It takes guts to purchase a company for the first time. Add the pressures and economic impacts of a filled with uncertainty pandemic and you must have major guts to jump into a brand new venture, buy a company and take on all of its operations.
For Ed Long and Tom Murphy, the decision was almost a no-brainer. And if you’ve seen the way the two are transforming the 40-year-old stainless pipe, valves, fittings distributor — Ace Stainless — since purchasing the company in 2020, you’d be shocked to know it’s just a team of about 10 people behind the major growth.
Both Long and Murphy spent more than a decade with Long Beach, California-based Columbia Specialty Co. up until the company was acquired by Phoenix, Arizona-based Tri Star Industrial in the fall of 2020. The business day before the acquisition was final, Long and Murphy were let go, and after 12 years working together, found themselves wondering what was next, assuming that whatever it was, it meant the two would no longer be working together.
“It was a shame to think we wouldn’t be working together anymore,” Long says. “Over the years at our previous company, Tom and I had become the ‘Mr. Fix-it team.’ The two of us traveled all over the state of California to different branches, implementing new practices to better serve the customer.”
Just three days after being let go — on the following Monday afternoon — Murphy received a phone call from a trusted industry friend telling him about Ace Stainless. Ace’s current owners did not have a succession or exit plan, and they were ready to retire and be out of the business.
And just like that, Long flew back down to Southern California from his home in Sacramento on Wednesday. Long and Murphy waited until closing time that day and went to visit Ace Stainless, immediately seeking out the owners. The husband and wife co-ownership duo gave the guys a tour of the facility.
“That night over a beer, Tom and I sketched out a business plan and put together an evaluation of the business,” Long explains.
Murphy adds that they did not have much experience yet in mergers and acquisitions. “We knew the sellers were motivated, so we put together what we felt was a fair evaluation of the company’s worth.”
This is where the new Ace Stainless’ story begins — in late 2020, Murphy and Long had officially become business owners.
A LITTLE IDLING ENGINE
Long recalls that when walking the floor during the tour of Ace Stainless, he thought it was the most pristine warehouse he had ever seen.
“We walked into the most polished, clean warehouse we had ever seen,” he says. “It was basically this little engine that was idling. Everything was in place, so we’ve been able to just plug into it and we’ve done nothing but blow oxygen into the engine ever since.”
Murphy is now Ace’s CEO while Long is the company’s president and CFO. Since taking over less than two full years ago, the two have propelled Ace Stainless to grow seven times over its original value.
“We’ve supercharged this little business,” Long says. “It’s been growing through the roof since we bought it and we are expected to surpass our 2022 overall projection by September.”
When talking proudly about this success, both owners are quick to give immense credit to the team.
“This journey so far has been incredible, and it’s hands-down because of the Ace team,” Long says.
BUILD AND EDUCATE
Today, Ace Stainless’ team is small but mighty, but it won’t stay small for long. Murphy and Long are passionate about bringing people into the PVF industry, and they are equally as passionate about giving their team members the opportunity to grow.
“The need to bring more people into the supply business is huge,” Murphy says. “None of our employees are from competitors or from the industry. Our goal is to bring people in who have potential and teach them — teach them how to be a great business person, how to treat customers and to set them up for successful careers in the PVF supply business.”
Gilma Abarca is a perfect example of this. Having been with Ace for just over a year, she says it is an encouraging, welcoming and helpful work environment. After working for Amazon at her mother’s housekeeping business, Abarca's path crossed with Murphy and Long and they extended her an opportunity to work at Ace.
Every team member at Ace starts driving a truck, working their way through different roles to learn every facet of the business. Currently, Abarca is Ace’s warehouse manager.
“Gilma is amazing,” Long says. “She’s been learning the business from the inside out for a year. Her next stop is inside sales, but she’s actually asked us to stick around in the warehouse a little longer so she can learn the product even better. That is such a rare quality to find today; everyone is always after the next big thing, the next title, etc.”
To hear Abarca put it, she’ incredibly grateful for the opportunities Murphy and Long have presented her. “A lot of times, especially in a male dominated industry, women don’t get the opportunities for growth that men do,” she says. “Tom and Ed have never treated me any different because I am a woman. They have taught me so much and I know they truly care about my career and my growth.”
EXPANDING THE FOOTPRINT
One more thing to add to the list of things Ace’s owners are passionate about is the entrepreneurial opportunity they’ve been able to achieve since purchasing the company. In fact, the two are adamant about extending that same opportunity to others around the country.
“Essentially, we’re looking for another Tom and Ed out there in various parts of the country,” Long says. “People who love PVF and distribution like we do and who have the connections and customer knowledge within their territory.”
Long explains the traditional growth strategy many PHCP-PVF distributors follow of picking a location, building a brick-and-mortar store and then hiring a branch manager to run it is difficult, especially in today’s labor market.
“It’s hard to find someone who has what it takes to run a brand new branch in a brand new market,” Long explains. “But there is a lot of market knowledge out there, and there are a lot of people who would love the opportunity to do what Tom and I have done here — buy something, build it up and make it your own.”
Murphy and Long know there are strong entrepreneurial-minded individuals out there who are trying to figure out how to build something of their own, and they want Ace Stainless to be able to award that opportunity to those people.
“Tom and I have been incredibly blessed by this journey that we’ve embarked on, and we want to find others who are ready for something like this,” Long says.
VEHICLE TO EXPANSION
As a single-warehouse operation, how is Ace Stainless achieving this exponential growth? Moreover, how does it plan to plant the seeds for additional Ace Stainless powerhouses around the country?
The answer — Acestainless.com — is a project Murphy and Long have worked tirelessly to build since purchasing the company. It’s still rather uncommon for commercial and industrial PVF distributors to offer in-house e-Commerce. Murphy and Long say the investment is necessary and well worth it.
