Ed Ihrie was a visionary. In 1972, as the general manager and a stockholder of W.L. Smith Supply Co., a wholesale distributor located in North Carolina, Ihrie saw a need in the marketplace that was not being met. On Sept. 1, 1972, he agreed to trade his shares of stock in the company for ownership of two of its locations located in Wilson and Roanoke Rapids, N. C.
The company, which specializes in plumbing, heating, cooling and industrial supplies, grew and expanded organically. Today, Ihrie Supply Co. has eight branch locations across central and eastern North Carolina, along with a distribution center with more than 125,000 square feet of warehouse space. Customers span the gamut from plumbing, building and HVAC contractors; city, county, state and federal governments; military bases; schools and colleges; hardware stores; kitchen and bath shops; and hospitals.
Ihrie ran the company and considered its employees to be family. “Mr. Ihrie inspired loyalty and respect from anyone who worked for him and treated his employees with the same care,” says David Price, president and CEO of Ihrie Supply, who spoke on behalf of the current owners. From the company’s beginnings, Ihrie realized his team members would hold the keys to the company’s success — their commitment to customer service and excellence, as well as dedication to success, would lead the company forward.
Wanting his vision to live long after he was gone, he concentrated on building a strong team that one day would take the reins to guide the firm. In 2012, Ihrie had taken a step back from active leadership, and promoted long time employee David Price as president and CEO. “Ed invested in his employees — grooming those in all levels within the company to assume positions of leadership,” Price explains. Price made hard internal changes that strengthened and refocused the company’s foundation, while maintaining its position as a committed industry channel partner. “We have many long-term employees who have worked through all levels of the company and have risen through the ranks to now serve on the current management team,” says Price. He went on to hire former employees who had made other career moves. They approached him, seeking to again be a part of the company, its mission and beliefs. Many of these employees would go on to become part of the new ownership.
After Ed Ihrie passed away in 2017, his wife and then owner, Jerri Ihrie, who was committed to the Ihrie vision, extended an opportunity to purchase the company to a group of dedicated employees. “Mrs. Ihrie wanted to continue Mr. Ihrie’s legacy; she allowed many loyal employees who had helped the company become a dominant player in the market become the new owners,” Price says.
Ihrie’s dream of an employee-owned company came to fruition in April 2019 when a group of 11 employees came together and purchased the company. Instead of the traditional Employee Stock Ownership Plan, the company is now 100-percent employee-owned.
The company is set up to thrive with a strong ownership team in place — and all owners are current employees: David Price, president and CEO; Jeff Bass, vice president, HVAC; Ernie Carson, vice president, plumbing; Bobby Barnes and Chuck Giles, branch managers; Steve Greene, Walt Mercer, Mark Balance and Ryan Thomas, territory managers; Sam Futterman, pricing manager; and Susan Holt, credit manager. The testament to the company success is the combined ownership that has more than 189 years of employee service.
The new owners’ vision of the company’s future? “We will use our strengths to continue the legacy of a successful company and continue to seek ways to grow and expand this vision within our current and surrounding markets,” Price explains.
The future looks bright for Ihrie Supply, with its employee-owners and its investment in the industry channel through partnerships — as active members of Southern Wholesalers Association, IMARK Plumbing Group, Luxury Products Group and Blue Hawk, as well as members of ASA.
“The fact that Mr. Ihrie envisioned leaving this legacy to those same employees is a testament to his integrity and genuineness,” Price concludes.