Few companies in the industry so dominate a targeted market.

from left: Castle Supply Co. President Bob Cardwell, Director of Organizational Development Megan White and Chairman Joe White.


Sometimes things just feel right. You can spend a few minutes walking around a supply house and sense this is a company worth shouting about - or not.

The feeling has little to do with what one's hosts tell you. Everyone in this industry pretty much says the same thing: we have a great company, we give terrific service, our employees and customers love us. However, the experienced observer develops BS radar over time. Truth shows up via subtleties of body language, voice inflection and people interactions.

Thus it stands that we are supremely confident we made a superb choice with our 44th annual selection of “Wholesaler of the Year.” We knew going in that Castle Supply Co., based in Pinellas Park, FL, drew rave reviews from many vendors and customers. That's why we selected them in the first place. Yet, seeing is truly believing. Make that feeling is believing.

This is a company in which business casual describes more than the dress code. It's a place where top executives routinely confer and banter with warehouse and counter workers - and learn things from them. Where grizzled veterans work hand in harmonious hand with youngsters half their age - often being supervised by the younger generation. Where a sense of ownership pervades the workforce even though only a few people literally have a piece of the action. It's a company that hires an architect to design supply houses that embody style as well as function. One that has triggered a youth movement to assure future success after the old pros give it up. This wholesaler offers a seamless blend of traditional PHCP distribution practices along with doing certain things like nobody else.

Most notable to this observer is that Castle Supply treats distribution as more than stocking and delivering. They still believe PHCP distributors have a marketing role to play, and pursue that role aggressively.

Last but decidedly not least, it's a business that makes plenty of money, and spreads plenty of it around. Castle lives by the motto voiced by Chairman/owner Joe White, “Take care of your people, and they'll take care of you.”

TAKING CARE Of Customers

Castle Supply's “people” refers to customers, employees and vendors alike. The company's culture is to build a special bond with each segment of the business world's humanity. Let's examine them one by one.

“When my parents started this company, we were a very small wholesaler competing against some very big wholesalers, and it was imbedded in my brain that the only way we could compete was to take care of customers,” said White. “As time went on, it just became part of our culture to empower all of our people to satisfy the customer. We tell them, 'act now, ask questions later.'”

Castle Supply is no longer a small company, but it continues to put customer service as its highest business priority. To that end, it has embarked on a saturation strategy to dominate their targeted market like virtually no other wholesaler in the country. The exclusively plumbing wholesaler operates out of nine facilities in the Tampa Bay area, stocking in excess of $15 million worth of inventory that salespeople can tap from any branch, thanks to a state-of-the-art IT system. The company boasts to plumbing contractors that they are never more than 20 minutes away from a Castle facility.

Castle's inter-branch shuttle trucks hit all of their facilities every day, moving some 3,600 line items of inventory to and fro each week. The Pinellas Park headquarters warehouse is the largest and functions to some extent as a distribution center, in that they will stock the full range of A, B, C and D items, whereas branches might only carry A's and B's. According to President Bob Cardwell, “I don't know exactly what our stock-out rate might be at the moment, but I would venture to say on the top 300 items, it would be virtually zero. When we do have a back order, frequently we can get it delivered the same day, or at least by the next day out of another branch's stock.”

Despite the heavy inventory position, Cardwell maintains that they are in the top quartile of PHCP wholesalers in turns. They benefit from computerized inventory control that he described as “a souped-up version of the Eclipse system.” Computer guru Bob Stern, principal owner of the CastleNorth affiliate (see page 50), is credited as the driving force of Castle's technology.

Castle's business heavily relies upon new home construction and renovation, along with some light commercial business. Driven in large measure by snowbirds and retirees, home building in the area has been sizzling for many years and shows no sign of letting up. More than two-thirds of company sales come from plumbing contractors and other trade professionals, even though the company has made a major push into the consumer-oriented high-end market via its Galleria showrooms. (See story on page 52.)

They have done so without alienating the trade. A “Premier Contractor” program encourages trade customers to share in Galleria sales that they help generate. Their newer facilities incorporate separate pick-up counters for retail and wholesale customers.

