Greenville, S.C.-based Eastern Industrial Supplies Marketing Director Meagan Owen knows the PHCP-PVF industry is at an important crossroads.
“Our industry is in essence aging out with a lot of baby boomers getting close to retirement,” the 32-year-old Owen says. “And to be completely honest, quality professionals are hard to find. Loyalty is not the norm anymore. For both Eastern and our customers, we want to find people who want to stay and be involved in this industry. That’s a long-term benefit to our company and to our customers.”
Eastern, which has 16 locations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and Alabama and employs about 265 people, is doing something about that impending industry labor quandary by offering several different avenues for young professionals to join the company.
For starters, Eastern offers a sales internship program geared at juniors or rising seniors in college. “It’s a mini-version of our sales training program,” explains Owen, one of several Eastern employees who have participated in American Supply Association Young Executives activities over the years. “It gives a young professional the opportunity to say I like this industry and I want to pursue it or this is not for me. They can get a feel what they like and don’t like before they graduate.”
On the flipside, Eastern’s sales trainee program immerses new hires into a six-month program where they are exposed to all facets of the company from the warehouse to the counter to inside and outside sales and more.
“We have people who go into the sales training program and are getting a head plunge into the PVF and plumbing industry,” explains Eastern Human Resources Representative Tricia Daniel, Meagan’s sister. “They are learning shipping and receiving, and learning about the fab shop and learning how to meet customers at the counter. And then in six months, sometimes they might say this isn’t for me and this industry isn’t for me. With the internship program, it exposes the students to who Eastern is and what this industry is. It also gives them some good knowledge about what it’s like to work in the business world.”
Daniel notes Eastern places a high emphasis on identifying and properly training the industry’s next generation. “We have a turnover team and an engagement team that help with this,” she says. “We want to make sure the associates who are picked are receiving world-class care and training.”
The internship program, Daniel notes, continues to progress with at least 40 applications already on file this year. “We are going to continue this and the goal is to expand to other locations,” she says. “Our internships are very detailed and this newer generation likes that. They want to know what they are doing. The interns we’ve had are really motivated and want to do a great job. A program like this is essential with all of the baby boomers retiring in the next 10 years.”
Owen and Daniel have seen Eastern’s forward progress up close over the years. They are the daughters of Eastern President and CEO Kip Miller and Executive Vice President Kim Miller. Their brother, Derrick Miller, is the operations coordinator at the company’s Charlotte, N.C., branch. Owen’s husband, Caleb, is the branch manager of the Spartanburg, S.C., location.
The sisters worked at the company during their high-school and college years. “I started shredding papers in a back office closet when I was in high school,” says Meagan Owen, who is approaching her 18th year working for the company.
Owen graduated from Anderson (S.C.) University on a Saturday and started in the Eastern sales trainee program the next Monday. “I first went to school for interior design and after the first year it was not what I wanted to do,” she says. “Sophomore year I started working again at Eastern and it progressed. I saw a lot of opportunities in this industry.”
The 23-year-old Daniel, who also graduated from Anderson, has been with the company full-time since May 2015. “I have a passion for people and service and human resources is a great fit,” she says. “I knew the people here and I know all about the culture.”
And it’s that culture that mainly prompted Daniel to apply for an open HR position. “Some people wake up in the morning and don’t want to go to work,” she says. “You don’t want to go to work with people with negative attitudes who rain down your back. When I wake up I want to come to work because I work with a great team. We all work together to solve problems and we respect each other. We don’t just show up to work, we care about each other’s lives. We are a company that sticks to commitments. We are loyal to customers and do all that we can to exceed expectations not only externally but internally with each other.”
Derrick Miller, 30, also worked on and off for the company before coming to work full-time at Eastern. “The honest truth is I saw a great opportunity,” he says. “I am not sure what the future holds, but this is something I felt I could be successful at. God blessed my parents in their endeavors. They have cultivated a positive work environment for a lot of people.”
Caleb Owen, 34, is another product of Eastern’s sales trainee program. Prior to joining Eastern, he started his own residential construction company. “I decided to pursue the Eastern opportunity and haven’t looked back,” he says.
Owen, a 10-year veteran of the company, worked in the warehouse, shipping and receiving and counter sales before moving to inside sales for a year and a half. He then spent six years in outside sales between the Anderson and Spartanburg branches before taking over as the Spartanburg branch manager.
“My dad is a pastor. I learned a lot from him about caring for people,” he says. “I’m from the school of hard knocks. I saw my dad interact in happy and very stressful situations with people. I learned a lot about building relationships and how vital and important those are in life. It carries over to business. There are a lot of good people in this industry and you make relationships that will last a lifetime.”
Owen agrees with his wife about the industry being at a crossroads with new talent procurement. He feels the next few years will be critical for the industry as a whole.
“I noticed it when I went into outside sales, sometimes people aren’t willing to take a chance on younger people,” he says. “When I was interviewing for jobs right out of college, people want experience. The next 5-10 years in this industry will truly determine if we have the right people in the right seats on the bus. Teaching and training will be vital. A lot of people who have mentored me my entire career are getting ready to retire or go part-time. You better have the right people trained up.”
Derrick Miller adds: “It’s a challenge for the whole industry. There is this big gap right now. You have people who are mine, Caleb, Meagan and Tricia’s age, and then there is like this 20-year gap and there aren’t a lot of people filling these roles. The average workforce age in this industry is going to plummet and it’s important that you have a training program to get new, younger employees in to replace the people who are retiring. That’s been a big focus of ours.”
The Miller children and Owen say working in the family business is both challenging and rewarding at the same time.
“It’s like working in a glass house,” Meagan Owen says. “It’s not easy. We don’t get any passes around here. We earn our way and get our hands dirty. We don’t know any different. People always ask how do you handle working together? You learn to balance work and personal life.”
Daniel adds: “I love working in the family business. The reason it works is because we respect each other. My sister and I have lunch together all the time and I call my brother if I need something in Charlotte.”
All systems go
Eastern also has its eyes on the future of its customers. Daniel notes the company is working on an e-commerce website rollout in the near future. “That’s how millennials work,” she says. “They would rather click what they need than call someone. We have to keep up with that. You have to adapt to change and keep up to speed not only with the older minds but the younger minds as well.”
And the company continues to be front and center on the philanthropic front with its well-regarded Eastern Cares program that is dedicated to focusing on the four main “Cs” of caring: company, community, country and culture. Eastern Cares’ reach has been felt around the world since its inception in 2002 through many service projects.
“Eastern Cares has a big impact,” Derrick Miller says. “It spills over to us caring about each other and our customers. It’s not just the business relationship, but it goes into a personal, deeper level.”
And it’s that personal, deeper level that Meagan Owen says has helped the company continue to prosper. “We do sell a lot of commodities, but we also have exclusive lines to us and we have very experienced and knowledgeable salespeople,” she says. “We have people who can help customers because they understand the industry and products. We’re not just order takers. We strive to be a higher-level service provider.”
And one that embraces the next generation.
“The business is shifting so much right now,” Meagan Owen says. “We’re getting ready for the next generation.”
This article was originally titled “Proactive future” in the April 2017 print edition of Plumbing & Mechanical.