This year marks Ernie Coutermarsh’s 50th year with F.W. Webb Co., a family-owned and -operated wholesale distributor of plumbing, heating, cooling, PVF, and industrial products in the northeast. It’s an accomplishment not often heard of, where talent, ability, passion and opportunity come together to build something great. Starting as a sales rep, he moved up in the company in various leadership positions, eventually attaining his current role as senior vice president of industrial business development. Ernie was part of the foundation that made the company into the industrial powerhouse it is today.
“Having personally been honored by an intimate relationship with Ernie over the years, and knowledge of the high esteem in which he is held by many for his advice and counsel, he is genuinely the paragon of what has made our PVF industry such a fabulous growth sector in the past half-century,” says PVF industry expert and The Wholesaler columnist Morrie Beschloss.
Coutermarsh’s dedication to his company and his industry is why The Wholesaler selected him as the newest inductee into its PVF Hall of Fame. Criteria include service in the PVF field, leadership in the channel and a proponent of moving the industry, its people and the health of the chain forward — all the while having a positive impact on people through leadership, guidance and, most importantly, integrity.
“When I think of Ernie Coutermarsh, I think of the word integrity,” recalls Karl Garbowski, sales associate at J & K Sales Associate. “Ernie is one of those individuals who always does the right thing when no one is looking. He treats people with kindness, professionalism and respect, while at the same time keeps to a principle of always having the best interests of the F.W. Webb Co. firmly in mind.”
Coutermarsh is retiring at the end of the year, leaving a legacy of excellence in the industry he loves.
“I am incredibly pleased to learn that Ernie Coutermarsh is being honored for his service to the industrial marketplace,” notes Max Mitchell, CEO, Crane Co. “Amassing more than 45 years of experience in industrial business development within the F.W. Webb Co., he has built strong professional relationships and has proven to be a great partner and guide for Crane Co. over several decades. Always willing to share his depth of knowledge and insight, his contributions to the industry are invaluable. Congratulations, Ernie, from Crane Co. and thank-you for your years of service.”
Coutermarsh grew up in a small town in New Hampshire that he describes as Norman Rockwell-esque — hardworking, middle-class families where “everyone’s father seemed like they had been in World War II,” he recalls. Including his own; his father, Ernest R. Coutermarsh, Sr., served his country in the U.S. Marine Corps. When he left military service, he was a railroad worker for a while before his mother nudged him into politics. Ernest Coutermarsh, Sr. eventually became the Democratic leader of the state’s House of Representatives.
Ernie Coutermarsh describes a tough love family environment, where his parents “had a great sense of obligation; they taught us values and you couldn’t avoid them – they were enforced everywhere,” he recalls. “We were brought up with expectations.”
These values set the parameters for him. “I went to Catholic school for nine years and thrived on the expectations, competition and sense of accomplishment,” Coutermarsh says. From the beginning, structure, competition, goals and accomplishment would be his life beacons. An early example of expectation and accomplishment took place in his freshman year of high school when given the reading syllabus for all four years. “What were they expecting? I loved reading, so I read every required book in my first year,” said Ernie. These classic novels, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway played up to his sense of adventure. One book titled Battle Cry talked about the Marines in World War II. “This appealed to my sense of adventure,” said Ernie, who followed in his father’s footsteps and signed up for the Marie Corp during his senior year of high school and served four years active duty, and two years as a reserve.
He thrived under the structure of the Corps. “Marine life is a brotherhood and is hard to leave,” he says. When discharged, he returned to the United States, married and unemployed. “I knew I was in the land of opportunity,” he notes. “If I worked hard and jumped through hoops, I would be noticed.”
Ernie moved to Maryland “to expand my universe,” Ernie says. It was serendipity. The first help-wanted ad he pulled from the newspaper was for Shore Distributors, a family-owned plumbing and heating wholesale distributor in Salisbury, Md., run by family member Frank Morris. This would be a marker in Coutermarsh’s life, Frank would become his first mentor.
He inquired about the job; an entry-level position in the warehouse. “The warehouse was organized, everything was clean and neat,” Coutermarsh recalls. “Everyone wore a uniform. The guys running the warehouses were like drill instructors. It was very organized, and, in a warehouse, that means safety. The salesmen’s cars had the Shore Distributors logo on them — and I thought ‘there’s a system here.’ You felt as if you were representing the company — similar to when you are in the Marine Corps, you represent it every day. I appreciated that.”
