Wholesale-distribution can be about nothing more than buying and selling, if that's all you make it to be. And if that's all you make it to be, then the only competitive edge you can possibly offer is the lowest price for anything your customers may want.
That's a tough way to make a living. The real key to success in PHCP distribution is to dominate with value-added services. Radiant heating offers a better chance to do that than the commodities or near-commodities that comprise the bulk of most wholesalers' sales. The radiant marketplace is still wide open, and the technology a bit mysterious to the vast majority of trade customers. That spells opportunity for participating wholesalers to distinguish themselves from mere product peddlers.
With this in mind, I posted an inquiry on Dan Holohan's Web site message board, "The Wall" (www.heatinghelp.com). The site is a favorite hangout of the country's top heating contractors, and I asked them if they could tell me of extraordinary services offered by wholesalers of radiant heating products. What follows are some of their responses.
Glowing Tributes"I work closely with Jeff Riley of Thos. Somerville Co., Chantilly, Va. Jeff is one of a kind in the supply house business. I probably talk to him three times a day. He makes sure all my orders are entered correctly and properly pulled. He keeps me updated on the latest changes in the product lines and even brings samples by my office. He takes the time to get involved in our local trade associations as well as attend national shows such as REX. He even went through Wirsbo's HCT training with me - twice!" reported Dan Foley of Foley Mechanical in Alexandria, Va. He continued:
"When Wirsbo first came out with Quik-Trak and I sold my first job, I asked him to meet my crew on the job. I figured he would give them a few pointers and be on his way. Not Jeff. He had his work clothes on and worked alongside my crew the entire day. I know he has done this for other contractors as well.
"If Somerville happens to be out of a key component that I need to do a job, Jeff does not blame his purchasing department; he ships the part to me overnight and picks up the shipping charge. On many occasions, he has driven over an hour to Somerville's central distribution facility to pick up materials I need and personally deliver them to my jobsite by 6:30 a.m. In order to do this, he had to wake up at 3:30 a.m. and leave his house by 4 a.m.
"Jeff is willing to stock or special order any oddball radiant or hydronic specialty I need. I have never heard Jeff say, 'I can't' or 'I won't,'" said Foley.
David Yates of Erie, Pa. is another contractor who raved about Thos. Somerville Co. and Jeff Riley in particular. "They'll jump through whatever hoop you put up in front of them! You want it stocked? Just tell them what you need and it'll always be there for you. When they decided to be a radiant wholesaler, they came to me and asked for suggestions on what should be in their inventory. Never once blinked, they simply did it! Jeff drives that ship. They're coming on strong in my market and are very dedicated to providing excellence in service. Their delivery gal is a delightful person whose personality is exceptional."
Jeff Riley is a salesman for Thos. Somerville. His dedication to customer needs transcends radiant heating. He reacts that way for any product area, except the radiant heating arena offers so many more opportunities to come through in a pinch.
Yates also singled out York Corrugating of Erie, Pa., as another wholesaler that "has gone an extra mile or three when we've needed that personal service touch."
"Kim Raub and his wife, Janice, traveled well over three hours (each way) in a raging thunderstorm to deliver a truckload of radiant products on a remote western Pennsylvania job site. In the pouring rain, both assisted our mechanics in unloading tons (quite literally) of stuff. It was cold and raining, yet Janice slogged through the mud the same as everyone else.
"On another radiant project, a condensing boiler crapped out on a bitterly cold Sunday night - its draft inducer wheel having disintegrated. I placed a call to Kim's manager, Bob Kuhn, who drove to a neighboring town, picked up a complete boiler, drove back and delivered it to our on-call mechanic, who then 'robbed' the needed part.
"Whenever we ask for service or radiant products they don't normally stock, they find a way to get whatever we need. They give stellar service, and not just from those mentioned, but extending all the way down the ranks, including the delivery drivers who willingly help unload the materials," said Yates.
Yates named a third wholesaler, a local Noland branch, as having "a few great people here. When we've needed them to suck it up and get with the program, they have - including long hauls to obtain emergency boiler replacements.
