The path in which incoming American Supply Association President Brian Tuohey took to business ownership has a great story behind it.
“It’s a crazy story,” Tuohey, president of East Windsor, Conn.-based industrial PVF distributor The Collins Companies, warns. Tuohey, you see, always desired to own his own business. “Of course I had no money and no idea how I was ever going to do it,” he says.
And then he received a phone call one day that would change his life.
He prefaces the story with this: “I have 16 years of Catholic and Jesuit education and a very strong belief in God.
“Anyway, one day, out of the blue, a fellow I hardly knew from the country club that we both belonged to calls me and says, ‘Brian I was praying to God to have Him send me someone to run my business and your face just popped into my head.’ This is a true story and I responded, ‘You could call 100 people and begin with that opening statement and with 99 of them you’d be listening to a dial tone right now.”
At the time of this “out-of-the-blue conversation,” Tuohey was working for Consolidated Freightways running a $70 million sales division.
“I told him I was running a $70 million division and that he had a $2.5 million PVF company which I knew nothing about,” he says. “So I said to him, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t think there is anything you could ever say to me that would convince me to come to work for you?’”
But then, without hesitation, the owner responded, “Brian, how about this, you will never own Consolidated Freightways. You can own my company.’”
And as Tuohey says, “Ballgame over; I took the leap of faith and started at Collins the next Monday.”
That was 1983 and by 1998 Tuohey owned one-third of the company and progressed to buy out the owners to secure 100% ownership. The company actually started as Collins Plumbing Supply and will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2020.
Today, with Tuohey at the helm, The Collins Companies has grown to nine locations and 86 employees, while generating annual revenues in the $50-million-plus range. The Collins Companies also has made five strategic acquisitions over the last seven years.
Tuohey gets right to the point when talking about the success Collins has enjoyed over the years. It all has to do with providing as much value as possible to its customers.
“It’s tough to add value to a piece of pipe,” he deadpans. “Early in my career, I was in a sales call and the customer asked me how much is your 6-in. pipe. As soon as I told him, the sales call was over. You either had the right number or you didn’t.”
These days, Collins adds value by being a technically superior service provider first and a distributor of standard PVF products second. “We’re a highly technical company that sells engineered products in addition to selling a full range of pipe, valves and fittings,” he says. “We now have nine engineers on staff that handle anything from specifying automated valves for a chlorine application at a paper mill to selecting the correct piping material for a seawater intake cooling line for a nuclear plant. Our total sales focus is to be a strong technical resource for our customers while still being the supplier who delivers ‘perfect’ service to them every time they call on us.”
Tuohey says half of the distributor’s work today comes from larger projects. “We’re doing so much of this now that we’ve established a new project management group that takes the projects right from product specification to order completion,” he explains. “On these projects today, you need to be a Philadelphia lawyer to handle all the T&C’s the customer requires. We hired a fellow who worked for Alstom Power for 30 years as a project manager. His sole responsibility is to manage the deliveries, submittals, liquidated damages, retainage and letters of credit that go into a successful project completion.”
Tuohey says Collins’ business has been flat the last two years based on uncertainty in the capital investment market. While the company’s MRO business is solid and growing, its capital project business (i.e. new power plants and oil & gas refinery projects) has been restricted due to projects that have been continually pushed back due to uncertainty in the market.
“The capital work has been quiet in 2016 and 2017,” he says. “However, we’ve already booked more capital project work for 2018 than we did in either of those two years. We do a lot of work with engineering, procurement and construction firms, so when the market kind of dips like it did for oil and gas and power, it takes a while for it to ramp back up. Our MRO is solid, but the larger power plants, gas-conversion units and refining projects are getting better, but that is work earmarked for 2018. We are looking for 2018 to be a strong bounce-back year in this area.”
Overall, Tuohey sees the industrial PVF segment headed for greener pastures. “We’re in a recovery mode,” he says. “Some people are recovering this year and I would say the industry will continue to recover in 2018 and 2019. Conditions are definitely improving.”
As for the future at Collins, Tuohey says more acquisitions are a possibility. “We would always look at targeted adjacent territory acquisitions with revenues in the range of $3 million to $10 million, where you are too small to be big and too big to be small,” he says. “Those guys are great candidates for us as long as everything else fits. I don’t ever see us going nationwide. We are very content being a strong regional.”
Serving the industry
Tuohey, who was recently the chairman of ASA’s Industrial Piping Division, is a firm believer in giving back to the industry. “My parents taught me very early in life that you get what you give,” he says. “That’s a mantra I always have tried to live by and it’s been a great learning experience for me, personally, and it also has been a lot of fun.”
Tuohey isn’t shy about talking about the benefits his company has enjoyed by being an ASA member. “We use all their services,” he says. “We use their training for all new hires and I attend the legislative fly-in and NETWORK every year. The biggest benefit to ASA I have found is when you stay in your building you know what you know and you don’t know what you don’t know. ASA is absolutely critical from a networking standpoint. The people I’ve met and been involved with in ASA and AD (buying group) have taught me
“I would never have the confidence to do what we’ve done as far as acquisitions and directing this business without those people who have freely shared their thoughts and experiences and took the time to mentor me. Quite simply, you keep your mouth shut and listen to what other folks are saying and doing. It’s a great educational process and without being involved in associations such as ASA and AD, we would not be the company we are today.”
Tuohey notes three of his children and his son-in-law are involved in the business and are taking advantage of ASA initiatives such as Women in Industry and the recently renamed Emerging Leaders group.
“We are in the process of transitioning Collins into a legacy family business as soon as they can get rid of me,” he says with a laugh. “They are all involved in these groups which is great for them. I can teach them what Brian Tuohey knows, but ASA can teach them what the industry knows. ASA is the gold standard of associations in our industry. Every day, they are helping us get better as individuals and companies.”
Tuohey knows exactly what he would like to zero in on during his year as ASA president. “Membership is the lifeblood of ASA,” he says. “ASA has enjoyed net membership growth for the last six years, but there still are about 1,100 distributors that qualify to be members of ASA and are not today. My particular focus is going to be on these smaller distributors that are less than $5 million who might think they are too small to be involved in ASA. These are the folks that definitely should be involved in ASA because ASA can provide them with the resources that will help them to excel personally and grow their businesses.
“The real beauty of ASA is the staff and volunteers never rest on their laurels. They continue to challenge themselves and our association to get better every day.”
This article was originally titled “Crazy, but true” in the November 2017 print edition of Supply House Times.