He met Frank Morris, a man who believed being involved, giving opportunities and giving back would come full circle. “Opportunity is a powerful word,” Coutermarsh says. “If you say it, you better be the kind of company that can provide it. You can only do that if you’re growing. Growing companies provide opportunity.”
Always wanting to advance, in life and work, Coutermarsh thrived on the opportunities that Morris gave him — such as joining him at events held by the National Association of Wholesalers, where he would hear from speakers and feed off the enthusiasm of the group. Ernie would absorb the information and experience of the speakers and apply them to the job. “When opportunity is presented, take it and never disappoint,” he says.
Morris was a forward thinker; he believed in investing in people, technology and process. Ernie thrived in this type of environment. Around 1967, Morris had a computer and all the pick tickets were coming out on the old IBM cards. “I didn’t know anything about computers and Frank gave a computer test to everyone in the building,” Coutermarsh notes. “He was looking for who had the aptitude for programming.”
He wanted to advance not only his business but the people themselves. He encouraged training and development of talent. Morris believed in educating his workforce. Coutermarsh describes how Morris invested in employees through training and education, regardless of where they were positioned within the company.
“With motivation comes opportunity and advancement,’ Coutermarsh explains. “Frank was my kind of leader. He was the first big influence in my life in this world. He was a young, highly motivated and very passionate man. You wanted to be around him.”
Coutermarsh quickly advanced out of the warehouse and into sales — and Morris gave him the opportunity to manage a location in Maryland. He jumped at the chance and thrived in his role as manager. But there was a desire to get back to his roots in New England.
He went home for a vacation and while there took another chance. “Just for the hell of it, I went to F.W. Webb in Nashua, N.H.,” he notes. “I walked in and said I’m looking for a sales job.” Fortune shines on the bold; the company had an immediate opening in the sales department. Coutermarsh interviewed for the job right then and was offered the position — with the condition that he start in two weeks.
What Coutermarsh didn’t know, and which rings true even today, is that the PHCP-PVF industry is a large but close-knit group. By the time he returned to Maryland to tell Morris he was leaving Shore Distributors, Morris already knew. “What I didn’t know was Frank and John Pope, owner of F.W. Webb Co. knew each other,” Coutermarsh recalls. “John called Frank and asked what he thought of me; Frank gave me a very good recommendation. That speaks volumes about Frank — he was a man of class and integrity.”
He had the same intuition about Pope. He accepted the position and John Pope became his new mentor.
In 1969, F.W. Webb Co. was a plumbing and heating supplier with seven locations and $5.5 million in sales. Three years prior, the company had turned 100 years old. “When you join the Marine Corps, the first thing they teach you is the history, the tradition and the mission,” Coutermarsh says. “I come to F.W. Webb and start working for a 100-plus-year-old company steeped in history, tradition and with a fearless leader. I knew there was an opportunity here.”
Coutermarsh began as an outside sales rep in New Hampshire; within six months, he was promoted to general manager of a store in Massachusetts. From there, he kept going.
As the years charged forward, so did the company, and Pope wanted to expand into the industrial side of the business. He recognized that the companies making up the economic engine of the geographical area — hospitals, manufacturing plants, universities — were his untapped market. Pope was famous for saying: “We provide a function; the function is distribution. That’s our relevancy.” He was determined to stay relevant and fill in the lines that would serve the PVF side of the business.
The company had a good start with its manufacturing partnership with Crane Valve and secured the opportunity to purchase its U.S. supply houses. F.W. Webb would need to engage in focused acquisition — filling the holes in the distributor’s product lines — to move full steam ahead into the PVF industrial market. Coutermarsh was called to lead the charge.
Pope provided him with an amazing opportunity — an entrepreneurial environment and the freedom to develop a game plan to move into industrial sales, with investment, people and marketing support.
Coutermarsh charged forward and built the inside and outside sales team from the ground up and formed strong business relationships with vendors. Without a strong bond, commitment can fail, and he was not about to let that happen. His ability to listen, communicate and support vendors throughout his career was accomplished with honor and integrity.
“Ernie became the face and voice for the F.W. Webb company in the PVF industry,” says Jeff Pope, son of John and president of F.W. Webb. “He’s a never-ending advocate and has been a terrific ambassador for the company and the industry channel.”
