There is a story in industry circles about the time former Milwaukee Valve owner Johnny Seder had dinner with a contractor customer and that individual’s family. During the meal, it was revealed one of the contractor’s children was interested in attending Johns Hopkins University, but had not heard anything back from the elite institution.
As the story is told, Seder quietly excused himself, went to a back room in the contractor’s home and made a phone call (Seder’s late father, Herschel, was on the school’s board of trustees at the time) and then returned to dinner without saying a word.
The youngster ended up getting that coveted meeting with school admissions officials.
Stories just like that one are abundant in the PHCP-PVF realm regarding the larger-than-life, always the life-of-the-party Seder, a revered individual who likely could give anybody’s Rolodex in the history of the industry a run for its money.
“Johnny was truly passionate about Milwaukee Valve and what he did,” says Rick Giannini, president and CEO of Milwaukee Valve. “He lived and breathed this business every day of his long career. All you had to do was meet him one time to feel that passion.
“He’s a living legend in this business. Johnny was relentless about the details of the individual or individuals with which he was associated or wanted to know. People would see him scribble indecipherable notes on scrap pieces of paper or whatever was available, and then he would crumple them up and stick them in his pockets. That seemed like a waste of time, but he would later pull out each piece of scribbled note, turn every which way to see what he wrote and then essentially commit that piece of information to memory. He is legendary for his memory.”
Seder also officially goes down as legendary in the PVF realm as the latest member of the elite fraternity to receive the American Supply Association’s Industrial Piping Division Award of Excellence.
“Johnny has the ability to walk into a room and by the time he leaves, he knows everyone by their first name,” says Gary Stratiner, president of Kent, Washington-based Puget Sound Pipe & Supply, a longtime Milwaukee Valve customer. “He has as close to a total memory recollection than anyone I have ever known. He will run into a customer or even a friend or relative of a customer years later and not only remember their first name, but how many kids they have and their names. He’s simply amazing.”
Seder, whose father purchased 119-year-old Milwaukee Valve in 1959 with late partner Max Koenigsberg, started with the company in June 1972 in an immediate sales role for after teaching high school in Chicago for two years. Seder’s efforts over the years helped Milwaukee Valve, which was purchased by NIBCO late last year, blossom into a company that now manufactures more than 7,500 products out of four locations (two in China, two in the United States) and employs 600 people worldwide. Seder’s sister, Diane, served as Milwaukee’s chairman of the board up until the sale to NIBCO.
“First and foremost, I am proud of the fact we helped build an industry with our products and those products performed well and protected people,” Seder says. “I’m proud of what my dad put in place, and I’m proud of the fact we outworked everybody to build a world-class organization. We did it with integrity.”
Seder says he learned plenty from his father. “He taught us hard work pays off and that we employ families and not people,” he says. “If you worked hard, you had a job for life around here. My dad also had a think-big mentality. I took that same mold that Milwaukee Valve was vital and we mattered, even if the sales sometimes told us something different. You never say never.”
NIBCO Chairman Rex Martin has had the pleasure of being a friend and competitor of Seder’s over the past 40-plus years. “Johnny helped build an incredible commercial, industrial and marine valve company,” he says. “The more I get to know Milwaukee Valve and its people, the more I am impressed by the company. He will be remembered and liked as a bigger-than-life personality who knew everyone in the entire industry. Johnny was a great asset to the industry, and I wish him well in retirement.”
Stratiner, for one, appreciated the family atmosphere Seder championed. “Johnny always has said, ‘What other company do you know where you can call up the owner at any time and ask for help?’” he says. “For all these years, that is exactly what we have been able to do with Milwaukee Valve. We are treated as and treat everyone there — Johnny, Diane, Herschel, Rick and Tom LaGuardia — as family.”
LaGuardia, Milwaukee Valve’s longtime vice president of sales & marketing, had his first encounter with Seder in 1990 when an East Coast-based distributor encouraged LaGuardia to get into the rep business as a Milwaukee Valve agent. “He said you need to call Johnny Seder,” he recalls. “Two days later, I was in the rep business and eight years later I was running his sales department. We have been together 30 years. It’s been a hell of a run. He let me run the group. He was the best guy in the world to work with because he’s infectious. We built something pretty cool.”
Brian Isaac, Milwaukee Valve’s product manager for industrial products, has been with the company since 1979 and is its longest-tenured sales and marketing employee. He’s seen Seder work his magic for more than four decades. “Everybody says the same thing about Johnny,” he says. “If he tells you something, he means it. What strikes me the most about him is his enthusiasm. He loves the industry. It’s his joie de vivre, everybody wants to spend time with him.”
LaGuardia says it’s no shock Seder is revered by a list of names a mile long. “He worked his (butt) off,” he says. “That’s 50 years of effort. He started with the company on June 14, 1972. I’m betting he probably picked up the phone that day and called someone and said, “I’m Johnny Seder, what can we do for you?”
Kip Miller, president and CEO of Eastern Industrial Supplies in Greenville, South Carolina, first ran into Seder at an ASA convention in New Orleans where Seder had rented a riverboat to take Milwaukee customers on a cruise during the event.
“We were sitting at a table covered by a white cloth,” he recalls. “He comes by our table to introduce himself and begins to talk with us. Every time he made a point in his conversation, he would reach across the table and pull the table cloth in his direction. He was about to have everything in his lap. I had to intervene to pull it back toward us. This went on until he ventured over to another table. My wife and I couldn’t believe what had just happened. We had never met anyone as eccentric as Johnny, and probably still haven’t. We love Johnny and his family. They always have treated us as family, and we have shared many wonderful memories together. Eastern formed a relationship with Milwaukee back in the 1980s, and Johnny always wanted to make sure we were happy and he let his people know. It was like they knew we were friends and we had each other’s cellphone numbers. They always took great care of us.”
ASA Chairman of the Board Steve Cook of Baltimore, Maryland-based Northeastern Supply, echoes the sentiments of his contemporaries when talking about Seder. “Johnny is a kind-hearted man who truly loves the industry. He’s a pleasure to be around,” he says. “You know exactly where you stand with him. He’s wide open. Johnny is just Johnny.”
Giannini adds: “Johnny always strove to make every experience and interaction that a customer would have with him and Milwaukee Valve as unique and as special as possible. He worked tirelessly to cultivate the relationships between the distributors and contractors for Milwaukee Valve’s benefit. The most important thing is that he loved doing it.”
Giannini jokes Seder’s expense reports tended to be on the more bountiful side. “No doubt about that,” he says. “But his impact on Milwaukee Valve and the industry were more impactful by multiples of those expenses.”