Chris Williams, president of Columbia, South Carolina-based Gateway Supply, says there is one reason the third-generation distributor continues to be an industry success story.
“The reason we’ve been successful is because we are consistent,” he says. “We’re always there. We’re always in the same place. We go into a community, we start out building a business and that business is there to stay. We never have a plan to close it, and only once have we closed one. Our intent always has been to be a long-term fixture in that market.”
And long-term fixtures Gateway Supply has been in South Carolina. The 55-year-old company, run by Williams and his brothers, Sam Williams Jr. (chairman) and David Williams (vice president), has 16 branches in the state and employs about 216 individuals. Gateway, the well-deserved recipient of the 2019 Supply House Times Supply House of the Year honor, also features 10 kitchen and bath showrooms, and counts about a third of its business as HVAC, an industry it became involved with in 1974.
“We are very deliberate in our decision-making,” Sam Williams Jr. says. “That’s the way we were brought up. That’s the way our dad (Sam Williams Sr.) and the two guys he started the business with were. They just kept moving. They weren’t slow in making decisions, but steady in making decisions, and making the best decisions on a branch, on a person, on a product line. I’ve told Chris and David this before. People look at Gateway and if we take on a product line, they know we don’t pick something that doesn’t have merit. If we’ve looked at it, there must be something there.”
After working at Noland Co., Sam Williams Sr. started Gateway (the orange logo was sketched by Williams Sr. while sitting at the family kitchen table) in 1964 with partners Jerry Munn and Richard Moore. All were veterans in the plumbing supply industry, having worked at Noland Co. The three men sought to create a plumbing supply house superior to any other through outstanding customer service and consistent inventory availability.
“They made it because they had a lot of good customers and vendors,” says David Williams, who is based out of Greenville, South Carolina.
Sam Williams Jr. and Chris Williams started with Gateway right out of school, while David Williams joined the company 12 years later after putting his architecture degree to use with a large construction firm.
Today, Gateway continues to grow. It opened branches in Summerville and Bluffton, South Carolina in the last year and now operates a distribution center out of Columbia, plus there are plans in the works for expansion of the company’s showroom arm.
While Gateway grows physically and on the profit-and-loss ledger, it does the same when it comes to customer service. “We don’t have auto phone attendants,” Chris Williams says. “We answer the phone when it rings. We spend a lot on coffee. Our customers are only allowed to wait at the counter for two minutes. We actively manage that stuff. It goes back to the consistency. It’s not the excitement. I don’t know that we are very exciting.”
Sam Williams Jr. adds: “Dad used to say, ‘You go to McDonald’s and you know what you are going to get. Wherever you go it tastes the same.’ With us, it’s the same way. Our people are consistent.”
David Williams notes it’s not uncommon for him to leave his office at the Greenville branch and work the counter and pull orders. “Some hires that come from other companies are surprised at how involved we are on a day-to-day basis in the business,” he says. “It’s refreshing to our people that we’ll get down there with them and do what it takes to get the job done. Our customers see that as well, and they like that we are very accessible. They know they can get to where the buck stops pretty easily should they need to.”
The brothers took away plenty of lessons from their father. “How to treat our people, customers and vendors,” Sam Williams Jr. says.
“I remember he told me, ‘We always look for loyalty from our customers, but don’t forget you owe loyalty to your vendors,’” David Williams says. “Without our vendor partners, you can’t do a whole lot. I take that to heart and show loyalty.”
Chris Williams says he recalls many “dad-isms” over the years. “There must have been 1,000 of them because one comes up daily that you think about,” he says. “He told me that because I don’t tend to be serious all the time, ‘If you are talking about somebody’s money, always be serious and don’t take that lightly. Don’t mess with people and their money.’ Just one of his dad-isms.”
Taking it to the next level
One major company initiative of late has been the rollout of an enhanced website at GatewaySupply.net that includes the ability to place mobile orders.
“We opened the site in May,” Chris Williams says. “We’ve dedicated a lot of money and personnel to this. The first goal we had was our customer base. We wanted to lessen the number of phone calls coming in. I read where experts say it’s three bucks saved if you stop a phone call and do it online. One of the things that surprises us is the amount of guests that use our site. We’ve done a lot of business that way west of the Mississippi just randomly selling plumbing supplies.”
The Williams brothers all have children involved in the business, which marks the third generation of family involvement. “We’ve done a good job preparing our kids for the next thing,” Chris Williams says.
But Chris Williams cautions, just throwing up a website isn’t enough in today’s business climate. “There’s the line from ‘Field of Dreams,’ ‘If you build it, they will come,’ but they don’t come automatically,” he says. “David’s daughter (Aimee Williams Garrett) is our marketing director and she has sent out some things that have led customers to the website. With this, I want to do better than everyone else did. I want to look at the mistakes and I’d like to be different. Right now, we are on the path to being different with this.”