“From the moment we acquired Ace, building out an e-Commerce-friendly website was a top priority,” Long explains. “Tom spearheads our sales side and makes that his own. Him focusing on sales has allowed me to tackle this website project.”
Long adds that it’s no small feat. to build an e-Commerce platform. “We’ve been very fortunate to have customers and vendors that are supporting us in building out this piece, and the vendors have seen their investment pay dividends as their sales have skyrocketed on our site.”
Often a hesitation in the industrial sector surrounding e-Commerce is the logistical aspect — shipping large pipe, valves and fittings isn’t an easy task.
Long explains that Ace is already shipping large commercial and industrial product anyways, no matter how the order comes in.
“We’re already shipping, investing in more trucks and tackling the challenges that come with the nature of the industrial sector,” Long says. “Whether the order comes via phone, in person or email, we still have to handle those logistics. So, all Acestainless.com does is offer an effective and efficient way for customers to place orders with us from anywhere.”
Murphy explains that being patient is key when investing in e-Commerce. “It’s a huge investment for us,” he explains. “I think some PVF distributors are often not patient enough to see the ROI with e-Commerce. But this is absolutely the way the marketplace is headed, and in order to compete and stay ahead, we have to be invested in e-Commerce.”
Ace Stainless knows online ordering doesn’t mean taking customer relations out of the picture. Long and Murphy believe offering easy-to-navigate e-Commerce is only an enhancement to the customer experience, and that it’s possible to connect to your customers even in digital-only transactions.
E-Commerce aside, Murphy and Long’s roots in the industry have always been and will always be about serving the customer.
“At the end of the day, we’re both service guys,” Long says. “We love this industry, we love distribution, and we are thrilled to have this opportunity to build something of our own that will serve customers from all over the map while simultaneously providing an opportunity for entrepreneurship to others.”
Rick Alaca, western industrial market manager for SVF Valves — Murphy and Long’s first vendor partner since purchasing Ace Stainless — can vouch for the company’s commitment to customer service.
“I’ve known Tom and Ed for years. They both put tremendous emphasis on serving the customer in the best way possible, and they love doing it,” he says. “I enjoy partnering with people who love this industry and are committed to it, and you can’t deny that Tom and Ed prioritize doing right by their customers and their employees.”
Kevin Lipp, commercial process manager at Merit Brass Co. says that although Ace Stainless is a young company under Murphy and Long’s leadership, the reputation of the two new owners makes the company stand out already. “Tom and Ed have a passion for this industry and they truly care about their customers and partnerships,” he says.
Murphy and Long fuel their passion and innovation by being heavily involved with the American Supply Association (ASA). Jim Wakeham, national marketing director for Industrial Valco says the two are constantly seeking to learn and add to their already deep knowledge of the industry.
“With Ace stainless, you can really see the emphasis they put on not only today’s market, but the way they are looking to the future of the PVF industry, and what they can do to be leaders and in the forefront of the next technology to help the industry,” Wakeham says. “From their online ordering presence on their website to their inventory levels, to their partnerships for buyouts and access to getting their customers the products they need when they need them, they are always looking forward starving to improve.”
Although Murphy and Long are making waves in the industrial PVF space by investing in the future of the PVF industry, Lipp says the two embody, “good, old-fashioned hard work and service.”
Casey McLaughlin, president of SuperLok USA, says Murphy and Long’s enthusiasm and commitment was evident from the very first meeting.
“Their enthusiasm came through in a big way when we first sat down to visit with them,” he says. “Attention to service by going the extra mile for customers is the reason they are successful developing existing and new relationships. In our initial meeting they talked about the availability and service cultivated with their customers over the years working in PVF industry. Ace Stainless will now implement these principles under Eddie and Tom’s leadership in a much stronger way with their control of Ace.”
Both Long and Murphy cite family influence and support as major reasons for the success they've enjoyed thus far with Ace Stainless.
“My dad, Mike, spent more than 30 years in the industrial distribution business running a branch for Familian Northwest in Longview, Washington," Long explains. "His Supply house was a powerhouse and their level of service was outstanding with a dedication to customers and vendors that was unwavering."
Long adds that the rules of the game from back then haven't changed much today. "At Ace, we focus on brand loyalty to our vendor partners and commit to our customers the best level of service they can count on. Our commitment to our employees makes Ace a thriving business. We pride ourselves on training and ensuring that we teach our Aces the right way to support our customers' needs."
Holding true to the importance of family, Long emphasizes that none of this would be possible without his family. "My wife, Aidé, was willing to move down to So-Cal from Nor-Cal when this opportunity presented itself, saying so much about her level of support for what Tom and I are building."
Murphy too says it's vital to remember those who helped get the two men where they are today.
"Without our family, friends, customers and mentors, Ace Stainless Supply wouldn't be relevant," he explains. "I'd like to personally thank my family. My father started in this industry with Puget Sound Pipe as well as my uncle John Fitzgerald. Without those two guiding me in the business world, I wouldn't be where I am today. Fitzgerald was the CEO of Columbia Specialty Co. and was the heartbeat of that organization. Fitz was my mentor in the PVF industry and truly wish he was here to see all the great things Ace Stainless Supply has and will accomplish."
No dynamic duo is complete without a strong foundation of admiration and trust. Murphy and Long certainly have plenty for one another.
"Eddie is not only a great business partner, but a great friend and mentor," Murphy says. "Without him, I'm not so sure I'd be here."
Long agrees, saying Murphy is "the guy I would want in my foxhole."
"Tom's undying love for the PVF business and wicked-savvy salesmanship helps Ace Stainless position ourselves for a very bright future ahead."
Photos by Kazuya Kimura Photography, courtesy of Ace Stainless Supply