Understanding the importance of growth through acquisition, it was Coutermarsh’s assistance and keen eye of making strategic decisions that increased F.W. Webb’s credibility and presence in the industrial space. He understood a company’s most important assets are the people who know the product as well as the product lines the company carried.
His leadership style and people skills helped retain the talent and their product knowledge — and gave them the opportunity to excel in their craft. This, in turn, supported the F.W. Webb philosophy of “We’ve Got it!” — a tagline which represents both product and knowledge. And yes, Ernie is credited for it.
Coutermarsh has been part of 19 industrial acquisitions at F.W. Webb. The company filled in the gaps in the industrial portfolio, bringing in stainless-steel PVF, valve automation, pump repair services and hose fabrication and more, making it the go-to leader in industrial sales in the Northeast. Between acquisitions, his input was considered when the company was looking to expand into other disciplines. Eventually, the company would succeed in adding seven disciplines into F.W. Webb’s industrial capabilities: PVF, industrial PVF specialties, commercial and industrial pumps, thermoplastic piping, high purity process components, process controls and safety relief valve pressure management. The company is now one of the largest wholesale distributors of its kind in the Northeast.
Understanding the Customer
The distributor’s growth came through a multi-level step of understanding customers. “My management style is focused on customers,” Coutermarsh explains. “There are two groups: the customers I have and the customers I want to have.”
He knew that to remain relevant one needed to understand the many levels within a customer’s company — purchasing, safety, maintenance, engineering — as all their motivations are different. By understanding the full system and needs within a manufacturing plant, you could be the one-stop service partner to provide for it. By building up inventories in these areas, and having the knowledge base behind them, F.W. Webb did just that.
Coutermarsh strategically developed messages for the different functions and educated the sales team about the various messages and approach to their customers. He and his team created an industrial catalog where the company’s lines could be perused in one place. “We became better than our competition in getting information to our customers,” he says.
Customers appreciated the comprehensive understanding of their process, which, in turn, made it easier to support their success. The distributor flourished as Coutermarsh helped gain new industrial accounts in the areas of power, chemical, pulp and paper, MRO, biotech, pharmaceutical, institutions, industrial plants. Also, the company obtained new customer types such as mechanical contractors, OEMs, engineers and facility managers.
“You need to listen to customers and do everything you can to help them be more efficient,” he says. It was another tactical approach to being full service. By listening, you can understand the utilization cost of a product within the process and help implement a strategy to reduce the cost.
Coutermarsh and a team created industrial catalogs, the WIN Sheet (a newsletter for industrial customers) and the original Pipeline (an internal employee newsletter). He worked with John Pope to create the Northeast Vendor Alliance, which allowed noncompeting companies to work together and offer packaged solutions. His team also instituted industrial customer initiatives reducing transactional costs such as technology-enabled vendor-managed inventory solutions and an energy cost-reduction steam program.
It’s been an amazing 50-year journey for Coutermarsh, who helped build the industrial side of the business for F.W. Webb and be a part of the historic growth it made during that time. Jeff Pope started at the company in 1980, and became president in 2003, and I asked him if he recalled his first memory of Coutermarsh. “I believe Ernie was the general manager of the Williston, Vt., branch at the time when he ‘roasted’ my Dad at a gathering for his 50th birthday,” Pope recalls. “Ernie has the charm and magmatism and is a great speaker. He had a lot of people laughing that night.
“Ernie always strives to instill confidence in people about the Webb Co. and the brands it sells,” he adds. “He always could find the goodness in everyone and that lesson has helped me from time to time.” Its apparent that Ernie’s ability to connect with people on many levels led to his success.
Mentoring and Mentors
At the foundation of Coutermarsh’s work ethic is his drive of being of service to others — and not just customers. Giving back through volunteering and mentoring is ingrained in him. He believes that knowledge, guidance and volunteering are essential to growth in the channel. He is an advocate for being tough but fair and providing guidance to build one up and propel you forward.
“Ernie is without a doubt a role model of outstanding commitment to the PVF industry,” says Larry Dildine, president of The Phoenix Forge Group. “For years he has given unselfishly of his expertise in enhancing the PVF channel through his involvement in networking groups, boards and associations. He projects a positive industry image through his leadership and friendship. He is a professional, pleasant, trustworthy and sincere in his actions. He is the ideal person you want representing our industry with the strength and vision as an example for us all. I am so pleased to know Ernie and call him a true PVF industry friend.”
