The story of Wolff Bros. Supply is typical of today's independent PHCP wholesaler - but the company is not.

It's the American dream in action. This year's SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES Wholesaler of the Year has grown from a two-man start-up in the post-World War II era to a company that will sell more than $79 million worth of plumbing, heating and cooling and electrical supplies this year.

The reason is simple. Since its inception, Wolff Bros. Supply Co. has tried to understand its customers and provide the products and services they need as efficiently as possible. The founders of the company, Harold and Norman Wolff, actually formed it as a contracting business, so they knew from experience what contractors wanted from a supply house. And the past and present owners of the company reflect the serious work ethic of their German parents and grandparents, who farmed the land now partly occupied by Wolff Bros. Supply Co. for two generations before the company was formed.

An aerial view of the present-day Wolff Bros. in Medina, Ohio, makes that farming heritage very clear. The warehouse dwarfs the two barns, one of which now provides space for the company's showroom and corporate offices. The other is still a working barn, home to a small herd of miniature horses that are a hobby for Barb Lewis, one of the Wolff siblings.

In front of the warehouse is a small lake stocked with fish and sided by a couple of picnic tables. A paved driveway used by the tractor-trailer rigs bringing materials to the warehouse circles behind the old family home and the century-old trees shading it. And the fields around the warehouse were still farmed, until just a year ago, by Ted Wolff, corporate operations manager.

The family focus these days, however, is clearly on the distribution company. Five of the six members of the Wolff Bros. board are children of Harold or Norman. (The sixth was "adopted," jokes President Howard Wolff.) In addition, a couple of sisters-in-law lend their talents to the business.

In addition to Howard Wolff's responsibilities as president, he is also the go-to guy for computer issues. Brother George is vice president/sales; a third Wolff brother, Ken, is vice president/purchasing. Their sister, Irene Wolff Hill, serves as secretary and treasurer, as well as head of human resources. Cousin Jeff Wolff is vice president/accounts receivable. And that "adopted" family member, Mike Huttinger, runs the firm's Wooster branch.

The company, which operates only in Ohio, has four main facilities corporate headquarters at Medina, and branches at Akron, Sandusky and Wooster. In addition, it maintains smaller locations in Elyria, Cleveland and Ashland. Another branch in Mentor, Ohio, will open in spring 2001.

Each main delivery location has a branch sales manager and an operations manager. The operations manager is responsible for deliveries, warehousing and the personnel involved in those activities. The satellite facilities are under the auspices of a nearby branch, which makes deliveries in that area. For example, the Wooster location delivers for the Ashland branch.

Wolff Bros. provides a wide range of products for its customers. About half its business is in electrical materials. Slightly more than a third is plumbing-related, and the remainder is heating, air conditioning and ventilation.

Wolff Bros. has been a member of Affiliated Distributors since 1994, when A-D membership was restricted to electrical distributors. A-D has since added divisions for distributors of industrial supplies and industrial pipe, valves and fittings. At the first of the year, the marketing group is launching a plumbing division.

The formation of the plumbing division, the result of A-D's merger with the buying group C.L. Watt, creates a dilemma for Wolff Bros., which is also a longtime member of another, competing plumbing buying group, Wit & Co. Wolff Bros. has been happy with Wit, and Howard Wolff is reluctant to see that association end.

Unfortunately, that separation is necessary -- another casualty of the industry's consolidation. A-D's policy is that its members may not belong to competing organizations.

A stake in the future

Howard Wolff is a proponent of consultant Bruce Merrifield's four-way win-win economics. Wolff and the other members of the management team keep an eye on the best interests of their customers, their employees, their vendors and the company's stockholders, all of whom, as the executives see it, have a stake in the company.

As part of the company's efforts to maximize the investment each of these groups has made in the company, Wolff Bros. has embarked on a program for tracking errors made in relationship to vendors and customers. The computerized system allows John Von Kamp, quality administrator, to pinpoint the quantities and types of problems.

Von Kamp has identified 10 codes for the errors the company wants to track, divided among three broader categories:

  • Sales and customer-communication errors, such as a Wolff salesperson ordering the wrong item, or a customer specifying the wrong item and Wolff personnel missing the mistake;

  • Vendor errors, such as material being packed and shipped in the wrong box; and

  • Warehouse errors, such as mistakes in picking, delivery or quantities.

Von Kamp considers wrong quantities a particularly tough nut to crack. Even with the sophisticated bar-coding equipment in the warehouse, it's still possible to make mistakes. For instance, if an order calls for 10 of a particular item that comes in packages of two, it's easy for a new employee to pick 10 packages.

"About half of the first errors we looked at were wrong quantities," Von Kamp says. "The majority of the remaining errors were wrong items being sent out or sales/customer communication issues, where the item we sent wasn't exactly what the customer wanted, although we thought it was. When resolving the errors, we have to ask enough questions so we know what the customer wants."

In black and white

A key part of the error-tracking process is the computer-generated monthly reports distributed to the operations and sales managers. Armed with the details, the managers and their teams are in a better position to take corrective action where it's needed.

"The reports indicate what problems we've had and what we need to address," Von Kamp says. "We're going to build error reduction into the performance requirements as targets we can shoot for."

The solution to one problem was very low-tech but very effective. A particular customer tended to order the same items over and over again, but on occasion needed something more specialized. After recognizing the repetitive nature of most of the orders, Wolff Bros. created an old-fashioned order pad that listed the items and provided boxes where the customer could indicate quantity for each. Now the customer checks off what he needs, tears the form off the pad and faxes it to Wolff Bros. When he needs something not listed, he knows to call the Wolff Bros. salesperson to be sure he gets exactly what he needs. The system eliminates guesswork for the customer and the order takers.

Another measurable improvement has been in fill rates at one Wolff Bros. branch. While the company average is around 95%, Von Kamp reports that the branch's results were "somewhere in the low 80s." The operations manager assigned a team to address the problem, and that branch is now hitting fill rates of more than 90% and still improving.

"They did an excellent job," Von Kamp says. "Now about the only reason they can't fill an order is because the item isn't available anywhere in the company."

The human side of automation

To err is human, but Wolff Bros. is doing everything it can to make the jobs of its warehouse workers as stress-free, and error-free, as possible. The company has sunk a considerable chunk of change into streamlining their jobs. From the ever-expanding use of bar coding to picking machines that virtually drive themselves, technology provides greater efficiency and peace of mind for employees.

The low level of stress in the warehouse is evident from the workers' relaxed attitudes, even when magazine editors are looking over their shoulders to see how the job is done. No detail is missed. Medina operations manager Becky Berger is even replacing the lighting in the warehouse, at considerable expense to the company, because the people who work there prefer bright white light over the present yellowish sodium lamps.

As head of human resources, Irene Wolff Hill is always on the lookout for top-notch candidates to join the Wolff team, and she spends a lot of time and energy considering ways to make current employees as productive as possible. A generous profit-sharing plan, a company newsletter that celebrates special events in employees' lives and recognition for loyalty and a job well-done are all part of the Wolff tradition.

The ultimate goal of automation, HR policies, statistical tracking of errors, and just about everything else at Wolff Bros. is the best possible service to their customers in the most cost-effective manner. Even the company's pride in the job-satisfaction level of its employees (the average tenure is seven years) is rooted in the knowledge that enthusiastic employees will provide better service to their customers and be a lot more fun to do business with, for that matter.

No wonder the company's employees and PHC contractors are more than happy to cry, "Wolff!"