Torrington Supply's formula of service and technology puts it on the fast track to the future.

Joel Becker has made technology key in every aspect of Torrington Supply Co.'s business ? from price quotations to accounts receivable.
It is especially fitting that Torrington Supply Co. has been named Wholesaler of the Year as the 20th century draws to a close. A hundred years ago, distribution as we know it was in its infancy, and successful wholesalers were those with the best gut instincts and the most energy.

Since then, the industry has grown enormously and undergone changes that would dumbfound its pioneers. And while modern distributors maintain that this is still "a people business," they also must admit that technology will have an enormous impact on the face of distribution in the next hundred years. Future historians will look at this century as the dawn of the Age of Technology, when the growth of international economies shifted from manufacturing and heavy industry to service and technology, just as agriculture gave way to industry during the 1800s.

That's what makes Torrington such a good model for other wholesalers to consider as they try to deal with the accelerating pace of change. The Waterbury, Conn.-based company spans most of this century; it was founded in 1917 by David Stein, grandfather of current President Fred Stein and Nancy Stein Becker, vice president, who oversees the showrooms. David's three sons, Morris, Jerry and Harold, ran the company from the late 1930s until the late 1980s.

The firm is being led into its next era by Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Joel Becker and Fred Stein, who have focused on higher levels of service through progressive use of technology.

In 1975, Becker was a graduate student of physics, but he was uncomfortable with his prospects as a physicist. He decided to take a year off from his studies and work in his wife's family's business. He discovered that what he expected to be a temporary job turned into a full-blown career.

Order where none existed

After working in every job in the company, Becker found his niche in operations. When the company moved into its new facility in 1988, he noticed that the things that had made it so profitable in the past were not working. The new building was too big: Things were getting lost, and people were out of sight and out of mind. Profitability began to slide.

"I knew the way we were operating wasn't working, but I didn't know how to change it," Becker says. "I wanted to get some outside help, but that wasn't something we did in those days."

The Stein brothers were not convinced that any change was necessary. The company was already successful, and Becker's ideas would mean some radical changes to what apparently was working just fine. But in early 1990, when Becker and Fred Stein took over the management of the company, they began putting some of the changes into place.

Unfortunately, 1990 was also a recession year. Even worse, it was the one and only year in Torrington's history that the company lost money. "And don't think nobody in the family ever mentioned it to me!" Becker laughs.

Money-losing year or not, the new management team forged ahead. As part of a total quality management initiative in 1995, they decided it was time to attack the endless rework that plagued the order-fulfillment process. Working in partnership with software provider Eclipse Inc., they modified the existing scanning system into a completely automated warehouse order-processing and delivery system.

"Eclipse wanted a distributor to work with them to develop a fully integrated warehouse system, and we wanted someone to do it for us," Becker says. "It was a perfect fit."

The result was a paperless warehouse that has earned Torrington the respect of distributors across many industries and Becker a flurry of invitations to speak at meetings and conventions across the United States and Canada over the last several years. The company has also hosted dozens of pilgrims, some from companies much larger than Torrington, who requested tours of the facility.

With the success of the paperless warehouse, Torrington's management began to look for more opportunities to cut costs and expand profit. They are firm believers in planning, so every fall, they work with representatives of every department in the company -- about 20% of all Torrington employees -- to put together goals for the next year, as well as the steps necessary to achieve them.

All decisions made about this business plan -- its annual mission statement -- are rooted in the firm's vision statement and core values, which are remarkable for their emphasis on the human side of doing business.

"Planning drives everything that we do," Becker explains. "We do a new business plan every year, and I carry it with me all the time. The plan not only outlines our vision statement, it addresses directly our goals for the coming year in very specific and measurable terms."

As part of learning what needs to be done within Torrington Supply, Becker meets with every employee in groups of five to 10 at least three times a year. He updates them on the state of the company with a special focus on the business plan, sales and financial performance. All of Torrington's financial operating information except salaries is shared with every employee.

