Special lighting and an uncluttered display area create an upscale look for Venango Supply's showroom, which carries mid-America type plumbing fixtures.

Drivers passing by Venango Supply's Erie, Pa., showroom at night see thin, wavy blue fluorescent lighting inside and wonder if it's a disco. But that misconception is quickly dispelled upon entering the 2,800-sq.-ft. bath-and-kitchen showroom.

The overhead track lighting is aimed directly on the products, and the displays focus exclusively on what the wholesaler actually sells.

"The worst thing a showroom attendant can hear from a customer is 'I really like the tile' on display in a vignette when you don't sell it," says David Hawkins. He is the interior designer who created the showroom for Venango Supply, a two-branch wholesaler based in Oil City, Pa. So instead of vignettes, the Erie showroom has modular displays of products.

"We have tubs here, toilets there, all the sinks together somewhere else," says Bill Eckert, president, who owns and operates Venango Supply with his two brothers. "The customer doesn't have to run from one vignette to another to see different products."

The modular displays can be installed or removed within an hour, so new items can be brought in quickly.

"When we first spoke with David we liked his style, the clean look," Eckert says. "His designs show the product. The blue lights create atmosphere, but what you see is plumbing fixtures. We are not selling tile or bath accessories, just plumbing fixtures and faucets."

The designer was recommended to the Eckerts by a Kohler sales rep. Hawkins has also designed showrooms for Carr Supply, Columbus, Ohio, and Cleveland-based Welker-McKee, a division of Hajoca Corp., among others.

The Erie showroom is a destination and doesn't attract much walk-in traffic, Eckert says. Customers are drawn there because they know that afterwards they can enjoy the city's amenities: a lake, a huge shopping mall and restaurants. Showroom hours are from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday. After-hours appointments also are accepted.

"We wanted a showroom with pizzazz," Eckert says. "It looks upscale but it really isn't. We have mid-America type products at mid-range to upper-mid-range prices."

The design of the showroom is meant to be exciting and distinctive, but not so elite that it will alienate people, says Tod Eckert, secretary-treasurer.

The fixtures carried are obtainable to many different income levels, says Dick Eckert, vice president. The showroom carries a standard 5-ft. bathtub and a whirlpool that sells for under $1,000 in addition to higher-priced luxury items.

Competition from lumber yards and home centers has pushed down margins and impacted sales of the showrooms, Dick Eckert says. Until recently the showrooms have sold to homeowners at list price, but now prices are being discounted. The wholesaler sent a letter to its contractor customers in February, explaining the price cuts and promising to rebate contractors the difference between the discounted retail and contractor price. "We are dedicated to wholesale distribution with the contractor, not to being a retail home center," Dick Eckert says in the letter.

Also in response to the competition, Venango intends to promote its showrooms in newspaper, television and other specialty advertising and will have a referral list of contractors available to consumers.

The wholesaler created a 60-second TV commercial for the showrooms last year and plans to develop a new one this year that will focus on professionalism, says Tod Eckert.

The Erie showroom opened in late December 1999. Deborah Neumaier, an Erie native with several years of experience in a showroom operated by Ferguson Enterprises in Virginia, is the showroom manager. The Eckert brothers are trying to position this showroom a little above what the other wholesalers in the market are doing. It represents a $350,000 investment to Venango, which had annual sales of $8+ million in 2000.

"Right now we are finding our market and starting to really climb," Dick Eckert says. "In terms of pay-off we expect a five-year return."

Venango Supply also operates a 1,500-sq.-ft. vignette-oriented showroom in Oil City, Pa., that caters to a rural customer base and was undergoing some upgrading in March.

The wholesaler gambled on a flashier showroom for Erie, which houses universities, law firms, hospitals and manufacturing firms that bring professionals to the area. Because it does not rely on just one industry, the Eckerts knew Erie had growth potential, Bill Eckert says.

"This is not the Sun Belt, but business has been steady," Dick Eckert says. The Oil City showroom has more remodeling business because it serves older communities. The Erie market has new construction and multifamily homes in addition to remodeling sales. Venango projects its 2001 volume will match that of 2000.

Building partnerships

The goal of the Eckert brothers is to partner with contractors in their markets. A contractor is likely to have at least five to 10 remodeling or construction jobs per year vs. a homeowner, who may invest in one major job every 20 years.

