On March 26, 2019, at the age of 79, A. Robert Carnevale, chairman of Bradford White Corporation passed away. Known as just “Bob” to most and “Mr. C” to many, he was the visionary leader of Bradford White and a true icon in our industry. In 2015, The Wholesaler recognized him and the company as its Honoree of the Year, and we celebrate Bob’s life by bringing to you the feature story that ran in the December 2015 issue.
Our industry is special. Unique. And personal. Despite all of the advancements in technology, digital communications and the Amazon kind of world we’re living in, our businesses continue to be driven by the power of loyalty and relationships. And the most successful companies are the ones built on the backs of risk-taking, innovative entrepreneurs who had a dream and followed it — no matter what anyone else said. We’re also an industry that has each other’s backs and looks at the big picture instead of just the immediate fulfillment. When help is needed, we tend to pull together to get through the challenges.
One man, one company, epitomizes all of this and more — Bob Carnevale and Bradford White Corporation. So when the team at The Wholesaler began discussing candidates for our annual Honoree of the Year, this was a unanimous choice.
Bradford White’s roots date back to 1881 as Pennsylvania Range Boiler Company, but what the current leadership has built over the past two decades since Carnevale led a group that took control of the company under an Employee Stock Ownership Trust is the American Dream at its finest. That move in 1992 literally changed the course of Bradford White’s future.
In 1991 Bradford White Corporation (BWC) was part of a foreign-owned conglomerate. The parent company was in an accelerated growth mode and was attempting to acquire a BWC competitor. To complete the transaction, it was necessary to sell a portion of Bradford White. As long-term executives of BWC, Bob Carnevale, along with Dick Milock —the General Manager of the Middleville, Mich., manufacturing facility — saw this as an opportunity to create a new water heater manufacturer that would stay true to the trade with a wholesale-only distribution policy and a commitment to U.S. manufacturing. There were many at the time who didn’t believe there was enough distributor loyalty to support this philosophy. Some even predicted the new company wouldn’t survive 18 months. That was over 23 years ago!
With the support of distributor and contractor friends, Bradford White has grown beyond even its loftiest goals. This growth has allowed them to create over a thousand AMERICAN jobs.
While their philosophy and culture have remained the same, much has changed. Today, Bradford White’s headquarters are in a stately historic estate in the Philadelphia suburbs built by the grandson of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. They’ve made a number of strategic acquisitions that have complemented and expanded their offerings. In fact, this is the 10th anniversary of their acquisition of Laars Heating Systems. And in recent years, they’ve made a significant investment in their massive Middleville manufacturing facility to meet the ever-increasing demand for Bradford White products.
Bradford White Corporation now consists of four distinct subsidiaries:
Bradford White Water Heaters
Laars Heating Systems
Niles Steel Tank Co.
Bradford White Canada.
I recently had a chance to sit down with key executives of Bradford White — Chairman Bob Carnevale, President and CEO Nick Giuffre, Executive Vice President &COO Bruce Carnevale and Director of Marketing Carl Pinto Jr. — to talk about the company, their leadership philosophy and how they’ve built such an incredible company-wide culture.
MJM: Congratulations, Bob and to all of you at Bradford White, for the tremendous growth and success you’ve experienced and what you’ve built. Give us an idea what that means to you?
Bob Carnevale: Thank you sincerely. Bradford White and I are humbled to be chosen as The Wholesaler’s Honoree of the Year. And while this interview focuses on a few of us, please keep in mind that the success of our company is a result of a complete team effort. If you remember, Mary Jo, when you visited us back in 1999 for another feature interview, you closed that article with a quote from me, “We haven’t even begun to accomplish what we believe is possible.” Thanks to the overwhelming support of our wholesaler and contractor friends, we have in fact accomplished a lot since then. It has proven that our business plan of wholesale only and made in America works — and works well.
MJM: Bob, you had a challenging, yet inspiring youth that you don’t talk about much. Would you mind sharing a bit with our readers about your early years?
Bob Carnevale: I was born into an Italian immigrant family in Philadelphia. My father died when I was three years old, but my mother was a very strong woman, and raised my sister and me alone as a single mom. She demonstrated and insisted upon strong family values, a solid work ethic and a never-give-up philosophy. She was also very entrepreneurial herself, and came up with a plan of taking boarders into our home for additional income, which really helped us get by during a very difficult time in our country.
I served in the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division in Bamberg, Germany, and after my release from active duty took a job as an inside order entry clerk at what is now Bradford White while completing my education in a night school program at Penn State. We were, at the time, a small, understaffed company. But it gave me an opportunity to learn all aspects of the business — sales, engineering, manufacturing and finance. I was also very fortunate to have a superb mentor, Mike Deluca, who, among many, many things, taught me the value of planning. He was a major influence on my management style.