Torrington's willingness to share information considered confidential by executives at other companies is the result of his belief in open-book management. "We decided that was the best way to get everybody working toward the same goal," Becker explains. "It's hard to play golf if you don't know where the holes are. With us, the holes are how profitable we are. We measure everything under the sun, and we post and distribute the results every week."

Measuring up

With his mathematical background, Becker really would be happy if he could "measure everything under the sun." He relishes the opportunity to count, graph, compute, analyze, slice and dice every possible aspect of Torrington's operations. Twice a year, the company surveys its customers to see how well it is meeting their expectations. In 1998, Torrington also started checking its performance with regard to its internal customers -- a plan that was part of its mission statement for the year and at the top of the list of action steps.

"We hired an outside firm to do an employee-satisfaction survey," Becker says. "And some of the results were surprising. For example, some employees felt that I was difficult to approach, and others said the managers spend too much time in meetings. The issues were simple to rectify, and we're all happier."

And in an era when virtually all employers are bemoaning the shortage of qualified, reliable workers, Torrington management's concern for the people on the Torrington payroll has been especially beneficial, says Fred Cohen, vice president/sales and marketing.

"We're very good at keeping good people. I think it's because of the esprit de corps we've been able to maintain." Becker agrees. "I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who have left us because of dissatisfaction. You can have all the greatest systems in the world, but they require humans to run them."

The Torrington management team (from left): David Petitti, CFO/controllor; Jerry Molaver, vice president/materials; Fred Cohen, vice president/sales; Richard Sills, home branch and corporate customer service manager; Joel Becker, chairman and CEO; Mitchell Miller, director of operations; Nancy Becker, vice president, who oversees the showrooms; and Fred Stein, president.

A choice company

This concern for the people who work for them represents one-quarter of the equation that motivates Torrington management in and out of the office. The other three are the company's customers and vendors, as well as the communities in which it operates. For instance, Nancy and Joel Becker will chair the local United Way next year.

"We take those things seriously," Joel Becker says. "As a company, we try to be a good corporate citizen."

When all is said and done, though, Torrington Supply's vision of being the company of choice for customers, vendors and employees remains top of mind for senior management. They are acutely aware of the competition from regional PHCP distributors as well as inroads by companies with headquarters far to the south.

"We see distribution as a 'choice' business," Becker emphasizes. "Every one of our constituents -- customers, employees and suppliers -- makes choices about us every day. I think one of our great successes over the last few years, even beyond the technology, is that everyone at every level of our company understands that and works very hard to do the things that keep us first."

Sidebar: Corporate Profile

Torrington Supply Co.

Headquarters: Waterbury, Conn.
Facilities: Corporate headquarters includes 72,000 sq. ft. of offices, showroom and distribution center. Four branches in Bridgeport, Danbury, New Haven and South Windsor, Conn. Each has a warehouse and sales office; New Haven also has a showroom.
Employment: 90
Key management: Joel Becker, chairman of the board and chief executive officer; Fred Stein, president; Fred Cohen, vice president/sales and marketing; Nancy Becker, vice president, who oversees the showrooms; Jerry Molaver, vice president/materials; Fred Ginsberg, purchasing manager; David Petitti, chief financial officer; Mitchell Miller, director of operations.
Market: Plumbing, HVACR and industrial PVF in Connecticut.
History: Founded in 1917 by David Stein, a Lithuanian immigrant who learned the plumbing trade in New York City. He later moved to Connecticut and eventually opened a plumbing contracting business of his own in Waterbury. He found himself selling plumbing supplies to other local tradesmen and, when he decided to enter the wholesale business full time, he opened the Brass City Plumbing Supply Co. That name was changed to Torrington Supply in the mid-1920s when the company moved to Torrington, Conn. In the mid-1930s, the company moved back to Waterbury. It built its current facility there in 1988.