When customers take the time to fill out a nomination form to share how above par a company’s customer service is, it’s clear that company is doing something right.
“Outstanding customer service in one of the country’s fastest growing markets,” and “Simply great customer service, every single time,” are just two of the phrases submitted that earned Alabama-based American Pipe & Supply the title of Supply House Times’ 2022 Supply House of the Year.
Since 1977, American Pipe & Supply has been distributing PVF and fire sprinkler materials to the state of Alabama. Today, the company has five locations around Alabama and one in Nashville, Tennessee. With an impressive line card of more than 100 product lines, American’s 99 employees are known for superior service and a constant drive to give back.
If you ask John Howe, American Pipe & Supply’s CEO, the secret to top-notch customer service is pretty simple, and it’s all about investing in your team and your community while focusing on continuous improvement.
Having recently earned the Affiliated Distributors Giving Back Award, American Pipe & Supply is known for giving back. “Our overarching mission is to help as many people as we can make better lives for themselves,” Howe says. “This starts with our employees, customers and shareholders, but it extends to our communities as well.”
Howe takes this mission seriously: The company was the second highest fundraising team in the MS Walk of Birmingham this year. Additionally, the team participates in the Annual Walk to Defeat ALS in Nashville and the JDRF One Walk in Birmingham. American Pipe also holds annual blood drives, clothing donations, food drives — raising more than 4,000 cans of food — and is heavily involved with community learning programs.
For example, American Pipe supports the Bell Center in Birmingham, an early intervention center for children from birth to three years old who are at risk for developmental delays. Around the holidays, the company sponsors two families by funding clothes, toys, necessities and gifts for the children.
It doesn’t stop there. The company is located less than a mile from a local elementary school in Birmingham where ten employees, including Howe and some of the executive team, tutor students who are behind their grade reading level. “This year we had ten second graders who were below reading level, and by the end of the year they were all at or above the expected reading level,” Howe explains. “We are proud of that. We think it’s important to invest in our community and we have a strong culture built around giving back.”
EVOLUTION OF CULTURE IS KEY TO GROWTH
The proof is in the pudding when it comes to American Pipe & Supply’s outstanding company culture. With a turnover rate of only 8% — 30% is the industry norm based on the American Supply Association’s (ASA) Operating Performance benchmarking data report — and a strong emphasis on promoting from within, American Pipe & Supply’s employees are genuinely happy to be a part of the team.
“Since 2012 we have quadrupled in size,” Howe explains. “We’ve experienced a lot of organic growth and opened two new locations. The evolution of our culture has been the key driver to this growth.”
Tom Cameron, Sales, for American Pipe & Supply vendor partner VCM Engineered Plumbing Solutions, cites promoting from within as a stand out quality. “The focus on promoting personnel from within the organization creates a winning culture,” he says. “They have a great understanding of the values to achieve success such as caring, selflessness and team unity.”
American Pipe & Supply has added internal training programs for sales, management and operations, and the company has seen approximately 15 of its associates complete these programs, most of which are now in lead sales roles or senior operations roles.
“We’ve had about 40 promotions from within throughout the past five years,” Howe says. “And we’ve won the Best Place to Work in Birmingham Award twice in the last five years.”
Monte Mann, executive vice president of sales, is relatively new to the team, but says he can already see the impact of the company’s culture. “The culture is enthusiastic and positive,” he says. “The entire team is customer-centric, focused on doing the right thing and making good decisions. We work hard but we have fun and care about each other.”
Mann echoes the importance of promoting from within, saying it encourages team members to be curious about different roles and work hard to learn new skills. “There’s a universal drive to become better and challenge our current way of thinking,” Mann adds.
A focus on self and company improvement is infectious throughout American Pipe & Supply. In fact, Howe has the team read books every quarter and discuss them internally as a way to encourage continuous improvement.
INVEST IN WHAT YOU’VE GOT
In order to keep the company promise to prioritize promoting from within, Kristen Romano, human resource generalist, says American Pipe & Supply is constantly investing in developing its people.
“We go above and beyond when it comes to developing anyone who has expressed interest in doing more or just becoming better at their current role,” she says. “Someone in the warehouse may have the potential to grow and learn to take on a corporate-level role if they work hard towards it, so the fact that we invest in those people and support their growth is a huge aspect of our culture.”
Brant Watts, the company’s CFO, says investing in your people has a cyclical effect on American Pipe & Supply’s culture and performance. “The people here feel good about where they work and they are treated well,” he says. “They like what they do, and this positivity translates to our customer base, which has led to our growth and employee retention.”
Part of retaining employees is making sure their voices are heard — something the American Pipe & Supply leadership team ensures happens often. “We hold employee roundtables four times per year,” Howe says. “I meet with about thirty employees from different roles.”
In these roundtables, the company discusses leadership development, financial training and completes book reviews. Additionally, each employee has an Individual Development Plan (IDP).
“We sort of threw out the annual performance review and replaced it with these IDPs,” Howe explains. “What we really want to do is develop people and help them grow. We want to know their goals and understand how to help get them there.”
At an annual, internal strategic planning meeting, the American Pipe team hears from employees at all levels of the organization and uses that feedback to form strategic initiative teams for the year.
To help employees develop and grow, American Pipe & Supply has created an internal mentorship program to help new employees learn from seasoned employees. Additionally, the company is very heavily involved with ASA University’s many different training tracks. “Almost every one of our employees has participated in some of the ASA training,” Howe says. “We think that resource is incredibly valuable for the industry and our company.”
Investing in current relationships branches outside the doors at American Pipe & Supply. Mann says the No. 1 strategy externally is to invest in existing customer relationships. “We are always focused on growing our share with our loyal customer base,” he says. “Exploring new market sectors and expanding relationships with existing customers has proven very effective for us.”
Mann adds that in order to continuously improve customer relationships, you’ve got to execute the basics. “It may seem simple, but ensuring the customers have what they need, when they need it and in an accurate and efficient manner will always lead to strong relationships,” he says. “Being honest with customers about what we can and cannot get is also key. All of this execution isn’t possible without our knowledgeable employees.”
Clark Williamson with Nashville manufacturer rep partner Mid-America Marketing says American Pipe & Supply’s employee expertise is truly stand-out. “We have strong relationships with their team at all levels — management, sales, purchasing and operations,” he says. “They are unique in the fact they have people working in all market segments under one roof. As a representative, it is so efficient for us to be able to make one stop and see so many people in the markets we operate in at one time.”
KEEPING THE CYCLE GOING
Whether it’s the annual strategic planning meeting where American Pipe & Supply drivers get to talk directly with executive leadership, the new daily transfer truck that’s dedicated to transferring needed product from one branch to another, or the ongoing dedication to giving back, the company is consistently focused on service, improvement and doing the right thing.
This is where things come full circle — investing in the community around them leads to happy employees. Investing in those employees’ development leads to retention and a great culture, which naturally transcends to great relationships with customers. As Watts puts it, “When people feel good, they do good.”
Looking ahead, Howe says the company plans to continue this cyclical focus on culture and service, and he expects the company can double in size again over the next five years.
“We still believe our biggest opportunity for growth is within our existing relationships,” Howe says. “We wouldn’t have been able to achieve any of this without our strong team. We will continue to develop the members of this team and create a culture they want to stick around for.”
Watts agrees, saying the future success of the company lies in the success of its individuals. “We have great aspirations as a company,” he says. “But we truly consider ourselves a success when the new employees we’ve brought in and developed achieve those sales and management roles they work for. If we can look back in ten years and see these people taking the lead, we will know we have done a good job.”