La Crosse, Wis.-based First Supply Chairman and CEO Joe Poehling says change is why his fifth-generation family-owned company celebrated its 120th year in business in 2017.

“When you stop innovating, that’s when the company really falls,” he told Supply House Times before the company’s 120th anniversary vendor gala at the Concourse Hotel/Governor’s Club in Madison, Wis., in early November. “You’re always moving ahead, you’re taking risks, you’re doing something different, but it’s constant improvement. If you stop trying to make something better than what you have today, you will fall behind very quickly.”

And Poehling is quick to point out its not First Supply’s talented and experienced executive management team, that includes the fifth generation of his daughter, Katie Poehling Seymour (COO of First Supply’s kitchen and bath division, including Gerhard’s Kitchen & Bath Stores and the Kohler Signature Stores by First Supply), and nephew, Todd Restel (First Supply’s CFO), as well as president and COO Paul Kennedy, that deserves the credit for innovation throughout the company.

“The innovations don’t come from the family. They come from the people working every day here who know what is needed and are willing to contribute to make those changes,” says Poehling, who points out the company’s lineage dates back to the early 1860s (as Wisconsin Sanitary and Mfg. Co.), but has been in the family for 120 years. “Change is not easy and leading is not easy. You open yourself up to pot shots, but we’re willing to try and make a difference. Not everything we try works and we all know that. We’ve had plenty of warts over the years that didn’t work out, but that’s OK because if you don’t try things and are willing to fail, then you aren’t going to make progress. We’ve been blessed to have so many strong people working for the company, but have been unbelievably lucky because they are the ones who make it happen every day.”

Poehling says it was hard to shy away from the innovation platform based on what earlier generations had accomplished at First Supply.

“Innovation always has been in our culture,” he says. “It’s the way it is. My dad started running the company in 1940 and there were a lot of innovations. He put everything on the line and bought the largest boiler plant in the world, Kewanee Boiler Co., and continued to try and drive to make things different. There was the purchase of Wisconsin Supply in Madison in 1960 and then all the acquisitions and consolidations and roll-ups that we’ve been part of. But it always goes back to culture. Did I have a plan to shake things up and changes things when I took over? No, because that’s the kind of culture we’ve had and I kept it. It’s always been a constant. What do we need to do to do it better?”

More recent innovations have included the opening of three Kohler Signature kitchen-and-bath stores (the first-ever in Edina, Minn., plus ones in suburban Milwaukee and Overland Park, Kan.). First Supply is in the process of opening its fourth Kohler store in suburban Detroit (construction recently began on that building). First Supply’s Gerhard’s Kitchen & Bath Stores is the recipient of the 2017 Supply House Times Showroom of the Year award.

“We’ve never been a singular type of company,” Poehling Seymour says. “We have been multiple types of companies in multiple aspects of the industry. That ability to have that real diversity in offerings, customer base and employee base is how we continue to push forward.”

Poehling adds innovating over the years brought with it some major risks. “When you are innovating, it allows certain opportunities,” he says. “At the same time, when you’re innovating it is not uncommon for those things not to pay off for five years. When the economy goes down, it’s tough to be investing in those times. But we reinvest almost all our earnings back into the company so we have the ability, without the pressure of quarterly earnings or investment-banking firms or even a list of requirements, to take risks others can’t take because we are privately owned. That gives us a real strategic advantage to be able to weather things like that.”

During the vendor gala in Madison, Kennedy talked about the company’s continuous focus on its five key priorities that include talent and team development, profitable sales growth, best-in-class customer experience, operational excellence and delivering on budget.

“These key points help focus our efforts on continuing to build a vibrant and sustainable company,” he told the packed room in Madison. “These tenants underpin our focus every day and our drive to be a great partner. As we all continue to experience the evolution of our industry, our customers want to interact with us in different ways and you have more and more information you are trying to disseminate deeper into the channel. Technology and information availability continue to advance at lighting speed and we want to ensure we are continuing to lead the way with innovative solutions.”

Kennedy then noted he’s reminded of a saying he heard years ago while serving in the Navy — lead, follow or get out of the way. “First Supply is a company that wants to lead,” he said.

And Poehling Seymour has had a front-row seat seeing her father lead the way. “My dad is quietly inspirational,” she says. “He is very inclusive in a way that lifts everybody up. He’s very team-oriented in terms of bringing everybody with him. He’s always working toward the next thing, but not in a way that is exhausting or intimidating. He’s also taught me a lot about the importance of people. We’ve held these 120th anniversary events for customers, our teams and employees and our vendors. All of them are equally important in what we do.”

Check out our photo gallery from First Supply’s 120th Anniversary Vendor Gala and listen to an exclusive podcast with Joe Poehling.


The fifth generation and beyond

Statistics show as family-owned companies advance deeper into generations, the odds of them succeeding rapidly decrease. A Businessweek article from 2010 revealed data that shows 3% of family-owned businesses survive the fourth generation and beyond.

First Supply has laid that trend to waste with the fifth generation (Seymour and Restel) firmly in place and the sixth generation likely waiting in the wings.

“Yes, the family is employed. There are a half-dozen of us employed in the business, but we don’t even make up 1% of the company,” Poehling points out. “So 99.9% of the work is done by non-family members. They are the company. We are here, really, to help them be successful. They make the decisions on what needs to happen on a day-to-day basis. “

The multi-generational theme at First Supply extends to the suppliers it has worked with for decades. Poehling is extremely proud of the relationships the company has formed with Wisconsin-based family-owned entities such as A. O. Smith, Kohler, Milwaukee Valve, Bemis Mfg. Co. and Bradley Corp.

“We’ve been extremely blessed by having great partnerships with our manufacturers,” he says. “We’re blessed to have a lot of multi-generational family businesses in this part of the country and we’re excited to be able to partner with them and innovate with them in the market.”

A. O. Smith Chairman and CEO Ajita Rajendra echoes Poehling’s sentiments. “These are real people I can relate to,” he said during the 120th anniversary vendor gala. “They are strong strategic thinkers in terms of the future. They aren’t afraid to tell us when we’re wrong and at the same time I know they always will have my back. They are loyal and they are our partners. A. O. Smith is a 140-plus-year-old company that has a set of values that have been sent down through generations, values such as honesty and integrity. Joe and his team live those values. We’re proud to be a vendor and partner to Joe and First Supply. For them, I think this is halftime and over the next 120 years they will have even more success.”

Looking ahead, Poehling sees First Supply (a member of the AD buying group as well as ASA and HARDI) continuing to expand its footprint in the Midwest. In 2017, the distributor relocated its Brookfield, Wis., store to a standalone space in Delafield, Wis., and opened new branch locations in Wausau, Wis., and Dubuque, Iowa.

“We want to be a strong regional distributor and we want to continue to be able to grow in the Midwest and expand,” he says. “We’re going to continue to grow, expand and better represent our supplier partners and take great care of the contractors that need the services we provide them.”

Kennedy adds: “Continuing to invest and innovate in being your best path to market has gotten us to where we are today and we won’t be letting up anytime soon.”