Castle's deep inventory is a prime attraction to contractors. So is their customer service. Cardwell pointed to one example of a plumbing contractor who buys almost exclusively from Castle. He places daily orders, sometimes not until after 5:00 p.m. “Nonetheless, by the time his crews get to the job at the crack of dawn the next morning, everything he needs will be on his jobsites, which are scattered all around. I'm not saying we do this for every single customer, but if they are that loyal to us, we'll bend over backwards for them,” said Cardwell.

They also pay great attention to the relationship building aspect of the supply business. Castle Supply is one of the most vigorous participants in Florida PHCC fundraisers and activities. They host many vendor training sessions, and strive to make themselves useful in any way possible.

“One of the things Castle has always done over the years is to be up front about price increases,” revealed Cardwell. “We aren't always the first to implement the increases - sometimes we let our competition take the lead on that - but we try to let our customers know as soon as we find out that one is coming. They're not always happy about it, but they appreciate the advance warning, and it sets us up as the people to contact for up-to-date information."

Pinellas Park warehouse, its largest at 70,000 sq. ft.
TAKING CARE Of Employees

Skyrocketing health insurance costs are one of the biggest concerns nowadays not only to our industry, but the business world at-large. Castle Supply has no magic solution to the problem, and has seen its premiums shoot up past $900 a month per employee. Yet, the company has kept its co-pay at a small fraction of that amount.

I asked Joe White how long the company can keep eating the premium increases, and he responded, “As long as we're able to. I have some people in the company mad at me for doing this, because it's costing us money, but this company has always been about taking care of its people.”

Take care of your people, and they'll take care of you. I must've heard that mantra a dozen times from several different mouths during my visit. It's not so much imbedded as it is welded into the Castle culture.

Pay scales are above industry norms as well, according to White. They are big on bonus payments. All employees participate in a discretionary bonus program based on corporate performance. It's paid three times a year, during summer, at Christmastime and in February after the annual inventory count. The latter bonus is based on how well they do on that count, which creates an incentive for everyone to keep close track of what passes on and off their shelves. With performance incentives paid to managerial and sales personnel, some Castle employees can find bonuses comprising half of their income.

Money certainly talks, but it's not the only motivator. Castle Supply employees from the highest perch to the lowest get treated with dignity and respect. It's a culture in which everyone feels free to express ideas and opinions, and in which most colleagues actually seem to like one another.

“I feel better working at this company than anywhere else I've been,” said Greg Marcario, manager of the branch in Tarpon Springs and an 18-year industry veteran. “It has to do with how they treat you and the overall professionalism. Everywhere you look, you are surrounded by good people.”

Purchasing manager Dan Lutz started with Castle in 1981 and has worked for them ever since, except for a two-year hiatus in the mid-'90s when he left to start his own rep agency. “Joe (White) owns it, but this is MY company,” said Lutz. “It means every day I come here, I try to do a better job in the areas I control, just as though this were my business. We have a lot of hard-working people here, and it's because they've always been treated the way people should be treated. I haven't seen them all, but I doubt there's a better company in the industry to work for.”

Castle's 8-page monthly promotions have high production values.
TAKING CARE Of Vendors

The other part of the people triumvirate that gets put on a pedestal is the company's vendors. Castle looks at them as true partners in the business. An early member of the WIT buying group, Castle Supply takes its commitment to that organization seriously. Lutz estimates that more than 80% of the company's purchases come from WIT-affiliated vendors.

“The people who run this company have always felt that if they are going to be a part of an organization, they will support it,” said Lutz. “Because of that, it is very difficult - not impossible, but difficult - for a non-WIT vendor to do business with us. We have an open door policy and I'll listen to anyone who wants to talk. There's still plenty of opportunity for someone with a unique product or who can give us a great deal, but this is a family-owned company with relationships going back many years, and we give a lot of business to our favored vendors.”

Loyalty should not get confused with sentiment. No matter how much you may like someone, it would make for stupid business to buy from folks who offer inferior goods and services. Castle's philosophy is that it makes good business sense to keep focused on lines that prove themselves in the marketplace and whose vendors are reliable. Multiple product lines reduce wholesaler purchasing power. They confuse the sales force and complicate warehouse operations. Castle's management devoted the company to vendor consolidation long before it became a buzzword forced by the imperative of transactional cost-cutting.