Another major influence on me is my wife of 53 years, Judy. She was supportive of my career and devoted much of her energy to raising our two children, Robyn and Bruce. We are extremely proud of them both.
Bruce Carnevale: Well, there’s little more to the story, Mary Jo, on how Bob actually came to work for Bradford White. When Bob got out of the Army, he took a job repossessing cars. One night, he had a gun pulled on him and decided it would be a good idea to get a safer job. That’s how he ended up in a job through a temp agency at what became Bradford White. The only problem was that he quit the first day, and got fired the first week. Despite it all, his very strong mother, with her extraordinary work ethic, told him he couldn’t quit until he had a new job.
Bob Carnevale: And that is how a temporary job turned into a 54-year career.
Over the years, I moved into the positions of Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer. It became clear that an opportunity to buy part of the company was on the horizon. So a small group of us — including Dick Milock, who headed up the Middleville manufacturing plant, and Bob Hunter, our CFO — banded together to try to get financing. Our idea of a wholesale-only philosophy wasn’t well received by bankers. In fact, we were turned down by everyone we approached. On what was basically our last opportunity, we somehow persuaded them that what we were doing had merit and we got the backing we needed.
MJM: How would you describe your management style?
Bob Carnevale: Evolutionary, as I’ve been flexible enough to adapt to whatever situation that has been in front of us. I believe leaders must listen well and communicate. I’m a strong proponent of planning. Failing to plan is planning to fail. That is why I’ve surrounded myself with such a solid management team.
MJM: What do you consider some of the biggest highlights from your legendary career?
Bob Carnevale: Most important to me have been:
That an American-made and wholesale-only philosophy has worked well
This company, this industry has been extremely special to me
Having Nick Giuffre, Bruce Carnevale and Jim McGoldrick receive the AIM/R Golden Eagle Award
Watching our management succession plan evolve
Working with the team at ASA and watching the association experience significant growth
Watching business relationships grow into fabulous, life-long friendships
And of course, being chosen for this interview and honor.
MJM: How do your skills and talents complement each other?
Bob Carnevale: I can smoke, drink and play poker all at the same time. (Editor’s Note: That comment was followed by much laughter.)
Nick Giuffre: Bob put all of us into the right roles within the industry. He assigned each of us to different organizations and allowed and encouraged us to take on important roles within those organizations. That was a big commitment because it took a lot of our time at a critical time in the company’s history. But it was one of the key factors that helped us build such loyalty among our customers.
I am proud to say that within virtually every industry-related association or organization, Bradford White has someone in its management ranks taking ownership and giving of their time. Bob knew that I would do anything it took to sell Bradford White, and that this would help me personally become more connected. Being involved with customers from around the country at association and buying group meetings really allowed me to grow. The opportunities Bradford White has given me changed my life.
But I have to emphasize that the key word here is “involved.” An industry presence isn’t just about writing a check — although we have been very generous in that area, too — but it is about sharing one’s time and talents to elevate the industry as a whole.
(Editor’s Note: Bradford White was the first manufacturer to contribute to the ASA Education Foundation Karl E. Neupert Endowment Fund, and held a seat on the original Campaign Advisory Board. They have also been extraordinarily supportive of AIM/R and the work of manufacturers’ representatives. One of the first manufacturers to join AIM/R as an associate member, Bradford White encourages all of its reps to join AIM/R and attend its annual conference.)
MJM: One of the other things you’re best known for is the chemistry and cohesiveness you have built here among your team. How did you do that so successfully?
Bruce Carnevale: Experience and talent are critically important whether we are promoting from within, or hiring externally. Most important, however, are chemistry and culture. Our culture is very customer-centric. It’s something we can often tell just by sitting down with them. For example, Jim McGoldrick came in here strictly for a chance to practice his interviewing skills. His father was a plumber who had grown up with my father, and asked if we would give him an interview “rehearsal.” We were so impressed, that we hired him immediately. That was 19 years ago. He’s now our VP of Sales, and embodies our culture.
Nick Giuffre: We are so fortunate to have many people who have been here 30 years or more. But the downside of such longevity is that they do, at some point, retire. So our challenge becomes maintaining our culture and philosophy as we hire new people. We’ve been successful in doing that and improving on the environment we’ve established. We do some predictive index testing during the interview process, but we also do a gut-check. They’re both uncannily accurate. You can talk to somebody for 10 minutes and just “know.”
Then once someone comes on board, they are mentored by our veterans so they can learn the way we do business. The thing is you don’t necessarily have to talk about our customer focus; it’s evident when you walk in the door or spend time with any of us. We walk the walk.
The nicest comments I get from customers are on the quality of our people. It’s about chemistry and their ability to fit in, rather than strictly credentials. We don’t solely look at credentials. I will take chemistry all day long. For the most part, it’s your gut instinct. Our relationships are what we are. We still believe in that.
