Savannah. A city long known for its history, architecture and Southern charm. Oh, and don’t forget about those mysterious ghosts that are said to pay visits to its residents and guests.
And around Savannah, Sandpiper Supply has long been recognized by the trade as the go-to plumbing distributor. When Chat and Carol Howard started the business 40 years ago, they were determined to provide the highest-quality products, on time, with a “whatever it takes” service philosophy. The hands-on example they set with their work ethic and integrity was the foundation that built Sandpiper’s customer-focused culture and a very loyal customer base.
The Howards’ roots are in Savannah, and their love of the city — and Sandpiper — is evident. It’s also evident in their two adult children, Chat Howard Jr. and Christy Ellis, and brought them both back to Savannah after leaving to pursue their education and begin their careers. Chat was involved in the financial world and among Christy’s experience was being an assistant at a design firm. They’ve been at Sandpiper now for roughly 15 years.
Christy described what it was like growing up watching her parents’ dedication to Sandpiper and its customers. “They worked so well together and taught us that the term ‘family business’ puts family first for a reason. From the very beginning Sandpipers’ employees have been like an extended family to us.”
She and her brother worked at Sandpiper after school and during the summers until they left for college. Beyond typical business and product knowledge, she said that the experience “taught us the importance of patience and having a sense of humor. All of those early lessons helped us when we started our careers in other industries. And we were able to combine all of that to bring a very unique perspective back to Sandpiper.”
The Howards are especially proud of the fact that they have had a hand in supplying products for so much of the growth and renovation around the area, and that Sandpiper has steadily grown parallel to Savannah itself. Sandpiper’s traditional wholesaling business still brings the largest portion of its sales, but since building their new facility in 2007 that includes a 2,000-square-foot showroom, all of those qualities that Sandpiper is known for among the trade are now recognized and relied on by the city’s residents.
“Until then, we didn’t have a showroom,” Christy explained. “We had a couple of Moen and Danze display boxes that we hung in the tool room and we worked from a 3’ X 2’ desk in the pricing room. We decided that we needed to commit to the showroom business in response to the interest and needs of plumbers who had started asking for special finish trims from their customers. So, as we were drawing up plans for our new offices, we were able to add a showroom into the design. I learned so much by trial and error during that process. I spent many late nights researching other showrooms in the industry, mapping out how I wanted to layout the showroom and what I would put where. I really enjoyed the selection and learning process, and seeing the range of options that were available.
“Originally, we had 2,000 square feet and Dad wanted to build a wall to cap it at 1,000 square feet. He just couldn’t imagine us needing any more than that. We decided to visit a few showrooms here and in Charleston to get some ideas. Tony Moluf of Moluf’s Supply in Charleston was our biggest supporter and ally. He told Dad to just open up the whole area, let me do what I had planned, and he predicted Dad would thank him for it. He was right – which was evidenced when Dad was the one to encourage doing our first remodel, so we could add a working shower! “
Sandpiper hosted an event recently celebrating their 41st anniversary, and in conjunction with that the LPG Advisory Committee held their meeting in Savannah. Christy said it was such a delight to have the committee members visit their showroom.
Hearing praise from these people I admire was a highlight of my career,” she said. “They were impressed that customers who are budget conscious as well as extravagant clients are able to enjoy a luxury experience from the same showroom.”
Despite the fact that showroom professionals are surrounded by such beautiful products in a gracious environment, there is tremendous pressure in being responsible for the design of two of areas of a home that are most central to a family’s everyday use. That pressure is compounded by the fact that unlike a new coat of paint, their designs will be in place for years to come.
“My first big solo project was a group of townhomes that were already under construction,” she recalled. “The plumber and contractor on the job were unhappy with their supplier. I was able to tour the job site and work a bid up based on what they had been installing and what I would be able to provide. I spent days and nights working on that bid, calculating everything and reviewing with others in the office to be sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. When my bid was accepted, I did a happy dance and personally delivered the first roughs to the job! I had a lot to learn, but I believe that my willingness to work hard to make things right and have it run smoothly was why they chose to continue with me for the rest of the job.”
