Elkay celebrates 100 years
A look back at its history and onward to its future.
In late October, Elkay Manufacturing announced that President and CEO Tim Jahnke plans to retire from day-to-day leadership to concentrate on his role on Elkay's Board of Directors. Ric Phillips has been named by Elkay's Board to succeed Jahnke as president and chief executive officer.
This announcement comes just shy of Elkay’s 100th anniversary. Jahnke has held that role since December 2007, just at the front end of the recession.
“The downturn hit our industries hard — however, we made the tough but necessary changes and weathered through while many others in the industry were not so fortunate,” Jahnke said. “Since then, we’ve been able to adjust the direction of our business and have been on a strong, steady growth course for several years.
“One of the many things I am proud of about Elkay is the team’s ability to adapt to market and industry changes, driven by the team’s deep commitment to delivering exceptional customer experiences and a desire to deliver quality in everything that we do,” he continued. “We continuously evaluate what we’re hearing from our customers and partners to determine what else we can do to make our products and services even better.”
Jahnke’s most significant memories are tied to opportunities where there was a big challenge. The first he mentioned is tied to how well the company came out of the “Great Recession” back in 2011/2012. It had been a difficult time for the company and everyone in the industry. But he was proud of how loyal and dedicated the team was to the business, its customers and its teammates. He said the company and the team came out of the recession, “stronger, prepared for growth, and amazingly upbeat and optimistic. It set the stage for an incredible run we have been on over the last several years.”
Another memory Jahnke shared also came from a significant hardship. Back a few years ago, the Lumberton, N.C.-based employees faced Hurricane Mathew and it devastated the area.
“Everyone faced horrible personal challenges ranging from losing their homes, vehicles, belongings,” he said. “Yet they all looked after their co-workers. They made sure everyone was accounted for and got supplies to those who needed them.”
In addition, other Elkay locations got water, food and clothing to the team in North Carolina. They had suppliers, customers, employees and of course, the company, all committing resources to those affected. Jahnke said he was overwhelmed by the selflessness, the caring of the team.
“I can honestly say I was never so proud to be part of a team than I was during that time,” he said. “That memory will stay with me forever. It really showed who we are.”
A look back in time
Elkay was founded in Chicago in 1920 by Chairman of the Board of Directors Ron Katz’s grandfather, Leopold Katz, a carpenter by trade, and Ellef Robarth, a tinsmith. They met while working for Litterer Brothers Mfg. Co., a company that supplied sinks. Together they founded Elkay (a mashup of their two names), bringing together their different experiences.
Elkay began as a manufacturer of scullery and butler’s pantry sinks. The original products which were sold under the brand name Elkay Sturdibilt were hand fabricated out of German silver. That material was so soft that the company eventually turned to stainless steel to arrive at a product that would “outlast the home” it went into.
“In 1948, Elkay was the first company to bring automation to the sink manufacturing process, adding a 350-Ton Press to our stainless-steel sink production process,” Katz said. “In 1960, Elkay began producing its own line of water coolers and water fountains, and in 1991, acquired Halsey Taylor, which rounded out the water cooler business.”
In 2010, the company introduced the ezH2O, which is one of its most popular product offerings as a company. So much so, it recently launched a residential version, the ezH2O Liv. It also acquired Interior Systems, which expanded its ability to offer holistic design, engineering and fabrication services for industries such as retail, restaurant, hospitality and education.
In the early days of the company, Leopold Katz was friends with his employees, often going out with them on Friday nights to “raise a pint” and celebrate a long week of hard work well done. Early company records show many a personal loan made by Leopold to company employees during hard times, and family stories indicate that for the most part, there were no expectations that these loans would ever be repaid. Much like today, company culture is a high priority and employees are still treated as part of the family, Ron Katz noted.
Elkay has remained employee-owned and operated. As a member of the founding family, Ron Katz spent the summers of 1951 and 1952 working part-time in the shop. He held numerous roles in the company between the 1950s and 1980s until he eventually became Elkay’s president and CEO in 1986, a position he held until 2007 when Jahnke joined the company.