Let's face it. This is a mature industry. Pick any plumbing product category, and there are likely to be multiple vendors that offer technically sound products and comparable service. Many wholesalers have capitalized on this reality with an eternal quest for that “extra five” on any given deal.

Castle doesn't give the impression they get anything but the best pricing available from their vendors, but they give something back on their end. It's a commitment to marketing the products and strengthening the brands in their territory. A vendor doing business with The Castle Group gains an aggressive sales push in 23 Florida counties encompassing almost all of the population centers.

Castle is one of the rare wholesalers in the industry that employs a full-time marketing manager, Hannah Neumann. She has been kept so busy they will soon be hiring a second full-timer devoted solely to promoting the company's Galleria Bath & Kitchen Showplaces.

“Anybody can operate a warehouse filled with product,” Cardwell commented. “We are not only an account that buys stuff from them, we actively help our vendors as a marketing partner. We aim to prove our value to manufacturers as well as to our customers.”

Their marketing pizzazz includes monthly promotional brochures of dazzling quality (example on page 43). Printed in full color on glossy paper, these 8-page booklets overwhelm the newsprint cheap sheets that typically tout plumbing specials. “Volume always jumps when we send out these promotions,” said Cardwell. “Vendors line up to get into the flyers.”

Castle also produces high-caliber counter posters, envelope stuffers, sales sheets and technical guides. They treat top customers to the annual Outback Bowl football game in Tampa, including a hospitality tent, among other trade promotional incentives. They do little consumer advertising, but heavily promote their Galleria showrooms in publications aimed at local construction industry players. One unique gambit they use is to strike an agreement with the publisher of a local magazine aimed at builders and architects to control all plumbing oriented advertising in certain issues. (SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES will shamelessly point this out as an implicit testimonial to the value of trade advertising!)

All of these marketing efforts are made possible by co-op funds, of course. Castle's vendors are happy to spend the money, because it produces measurable results.

PROBLEMS Of Plenty

As journalists are wont to do, I tried to conjure up a down side to this story by raising the “what if” specter of a collapsing housing bubble that has gained so much ink. “Sure, that would impact our business,” said Joe White. “I went through it three times before in my history with the company. If the bubble bursts, we will do what we need to do, and it might hurt. But I don't think anything like that is going to happen in this market. All the elements are in place for continued growth.”

Its saturation strategy and service reputation give Castle a formidable advantage over wholesalers that operate with a single branch or only a few in the area. Nothing prevents anyone from challenging Castle at its own game, but not many companies are willing to invest so many resources in a single market. “Our quest for service is to put the bar so high, it constitutes a barrier to entry into this market,” said Cardwell.

As for competition from other channels, while they confess to a certain wariness about growing sales of plumbing products over the Internet, they see the big boxes not as competitors, but a boon to their business. This reporter was taken aback by their buoyant reaction to a new Lowe's store going up next door to one of their branches. Cardwell joked that he was thinking of putting up a sign saying “North Entrance to Lowe's.”

It turns out that many plumbers work part-time for Home Depot, and they tend to send people to Castle for goods not available at the store. Considering Castle's deep inventory, that's a lot.

“It's amazing how much business those people send us,” White stated. “When Home Depot first moved into this market, we were concerned, but found out that they expanded the market and extended our business. That's when we started to really build our showroom business.”

Castle's managers and salespeople make it a point to cultivate relationships with Home Depot and Lowe's personnel. According to Cardwell, one of the first things a Castle manager did when Home Depot went up across the street from his branch was introduce himself to the store manager and leave a bunch of Castle business cards.

What problems this company faces tend to be problems of plenty. With unemployment in the region at a negligible 3%, Castle has trouble finding the people needed to keep up with their heady pace of growth. Cardwell spoke at one point of a Castle policy to hire good people whenever they can be identified, regardless of whether there was a position available for them. It's a moot issue nowadays, since they have more openings than they can fill with qualified people. They are putting a lot of emphasis on programs such as “Emerging Leaders” and “Castle Development” to close the gap. (See story on page 56.)

