As a graduate of the University of Illinois with a degree in civil engineering, the industrial PVF distribution industry likely was not on Bill Arenberg’s initial career-choice radar.
“Bill loved building things, anything engineering-oriented,” his son Tim Arenberg, the current president of Columbia Pipe & Supply, told Supply House Times recently at company headquarters on the south side of Chicago.
But after serving in the Marines, Arenberg found himself in the world of PVF after taking a job as a sales engineer at Columbia.
And what a career it would become.
Arenberg, who died Nov. 27 at the age of 86, helped jumpstart Columbia into a company that today boasts 17 branches in five states with annual revenues into nine figures.
“As a sales engineer for 20 years, he knew the company could do so much better,” Tim Arenberg said. “The company was stuck on a sales number through the 60s and early 70s. You could set a watch to it. The company wasn’t growing. He couldn’t tolerate it anymore. He, with is father, Ted (one of Columbia Pipe’s founders), and brother, Dan, got control of the company and got it going strong.”
The Arenberg family took over Columbia in 1974 and it grew to as many as 20 branches under Bill Arenberg’s auspices as CEO. Arenberg celebrated his 60th wedding anniversary in October and his funeral mass was held on the 59th anniversary of him becoming a first-time father. He is survived by his wife, Lorriane. The couple raised six children. One of Arenberg’s other sons, TJ, is vice president of operations at Columbia.
“He wanted to put a necklace around Chicago,” Tim Arenberg said. “We added some branches and we made some acquisitions. When I came here in 1990 (from Xerox), we were stuck at $50 million. We made another surge of acquisitions and we also started 12 branches from scratch.”
Tim Arenberg noted his father called himself the “benevolent dictator.”
“Benevolent implies you are well-meaning and kindly and dictator implies this is not a democracy,” he said. “Companies are not democracies. He was the benevolent dictator. He knew his directives needed to be clear and absolute.”
Bill Arenberg also lived by the Marine Semper Fi motto. “He said we must always be faithful and loyal to God, family, our country, our company and the industry,” Tim Arenberg said. “Bill always had a strong allegiance to help this industry and that’s something that’s stuck with me. One word that’s been used to describe him is generous. He loved sharing his knowledge.”
Tim Arenberg learned a key lesson from his dad about dealing with people. “Bill empowered people and let them run,” he said. “When I got here, he let me run. He always wanted to take care of his people. He had a bias toward profit sharing and always was trying to maximize that. We created a partial ESOP that was the result of his generosity. He thought it was a no-brainer to make our employees beneficial owners.”
But beyond the bottom-line financial success Columbia realized, Bill Arenberg is best remembered for his excellence as a friend, mentor and industry steward.
Supply House Times columnist and six-decade PVF industry veteran Morrie Beschloss first met Arenberg when both were students at the University of Illinois.
“We lived in neighboring fraternity houses,” he said. “My first week in this business at Hammond Valve they tell me Columbia has a branch in Hammond (Ind.) and to go over there and rustle up business. I walk in and there’s Bill Arenberg. He was one of the guys who helped me when I was getting into the industry. Bill Arenberg is one of the greatest contributors to this industry and one of the greatest people I’ve ever met. The greatest thing someone can say about a guy is he was loved by those he came in contact with. There was nobody better than Bill Arenberg.”
Weldbend Corp. President James Coulas Jr. is equally effusive in his praise of Arenberg and what he meant to the industry. “Without fanfare, Bill has been a pillar of the PVF industry since his family acquired Columbia Pipe in 1974,” Coulas Jr. said. “A driving force, Bill has propelled Columbia Pipe to what it is today, one of the finest distributors in the PVF and in the plumbing-heating-cooling industries. He always did whatever was possible to give back to the industry and move it forward, keeping pace with the ever-changing market. Bill Arenberg was an ethical family man and his values should be more emulated in our industry.”
Chicago Tube & Iron President Dr. Don McNeeley’s company is a direct competitor with Columbia, but that label didn’t matter to Arenberg.
“Bill Arenberg was an industry leader who was universally respected,” McNeeley said. “He had a reputation, network and insight unmatched by any other. As a young executive promoted before I was ready and notwithstanding that I was a direct competitor, Bill took me by the arm and gave me direction, introductions and also pointed out the dangers of the PVF mine field. In his absence, the industry is less.”
F.W. Webb Senior Vice President of Industrial Business Development Ernie Coutermarsh first met Arenberg in 1996 when Webb and Columbia both joined the newly formed PVF division of the AD buying group.
“We benefitted immensely from Bill’s experienced, practical and common-sense approach,” he said. “He earned our respect and gratitude. He will be sorely missed.”
AD Chairman and CEO Bill Weisberg noted Arenberg had a “hugely positive impact on AD and on so many of his fellow members.”
“Bill Arenberg was tough but kind. He was smart but down to earth,” Weisberg said. “He had a lot of wisdom and was generous in sharing it with you when you asked. He was a straight shooter.”
AD PHCP President Jeffrey Beall added: “Mr. Arenberg was a man that wanted nothing more than for this industry to be the best. To him that meant making sure people like me understood what it took to be the best distributor, the best CEO, a good competitor in the marketplace and never being afraid to give back. Many of us are better today for knowing him.”
Arenberg also left a lasting impression on former Supply House Times Editor John O’Reilly, who now runs a PR/marketing firm in suburban Chicago. “Bill Arenberg had a genuine passion for the numbers of wholesaling that gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the business,” he said. “He was the very best kind of teacher — one who left me feeling smarter than I really was.”
Tim Arenberg said the mold for his father can never be re-engineered. “Certain people can never be replaced,” he said. “Bill was one of a kind. What I learned is to follow a good example. All the things that worked for Bill, I try to encourage using. If you follow his example and execute on that, you are in pretty good shape. I don’t think I’ll ever realize how lucky we were to have Bill. Dad laid a beautiful foundation here. He’s the modern-day patriarch for Columbia Pipe & Supply.”
This article was originally titled “Hats off to an icon” in the January 2017 print edition of Supply House Times.