One of my favorite parts of the Embassy buying group’s annual shareholders meeting is the member profile portion of the program.
At this year’s shareholders meeting held at Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago, attendees heard from representatives of Embassy members Gateway Supply (Columbia, S.C.) and Peterson Plumbing Supply (Richfield, Utah). Gateway’s Chris Williams and Peterson’s Don Peterson provided a rundown of the companies’ histories and their paths to success in the PHCP-PVF industry.
Near the end of their speeches, both men became emotional when talking about their journey as small-business owners.
Williams’ trigger point: the company’s newly purchased tractor-trailer that will deliver products from Gateway’s newly opened distribution center to its 14 South Carolina branches.
“I must have paused a little too long,” Williams says, trying unsuccessfully to downplay the moment. “I guess it was an appreciation of what life has given you. You start out and you don’t have too much and after a great while you can’t figure out how you became so fortunate. I buried my emotion in a truck. I got upset about a truck. At least Don talked about his family.”
Peterson’s emotional moment occurred when speaking about his aforementioned family. Peterson, who started the company out of an abandoned building he purchased at age 19, has turned over 80% of the company to his three sons and two sons-in-law. His office still occupies that once abandoned building.
“I have total faith in my children,” he says. “They are amazing. They started here at wee ages sweeping floors and putting stuff away.”
Peterson’s story mirrors that of the Williams brothers (Chris Williams and brothers, Sam Jr., and David, own Gateway, which was started by their father, Sam Sr., and two partners in 1964) — individuals who have weathered the ups and downs of small-business ownership and have come out on top.
“It’s pretty mind-boggling,” Peterson says. “I remember the first Moen order I did (which was shown during a neat-looking video presentation at Embassy). I started out with $600 in sales. Now you see the size of jobs and orders and it’s incredible. I would never have dreamed this.”
Peterson says his big break early on came thanks to the generosity of a State water-heater rep. “Jim Marshall was the rep and he arranged it with State that I could have everything I wanted on a truck three times a week. They would haul out of Denver for no charge. I was on their path home,” he says. “The catch was it could be anytime whether it was 2 a.m., 11 p.m., or 9 a.m. I had to meet the truck and unload. At 19 years old, I was able to serve customers better than the big-city folks could. They gave me a big boost.”
Today, Peterson has six locations throughout Utah. “It’s good to be able to dream and it’s all because of great customers and great employees,” he says. “They are the reason a person can grow and compete in this world. It’s a great and rewarding business, but it’s hard. You have to know what your customers and manufacturers are going through.”
Williams continues to be energized by the challenges ahead. “I suppose we never really grew up,” he says. “We showed up here at 21 years old and didn’t know (anything) and we still don’t. I’m still trying to get to the top of the mountain, but we keep getting a taller mountain. We never get tired of this. We have never felt like we’ve achieved everything. We keep going because it’s fun and there are plenty of opportunities.”
But there may be a slight delay in putting the tractor-trailer into service. “I’m going to park it outside my window for at least a day and then come to my senses and realize I have to pay for it,” Williams says.
Williams also took note of Peterson’s presentation in Chicago. “A guy like Don is impressive,” he says. “It takes courage to do what he did and start from scratch. There is a lot of heart and soul in our industry.”
And that heart and soul is what makes this industry the great one it is.
This article was originally titled “Getting emotional” in the September 2017 print edition of Supply House Times.