"We want to make it as easy as possible for contractors to do business with us," Tod Eckert says. "We provide material lists for their jobs and design assistance for heating and cooling projects."

The outside sales staff is supported by four inside salespeople in Oil City and two in Erie.

"When contractors know they can call someone knowledgeable rather than having to wait for someone to show up on the job site, that saves them time," Tod Eckert says. "Both the inside and outside salespeople are on incentive programs. They help each other."

Venango Supply's salespeople deal directly with the owners of the companies they serve. "We get involved with our customers to help them make a profit," Bill Eckert says. "They know they can trust us. We are trying to convince our contractors that working as a team with us, our showrooms and our staff we can compete against home centers and still make money for all of us."

Dick and Tod Eckert work as outside salesmen in addition to their other duties. The three owners make themselves accessible to customers by including their home phone numbers on their business cards and on price sheets.

In addition to its contractor partnerships, the wholesaler teams up with its vendors. "We are not a supply house that changes lines frequently," Dick Eckert says. "We've had some lines for 20 years." Venango Supply's showrooms carry products by Kohler, Elkay, Aqua Glass, Delta, Basco, Grohe and Mansfield. Among the lines sold from its counter area are Rheem, Ruud, Weil-McLain, Hydro-Matic, Grundfos, In-Sink-Erator, Hoffman, Empire, Electro-Air, Bell & Gossett, Amtrol and Amerivent.

The wholesaler can best represent the manufacturer's products in terms of inventory commitment and product knowledge, Bill Eckert says.

"Typically plumbing contractors will deal with wholesalers, but some general contractors, depending on building codes and their geographic location, may buy plumbing products from a home center," says Tod Eckert. "If we can convince them that we make it easy to do business with us, the wholesaler wins hands-down."

The outside sales force is a wholesaler's best asset, Hawkins says. "When I am designing something, the wholesaler's outside salesman helps me design my specs. One guy is my sole source of information. He tells me what products are best for my requirements. I won't get that from a retailer."

Planning for the future

The wholesaler is considering a third location, possibly south of Oil City, but will not make the move until it has the right personnel to open a new branch, Dick Eckert says.

"When you are entering a competitive market, you need to make a good first impression," Bill Eckert says. "Our salespeople are not just order-takers. They know the products and the systems."

The success of Venango Supply hinges on its people, says Dick Eckert.

The wholesaler encourages its employees to identify quality people they encounter in the field who might be willing to join the company in the future, says Tod Eckert.

Bill Eckert's son recently has entered the business and is learning it from the ground up.

Another possible project is expansion of the Erie showroom by 800 sq. ft. Also, increased traffic may warrant the hiring of another showroom salesperson.

In addition, the wholesaler is considering carrying another china line in the showrooms. Venango is interested in unique products that cannot be found in other showrooms, says Bill Eckert.

"We want customers to walk out feeling that this showroom was something special," Dick Eckert says.

SIDEBAR: Corporate profile -- Venango Supply

Headquarters:Oil City, Pa.
Facilities:Oil City and Erie, Pa.
Annual sales:$8 million +
Key management:President Bill Eckert; Vice President Dick Eckert; Secretary/Treasurer Tod Eckert.
Market:50% plumbing, 50% hydronic heating/HVAC.
History:Venango Supply was founded in 1964 in Oil City, Pa., about 65 miles south of Erie, by William Eckert Sr., father of the three current owners, and their uncle, John Eckert. They decided to start a supply house to complement their mechanical contracting work. One by one, the three Eckert brothers - Bill, Dick and Tod - joined the company and assumed responsibility for the wholesaling end of the business. They bought the business from their father and uncle in 1986 and in 1989 built a 30,000-sq.-ft. headquarters facility, including a 1,500-sq.-ft. showroom, on eight acres of land in Oil City, Pa. The Erie branch, consisting of 10,000 sq. ft. leased in a 20,000-sq.-ft. building, was opened in 1994. Venango bought the building in 1998 and began construction of a 2,800-sq.-ft. showroom, which opened in 1999. The Erie branch includes a 600-sq.-ft. counter sales area and a 16,600-sq.-ft. warehouse.