White confided that over the years he has considered expanding into HVAC, but never felt a compelling need for sideways expansion, nor to venture far afield geographically. “Our goal is to be the best of the best, and to do that you have to be focused. I want our customers to not only want to do business with us, but have to do business with us because they can't get the products and services they need anywhere else.

“That's more than enough to occupy us for now,” he concluded.

Heir apparent Megan White.

CASTLE SUPPLY'S Executive Leadership

The three people depicted in the cover photo represent the present and apparent future executive leadership of Castle Supply.

President Bob Cardwell, a minority owner in Castle Supply, is Joe White's right hand in running the company. Although he grew up in Florida, Cardwell was working for a wholesaler in Tennessee when, in 1981, he decided to move back home and, as he described it, “pestered” Castle Supply to hire him. He began as an outside salesman, worked his way up through branch management and became Castle's president five years ago.

“Joe is the company's visionary,” said Cardwell. “I'm the strategy guy. Vision is the grand plan - in our case, having the greatest customer service company around. Strategy is defining the products and people needed to do that.”

Our conversations touched on marketing, inventory, showrooms and myriad other topics pertaining to the PHCP wholesaling business. Yet, what gets him most animated is discussing the people involved in the various activities, especially the younger generation.

“The legacy I want to leave is to see Megan and the other young people in this company continue to develop what we've started,” he told me.

He was referring to Megan White, Joe's daughter and heir apparent to the family business. Megan, 27, joined the company last January after acquiring CPA and MBA credentials. She worked in the corporate world as an accountant for a large consulting firm based out of Chicago for about a year and a half. Then, prior to joining Castle, she spent some time working for PHCP distributor Plimpton & Hills in Connecticut, a fellow member with Castle of the WIT & Co. buying group.

For family members to gain industry experience outside of the family business is a tactic recommended by most family business consultants. It broadens horizons and enhances the family member's credibility.

Megan is determined to be regarded as more than the boss's daughter. Her title is director of organizational development, and armed with a CPA and MBA, she brings some valuable academic skills to complement the abundance of street smarts with which Joe White and Cardwell run the company. The most tangible achievements of her short tenure were putting together the “Castle Development” program, the “Emerging Leaders” program, and developing the company's college recruiting and training initiatives. It was her suggestion to include existing employees who want to move up as well as college graduate recruits.

Cardwell is Megan's mentor, and it's obvious from watching the two communicate that it's a relationship of mutual respect and admiration. Cardwell told me that “Megan is one of the brightest people I've ever worked with.” Megan understands that Cardwell's decades of experience is something no textbooks can duplicate and picks his brain at every opportunity. “For the first six months I was here, Bob and I talked almost daily about the future, and how constantly to better ourselves to stay ahead of the curve,” she said. “We asked ourselves questions like, what if the housing market were to take a big downturn, what if new competitors open up, or existing competitors do things differently. I've learned a lot from him.”

I asked her what differences she sees between the supply business and the larger corporate world she experienced.

“The decision makers are in this building and can make a decision and implement it the same day - and it can be a very large change,” she said without hesitation. “For instance, if the market were to turn, we could make changes in inventory or processes overnight. That's a real big advantage.” By way of contrast, she related a personal experience while working for the consulting firm in which she was granted a pay raise that took six months to work its way through the system.

“The other thing I see here that impresses me is that so many of the people who work here have a great passion for it,” Megan added. “They get very involved in the business as if it were their own. You don't see that in the corporate world.

“It's part of a culture stemming from Bob and Joe, to do whatever needs to be done to take care of your customers and employees. I heard that constantly from my father while growing up, and now I can see it paying off.”

Extravagant

SHOWROOMS GALORE

Galleria Showplaces sparkle with selective luxury merchandise.

If the plumbing wholesaler business is as nitty-gritty as an NFL lineman, then its showroom merchandising component represents the quarterback, running backs and receivers who handle the ball and score most of the points. The latter are not necessarily more important than the former to a team's success, but there's no doubt about where the glamour lay.

