“In my 30+ years in this business I don’t think there has ever been a better time to be an independent.” - Colin Perry

Colin Perry

Colin Perry, president of Rampart Supply, Colorado Springs, CO, began his two-year term as president of buying group WIT & Co. Ltd. in September 2008. Rampart Supply, which serves Colorado Springs and the Denver markets from two branches, was founded in 1968 by his father, Joe Perry. Colin Perry joined the wholesale firm upon his graduation from college in 1979, after working in the warehouse during his school years. The company’s business is diversified, with sales in the residential and commercial plumbing markets, primarily in Colorado (new, remodel and repair) along with both national and international PVF sales. There are 84 staff members working at the Colorado Springs location and 65 in Denver. As this issue ofSupply House Timeswill be sent to WIT’s conference March 23-27, we interviewed Perry regarding the buying group and the wholesale industry in general.

Supply House Times:In 2007 WIT had 88 owners, adding 14 new owners in a 15-month period. How is membership today?
Colin Perry:WIT is now 92 members strong, including one new one so far in 2009.

Q: What’s your reading of the business climate for WIT members? How bad?
Perry:  I am sure WIT is representative of other independents around the country. We have owners in some areas that are very diversified and seem to be weathering the economic tsunami pretty well. On the other hand, we have owners that were very driven by new home construction, coupled with being in the more volatile geographic regions of the country, that have had to make some painful corrections to their business.

Q: How is WIT responding to the economic downturn, consolidation and layoffs?
Perry: WIT, as an organization, is watching every move we make. Fortunately, we just completed the HQ move to Dallas in December of 2008 and we have that expense behind us. We are watching every expenditure and making sure that when we do spend money it makes sense and brings value to our owners.

Q: How is WIT helping its members through this transitional stage?
Perry: Probably the greatest strength is the networking resource available to our owners. It’s hard to put a price on the ability to pick up the phone and call another owner that just had to make some serious cuts in their operation and seek advice when it’s your turn.

Q: What will it take for the smaller size independents to survive in this market?
Perry: In my 30+ years in this business I don’t think there has ever been a better time to be an independent. Once you find your rhythm amidst this turmoil, an independent is much more agile and able to adapt and capitalize on opportunities. In speaking with our owners around the country, once you get past the doom and gloom, there are numerous success stories of stealing market share (albeit a smaller market) by being able to out-service the larger nationals.

Q: How will you take care of your business at Rampart Plumbing & Heating Supply while heading WIT as its president?
Perry: We’ve got a great team backing me up. I am very hands-on but I don’t have to worry when I am pulled away. I warned our leadership team when I accepted the position that they were going to have to watch my back extra close for a couple of years.

Q:  Everyone knows housing is a wreck. Are there any markets holding up reasonably well in your estimation?
Perry: It seems to be very geographically driven. Overall, commercial seemed to hold up fairly well in most of the country during 2008 but we are seeing it slow significantly, especially in the private sector. PVF in some markets did well and is still doing relatively well in areas such as gold and power generation. Government and military construction may be the bright spot in 2009 if you are positioned to play in that market.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge in this environment?
Perry: Financial issues are very real and I don’t want to downplay it, but I think the psychological impact may be equally as challenging. You cannot pick up any print material or turn on a radio or television without being bombarded with bad news. It’s an enormous challenge keeping staff motivated and encouraged during these times. There are still bright spots out there - you just have to look harder to find them.

Q: Can you give a ballpark estimate of how far purchases are down percentage-wise between WIT members and WIT vendors?
Perry: We are still reconciling our 2008 numbers but it appears we will be down 10% for the year.

Q: In your opinion is the current marketplace tougher on the large national chains or on the smaller independents that comprise WIT’s membership? Why?
Perry: The marketplace is “tough” on all of us. I do think the independents can, and do, respond to challenges in a more surgical manner than the nationals. When a multi-branch independent is struggling I tend to see more analysis in terms of store-to-store performance and a more custom-tailored approach to making corrections. The nationals, necessitated by their sheer size, appear to make more across-the-board corrections - even to stores that are still performing well.

Q: What are some of the changes you’ve seen in WIT since joining in 1996?
Perry: Just like in our own businesses - nothing is constant. WIT has struggled through several years of amazing growth and was challenged with what appeared to be never-ending consolidations and acquisitions. The industry and our members were challenged by the Internet, big-box wholetailers, and the nationals as they got bigger and bigger. Now we have the economy to contend with. We have to be ready and willing to make changes and adapt.

Q: You have been very active in ASA affairs as well as WIT. Compare the value you receive from each organization.
Perry: They are very different. I see WIT helping on the day-to-day business of our owners at a grassroots level - rebates, and peer-to-peer and high-level vendor networking. I see ASA’s role being the national voice for our industry, providing political influence and providing solid educational resources for our industry. The smaller independents and even the buying groups do not have the resources to do what ASA can do.

Q: What’s your best guess as to when the economy will turn around?
Perry:There are people a lot smarter than me that can’t figure this out. I would just love to be able to know when we will officially hit bottom.