When Al Pekelney started selling Bock Water Heaters out of the back of his car while driving around New Jersey and New York in 1947, he likely wasn’t aware it was the start of what would become a 75-year-old company now representing 23 product lines.

The grassroots business Pekelney began has transformed into manufacturer’s rep agency Altherm Inc., which is celebrating 75 years in business in 2022. In 2000, Tom Gallagher, president, Vinnie Smith, vice president and Doug Adams, vice president, bought the company from Pekelney and have maintained its impressive list of long-term lines while setting the company on a path for growth.

“We still represent Bock Water Heaters 75 years later,” Smith notes. “And we’re the longest running rep agency with Unico Boilers at more than 50 years. We’re also celebrating 50 years representing Delta Faucet, which is a great accomplishment for us.”

Andre Zechmeister, director of trade sales at Delta Faucet emphasizes Altherm’s impressive performance over the decades. “Altherm is one of our top performing agencies in the U.S. year after year and just recently won our ‘2021 Showroom Agency of the Year’ award,” he says. “Altherm is a very well structured agency, with specialists covering all key verticals for Delta Faucet, and the principals are seasoned sales professionals, but also very strategic with planning and resource deployment, which gives us as a manufacturer the confidence that our customers are benefiting from the highest possible service levels and maximizing our sales opportunities.”

Gallagher explains the agency has compartmentalized its selling strategy over the years.

“Today, we have three distinct selling teams,” Gallagher says. “Our showroom segment, the trade segment and our business development segment make up the company today.”

The trade side of the business — wholesaler-distributor customers and contractor customers —represents where Gallagher and Smith got their start in the business; representing boilers and heating equipment, while the showroom segment took off 15-20 years ago. Miles Sotelo Hodge, business development manager, heads up the business development segment which focuses on sales and marketing tactics for Altherm’s various customer verticals; distributor, engineers, contractors, developers, designers, etc.

Smith points out that landing representation of Delta Faucet served as a major turning point for the business, as it helped branch Altherm into the “pretty” side of plumbing in addition to its roots in the heating side.

Tom Gallagher, Altherm’s president.Tom Gallagher, Altherm’s president.


Leadership awareness

Altherm leadership certainly understands the balance between long-time experience and embracing new perspectives and technology. When it came time to launch the showroom segment, Smith and Gallagher tapped into new resources.

“As the showroom segment began, Tom and I knew we probably aren’t the right demographic to sell to the designers, architects, etc.,” Smith says. “So we set out to hire folks that have become a great team; the showroom team was just awarded Showroom of the Year by Delta Faucet.”

This awareness transcends into all facets of Altherm’s operations. Gallagher brings up channel conflict, noting Altherm is well aware of the tension on today’s marketplace due to retail and eCommerce competition.

“Over the past couple of decades we’ve seen a lot of advancement in technology and increased competition from online retailers,” Gallagher says. “So in addition to managing the ever-important trade side of our business, we’re constantly adapting to stay relevant to all of our customer segments.”

In terms of staying relevant, Smith says manufacturers still find tremendous value on the role of a manufacturers’ rep.

“The best thing we have going for us is how we thrive with the distributor and contractor,” he says. “We’re still the most profitable channel for the manufacturer. We’re able to provide answers and solutions for our customers that eCommerce and retail can’t do.”

Gallagher says Altherm’s goal is to create business for its distributor partners. “When distributors come to us with a large order, it’s because they’re moving product to their customers. So we work as partners with our distributors and say ‘thank you’ for the large order, but now it’s our job to move those parts off your shelf.”

Smith and Gallagher hold decades of experience working with the trade segment, and both are aware that there are new strategies to reach customers where fresh perspectives are needed.

“We strive to be open minded and aware of where they may be gaps in our knowledge,” Gallagher. “For example, Miles has brought many new ideas and perspectives to our team. Vinnie and I don’t have the same understanding of social media or digital marketing that someone younger and/or fresh out of school studying this stuff may have, so we have no problem being open minded to the new ideas that are brought up to us.”

When summarizing Altherm’s success, Smith explains it’s a great combination of more than 100 years’ experience in the industry along with the ability to adapt and be open minded that sets the company up to win.

“Between myself, Tom Gallagher and Doug Adams, our vice president, we hold more than 100 years of experience in the PHCP industry,” Smith explains. “So when a manufacturer is looking for a trusted partner, they have our experience and reputation to reference, and alongside our developed three selling teams, they feel comfortable investing in working with us.”

Smith adds that the long-term established relationships Altherm has with venders is especially important to manufacturers who have a new product like they want an agency to pioneer.

Bob Shea, executive director of sales at ECR International — a vendor partner of Altherm for more than 45 years — agrees, saying Altherm has been vital in training on new product launches. “Altherm has been a trusted representative of ECR International for 45 years - the longest tenured agency with ECR,” he says. “They are very customer relationship driven and are a highly active proponent of training for our customers and business partners, as well as the overall growth of our condensing products. ECR looks forward to continuing this relationship for many years to come.”

Gallagher adds that the team — 29 employees total — Altherm has put together is its greatest asset.

“There’s no question about it that our people are our most important asset,” he says. “We spend a lot of time making sure we have the right person in the right position working with the right demographic of customer, and each of our three business segment does a fantastic job in their respective areas of the market.”

Frank Edgar, regional sales manager for another vendor partner, Gastite, echoes the strengths of Altherm’s team. “Altherm excels at all aspects of their business. Their high levels of performance can be directly attributed to the exceptional work ethic of all their personnel,” he explains. “Altherm has been the agency I depend on the most and they always will be. It is my privilege to work with them and they are truly people I would proudly define as my friends.”

The family you choose

Another unique characteristic of Altherm is the fact that it’s not a family business, like so many businesses throughout the PHCP-PVF supply chain.

Gallagher explains this prevents any worry of nepotism in the business. “We don’t bring family into key roles within the company; none of my kids or Vinnie’s kids are going to come in and fill a position where we may have an aspiring manager,” he says.

Smith points out that even though the team isn’t family by blood, it’s more like the family you choose to be a part of.

“Longevity is a really big selling point here,” he says. “People come here and they find a home. We are loyal to our employees and can offer them longevity and opportunities to grow.”

Both Smith and Gallagher reference the company’s open-door policy.

“We aren’t stuffy, corporately structured agency,” Smith notes. “We don’t have walls; our doors are open. A warehouse employee can come into mine or Tom’s office and speak to us directly, there’s no governing structure that prevents anyone at any level from reaching us when they need to.”

After its night of dinner, drinks and dancing in celebration of its 75-year mark — happening April 8 on the waterfront in Jersey City — Altherm’s goal for the rest of this year and the years to come is focused on setting the business up for future growth.

“We’re always looking for new opportunities and areas where we can grow,” Gallagher says. “Vinnie and I won’t be around forever, so we’re focused on having a successful succession plan. We want to make sure the business continues to flourish and is filled with great people who will take us into the next generation.”