Retiring Emerson Swan CEO: ‘I’ve planned a long time for this moment’
Parker Wheat, who has worked in the industry for 42 years, is stepping back from the company at the end of this year.
Parker Wheat — the dashing, silver-haired executive who for decades ran Emerson Swan, one of the nation’s largest rep firms serving the HVAC, plumbing and heating industry — has retired.
Under Wheat’s leadership as executive vice president since 1992 — and then as president and COO, then CEO since 2006, and vice chair of the Swan Group — Emerson Swan has grown through diversification, expansion and acquisition.
Many are surprised to learn that when he started at the firm as a commercial salesman in 1976, just shy of his 30th birthday, he’d just completed four years in the Air Force. Wheat also has a degree in marine biology and is a certified diver.
At the time, it was easy to see the position at Emerson Swan as a brief engagement on his journey to becoming scuba diving scientist, studying coral reef growth or the combat behaviors of Pagurus Bernhardus, also known as the New England Hermit Crab.
“It just wasn’t meant to be,” he reflected. “One dream replaced another.”
Each year he remained at Emerson Swan, responsibility and expectations accumulated, and he was challenged. Perhaps unknowingly at first, but certainly more deliberately as the years accrued, Wheat helped create a new culture there — of openness, freedom of expression, creativity and acceptance of change — that sprouted from his deliberate nurturing.
“I believe that if you approach life with integrity, a good work ethic, curiosity, the ability to be creative and innovative and have a competitive spirit, you’ll succeed,” Wheat says. “I teach the importance of being entrepreneurial — even at risk of failure. To be successful, people also need to strive for results, and be flexible, creative, curious, and decisive. There’s real reward for those who set expectations of themselves far above what others expect from them.
“With some luck, careful pathfinding, and by encouraging a lot of really fine people, Emerson Swan has grown,” he continued. “But that wouldn’t have been possible without Tom and Joe Swan. I’ve learned a great deal from both men, and they, in turn, entrusted me with the company.”
At the end of last year, Wheat retired. But The Swan Group wasn’t quite ready to let him go. So, now (until the end of this year), Wheat is tethered to a few Swan Group strategic projects.
For a decade — just in case you were wondering — Wheat dove into succession planning; in essence, helping to prepare the organization for his departure.
“I’ve planned a long time for this moment,” says a smiling, well-rested, well-exercised Wheat from his home (with wife, Fawn, and daughter Alyssa) in Hollis, New Hampshire.
“I read a lot, travel some, am writing regularly, and I swim three to six miles a week.”
But he admits that, after 42 years of employment in an industry he helped to shape, he thinks routinely about the people he had the pleasure to serve with.
“That’s why this period of semi-retirement has been ideal; it’s been good for me and, I hope, for The Swan Group, as well.”
DECADES OF MEMORIES
Of course, a lot of people who worked with Wheat think about him, too — and the pleasure they had in working with him.
Bob Pink is senior manager of the Applied Products Plumbing Division at ES. He joined ES in ’08, coming in from many years in the industry. He met Wheat in ’86 but was reintroduced to him by Ken Fagan decades later — a meeting that led to Emerson Swan’s acquisition of Pink’s rep firm.
“Parker has a commanding presence, yet he’s joyful,” Pink says. “I admit I was a bit intimidated at visiting Emerson Swan to speak with Parker about the possibility of an acquisition. As soon as I entered his office, he took his phone off the hook — an action that told me I was his priority. He was that way with whomever it was he was with at the time: You are the most important person in the world to him, right there and then — and I’ve adopted it.
“Both of us are also very curious people,” Pink continues. “Parker always encouraged curiosity. So, the importance of people, and curiosity — those are two capsule recollections I have of Parker, illustrative of the giant respect I have for him.”
George Simas, president of The Swan Group and of Emerson Swan and Wheat’s successor, says he is “forever grateful” to Wheat.
“Parker’s vision and creativity help support his ability to always see the big picture. He is ever the optimist and sees nothing but a positive outcome. His leadership skills, guidance and mentoring have left a tremendous impact on who I am as a business leader today.
Jim Simas, senior vice president of distribution heating, insists that regardless of how far and wide one might search, there’s no better travel planner in the entire world.
“Take me up on it; I’ve got a $100 dollar bill right here, and I’ll borrow more from my brother [George] if you really want to go there,” he says. “Fodor’s Travel would’ve offered a private jet and a blank check as a CEO salary if they’d have known about Parker.
