With distributors now offering same and next-day delivery, online ordering and more value-add services than ever before, it’s sometimes hard to picture the humble beginnings many independent distribution businesses started from. For Craig Norlin, co-owner of Wautoma, Wisconsin-based Mid-State Supply, it’s not difficult to recall at all; he remembers his father — Austin Norlin — delivering product out of the family’s station wagon with a four-wheel farm wagon towing behind in the 1960s.
After returning from serving in the army during World War II, Austin Norlin purchased a small local washing machine repair store that also sold plumbing, heating and electrical supplies in Wautoma, Wisconsin called C.R. Boyce Co. He lived above the 4,000 square-foot store for 10 years while growing the business alongside his wife LuVerne Norlin. As parts and goods were hard to come by after the war, Austin Norlin would take two-hour bus rides to Milwaukee once a month to stock his store.
In 1960, Mid-State Supply purchased what is still its present headquarters location today just east of Wautoma. In 1964, the Norlin’s purchased their first delivery truck, and by 1965, a showroom addition was added to Mid-State Supply’s building.
Throughout the 1970s, the business continued to grow. So much so that the company added a 25,000 square-foot warehouse and began hiring more outside sales people. Austin and LuVerne Noriln’s sons, Steve and Craig, started their careers with the family business in the mid 1970s. Unbeknownst to them, the sons would be taking over to lead much sooner than expected; Austin Norlin suddenly passed in 1979 at the age of 54.
“Steve was 26 and I was only 20,” Craig Norlin explains. “Fear of failure motivated us greatly and we made it through that rough time. My mother was also active in the business and her experience helped us immensely.”
The brothers lead Mid-State Supply to outgrow its Wautoma location, so in 1983 the company expanded into Green Bay. Today, Mid-State Supply boasts four locations throughout Wisconsin with roughly 78 employees. Still operating under second-generation family ownership, Craig and Steve Norlin have a combined 95 years of experience in the plumbing and heating wholesale industry. In 2023, Mid-State Supply is celebrating 75 years of keeping their commitment to honesty, relationships and service.
FAMILY VALUES, NIMBLE SIZE
Employees and industry partners alike say Mid-State Supply is known for its family atmosphere. Steve Norlin says you have to do more than just call yourself a family business, you have to live it every single day. “Our family values drive us in everything we do,” he says. “We don’t want to forget where we came from, but at the same time, we have to focus on being a better company for our customers and employees. Our history is very important to us, but our people are the ones that make a difference and we strive to treat them like family as well.”
In an effort to achieve that constant improvement, Mid-State Supply engaged in a culture program called High Performing Culture (CultureWise) about three years ago. The program prompts employees to continuously identify fundamental characteristics that define the company culture. “We’ve involved the entire company in that process,” Steve Norlin says. “Culture isn’t just something you come up with, you have to continuously nurture and improve it.”
Having started with Mid-State Supply 20 years ago, current company President Meridith McArthur says the Norlin family prioritizes work-life balance and leads by example. “From the first day I started the Norlins always made me feel welcome. They know your name, your spouse and your kids’ names, always taking an interest in you,” she says. “LuVerne was a wonderful woman. She founded this business alongside her husband all while raising five children.
She came to work every day until she was 90 and was one of the sweetest people I have ever known. The company has true family values which made a huge impact on me while raising my own children and working. Steve has triplets so he always understood the importance of embodying ‘family first.’”
Vice President Kevin Challe agrees, pointing out that the proof of Mid-State Supply’s family-first culture lies in the company’s multitude of tenured employees. “Providing a desirable culture is what keeps our longtime employees with us,” he says. “The executive team doesn’t just ‘talk the talk’ when it comes to culture.”
“There is no business that can grow without good people. I have been blessed to be surrounded by people who treat Mid-State Supply as if it were their own. People who want to make a difference and take ownership in our success. People who hurt when we hurt and embrace the good times. People who don’t blame others or take credit. People who understand that our customers are our greatest treasure. People who make it enjoyable to come to work every day. They are the reason for our success.”