The brothers are enthusiastic when talking about Gateway’s employees and the importance they play in the distributor’s success. “They are the ones who make it happen,” Sam Williams Jr. says. “We have a lot of really good people, but more importantly we have a lot of good people who care. They care about our company.”
Chris Williams adds: “I saw some industry benchmarking where turnover rate with high-profit companies is 7.5% and we’re down around 5%. We don’t have turnover here. We probably have 50 people who have been with us in excess of 30 years. We have a lot of people who are as loyal as the day is long. If we say charge, they are with us wherever we are going. We have a lot of spiritual leaders who bring everybody else along with them.”
David Williams says empowering employees to make decisions has been another major differentiator. “We have no problem empowering key people,” he says. “We would not have had the growth we’ve had without doing that. We allow our people to fail. That’s how they buy in and become part of the company because they are the ones making the calls. We may talk about goals, but it’s their job to get it to that point. I want them to do it their way and reach the same goal. You hire the best people and let them do their thing. It’s how we approach business. It’s very simple. Customers are everything. We know we are not going to be cheap, but we know we have the people in place to out-service anyone.”
David Williams’ thought on customer service triggered a further discussion on the topic and the huge role it plays at Gateway.
Gateway values its wide-ranging industry involvement with the American Supply Association, HARDI, Southern Wholesalers Association and the recently renamed Commonwealth Group, the name of the newly merged Embassy and WIT buying groups. Gateway is a founding Embassy member. Sam Williams Jr. is a former SWA president, and Gateway Plumbing Sales Manager John Skeppstrom is the current SWA president.
“You hear about the ‘Golden Rule,’” Chris Williams says. “I’ve adapted that in my business life. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. How do you want to be treated? Treat the customer that way. Treat the employees that way and treat everybody that way.”
David Williams adds: “Give me 10 people to choose from and the person that may not have all the schooling or all the intelligence, but cares, that’s the one I want. We had a driver that when he made a delivery he would find the owner or the highest-ranking person at the shop and thank them for the order. We didn’t tell him to do that. You want to hug people like that.”
Sam Williams Jr. feels Gateway also has benefitted from its long-time membership in the American Supply Association, Southern Wholesalers Association, HARDI and the former Embassy buying group, recently renamed the Commonwealth Group after merging with WIT & Co. Gateway was a founding Embassy member. Sam Williams Jr.
is a former SWA president, and Gateway Plumbing Sales Manager John Skeppstrom is the current SWA president.
“The exposure to other distributors and the way they do things is the single biggest asset we have gained since joining Embassy as one of the founding members,” he says. “Getting to know people through ASA, SWA, HARDI and Embassy is invaluable, and now we have someone in charge of training who uses the ASA education materials.”
The future of Gateway
The Williams brothers say there is no real pressure in carrying on what their dad started 50-plus years ago. “It’s pride more than anything,” Sam Williams Jr. says. “We certainly make mistakes, but dad taught us well. We know the distribution business.”
David Williams adds: “We have a lot of employees and a lot of families, so the pressure I feel is I don’t want to let any of them down. They know they have our support. My only pressure is making sure our employees have a place to come to work tomorrow.”
“Dad began the business and now it’s our legacy,” Chris Williams says. “After 30 years the company was this big and now it’s this big. He had the courage to begin it, courage I probably don’t have. We have the intelligence now to grow it much bigger than it ever was. We haven’t screwed it up yet. I feel like if we do what we are supposed to do, things will happen the way they are supposed to happen.”
The brothers say they are blessed to have an excellent working relationship with each other. “I couldn’t have better brothers,” Chris Williams says. “In business, I get frustrated with them, but at the end of the day, they trust me to do things. I’m not much of a person who asks if you want to go down this road. I’m already headed there and they are right there with me. They wish maybe I would tell them more about where we are going, but they trust me.”
Sam Williams Jr. adds: “We each have our strengths and weaknesses, and our biggest asset is we know what those are and we let each other do the things for the benefit of Gateway Supply. Everything we do is for the benefit of the company.”
In addition to David Williams’ daughter, Aimee, who also is heavily involved in Gateway’s showroom operations, Sam Williams Jr.’s son, Sam III, is the Columbia branch manager, while Chris Williams’ daughter, Katherine, is the company’s chief financial officer. Chris Williams’ son, Alex, oversees several Gateway locations.
“The four kids who are involved are our future,” Sam Williams Jr. says. “They are taking more and more of the reins, not necessarily on a daily basis, but they are very involved.”
Chris Williams adds: “Dad told Sammy and me in 1988 that he was going to retire, and we were pretty stupid back then. Our children probably are not as inexperienced as we were. They have been coached a lot. It took Sam, David and I awhile to figure out we were at the top and we couldn’t blame stuff on the previous ownership anymore. We were them. We’ve done a good job preparing our kids for the next thing.”
And the next thing has been made possible by multiple generations of hard work. “It’s so fortunate what our parents did for us,” David Williams says. “I feel blessed and lucky to be where I am, and I know Sam and Chris feel the same way. We’ve worked hard to build the company to what it is today.”