For Riley Sales, Web site design and development services keep its customers happy and loyal.



Riley Sales' Internet wizards: John Bielecki (left), webmaster, and Leo Lesniewski, Internet sales manager.
When Michael Riley, president of Riley Sales, invested in a software firm called Click Things, little did he know that his HVAC wholesale distribution company would end up firmly entrenched in the Web site business.

At the beginning of the partnership, Click Things provided user-friendly, graphic unit interface software, e-commerce capabilities and hosting services to Plymouth Meeting, Pa.-based Riley Sales' newly created Internet Division. Click Things personnel performed all software updates and maintenance.

Riley's re-launched its own Web site, www.rileysales.com, and built a few spin-off sites as well. "We used the Click Things platform as a jumping-off point for the other sites," says Leo Lesniewski, Internet sales manager. "We were getting quite a few inquiries from end users about different products, so we built sites where we could sell product to the general public, such as registers and grilles, filters and portable air conditioners."

As Riley's began to have success with these retail sites, Lesniewski wondered what else the company could do with this technology.

He started by contacting some of Riley's more progressive contractor customers, offering to have Web sites built for them for free.

"About 50-60 of our contractors got on board," says John Bielecki, Riley's certified webmaster. "They had their domain name for free, they had their hosting for free, they had e-commerce for free. If you went to a Web designer, the same package could cost you $15,000. Many of our bigger customers were interested, especially those that realized they could sell items on the Internet like we did."

Not only did Riley Sales go to its customers with this proposal, it went to neighboring towns and businesses. For a small fee, it would build and maintain a site for anybody who was interested -- Riley Town, as Lesniewski calls it.

"It was quite an opportunity for John and I to branch out," he notes. Both he and Bielecki worked in inside sales but were looking for something more challenging.

Then the bottom dropped out.

John Bielecki (left) and Michael Riley look over Riley Sales' Web site home page at www.rileysales.com.

Now what do we do?

After about a year working with Click Things, Riley Sales received word via e-mail that the software firm was reorganizing itself. All Web site hosting activities would stop immediately.

"We had to call these customers, who buy from us every day and whom we depend on to stay in business, and tell them they didn't have Web sites anymore because hosting through Click Things was no longer available," Bielecki explains.

This was not only true for Riley's customers, but for its own sites as well.

In order to avoid a mass exodus of customers, Riley Sales went to a local Internet provider and expanded its server capabilities so it could host its own sites and the sites of its customers. Then the company went back to its contractors and offered them development, hosting and maintenance services -- "whatever they needed to complete their online Internet presence," he says. However, this time there would be a fee for hosting services and maintenance costs.

A handful of customers decided to continue with the Internet experiment at Riley Sales. Bielecki develops, maintains and updates all of the sites, making sure that everything runs well and links properly. Fees for Web site design vary based on what features a contractor wants on the site. Riley Sales currently charges a one-time set-up fee of $99 and hosting fees of $35 per month. Update fees also vary depending on the type and amount of changes made.

"It wasn't our intention to get into this game, but after we started getting into it, we realized that, not only are we keeping our customers happy, we're doing a lot for ourselves," he says. "We're maintaining the business with our customers, we're keeping them happy, and we're creating the sixth salesman without paying him. The Internet is a great advertising and marketing tool for us."

"When one door shuts, another opens up," Lesniewski adds. "Our site is up and people are using it. We get calls from people all over looking for a product or information."

That something extra

To compete with the bigger HVAC companies in the greater Philadelphia area -- such as Ferguson Enterprises, Peirce-Phelps and York factory branches -- Riley Sales had to make a niche for itself, states Michael Riley, president. It had to offer something that no one else had or was willing to get involved in.

In the early 1990s, the company opened an indoor air quality division (see Supply House Times, August 1993), Riley Environmental. One division -- Riley Supply -- called only on MRO technicians. The division was eventually merged into Riley Sales.

And now the company has carved out a unique position in the area with its Web site design division.

"With the Web site division, we're trying to offer something more to the contractor," Riley says. "This is something our competitors are not doing, and we're being recognized for it. John and Leo have been asked to speak at industry events and we've been asked by the local community colleges to conduct seminars in their schools."

But even with the Web design and development services that Riley's offers, the firm still has a long way to go to convince its HVAC contractor customers that they need to be on the Internet.

"Just like everyone else, we expected more in the beginning," he explains. "Our contractors have been slower in coming around than we originally thought, but the numbers are growing every day."

Bielecki and Lesniewski agree, noting the HVAC industry seems to be way behind the times when it comes to using electronic technology in day-to-day business.

"We have to beg some of these guys to use our site," Lesniewski notes.

Part of the reason may be that these contractors still want to talk to a human being, especially when ordering higher-priced items such as equipment or machinery.