A good time for change
“My career and much of my life have been connected to Elkay since the very beginning,” Katz said. “The company would not have become what it is today without the hard work of the many people who put their shoulders to the task of building the company, its products and its relationships with customers. Through our relationship — with Tim as CEO and me on the board of directors — I’ve remained very involved with Elkay, and Tim has helped preserve that same spirit that my family built into the company they founded.”
Jahnke told SupplyHT that there could not have been a better time for him to retire: “The company is in a strong position, with each of our businesses growing, and with a strong balance sheet. This puts us in an excellent position to make investments in the business to set us up for success in a new era. I know the company is heading in the right direction, with our people leading the charge into 2020 and beyond.
“My journey with Elkay has been incredible and immensely satisfying,” he continued. “The team here is extraordinary, and I’ve seen them accomplish many remarkable milestones. We also upgraded our capabilities, acquiring SSP, Inc. in 2009 to expand our commercial and industrial foodservice offerings and entered into new markets to become a truly global company.”
“Tim has been an exemplary leader, equipping our people with the ability to provide excellent customer service and products,” Katz said. “His legacy is one of empowerment. He believed that real change started with each and every person, and not just at the top with senior leadership. He also helped strengthen Elkay’s relationships with our clients and customers, something that the company is renowned for today.”
“Retiring at the company’s centennial anniversary allows for a new chapter to begin — and it also felt like the right decision for my family and me,” Jahnke added. “I’m thrilled Ric is joining the Elkay family and know that the future is in good hands. I’m eager to see what else is in store as Elkay enters its second century of exceptional quality and service, and I’m honored to continue to be involved with Elkay by serving on its board of directors.”
Phillips is a seasoned senior executive with deep experience developing strategy, driving execution, negotiating transactions and positively impacting organizational culture, noted an Elkay press release. As President and Chief Executive Officer of Essendant (formerly United Stationers), Phillips rebuilt the company’s overall strategy and oversaw the largest restructuring in its history.
“Our company is family-owned and professionally-managed,” Katz stated. “We have always strived to find company leaders — whether from within the company or professionals from outside — who are the best people for their leadership roles. For the past 12 years, Tim Jahnke has been a sterling example of a professional leader who has led the company masterfully while consistently exemplifying our values. As Tim steps away from day-to-day leadership and more fully into his position on the Board, it is a pleasure that a leader of Ric’s caliber has agreed to join our company in this key leadership role as president and CEO. I have every confidence in his ability to lead our company forward.”
“We are extremely fortunate to have attracted such a high caliber chief executive with strong credentials and remarkable experience,” Jahnke said. “Ric has a distinguished background in developing and executing high-performance business strategies across a wide variety of business sectors. His unwavering commitment to customer focus, respectful and inspirational leadership style and well-earned reputation for building high-performance teams make it easy to confidently pass the torch as I step more fully into my position on Elkay’s Board. I know that under Ric's stewardship, Elkay will continue on our path of accelerated growth and exceptional financial performance.”
“My first few weeks at Elkay have been fast-paced and exciting, as I have a lot to learn,” Phillips said. “I have been spending time with the Elkay team across several locations to engage with our people and discuss how we can continue to build momentum in the business. Elkay’s culture is a major strength, and we have very talented leaders across the company. I have been very impressed overall with our people and with the continued opportunities we have to grow and excel.”
“One of Elkay’s Core Values is to be in business forever,” Katz said. “The Board’s goals for Elkay’s future are keenly focused on ensuring that we have the right leaders and the right people in place within the business to ensure that we can live up to this admirable goal. What stood out about Ric, in particular, was his experience in organizational change and business strategy, which together made him a natural fit for Elkay in 2020 and beyond.”
“I plan to focus on continuing to drive Elkay’s tradition of innovation and ingenuity, and providing world-class service,” Phillips added. “I hope to build on the company’s already great foundation to lead Elkay on a journey of growth, continuous improvement, and positive impact for our customers.”
A time for celebration
For its 100th anniversary in 2020, Elkay will host celebrations at each of its locations. The company is publishing a book to tell its story and commemorate the anniversary, which it’ll be sending to all of its employees, customers and partners.