Castle Supply operates six “Galleria Bath & Kitchen Showplace” facilities in its Tampa Bay market, and you would be hard-pressed to find better ones anywhere in the industry. (Hank Darlington wrote about them in his April 2003 SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES column, which can be accessed via our online archives at www.supplyht.com.) The 6,400-sq.-ft. Pinellas Park showroom was the fourth in the nation to receive Kohler's Premier designation when it opened in 2001. A second Kohler Premier was opened in 2003. They are filled with a dazzling array of high-end merchandise.

“When someone is spending $1,500 on a faucet, they don't want to purchase out of catalogs and certainly not off a computer screen,” remarked Chris Lynch, director of Castle Supply's Galleria showrooms. “They want to see things displayed in a suite or on a wall, and we have better displays than anyone else.”

The company has operated showrooms ever since the mid-1980s, but they didn't really get serious about it until the last 10 years or so. By “serious,” I mean treating them as businesses and profit centers unto themselves rather than as escorts to the plumbing wholesale flagship. Galleria sales represent about 15% of Castle's volume. That number creeps steadily upward with time. The contribution to bottom-line profits is even greater.

Traffic at the Pinellas Park headquarters showroom has gotten so heavy, especially on Saturdays, that the company has embarked on a promotional campaign to encourage appointments rather than drop-ins. President Bob Cardwell was dismayed at seeing prospective customers walk away because nobody was available to tend to them in reasonable time, so he started a customer service assistant program with people capable of qualifying prospects and taking care of basic information needs until they can hand them over to a fully trained showroom attendant. He'd love to hire more salespeople, but the people who work the Galleria floors are much more than warm bodies. They undergo extensive training to function as design and product consultants. Suitable people are hard to find in the area's tight labor market, and when found it takes time to train them to Galleria standards.

Galleria's traffic is rather remarkable considering that Castle does little consumer advertising - except for roving billboards touting Galleria on company trucks, which come to think of it, amounts to a lot of consumer exposure. Castle has been around long enough to generate enormous word-of-mouth buzz, along with trade referrals. Castle has hired an architect to design its newer facilities to incorporate consumer-friendly appeal. They also have a top-notch Web site at www.galleriashowplace.com.

Plumbing contractors participate in showroom sales via a “Premier Contractor” program. It's pretty much in line with standard industry procedure to reward contractors for sales they help generate through referrals or by accompanying customers to the showroom. Galleria goes a step farther than many by sharing specification books and complete quotations with Premier members.

COMPETENCE Counts

Competition is keener in the Galleria sector than it is with Castle's bedrock trade business. Whereas they have the buying power to remain competitive in trade pricing, Galleria's business demands high margins for products that usually are available cheaper elsewhere - including over the Internet. Galleria showrooms also strive to maintain pricing consistency market-wide so as not to compete against themselves. Customers are becoming ever more astute about what's out there and how much it costs, and this presents a big challenge for Galleria personnel to stay ahead of the curve.

“It's a problem, especially with the Internet,” said Lynch. “We can't defeat the race to the bottom, but we can point out all the advantages of buying from Castle.”

The main advantage has to do with Castle's superbly trained showroom staff. Castle has put together an extensive program of ongoing training for its showroom salespeople line-by-line.

This training results in people able to become personal consultants to Galleria customers, providing guidance at every step of a project. Galleria personnel are experts in specifying product to meet customer guidelines. They get involved with delivery coordination, and are available to deal with any problems that might arise after installation. Carol McCurdy, manager of the Pinellas Park Galleria Showplace, has 27 years of experience with showroom operations. That in itself constitutes a competitive edge. Castle leans heavily on their expertise and “turnkey” capabilities to justify premium pricing.

“We have over a million dollars tied up in tag and hold!” stated Joe White. “This is a lot of money and that's why most competitors won't do it. This is part of our customer service to assure that when the customers are ready, they will have what they need.”

The CHOSEN Few

Vendor partnerships are even more pronounced in the Galleria operations than in Castle's wholesale business. Galleria derives 90% of sales from merely 15 lines. Its salespeople learn those lines top to bottom, inside-out. Those lines also benefit from aggressive marketing efforts. “A lot of companies are dying to gain entry to our showrooms,” said Cardwell.