“Parker is a fine mentor to many of us — a gentleman, a great leader … and a ferocious competitor,” he added.
Jim Simas recalled a team-building event at their father’s lake house as an illustration of spontaneous fun, Parker-style — an event also fondly recalled by Anne Kelly.
“We were out having a great time on the pontoon boat, but the gas line had a leak, so the engine quit, not quite a quarter-mile from shore. Parker jumped in [to get help] and started swimming. George was in triathlon training, so he decided to swim with Parker, and was gradually catching-up until Parker, smiling, switched to breast stroke and easily pulled away. I’m convinced that, if we’d have tossed a rope into the water, Parker could have pulled us ashore with his teeth.”
Jeff Dirksen, senior vice president of engineering products, has known Wheat for 30 years.
“Parker is one of the most creative, supportive people I’ve ever known,” Dirksen says. “We’ll miss him. We’ll miss his guidance, spot-on insights, and also moments like the company golf outing 20 years ago — my first social outing with ES. Apparently, Parker didn’t have a set of golf shoes, so he arrived with bare feet!”
Bob Oppel, senior vice president of distribution plumbing, says Wheat is a rarity.
“Parker is a man of many facets — creativity, extreme talent, tireless work ethic, vision and incredible perception. He also helped us evaluate who we are as a company, and implemented change here to improve who we wanted to become — not just in terms of structure, but culture, as well. I have immense respect for Parker.”
MENTOR AND FRIEND
Keith Swan, Co-CEO The Swan Group, says he worked professionally with Wheat for only a few years, though Wheat “quickly became a great mentor” to him.
“Parker is so gracious, capable and talented,” Keith Swan says. “People quickly sense his leadership and judgment, and trust him. I don’t think I know of anyone who tackles a job, professionally, with better preparation and research; it’s his nature. Parker Wheat is a true Renaissance Man — our very own Leonardo da Vinci of the heating, plumbing, mechanical and HVAC industries.”
Meryl Monaco, director of corporate administration for The Swan Group, worked closely with Wheat for 30 years.
“It is a bittersweet moment for me as I am both happy for him and Fawn personally for their next steps together and sad because I will not get to see his always-smiling face on a daily basis,” Monaco says. “Parker is truly one of the nicest people I have ever known. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him both as a leader and a person. He leads by example, challenges us and inspires us to be better. It is often said that everyone is replaceable. When considering Parker — I’ll disagree.”
Thomas J. Swan III, Swan Group Co-CEO and partner in all businesses, has known Wheat since he was a young child in 1976 working at Emerson Swan when his father ran it.
“Since my active involvement began in all of our businesses following my Dad’s death, I’ve come to know Parker really well, and he is a great friend, mentor and business partner,” he says. “Parker embodies the four core values of The Swan Group: Quality, Service, Integrity and Innovation. He is an entrepreneur and teacher/mentor by nature, and half measures, shortcuts or delays are not part of Parker’s world.”
According to Thomas J. Swan III, many people associate Wheat with Emerson Swan’s incredible success, “and there is no doubt that he has much to do with it.” However, Wheat’s influence extends to the success of Flexcon, Skidmore and Smith’s Environmental Products as well.
“As my Dad faced death and I worried about how my experience as a business lawyer and investment banker would translate to our own businesses and how they could survive his death, my dad continually assured me that I need not worry because I had Parker to guide me and to rely upon. As usual, my Dad was spot on.
“I am pretty sure that Parker would have retired a bit sooner to pursue his many passions outside of work if he did not feel a big responsibility to The Swan Group, all of our associates and our family. Indeed, no succession has been better planned than the one Parker has planned for himself and nobody else could have provided my cousin Keith and me with better mentoring.
“It’s increasingly unusual to find a person like Parker Wheat who puts the collective interests of those around him in front of his own interests. But that is exactly what he did and why, to me, Parker is the definition of integrity. He can’t be replaced inside the business, but I am looking forward to continuing my close friendships with Parker and his wife, Fawn, for a long time. I will always owe Parker a debt of gratitude that I cannot repay.”
Ken Fagan, senior vice president of business development, says he was fortunate to have worked closely with Wheat for many years.
“He was a mentor to me and others. Parker is tireless, dedicated, and willing to share — always. He was exacting, a record-keeper of extraordinary detail, and strategic. Of the notes he’d keep and then share at just the right moment — we’d call that the ‘Parkerized’ version.”