— Steve Norlin
Scott Lamb, purchasing manager at Mid-State, is a prime example — he’s been with the company 39 years and says the personal connection between the team is unmatched. “We all get to know each other on a personal level so coming to work each day with people you consider friends and family is enjoyable.”
Eric Anderson, director of IT agrees. “My favorite part about working at Mid-State is the tight-knit family feel; it extends to both the staff members and our customers,” he says. “I’ve had the opportunity to learn from longtime employees that came before me and have always appreciated the rich history and traditions that have helped make Mid-State what it is today.”
Challe adds that the nimble size of Mid-State works to its advantage. “Being a smaller, family-owned business allows us to react to challenges quicker and make decisions more efficiently,” he says. “We can work faster than national companies in a lot of ways, and I think that’s a huge benefit to working with us.”
Anderson agrees, pointing out that the company is both flexible and progressive. “One of the things that sets Mid-State apart from our competition is our size. It allows us to be flexible, know our customers and provide outstanding customer service,” he says. “At the same time, we are progressive in implementing new technology and staying abreast of the new innovations coming to the marketplace.”
Mid-State works with more than 300 manufacturers across the plumbing, HVAC, electrical and cabinetry industries. These partners can tell you first-hand how committed the company is to building lasting relationships.
“Cresline Plastic Pipe Co. started doing business with Mid-State Supply early in 1970 with our first ‘Famous 100’ qualifying plastic pipe stock order. Craig Norlin and Mid-State Supply understand the importance and value of building long term relationships with manufacturers and suppliers,” says Greg Tech, western region sales manager for Cresline Plastic Pipe. “As a multi branch independent plumbing wholesaler in Wisconsin, Mid- State Supply is able to provide consistent and reliable service, while still being able to react quickly to changing market conditions.”
From its inception during difficult post-war times to the economic downturn of the early 2000s, to the COVID-19 pandemic years, Mid-State Supply has withstood its fair share of challenges.
McArthur recalls the challenging times that started in 2006. “The economic downturn had a significant impact on not only the company but the industry as a whole. During those years we had to get back to the basics and rethink how we work and what we valued,” she explains. “We looked at performance measurements constantly while remaining strategic in strengthening our relationships with our customers and employees.”
Steve Norlin points out that while being a smaller company has its advantages, it can present challenges as well, especially during supply chain disruption, labor shortages and rising product costs. “As a small to mid-size independent wholesale-distributor, we face challenges at times because of our size. We understand that with economies of scale we may not have the same advantages as some of our competitors and our margin for error is smaller,” he says. “We have faced this for years and we depend on our manufacturing partners to level the field as much as possible to give us a fair shot in our market space.”
Craig Norlin agrees, saying the recipe is figuring out how to “do more with less.”
“The challenging times have taught us that we can do more with less and come out of it stronger and leaner than we were before,” he says. “We have fantastic employees and when we all work together we can compete against anybody and accomplish our goals. Trusted relationships with our customers, vendors and employees will always help us grow.”
According to Steve Norlin, there is a fine line between challenge and opportunity. “One thing I’ve learned is that both have to be approached in a very analytical way to understand what has to be done and what outcome you desire. You cannot run away from challenges; facing challenges and making opportunities out of them is one of the reasons my family got into this business in the first place.”
One of the greatest challenges for any independent distributor is staying relevant in a competitive marketplace as big box stores and online shopping continue to infringe on the independent distribution industry. The executive team at Mid-State Supply knows that product and price are not what will set them apart from the competition.
“I believe our company has grown and improved every year,” McArthur says. “We are no different than other companies out there in the sense that we face the same challenges and sell the same product in a lot of cases. I feel our advantage is that we are a smaller, family-owned company. We can make decisions and implement them much quicker than most of our competitors.”
