John Cook is a textbook example of how this industry can enrich so many lives.
The longtime owner of Baltimore, Maryland-based Northeastern Supply and father of 2019 ASA President Steve Cook died on Good Friday at the age of 85. His passing sparked an outpouring of support and memories.
“I have received hundreds of emails and texts about my dad,” Steve Cook, Northeastern’s CEO, told me in late April. “There were a lot of words like he’s the nicest guy I have ever met and a true gentleman. It was all types of praise that I could tell was all genuine. A couple people started crying on the phone. He meant that much to so many people.”
John Cook started working at Northeastern in 1964 as a branch manager before purchasing the two-branch company in 1972. Northeastern’s headquarters at the time operated out of a pair of converted row houses in the Northeast (company name spoiler alert) section of Baltimore.
“It was true humble beginnings,” says Cook, who now presides over a five-state distribution powerhouse with 36 branches.
Cook ticks off a number of things he fondly remembers about his father, who ironically was the third in his family to partake in the plumbing supply business (John Cook’s father and grandfather did the same), but says a down-to-earth style tops the charts.
“He was one of the most personable people you would ever run into,” he says. “If he met you today, he would look you right in the eye and he would never be concerned about what is going on elsewhere in the room. It was your time. He listened intently and made you feel like a million bucks. I always teased him that he should have been in politics because he had that ease of dealing with people. He could give you hell, and at the end you would thank him for it because he made you feel good about it.”
John Cook also taught his son to be a straight shooter in his business dealings. “He taught me to always do what is right,” Steve Cook says. “There are a lot of situations in the wholesale business where you might be able to shoot around the edges and maybe make a little more money. He always told me do right by yourself, your family and your customers and the rest will work out.”
And then there is the employee piece.
“He always said the people who work at Northeastern are not employees,” Cook says. “They are family. When you make decisions in a company, they affect families. He always told me to think about that. If you cut some payroll and do this and that, think long and hard about it because you might upset families’ lives. We never look at employees as numbers. As we continued to grow, we continue to honor my dad because we run a very large family business.”
And now the official third generation of Cooks is entrenched in the business with Steve’s daughter, Stephanie, who is Northeastern’s director of training and safety, and a member of both ASA’s Women in Industry division and the Emerging Leaders Executive Council. “The odds of making it to the third generation in a business are pretty slim,” Cook says. “He told me he was proud of me and also was very proud of Stephanie.”
After Steve Cook graduated college his dad told him to go find the best job he could — and he would match the salary offer. “He said I could use my accounting skills — I was on my way to becoming a CPA — and I might find this business enjoyable. Thank God I listened to him. I was able to work side-by-side with my dad for many years. He was a super guy.”