Two recollections illustrate Wheat’s dedication to task. Fagan said that during AHR Expos, they dash between hospitality suites each evening; that’s the norm. But of course, January in Chicago can be a game-changer. One evening that he recalls was 0° F with gale-force winds.
“Taxis were jammed, so we mostly ran, ducking through hotel lobbies whenever we could, but getting to each event on Parker’s list. And, once on Cape Cod [for business], several of us spotted a nut — some gung-ho kook swimming in the ocean, doing laps, as we made our way to an early breakfast. Then someone exclaimed, ‘That’s Parker!’ Yet, not long after that, Parker was fully dressed and in time for the meal — sharp and ready for a new day.”
Anne Kelly, COO and CFO, was also among those who had the pleasure of working with Wheat for many years.
“The joke between us was that he’d turn me into a sales pro and I’d make an accountant of him,” she says. “Parker’s utmost strength and talent is to see things from every important perspective. He’s the most driven and focused person I know, and I admire him immensely.
“Whenever you’d ask for a ‘moment’ of Parker’s time, the answer was always ‘yes,’ and the ‘moment’ was never rushed,” she continued. She laughed to recall many memorable moments in their collective experience: Parker as the most capable tour guide of London, Parker’s gigantic rose-colored glasses (ever the optimist), Parker saving the Simas’ boat — and everyone in it — by swimming it ashore. Also, Parker’s insightful ‘Point of Bifurcation’ theory … and, of course, golfing in bare feet.”
“We’re all fortunate to have Parker in our lives,” Jim Simas concludes. “He made a positive impact on everyone.”
One night late last year, at a senior management dinner, Jim Simas took the microphone and said, looking at Wheat: “We’d follow you through the gates of hell and back with you as our leader. We will remember you, we will miss you, and most importantly — we love you.”
STAYING THE COURSE
Emerson Swan’s core values — Integrity • Quality • Innovation • Service — haven’t changed since 1932 and, says Parker Wheat, that’s an indication of values that have and continue to hold firm.
Emerson Swan (ES) is a nationally recognized, stocking manufacturer's representative serving the Northeastern US and the greater Toronto Area with residential and commercial plumbing, heating and HVAC equipment. Their strategy for success is to employ and retain the most qualified people in our industry.
In addition to its sales and marketing function for its manufacturers, Emerson Swan also provides timely market information, including market trends, conditions and all relevant market data to its manufacturers for forecasting and planning purposes. Emerson Swan is known and respected for its sales and distribution network and the ability to provide its manufacturers with market share and market support throughout the Northeast region.
Emerson Swan is organized into two divisions: Distribution Products (DP) and Engineered Products (EP).
The DP division employs more than 100 full-time employees. Included in this number are 50-plus outside and inside sales professionals. This team serves wholesalers, contractors, engineers, architects, industrial accounts and end users. DP is broken into four subdivisions: distribution products, applied products, HVAC products and showroom products.
The EP division employs a full-time staff of 25, including 17 outside and inside sales professionals in five offices. This division promotes the application and sale of technical heating, air conditioning and plumbing products and systems for the institutional, industrial and commercial buildings.
In recognition of Emerson Swan’s success, Supply House Times named Emerson Swan as the industry “Rep of the Year” in 2003. Four years later in 2007, Plumbing and Mechanical magazine awarded Emerson Swan the same honor as "Rep of the Year."
The first time I met Parker was about 20 years ago. I was asked to join a group of folks at a restaurant after a day at AHR Expo. Mike Chiles was there, and Russ Rose — both with Heatway, then Watts Radiant.
One of the people I’d not yet met was this tall, gallant guy with Emerson Swan — the largest HVAC/plumbing/mechanical systems manufacturer’s rep in the Northeast. We spoke freely and laughed, and I learned. Lots.
Through the years, I’d write about Emerson Swan, visit with them, meet their experts at hydronic job sites and — sure enough — each year thereafter I’d see and speak with Parker. As my son and daughter entered the industry, joining my PR firm, they interacted with and learned from Parker. He took keen interest in them.
And, Parker freely shared sage advice. And you can bet they remembered it, too.
Now, we’re among those who’ll miss him.
But, it’s not with sadness because we know that he’s smiling. His retirement is just as he planned it. To the letter.