MJM: You really are a rare breed in today’s world.
Nick Giuffre:We still do business on a handshake and with people that we trust, and who trust us. We go into every deal with good faith.
We’ve found that the best way to do business is to meet face to face and share information openly and honestly. We’ve built very strong relationships between our reps and regional managers; I think we’re the only company that has won multiple Golden Eagle awards from AIM/R. We are very dedicated to the function of independent reps and their success. And they give us more because they know we’re invested in their success.
Bruce Carnevale: Relationships still play a huge role in our business, and they always will. But the way we build relationships has changed, and will continue to change. There is a clear difference between the generations, and we have to be able to straddle that. That can present some challenges on how to best communicate. For example, a lot of contractors now want to look up product information from smart phones, but a lot don’t. So we have to be able to meet the needs of all of them, and get the information they want into their hands, the way they want to get it. There are a lot of changes happening in the industry and we need to bridge the gap between maintaining our small-company culture and embracing modern technology to run an efficient and effective organization. We’re integrating new technology into every aspect of our business — product development, advanced manufacturing systems, IT, logistics. But it’s not just on the operations side of the business. Carl Pinto, our Director of Marketing, has done a tremendous job taking us to a higher level in marketing and communications.
Carl Pinto: Technology is not a replacement for, but rather an enhancement to what we do best - building relationships and, of course, great products. We’ve got to straddle that generational gap when it comes to communications as people are just wired differently today in how they want to receive information. We also consciously strive not to flood customers and reps with loads of information, just hoping they’ll get some of it. Rather, we want them to know that if we send them something, it’s of value and important for them to know. We are very measured in what we communicate because everyone gets flooded with a variety of information, every minute of every day.
MJM: It’s obvious that your leadership is very hands on in all aspects of the business.
Nick Giuffre: Our leadership is very hands on. We still get comments that our wholesalers and plumbers appreciate our leadership talking to them. Sometimes they can hardly believe that a CEO or president or vice president will actually respond in person. It makes people feel important and respected, and they know we listen. In turn we’ve got to listen to our customers; they are living with their businesses and needs every day so we want to know what is important to them. I can’t tell you how many great ideas we’ve gotten from our customers that we’ve implemented and have helped us stand out in our market.
MJM: Bruce, you didn’t exactly plan on getting into this business. So how did you find yourself here, in this position?
Bruce Carnevale: You’re right, Mary Jo. I didn’t plan to get into the business. I worked for Bradford White as a co-op in the Philadelphia R&D lab while I was at Drexel University. It was a great learning experience. I worked on the first power vented water heater design. But what I really learned is that I liked the business side as well. So I added marketing and finance as majors, and ended up working as a sales engineer for a big chemical company after graduating. My father approached me to come to work here and I declined. But he persisted and after several years, I finally relented in 1996. It turned out to be best move I could have ever made. I started out as Product Manager for International Sales. I was single and traveled all over the world developing new opportunities for Bradford White, and working with some long-time customers overseas.
What’s funny is that I knew very little about the company when I started. My father had always kept work at work. When he was home, he would leave work behind. We did a lot of projects around the house and spent a lot of time together. At one point we even restored a car together. But during all of this shared time, Bradford White rarely entered our discussions.
MJM: Let’s talk about Bradford White today, and especially what the massive expansion of your Middleville, Mich., plant means to the future of the company?
Nick Giuffre: It is critical. To some degree, we became the victims of our success. We were pushing up against our capacity limitations, which affected our ability to service our customers. This expansion has allowed us to serve our customers and continue to grow our business. One of the unsung heroes at Bradford White is Eric Lannes, our Executive VP and GM of the Middleville facility. Eric was the visionary behind the plant expansion, and he and his team did an incredible job building essentially an entirely new facility while continuing to produce record numbers of units, and improving quality.
In addition to the Middleville plant, we have also expanded our Laars operation in New Hampshire, and our Niles Steel Tank facility in Michigan, which has grown its product offering as well as developing a backup capability for our Middleville production if needed.
At Middleville, the important thing to note is that we’ve made the investment to have the capacity to take care of our customers the way they expect and deserve, and also to be able to handle new regulatory requirements. At the same time, it allows us the flexibility to be able to grow in the coming years.
Bruce Carnevale: Our new manufacturing lines are up and running and working well, but we’re by no means finished. There are still a lot of things we will continue to work on — like focusing more on optimization and efficiencies. We’re transitioning from a manufacturing philosophy of building product to inventory and serving customers from that inventory, to building to the customer order. We’ve built tremendous flexibility into the new manufacturing operation.
We’ve taken similar steps to upgrade and expand our facilities at Laars and Niles, and. this allows us continue to integrate our subsidiaries so that we can bring even more value to our customers.
MJM: Let’s go back a bit and talk about those acquisitions and why they were so important to Bradford White?