"We are lucky to have such great suppliers within a stone's throw of our shop," said Yates. "Perhaps our relationships grew strong over the years because we don't play one off of the other regarding pricing, and they know the first price given is the last one I ask for. Then again, it might be because we've never missed a discount in many years. Each carries different products than the others. Although the Internet and large home centers offer lower pricing on some items, I prefer to support those who support my business through outstanding service," Yates declared.
"I first met Paul Rohrs of Lincoln (Neb.) Winnelson over the phone. I was hunting for some manifolds that my old supplier couldn't (didn't want to?) come up with. Paul called me several times to let me know the status of the hunt/order/backorder, and when they came in, he drove 240 miles round trip to deliver them to me," reported Kevin Pulver of Pulver Hydronic Radiant Floor Heating, Kenesaw, Neb.
"I was amazed at that kind of service, and he even bought me breakfast," Pulver continued. "Perhaps most amazing, he sends customers my way BEFORE they buy tubing directly (not from him) and bury it in concrete without benefit of heat loss or design. Now that was something new!
"Paul is someone you can trust. And even though he knows more than I do, he is neither conceited nor content in his knowledge. He is constantly striving to learn and improve his service. He returns phone calls, and answers questions, even if it's an, "I'll find out and get back to you. (In which case, he WILL find out, and he WILL get back to you.)"
Jim Kelleher of J.E. Kelleher Plumbing & Mechanical in Edgartown, Mass., described an elderly couple's radiant system that went haywire in the middle of winter in 1997. "The tubing was installed properly using a staple-up process, but the boiler piping would not allow enough flow to the radiant zones to heat the home properly. The couple was freezing. The house could not exceed 60 degrees, so they had supplemental heat such as electric heaters. The elderly woman had been fighting cancer, so it was a tough situation when her husband contacted me. I was at a loss on why we couldn't get more heat.
"I then contacted Dan Foley at F.W. Webb in Hyannis, Mass." (A different Dan Foley than the contractor cited a few paragraphs earlier.) "He in turn put me in contact with Rich McNally at Watts Radiant. Rich flew in from Virginia. My helper and I worked with Rich for two and a half days to re-pipe the boiler. We learned a great deal from Rich and finished the job. There was no labor charge to the couple. I donated the time and materials, and Mr. McNally donated his expertise. I have to tell you, this Rich McNally is a stand-up guy. He didn't have to do this. He went well beyond the call of duty," said Kelleher.
In this case, the tribute goes to a manufacturer's employee, although it was Kelleher's contact at the F. W. Webb wholesaler firm that got the ball rolling. Sometimes all it takes to satisfy customers is pointing them in the right direction.
"Jim, I've got to tell you about the guys at the Morris, Ill., branch of Munch's Supply - Tom S., Mini Moose and especially Steve M. These guys bend over backwards for me," said John Brickey. "When I can't get to the store before closing to get a part, one of them will bring it to me or take it home for me to pick up. Steve M. and I went to the Wirsbo mini-camp together and what I forgot he remembers. I just can't say enough about the service I get.
"I was the first American Standard dealer with Munch's, and it is because Tom S. talked me into it. It's been 16 years and I keep on selling them. Now we are getting pretty serious about in-floor and radiant heat and they are right there to help me out," said Brickey.
"In the Windy City is a top-notch, progressive outfit, Able Distributors. They spare no expense getting the job done! Never one to argue or shift blame should a problem occur.
"I am impressed to see them, front row, attend virtually all the radiant training programs currently available. They are always on the cutting edge regarding new products and technology, willing to boldly go where few other wholesalers dare tread.
"I like that in a supplier! With the Chicago wind on their backs, they should go far!" said Hot Rod Rohr of Springfield, Mo.
Mark Eatherton, one of Denver's most prominent hydronic heating contractors, who also teaches the subject at a local community college, offered these observations in response to my inquiry about good radiant wholesalers.
"I'd have to offer up Matt Carr at Dahl-Denver. This guy knows more than most people forgot. If it is to be had, Matt knows where. And he, too, has gone way out of his way to make it right.
"Another up-and-comer would be Charles Potter at Water Systems Inc. I know this guy's sharp because he took my class! Water Systems is one of those places that you know is going to have what you need, even if it is an oddball fitting, like a 1/2 x 2-1/2 x 3/4 copper tee. Got BINS full of them! And if they don't have it, they'll make one up for you without asking.