And they can still do that at Riley Sales, either by picking up the phone and talking to an inside salesman, or "talking" to a salesperson via Riley's Web site.

Riley's uses Humanclick, where a customer can click on a link and automatically be connected with an HVAC specialist at Riley Sales, Lesniewski explains. Once the customer has clicked on the link, a doorbell sounds in the office and a salesperson picks up the "call."

This capability allows contractors with questions about equipment, supplies or services to communicate in real-time to a live person.

"It's instant messaging for business-to-business transactions," he says.

Riley Sales' goal is to be a progressive company with progressive customers, Riley states. At the beginning of the 21st century, the Internet is a powerful force that will continue to be a part of everyday life. The sons and daughters of today's contractors are more computer literate than any other generation. Recognizing these facts and merging onto the information highway has poised Riley Sales for success in the future.

Corporate profile: Riley Sales

Headquarters: Plymouth Meeting, Pa. Warehouse is 50,000 sq. ft.

Branches: Philadelphia; West Chester, Pa.; Sharon Hill, Pa.; Allentown, Pa.; and Moorestown, N.J. Each branch has its own warehouse, ranging from 6,000 sq. ft. to 12,000 sq. ft.

Top management: Thomas Riley, CEO; Michael Riley, president; Richard Riley, vice president.

Annual sales: $18 million.

Employees: 50.

Customer base: HVAC contractors.

Territory: Eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey.

Products: Heating and air conditioning equipment and supplies, sheet metal and fabrication machinery, flexible duct and accessories, registers and grilles, insulation and sealants, power and hand tools, indoor air quality and filters, humidifiers and condensate, ventilation, adhesives and tapes, coatings.

Web sites: www.rileysales.com, www.rileymachinery.com, www.rileyairsponge.com; www.ventcovers.net, www.portableairconditioners.net, www.airconditionerfilters.net.

History: Thomas Riley started out in 1955 as a manufacturers rep in the industrial component industry, selling precision springs and flexible hose. In 1962, one of his vendors, Atco Rubber Products, came out with a flexible hose product, which was not only for industrial applications, but also for HVAC. Riley was asked to sell the product to HVAC wholesalers. It was successful, so the two developed a product together called Flexduct. Riley tried to sell the product to HVAC wholesalers with no luck. So in 1966 he decided he'd become his own distributor, selling just the one product. He hired his brother Richard to help with the wholesale side of the business while he continued the rep side. After a few months of relative success, his contractor customers asked him to start stocking air-conditioning items, such as pipe, duct, fittings and registers. Riley added a few more products, and the wholesale business started to take off. He kept the rep business but didn't expand it. The wholesale business incorporated in May 1968.

The Rileys of Riley Sales: President Michael Riley (left), CEO and founder Thomas Riley (center) and Vice President Richard Riley.

SIDEBAR: Helping the next generation

The Internet is not the only thing that has Riley Sales' President Michael Riley looking into the future. He is very concerned about the current lack of qualified HVAC contractors and how that will affect HVAC wholesale distribution down the road.

His solution: To partner with inner-city churches in repairing abandoned, burned-out buildings for habitable living quarters for the community. Church leaders would enlist members of their churches and the community as a whole to provide the labor for the project. Riley Sales would provide funding, equipment and on-site training.

"Our industry is crying out for new technicians," Riley says. "Kids that are coming up want to go to college and get into the computer sciences, but no one is really pushing the trades. The HVAC industry is falling behind and we need to tap into a new workforce -- the minority contractor. In a large metropolitan area, a certain amount of the public works projects have to go to minority contractors. But there aren't many of them out there. This pilot project will provide HVAC training to minorities to get them in the building trades."

He is now working with local churches in Chester, Pa., and Camden, N.J., to get people in their communities to attend job-training courses. While Riley Sales does support the local Habitat for Humanity projects, the wholesaler is taking that concept a step further. The churches provide the seed money to purchase buildings in their communities. Riley works with them to obtain funding. The company also supplies the churches with some of its older or scratched and dented equipment.

After these contractors-in-training have worked on three or four houses, they have marketable job skills.

"It's been a dream of mine to give something back," Riley explains. "To me, it makes no sense to have warehouses full of product when we could restore these neighborhoods and provide job training at the same time."

Riley also hopes that these new contractors remember Riley Sales as they open their own shops. Providing job training now may result in new customers in the future.

The bottom line at Riley Sales is helping the next generation. Whether it's through Internet services or minority job training, Riley Sales is preparing the next wave of HVAC wholesalers and contractors.

"We as supply houses should take charge," Riley states. "We should plant the seeds of the next contractors, so when they grow, they'll remember who gave them the tools they needed to become healthy and successful businessmen."

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