence analyst to focus solely on improving the existing business data reports that members receive, as well as adding new content and programs to bolster our Business Intelligence offerings. Ayesha Salman has been hired as our manager of business intelligence. We are excited about the new direction we will be moving in this area to help members make better data-driven decisions to assist them in the management of their businesses.
Another area of expansion is our voice in Washington, as it seems that virtually every issue our government is dealing with impacts our membership in some way. Having quality input into those discussions is vital to our industry’s long-term interests. I am extremely pleased to report we have taken a “team” approach to representing our membership in Washington.
We had an extensive search to find a strong visionary, energetic team member to fill an opening in our Washington office. We filled that position by bringing on board Catherine Treadwell, who holds a Juris Doctorate from the Nashville School of Law. She has a drive and energy that we have needed to radically expand our voice and our future successes in Washington.
In addition, we partnered with the Brightup Group, a leading government affairs firm in Washington that has a long history and extensive expertise in representing industry groups such as ASA.
We have promoted Jim Kendzel to the position of vice president of advocacy to lead this new advocacy team. Jim joined our staff last year to head up our codes and standards operation but before joining us, he was the executive director of the American Society of Plumbing Engineers. He brings great experience and drive in leading our efforts to impact codes, standards, regulatory and legislative issues that will influence our future in all these areas.
RM: What new initiatives has ASA taken this year?
BT: As our value and financial picture grows, so does the ability of ASA to add even more new programs and services that will keep our members as market leaders. One area we invested in and are particularly excited about is to keep members on the cutting edge of the trends and technology advances that will connect them to their industry customers.
All ASA members now have free access to an exciting new program called Digital Branch. We contracted with B2X Partners to provide our members complete access to technology experts who can help guide our members to evaluate technology options that they are pursuing as it relates to EDI, VMI or, most importantly, B-to-B business. Technology is so critical but many of us don’t have the expertise in our companies to know what our best options are in this area and how to even get started.
Another new initiative funded this year is a program to assist our members to connect with future leaders of their company. Last year at NetworkASA in Nashville, students from two major university’s that have strong industrial distribution programs joined us to learn more about our industry and the career opportunities it could provide to them. This year we are expanding that effort by bringing 30 students from six major universities to attend Network in Scottsdale to help our members connect with the “best and the brightest.”
RM: While traveling this past year to industry events, what’s the one question folks ask you about?
BT: The No. 1 question that I get asked at every industry event is how our industry is going to deal with the fact that 50 percent of our labor force is scheduled to retire in the next decade and, more importantly, how ASA can help our membership to recruit, train and retain this avalanche of new employees.
RM: What is the biggest challenge ASA members face, and what tools does ASA provide to help with the solution?
BT: As we talk with members, we are constantly reminded about the unprecedented pace of change that is impacting not only their business but our industry. Disruptive technologies, commoditization, shifts of employee availability, evolving customer requirements and threats to our traditional channel markets demand that as the industry association, ASA must step up to expand our leadership in supporting our members as they deal with this myriad of issues.
We ar being called upon to build our association, not for yesterday or even for today but for what’s coming at us tomorrow. We must identify the problems and invest in solutions that may not have an immediate return on investment but will put ASA in a strong position to serve our members for many years to come. We convened a Think Tank back in December 2017 and re-convened it again in January of this year, led by Dirk Beveridge, to dive deep into thinking about the future.
How will technological advances such as driverless trucks and forklifts impact our members? What new competitors will emerge to challenge giants such as Amazon and how will we adjust to meet and defeat these new competitors? What will a declining installer labor force do to our ability to sell and distribute our products? How will customer purchasing habits impact our member’s ability to meet the needs of a generation with the capability to find and buy products at their fingertips and in an instant?
Seventy ASA leaders gathered Feb. 8-9 to discuss the threats that the Think Tank identified and took the first steps toward mapping out a vision as to where ASA should lead. What will the member of 2027 look like and the trends that will change the way our members do business? While many issues are facing our members, the volunteers selected three megatrends that will have the greatest impact on our members over the next 10 years.
RM: Let’s talk about the labor shortage. How is ASA working towards attracting talent to the workforce?
BT: ASA is establishing three Strategic Think Tanks to address the three mega-issues facing our members. One of them is human capital and our labor shortages. As you know, we conducted a study about three years ago that identified our industry will lose half of our labor force over the next 15 years.
So, this task group will meet over the next few months and dive deep into this issue and come to our Winter Leadership Meeting next February in Southern California to present a business plan on how we will replace 100,000 workers who will retire over the next decade. We have very high expectations that this group will develop an excellent plan on how to best attack this issue.
Being a member of ASA helps distributors in so many ways, and it’s a great way to give back to an industry that has been so good to all of us.
For more information, please visit www.asa.net