"Then there's Dennis Bellanti," Eatherton continued, citing the hydronics manager of Ferguson Enterprises' Denver branch. "This guy has literally changed the way the industry does business. He took Buderus from a no-name boiler company to make it one of the most talked about and used boilers in the front range area. And if there's ever a problem, you can call him and he'll get you the answer," said Eatherton.
The Basics & MoreIt's a pleasure to report these comments from satisfied customers. They serve as an antidote to all the griping one hears about wholesalers based on real or imagined service shortcomings.
Some of these tales recall truly extraordinary efforts above and beyond the call of duty. But others merely point to the fact that customers appreciate basic customer service considerations such as returning phone calls and following through on promises.
Next, I contacted a handful of prominent radiant wholesalers, some of whom are mentioned here, for their observations about this market. The story (page 42) summarizes some of their keenest insights.
Sidebar: Want To Get Involved In The Radiant Revolution?If your business is ready to expand its service offerings to include radiant, consider joining the Radiant Panel Association (RPA). As the trade association for radiant professionals, RPA provides its membership with training, certification, schools, technical materials and continuing education in all areas of radiant technology. RPA also keeps its membership up-to-date with the latest industry research, trends, technical data and marketing information. The association even provides members with hundreds of commercial and residential sales leads each month.
For more information about the Radiant Panel Association, visit www.radiantpanelassociation.org or call 800-660-7187.
Sidebar: The Virtues of Continuous CirculationBy Dennis Bellanti
As hydronic heat technology gains popularity in the United States, Ferguson is expanding its presence into the hydronics market. Our new facility near Vail, Colo., offers customers the opportunity to see firsthand how the innovative system works. Located in the mountains of Colorado, the building serves as a working demo, allowing our customers to see the mechanics and experience the comfort of this system.
Known as continuous circulation, the concept is simple. Design and build the perfect heating system, one that provides heat to a room at the same rate it's being lost. These systems are so simple in design that many contractors are at first suspicious of their effectiveness.
Here's how it works. A 98% efficient, condensing boiler provides the heat. We used an outdoor reset control to precisely match the water temperature requirements of the building based on the weather. When the control says it is cold enough outside to begin generating a need for heat, it turns the circulator on. A pressure-activated bypass valve alleviates any unneeded flow.
The circulator will run until the outdoor temperature rises above the warm weather shut down point. We designed the system with a forty degree Delta T, allowing colder return water temperatures for better condensation and smaller circulators.
Tubing was installed in the slab of the entire building. The manifolds are located in the walls of each zone. Non-electric zone valves and thermostats were installed at each manifold. This is the key component to a successful continuous circulation system.
Non-electric zone valves, in combination with an outdoor reset control, are almost always in some state of openness. The zone valves modulate to provide the precise amount of heat at the same rate the room is losing it. This creates a very steady temperature in the room. The outdoor reset control produces just enough temperature to satisfy the load.
The thermostat has a gas-filled bellows inside with a capillary tube that runs down to the zone valve. The gas is similar to that used in a conventional aquastat. As the room cools, the gas contracts and slowly opens the valve. A scrap piece of PEX was used to fish the capillary tube through the wall, down to the zone valve on the manifold. (You can get a capillary tube up to 33 feet long.) Keep in mind that this thermostat and valve combination can be used with any hydronic heat delivery system.
Non-electric zone valves and thermostats come in many sizes and configurations and, with a near-zero failure rate since their inception more than 20 years ago, are ultra reliable. The zone valve and thermostat are conveniently combined into one easy-to-access box. Connections can be made in either PEX or copper.
The satisfaction and pride of seeing the job through from concept to completion, as well as the positive response from our customers, made it all worthwhile. <<
Dennis Bellanti is manager of the Hydronics Department at Ferguson's Denver branch, which includes six other stores along the front range and in the mountains. He has been with Ferguson for 1-1/2 years. He says he gained his knowledge of hydronics from reading Dan Holohan's books, attending all seminars that were available, and mostly from working on job sites with the installers, teaching and learning at the same time.