Bob Carnevale: In 2002, we acquired Aero Environmental, which is now Bradford White Canada. That same year, we acquired Niles Steel Tank. In 2005, we acquired Laars Heating Systems. Simply put, there were some strategic reasons behind those acquisitions:
• With Aero, it was to better serve our Canadian customers and have a strong presence in the Canadian market.
• The Niles Steel Tank acquisition was important because, as we got into the commercial market, we were sourcing from others. This acquisition allowed us to grow the NST core business, but also become the supplier to Bradford White.
• So when Laars became available, it allowed us to get into the boiler market, and build a larger commercial business. NST then became a key supplier of tanks to Laars.
I would say the integration of our businesses has worked very well. There are always opportunities to work together, especially when it comes to product development and engineering. Laars has done a tremendous job of transitioning from a primarily copper fin-based product line to a high efficiency stainless steel-based product line. With increasing efficiency regulations, many of the boiler technologies become more transferable to water heaters. So, for our customers, we believe the biggest benefits of the integration of our subsidiaries are yet to come.
MJM: You’ve also continued to be very committed to manufacturing in America, despite some of the less-than-friendly governmental regulations.
Bruce Carnevale: We take great pride in the fact that we have continued to manufacture in America. It’s a small contribution we can make to the U.S. economy, but it has a big impact on the families and the communities we are part of. And, I still believe that we can do it better and more cost effectively in the U.S. We also export to about 50 different countries around the world, and they all value “American-made” and recognize the quality built into our products.
Nick Giuffre: We’ve instilled customer service in our factories as well. While they might not have interaction with the end customer, they have internal customers. They all work together in making the product roll off the line. Our manufacturing team has to do their jobs well and efficiently to serve their customers. We still build the best quality product in the industry. That’s something we not only know from our customers, but from surveys done in the industry. That pride is instilled in our people and that means a lot to them. We’ve made a commitment to invest in our local manufacturing and support in their communities, and they appreciate that. We are firm believers that creating jobs is the single most important ingredient in sustaining and growing the U.S. economy. American made is not a slogan for us; it’s a reality, a passion, and commitment.
MJM: Talk about the types of efficiency strategies you employ, and how this improves service?
Bruce Carnevale: One example is Logistics, which has been a challenge not only for us, but for most industries. The trucking industry is suffering a shortage of drivers and is under intense regulation. At the same time, regulations have forced us to make our products bigger, so less fit on a trailer. While we’ve seen some temporary relief from regulations, we have to continually look for newer ways to improve efficiencies. So, we’ve implemented transportation management functionalities to MRP system and entered into new partnerships with very capable logistics providers. Additional investments in demand forecasting and scheduling improve efficiencies throughout our entire supply chain.
MJM: What is the biggest change that you have witnessed in this business?
Nick Giuffre: The most significant change I’ve seen with many of our customers is an evolution from the small, family-owned businesses to more sophisticated operations, from both a business and technology perspective.
MJM: What do you see as the state of the economy and construction sector in the near term — and what will you do to capitalize on any opportunities?
Bruce Carnevale: The state of the economy may continue to be uncertain, but we’re entering a strong replacement market in housing, one of the strongest we’ve seen in years. We also believe that the demographics will continue to support a relatively strong new construction market. Therefore, we believe that the water heater market will be relatively strong over the next few years.
We will continue to bring new innovations to the industry to help our customers grow, even if the economy in general does not.
MJM: As you look back on a long history of the company, what is it that you are most proud of? And how would you most like to be remembered?
Bob Carnevale: Being a part of this great industry has been a very rewarding experience. I am grateful to all the wholesalers who have helped us build this company. I’d like to be remembered as having made a contribution to the growth of our channel.
Bruce Carnevale: I am most proud of the reputation that we’ve earned. And the genuine responses that we get from our customers that show how much they appreciate and understand our commitment to them. Recently I heard from a contractor who said “Bradford White is Bradford White. They know what they are. They know who they are. They do what they say they’ll do. And they have our best interest at heart.”
MJM: One thing that seems to be on the radar of industry companies is the projected shortage of plumbers and leadership in the years ahead.
Nick Giuffre: In the next 10 years, it is estimated that we’ll lose 25% of the people in our industry — and approximately 50% of the top management. If we don’t do something to make this industry cool and exciting, we’re not going to have any customers. We are working very closely with our customers and business partners to help make sure that the plumbing and HVAC industry can attract the talented people it needs.
MJM: So Bob, with all the changes and challenges, what is it that continues to motivate and excite you about Bradford White and its potential?
Bob Carnevale: It is very exciting for me to see the next generation of leadership building upon what we started and taking the company to the next level. Throughout all of the changes and challenges, we’ve always managed to move forward for the company and our customers and I expect nothing different for the future.