F.W. Webb Branch 66 in Elmwood Park, New Jersey has quite the backstory to it. Branch 66 used to be known as Bergen Industrial Supply until F.W. Webb purchased the fellow AD buying group member from owner Jim LaPorte in 2013.
Bergen had been a local commercial/industrial institution dating back some five decades when LaPorte started the company in 1965. LaPorte, a revered individual in local circles and throughout our industry, died recently at the age of 89.
“When my dad was in the Army, his parents died,” explained LaPorte’s son, Michael, now the office manager at Webb Branch 66. Michael LaPorte’s brothers Tom (outside sales) and James (inside sales) also still work there.
“When he got out of the Army, he worked at a place where he saw suits come in and out and sell stuff. After a few years of working at a supply house, he decided he could own one. He left and started his own. Now that I am a dad, I remember when he started it. I was in kindergarten and had an older brother and sister and my mom was pregnant with my younger brother. I’m not sure I would have opened a business with three kids, one more on the way and a mortgage to pay. It went pretty well for him over the years.”
Pretty well might be a tad of an understatement. While Bergen only operated the one Elmwood Park location, its footprint and success continued to mushroom through the years, thanks to a combination of Jim LaPorte’s management style, as well as his ability to seize opportunity.
“Pharmaceutical companies were all over New Jersey and thriving in the 70s, 80s and early 90s,” LaPorte said. “While we only had our one location, we did run storerooms for many pharmaceutical companies. All the dye houses were in Patterson, New Jersey, and those pharmaceuticals were all close. Those customers stayed with us for years.”
And so did Bergen’s employees. “There are probably 12 to 15 people in this building today who have been here for decades,” LaPorte said. “My dad made it so you wanted to stay. He had a trust built on experience. His employees stayed and the customers stayed, and a lot of those customers still come in that front door. If he shook your hand it was a done deal. You never needed to sign anything because of that, and because he always followed through. I have received so many phone calls since he died, people saying he was mentor to them and helped them through some tough times. He affected so many people.”
And the legend of Bergen lives on today at Branch 66. In fact, Branch 128, a Frank Webb Home showroom opened across the street last February right before the pandemic hit, increasing the New England distribution powerhouse’s reach in that area.
“F.W. Webb is excellent,” LaPorte said. “They are great to their employees and treat customers very well. A lot of people are still here dating back to the purchase in 2013 and most are thriving. The customer relationship doesn’t really change. We’re still talking to the guy who needs pipe in the morning, needs it cut in half and needs his elbows. He’s going to come in here at 7:30 a.m. That never changes.”
Retired F.W. Webb executive and industry legend Ernie Coutermarsh (who worked at Webb for 50 years) holds Jim LaPorte in the highest regard. “I have great admiration for folks who start a company and become very successful,” said Coutermarsh, the 2016 ASA IPD Award of Excellence recipient. “He competed with everybody who is big in the New York metropolitan marketplace. His customers loved him because he loved them too. He ran a big golf tournament that he told me Joe DiMaggio used to attend. It was always extremely well-attended. He wasn’t just doing it to have a golf tournament. He was doing it to give back and let people know how important they were to him. Jim LaPorte is as good as they get. He was an inspiration not only as a fellow industry guy, but as a human being. He was an elegant and classy man. He hit all the high notes.”
In addition to running a respected shop, LaPorte was active in the local community, including helping start the East Paterson (now Elmwood Park) Bombers youth football team.
“You hear the word privilege on the news on TV and at a societal level,” LaPorte said. “If I met someone who knew my dad, I was instantly trusted because of that. I saw his hard work and his integrity every day. He would always be home for dinner with the kids and then would go back to the store, and come home long after we were asleep and start all over again the next day. It was a privilege to be his son.”