He is an active member of the American Supply Association’s (ASA) Industrial Piping Division, which awarded him the ASA Industrial Piping Division Award of Excellence in 2016.
As an active and heavily involved member of the AD buying group, Coutermarsh was instrumental in the growth and culture of AD-PVF, the largest group of dynamic and independent pipe, valves and fittings distributors in North America. Over the years he has served on various AD boards and committees and for more than two decades has been a regular participant in its semi-annual Peer Networking sessions. He served as AD’s network chairman and delegate to the PVF division. In 2006, he was awarded the AD Leadership Award.
“Ernie’s knowledge, experience and words of guidance and wisdom have been passed down through several generations of AD PVF member-owners,” notes Gary Jackson, AD vice president, business development, PHCP divisions. “Sometimes business relationships develop into something much larger. I’ve worked with Ernie for more than 20 years, and I’ve seen his character and honesty and industry knowledge on display.
“But I think the largest legacy Ernie shared with me is how to treat people. I won’t ever forget his example. It’s an honor to call him a friend and mentor.”
Jeffrey Beall, AD president US & Canada PHCP divisions, has known Coutermarsh for many years and expounds upon the sentiments said from his peers. “When I was new to the PVF Industry, Ernie was never shy about teaching me the ropes. He made sure I knew how to treat customers, suppliers and associates in our AD networking conversations. He was never too far away to reach out to for advice, as I did often. The way he spoke about the PVF industry you knew it was his passion and if you were going to be successful you should have a passion for it. I have never forgotten that lesson.”
It’s evident that the most significant influence in Coutermarsh’s career was John Pope. He speaks of Pope as one of the biggest drivers in his life, providing him with opportunity, support, guidance and expectation of upholding the company values and ideals. Ernie holds steadfast to the vision and leadership he provided.
Each day John is with him in spirit – sitting on his desk (over his shoulder) is a photograph of Pope with one of his famous quotes, “Doing right by the customer once means we’ve earned the right to try a second time. And that’s all it means. We must prove to that customer that we’re better than the next guy every time out if we want to be the supplier of choice.” Ernie carries that mantra, adoration and respect of Pope and the company with him always.
His other mentors are Frank Morris, who helped establish him in wholesale distribution, and Morrie Beschloss, PVF industry expert and professor emeritus. Beschloss’ relationship as a mentor and PVF guru helped Coutermarsh navigate the channel and always provided guidance.
I asked Coutermarsh how he has developed and mentored the next PVF industry leaders at the company. “We’ve got a very aggressive recruitment program to bring young people into our industry,” he explains. “We have a fantastic management team here and have Mike Leander, a smart, confident, intuitive individual leading the charge as the director of industrial sales. We all understand the need to work together, be the most knowledgeable and provide the best customer service.”
It’s the Webb way.
The most significant people in Ernie’s life include his children, Eva Coutermarsh and Patrick Coutermarsh, and his loving wife Diane Gullgren Coutermarsh. The photos lining his office as well as his Facebook posts show his love for family, friends and tradition. Ernie is steadfast in his commitment to family, which also includes F.W. Webb, where he oversees a Facebook group dedicated to current and former employees. Again, It’s the Webb way.
As he prepares to leave the industry that gave him so much, I asked Ernie what the best piece of advice is that he had been given. He sat back in his chair, got a big smile on his face and said it came from his father. Many a day growing up in the Coutermarsh household, one could find local, state and national politicians stopping by for guidance or a discussion. Ernie shows me a photo of his father with John F. Kennedy, who was a frequent visitor to the home.
“My father taught us hard work through example and to never compromise your ideas,” he says. “By watching my father stand up and speak in front of the State House assembly, it gave me the courage to be and do.”
Ernie’s love of the industry is evident from the 50 years of friendships he has curated — business associates become lifelong friends, and his office is filled with these memories. With so much history and passion for the industry, its people, lifelong friendships made along the way, it’s hard to imagine there will be a hard stop when he retires.
I have a feeling his new title will be like that of his third mentor, Morrie Beschloss, as industry emeritus. After all, once you become involved in the industry, even after 50 years, it is hard to walk away. Here’s to you, Ernie; thank-you for your positive contribution to the PVF industry and setting an example of greatness.