Again echoing the importance of using its size to its advantage, Craig Norlin says as long as vendors allow Mid-State to compete, they will stand toe-to-toe with the competition. “Mid-State can compete with any size competitor as long as our vendors allow us to do so; keeping us competitive with larger distributors when it comes to both pricing and service,” he says. “Being a smaller company we don’t have to be as policy-driven as some of our larger competitors. It is all about the relationship with each of our customers.”
Being a small-to-mid-size company doesn’t mean Mid-State is behind the curve when it comes to embracing technology. The company launched its B2B e-commerce site in 1999 and has an updated website launch planned for April 2023.
Steve Norlin points out that Mid-State has adapted along with customer expectations from the times when contractors placed orders on two by four sheetrock, to fax machines and now to e-commerce.
“Now with e-Commerce, our customers have full access to our inventory and pricing and can place an order any time of the day or night; we don’t have to enter anything,” he says. “Internally, the computer systems and software designed for our industry give us real-time information. We have a much better line of sight to inventory needs, customer buying habits and customized reporting to make it easier to manage our business.”
McArthur says her goal for the company is to always be evolving and listen to the needs of customers. “I always ask myself what the industry will be like in 5 to 10 years. Customer habits and communication have changed and as younger people come into the industry their buying habits are going to change. They will use technology more and that will change the relationship dynamic between us and the customer,” she says. “As a company, we will continue to evolve, do our best to improve our B2B website and be easy for our customers to do business with. It’s always about listening to our customers to find out what we can do to help them be successful.”
PEOPLE & PRIDE
So what lies at the root of these valuable customer relationships and commitment to constant improvement? The Mid-State Supply executive team all agree it’s the people who make up the team.
Challe points out that Mid-State has been fortunate to retain some of the best in the industry. “Most of our people started their careers with us and were promoted through succession planning. We have a very tenured workforce with additional young talent that works hard as a team to accomplish company goals,” he says. “We listen to our internal and external customers and develop plans that make things happen faster than our competition.”
McArthur agrees, pointing out that great people have stuck with Mid-State even through difficult times. “We have the greatest people that have stuck with us during some difficult times. It speaks volumes when employees stay even when you can’t always give them raises or the bonuses that they deserve,” she says. “Our customers like doing business with us because of our people. We believe in honesty and integrity; if something is wrong we will make it right. Customers know and appreciate this. It’s not always about price, it’s knowing you have a partner that has your back.”
Craig Norlin says he’s proud of the employees at Mid-State as they’ve allowed the company to give back to the community for the past 75 years. “We employ some of the nicest, smartest, most honest and hard-working employees in the industry,” he says. “Reaching 75 years does happen by luck. It comes down to attracting and retaining the greatest people.”
In addition to rock star people, Challe is proud to credit Mid-State’s success to three things: Leadership, culture and technology. “Our leadership provides an open line of communication to contractors and employees and empowers us to make decisions critical to our success, especially when time-sensitive opportunities arise. We have established a culture that engages employees to have fun while improving performance. And our commitment to technology allows improved efficiencies both internally and externally which helps save time and money.”
Turning the corner of its 75th-anniversary milestone, Steve Norlin says his goals for the company are the same as they’ve always been: Stay relevant with customers adapt to their changing needs and look for ways to be partners in the success of their business, and to be a better employer for their people daily.
McArthur says her goal for the short term is to aid Steve and Craig Norlin in the ever-changing succession plan for the company. When it comes to the long term, she and Challe share similar goals. “Mid-State has a rich history and an impressive family foundation,” McArthur says. “My goal is to keep that legacy alive while staying relevant in this ever changing industry.”
Challe echoes those goals, noting that continuing to provide value added solutions and services will keep us relevant for the future success of Mid-State Supply. “We will continue to invest in people, technology and infrastructure to keep the company in a favorable position for years to come.”
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