The company doesn't make it easy. Manufacturers that want their products displayed have to first get a sponsor, i.e., a showroom manager or sales rep who thinks their lines have appeal. Then they have to fill out a four-page application form covering discounts, freight terms, return goods policies and other transaction details. The application subsequently gets vetted by the purchasing department, from where it passes through to Cardwell for final approval. “Frankly, most of them don't make it through the process,” he said.

I asked whether they might not be a little too draconian, perhaps missing out on new products that truly have potential. “Yes, that could happen,” he replied. “But it's counterbalanced by not having showrooms cluttered up the way most showrooms are. A manager or salesperson has a good relationship with a local rep, and the next thing you know, there's oddball stuff all over the place.

“It makes no sense to allocate precious floor space to products we sell very little of,” he elaborated. “Vendors who do little volume with us won't respond as thoroughly to our needs as a vendor with whom we do a large volume.”

Even catalogs are limited. As we passed through the Galleria Showplace at Castle's Tarpon Springs branch, Cardwell pointed to a small two-tier bookshelf no bigger than one might find in a child's room. “Most showroom personnel want every catalog in the world. We tell our people they can have any catalog they wish, as long as it fits in those shelves. If a new one comes in, another must go.”

Chris Lynch, 26, manages Castle Supply's six Galleria showrooms.

YOUTH GETS SERVED At Castle Supply

The “Emerging Leaders” and “Castle Development” programs aim to develop tomorrow's managers.

I can only hope I appeared thoughtful rather than catatonic while interviewing Chris Lynch and Paul Curry. It's just that one gets mesmerized talking to articulate youngsters less than half one's age yet who seem as capable as industry veterans that have been around for decades.

Lynch, 26, is director of showroom sales, the boss of all six of Castle Supply's Galleria units. Curry, 27, is manager of the Pinellas Park branch, headquarters of Castle Supply and its largest facility. They are two of the stars of a fast-track management recruitment and training program underway at Castle Supply.

Castle long has made efforts to bring young talent into the organization, and they recruited Lynch and Curry out of college three and five years ago, respectively. They paid their dues learning the business in a relatively unstructured OJT format. Now, management trainees pass through a more formal “Castle Development” program.

It began a couple of years ago when Joe White and Bob Cardwell attended a presentation at an SWA education conference by Assistant Professor Leslie Pagliari, who heads the Industrial Distribution and Logistics program at East Carolina University (ECU). Castle's executives recognized its potential as a source of new managerial blood, and immediately followed up with her.

“The people at Castle Supply have been extremely supportive of our program,” Pagliari told me. “They've even brought faculty down to visit their facilities so we can better understand their business and the kind of things our students need to know. I can't say enough good things about them.”

Castle has hired about a dozen graduates of the ECU distribution program. The company also offers internships for ECU students, even paying their rent while they work at Castle Supply.

Castle's leadership training program got a big boost this year after Megan White joined the company and started putting her talents to work adding more structure to the program. She worked with ECU in developing a training curriculum, and also initiated a second track called “Emerging Leaders” for existing Castle employees who want to move up in the supply business.

The current Development class was underway during my visit, with seven recruits. One of them, Deji Ayankoya, told me how surprised he was at how much there is to learn about the distribution business. “Some businesses I saw had training programs only two weeks long. What can you learn in two weeks? I've been here several months and I'm still learning something new every day - and I love the people I work with.” Castle plans to start another class in January or February and aims to continue the program cycle twice a year.

Recruits spend their first six months doing grunge work in the warehouse and then working the counter, picking up essential product and operations knowledge along the way. There are classroom sessions as well as hands-on training. Castle also brings in consultants to speak about various business management topics, and Megan has put together a reading list based on books she found particularly relevant while pursuing her CPA and MBA.

After six months, trainees start getting more specialized in either sales or operational tracks, depending on what's available in the way of openings, along with personal preferences. Trainees get graded and ranked, and the top-ranked persons get first choices of what's available. The goal is to move them into departmental managerial roles within two years.

I asked young Pinellas branch manager Paul Curry about the challenges of managing 27 people, some of whom are twice his age. “The environment here enables it to work. From the beginning I recognized certain individuals knew more than me, and I asked their opinions before making any changes. Now that I've been in the job a year and a half, I've gained their respect and I think the people would stand behind me if I wanted to make major changes,” said Curry.