To kick the year off, Elkay will have a large presence at the 2020 KBIS conference — which will provide an exclusive first look at some of the new products it will be launching throughout the year. Its plumbing business will also continue its tradition of giving back to the community, with an emphasis on providing access to clean water and eliminating plastic from the world’s oceans and landfills.
“I strongly believe you get things done when you have a great team,” Jahnke said. “We have built a world-class leadership team. When you add in a wonderful culture that has been built over 100 years, you have something special. I am proud of that. This team works together, appreciates each other, challenges each other, and has the utmost respect for each other, our customers and our teammates. That is a winning combination.
The company’s future is a bright one, Jahnke noted. The year 2020, he added, is positioned to be one of the company’s biggest years ever, and he knows Elkay will continue to grow and expand across the globe.
“To everyone at Elkay — thank you for allowing me to be part of this family for all these years,” Jahnke said. “It has truly been the greatest honor to lead this organization. A special thanks to our ‘Family Owners’ for being so trusting and supportive. In particular, I would like to say thank you to Ron Katz, our chairman. Ron has been such a great leader over the years. I appreciate his guidance, support and wisdom. His commitment to the organization is unrelenting, and he has been a great role model for me and everyone at Elkay.
“I will continue to be part of the Elkay Board of Directors, so I will have a ‘front-row’ seat to watch how Ric and the Leadership team will lead Elkay to new levels of performance,” he added. “I have absolute confidence that our best years are still ahead of us!”
Celebrating around the industry
“One thing that stands out is Elkay’s commitment to our industry by allowing their people to participate at a high level in industry organizations,” said Don Maloney, a 50-year industry veteran and president of Coburn Supply Company, a wholesale distributor. “Elkay supports the industry with their time and money. For example, after the flooding in Louisiana and Texas, their employees and the company raised money to help our employees get back on their feet. They are dedicated to doing the right thing for the right reason. For Elkay’s future, I hope for its continued success. Elkay has a great heritage, a great family, and great people.”
“What stands out about Elkay is the quality of the product, their continuing innovation and their people,” said Eddie Gibbs, vice president of vendor relations at Winsupply, a distributor of Elkay products. “Elkay continues to be a leader in the kitchen sink business and across the country their reps are recognized as leaders in the markets. For Elkay’s future, I’d like to see continuing support of the wholesale distribution channel.”
“Elkay has been a strategic partner to JM Brennan for many years,” said Matt Brennan, co-president at J.M. Brennan. “We have counted on them for not only quality products but solutions to difficult and demanding projects. They have come through each and every time. What stands out is the people. They make your problem their problems. Your challenges are their challenges. They help us to succeed and they make us a better contractor in the eyes of our customers. For Elkay’s future, I would like them to continue with the quality and beauty of their products and expand their product line into other products that we can provide our customers with confidence.”
“Elkay is a key contributor to the industry, especially in their willingness to advocate politically on behalf of our whole industry, whether it is on behalf of the professional installer, the distributor, the manufacturer representative or as a manufacturer,” said Joe Poehling, chief executive officer at First Supply and Kitchen and Bath Stores by First Supply, an independent distributors of Elkay products. “The support and relationship the Elkay team gives to its customers makes a world of difference in maintaining the confidence to sell their products into our markets. For Elkay’s future, I’d like to see them continuing to innovate and helping their customers have an edge in the market.”
“My relationship with Elkay started back when I was a kid putting away stainless-steel sinks and water coolers for my grandfather, father and uncles,” said Chadd Hartwig, president at Hartwig Plumbing & Heating. “Quality is what stands out to me when we talk about Elkay. … The hand work that goes into these great sinks has always impressed me. When it comes to finish, sound deadening and overall quality, Elkay cannot be beat.
“Also, when I was a rep I was able to meet lots of people from Elkay,” Hartwig continued. “I was always impressed of how the culture of Elkay was consistent from the top down. It did not matter who we were dealing with at Elkay, the goal was always to make sure the customer was happy. In my case I worked with contractors, wholesalers, engineers and architects. Elkay always put their best foot forward to do what was right. For Elkay’s future, I would like to see them continue to provide great customer service for their products. Elkay has always had the foresight to stay ahead of their competition. We all need to stay focused on the challenges to educating our clients regarding the value of all Elkay’s products.”