After 15 years as Sandpiper’s Showroom Manager, Christy has been involved in hundreds of projects. And of course, she has some good stories from those experiences.
“I had a customer who was turning his attic into a man-cave and wanted to put a copper urinal in it,” she recalled. “I reached out to several of my vendors before finding one who thought it would be a fun challenge to take on. So they custom created one for us. We then worked with the plumber to invent a wash down for it with a copper-plated Swan-shaped volume control that would open and close the line. The customer was so proud of that urinal that I think he’s shown it to everyone who has ever visited him!
“The Lady Lola, our first super yacht project, was also pretty memorable. We were able to tour it before it set sail again and got quite a laugh that our beautiful faucets were going to be used for the crew – they weren’t luxurious enough as appointments for the upper level,” she laughed. “One of my other favorites started with a call we got one day asking if we could be discreet when working with celebrities. We ensured them we were and were very happy to treat Gregg Allman just like any other customer when he came in to our showroom after having left another when their staff acted more like paparazzi while he was just trying to buy toilets. We’ve since worked with several celebrities — one of our favorites is an author who has worked with us on renovations to several cottages she’s had on Tybee Island. She loves to bring antique pieces that she wants to restore to us and then we help her work them into her remodeling projects.”
Sandpiper is a long-time member of Omni, and the showroom has been part of Luxury Products Group since the beginning. Christy credits being active with LPG for helping not just the showroom itself but also her professional development.
“Giving back to LPG through volunteering my time on committees is just a small way to repay the group that has taught me so much,” she noted. “I know that our showroom would not be as successful today without the knowledge we’ve gained from our involvement with LPG. It has expanded my education in ways I could not have imagined or achieved. Membership has enabled me to build relationships with people I’d normally never have known. I’ve gained so much from those contacts and friendship, because members are so dedicated to sharing best practices with each other. The things I’ve learned have helped Sandpiper grow while enhancing our customers’ experiences here. One of the biggest challenges we face are the large corporations that are buying up mom and pop shops like ours. Being part of LPG and able to bounce ideas off of other companies like ours at the meetings — or throughout the year over the phone — helps us stay strong and competitive against the big guys.
“We’ve also had the opportunity to get to know the vendors and so many of their people — from their presidents through their customer service department. I’m able to reach out to any of them and get the support and answers I need. Being part of LPG has been invaluable in our ability to build such strong relationships. About 75% of our showroom sales are done with LPG vendors. We have less than a handful of vendors in our showroom that are not in LPG. We’re pretty up front with reps and vendors that if they’re not part of LPG they’re probably not going to do business with our showroom. “
LPG has also helped Sandpiper extend their offerings by adding lighting as an additional sales opportunity with customers making product selections. In their latest showroom redesign, Sandpiper changed their decor to include more lighting and also add small home decor pieces. “Having these additional items on display attract the attention of customers and it’s really surprising how much add-on sales we’re able to gain from them. We try to refresh at least something in our showroom every couple of weeks so there is always something different that customers will notice when they come in.
“We strive to bring a luxury experience to everyone who comes in — from the person with the smallest budget to one with a limitless budget,” she added. “We are dedicated to helping both of them leave here believing that our expertise has helped them find the best possible products for their projects.”
The Sandpiper showroom has three full-time employees, in addition to Christy. In describing them, she said, “Each one of them brings unique talents and perspectives to our showroom dynamic, and we all enjoy each other’s company both inside the office and out. All of our employees know that the biggest asset we have is them and their customer service that they bring to the counter and the showroom floor. Everyone at Sandpiper pulls for the common good and we all work together to be sure our customers know we value and appreciate their business.”
The Howards’ commitment to Savannah and to Sandpiper continues to be as strong as ever. As they have been over the last 40 years, Sandpiper and their team continue to be very active in the community and work to keep their name in front of them. They advertise in local publications and support a number of non-profit organizations. They’ve also started a scholarship for local high school seniors and have received a lot of press coverage and local support for that. They’ve continued to build upon their reputation of service and expertise.
As they are fond of saying, “We look forward to continuing to grow with Savannah!”