From left: Castle Group owners Joe White, Joe Lawrence and Bob Stern.

History of Castle Supply and The Castle Group

Castle Supply got its name from the town of New Castle, PA, where Chairman Joe White's grandfather and father started in the plumbing wholesale business. His father, Joseph Sr., moved to St. Petersburg, FL, in 1952 and started his own plumbing supply business along with wife Rosemary. Joe joined the company in 1970 at age 23, after a stint in college and then serving in Vietnam when his reserve unit got called up.

It was only about a million-dollar business at the time. White's father was a conservative businessman not much interested in growing the company beyond what was necessary to support his family and the handful of close associates who helped him run it. By 1975, the founder was in semi-retirement, and when he passed away of a sudden heart attack in 1978, Joe took over complete operational control.

Joe Jr.'s business philosophy was nowhere near as conservative as his father's, although it could hardly be described as freewheeling. Joe definitely was interested in growth, but in focused growth, staying close to what they knew best.

Fast forward to 2005: Castle Supply is one of three components of The Castle Group, a $160 million plumbing wholesaler, with 340 employees spread over 24 locations in Florida. White is majority owner of Castle Supply, and retains partial ownership of CastleNorth Corp., based in Orlando, as well as partial ownership in Lawrence Plumbing Supply of Miami.

CastleNorth is headed by Bob Stern, a former Castle Supply controller who in 1988 purchased three of the company's branches in Orlando, Ocala and Daytona Beach. CastleNorth now operates nine locations in central and northern Florida.

White bought an interest in Lawrence Plumbing Supply in 1999. It operates out of six locations in the greater Miami area. It is headed by Joe Lawrence, son of the man who founded it in 1952, the same year that Castle got started. Lawrence retains partial ownership in the company. (As with Castle's Tarpon Wholesale branch in Tarpon Springs, acquired companies with longstanding histories in a market continue to operate under their original names.)

Castle Supply, the main subject of this coverage, operates nine facilities, all in the Tampa Bay marketplace. The three segments of the Castle Group operate under independent management, but are allied through a single computerized inventory and ordering system. CastleNorth's Stern is credited as being the Group's computer “guru.” Their system is an offshoot of the Eclipse warehouse management system, but with modifications.

The Group structure enables Castle to enjoy a great deal of buying power and economies of scale, and provides market coverage to most of the state of Florida. They also benefit from sharing best practices wisdom. At the same time, it allows each management team to operate autonomously and react to local market conditions.

“Splitting the company was a key moment in our history,” White said. “It allowed us to get our arms around the Tampa Bay area, while Bob Stern and Joe Lawrence were able to do the same with the areas they own. All of us have grown our businesses quite well under the Castle Group arrangement.”

SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES Wholesalers of the Year

1959 - Robertson Supply

1960 - Noland Co.

1961 - EMCO, Ltd.

1962 - Raub Supply

1963 - Atlas Supply Co.

1964 - A. Y. McDonald

1965 - Horne-Wilson

1966 - Taylor Companies

1967 - Palmer Supply

1968 - J. Levitt

1969 - Kiefaber Co.

1970 - None

1971 - None

1972 - None

1973 - Hajoca

1974 - Ferguson Enterprises

1975 - Standard Plumbing Supply

1976 - CSC, Inc.

1977 - Trumbull Supply

1978 - Harry Cooper Co.

1979 - F. W. Webb

1980 - Slakey Bros.

1981 - RAL Corp.

1982 - Familian NW

1983 - Moore Supply

1984 - Apex Supply

1985 - Noland Co.

1986 - Familian Corp.

1987 - Hughes Supply

1988 - Davis & Warshow

1989 - LaCrosse Plumbing Supply

1990 - A. Y. McDonald

1991 - RAL Corp.

1992 - Columbia Pipe & Supply

1993 - LCR Corp.

1994 - Ferguson Enterprises

1995 - Hughes Supply

1996 - Familian NW

1997 - F. W. Webb

1998 - Apex Supply

1999 - Torrington Supply

2000 - Wolff Bros.

2001 - Lehman Pipe & Supply

2002 - Todd Pipe & Supply

2003 - Davis & Warshow

2004 - WinWholesale

2005 - Castle Supply