Dottie Ramsey, president/COO of Modern Supply, is the first woman to serve as president of the American Supply Association.

She doesn't look tough, but don't let that fool you. Despite her feminine appearance, this woman has been a pioneer in the male-dominated PHCP industry for most of her 39 years in the business. Dottie Ramsey, president and chief operating officer of seven-branch plumbing and HVAC wholesaler Modern Supply, based in Knoxville, Tenn., and incoming president of the American Supply Association, continuously has broken ground for her gender as the first female in various industry positions. She was the first woman to serve on a committee for the Southern Wholesalers Association; first woman to serve on the SWA board; first female SWA president; and now she will be the first woman president of ASA.

Pace Robinson, chairman/CEO, and Dottie Ramsey, president/ COO, work together as a team.
Ramsey has never let her gender hold her back. “We don't care what color or gender people are. If you can do the job, we will let you do it,” she says, describing Modern Supply's employment philosophy.

She doesn't like to stress the woman angle and avoids the term, feminist. Even when she was interviewed by former SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES Editor John O'Reilly for a March 1992 cover story as incoming president of SWA, Ramsey focused on her experience and skills, not gender. The story credited her personal charm and practical intelligence for her success in the industry. O'Reilly's words about Ramsey in the 1992 article, “she may well be the most prominent and influential female manager in PHCP distribution today,” still ring true.

Key management: (seated, left to right) Debbie Steele, Dottie Ramsey, Kim Miller; (back row, left to right) Tim Powers, Greg Stephens, Pace Robinson, Jack Brantley.

Movin' On Up

Ramsey joined Modern Supply as a teenager in 1965. She advanced from pricing clerk to computer operator to office manager and by 1972 had been promoted to manager of the builder department. In 1992 she was wearing multiple hats as vice president/administration for Modern Supply; incoming SWA president; a board member of ASA and president of ASA's Education Foundation.

“When we are interviewing a potential hire, we tell them how many years I have been here, how I started and where it ended,” Ramsey says. The nurturing, supportive environment at Modern Supply, initiated by late company founder Mitch Robinson, remains in place today. Promotion from within is strongly encouraged.

Ramsey tells the story of one of Modern Supply's employees, Bella Budick, who came to the United States from Russia with her family. They were sponsored by people from Knoxville to help them get started. When Bella was sent to Modern for an interview, it was clear she had language problems, but her skills were impressive, so the wholesaler decided to give her a chance and hired her.

“That is exactly what Pace Robinson's father did with me years ago,” Ramsey says. “Now 12 years later, Bella is in charge of our inventory control department.”

Ramsey also points out Chad Bradley, who was hired to work in the warehouse. After observing his positive attitude, Ramsey offered him a position as showroom consultant when there was an opening.

“Now he has been there almost a year,” she says. “Within one month after he was working in the showroom we were getting thank-you notes from customers.”

Other examples cited by Ramsey include Cindy Hill and Debbie Steele. Cindy was hired as a temporary secretary 11 years ago and now works in outside sales. Debbie began her career at Modern as credit manager but after her superiors saw her potential and how she worked with customers and other employees, she was promoted to sales manager.

“The company is very flexible,” Ramsey says. “We let our employees bring their children to the office; we work with families. That is the reason we have such longevity on our staff.

“My proudest achievement is recognizing talent, nurturing and saying, 'you can do this,'” Ramsey continues. “It's just recognizing talent within the organization, giving people a chance. Come on, take my job. The more you learn, the better you are for the company.”

A computer-generated model previews Modern's Knoxville showroom, which was under renovation at the time of the interview.

Q&A With Dottie Ramsey

SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES: What are the top items on your agenda when you take over as president of ASA?

Ramsey: Education and technology. We need to keep those two important initiatives going. It seems that our educational seminars may be the best-kept secret in the industry. We want to get the younger generation more involved somehow. They don't see the importance of associations where you meet your peers, talk about things and learn from each other. The previous generation had to work hard to get the business going. The younger ones don't want to give up their weekends or take the time to go to conventions. We have to educate them as to why it is so important. Then there is our Industry Database project, which is another great way that our businesses can save time and money. But again, we haven't done a good job in marketing it.

The other item on my agenda is to build mutual cooperation between the national and regional groups. That is the key to our survival.

SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES: What particular sets of skills and interests do you bring to your role as ASA president?

Ramsey: I've spent 39 years in the industry. I have been involved with the Southern Wholesalers Association 30 years. I'm a past president of SWA and have served on the board of directors for ASA and SWA. I have a lot of vested time in this industry. I've been able to learn from my peers. My father used to tell me if I could learn just one thing from a particular class that I didn't like, it would be worth it. So I tell our key managers when they attend a regional seminar if they can bring back one thing that will help the company, the seminar has paid for itself. The other benefit is the relationships that you build at these meetings. I met someone at the winter board meeting and it helped me make a business decision. This industry will always require personal relationships with vendors and peers. I know wholesalers that are ASA members and some that are not. I also know vendors. One of my strengths is knowing the industry and the problems and opportunities.

SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES: How will your being a woman help or hinder your role?

Ramsey: I'm going to be watched big time. But I don't think it will hurt. I have a nurturing personality. I'm a people person. Hopefully this will set an example and open doors for others. This is a good career for people. I want to get that point across. It can be exciting. For me to stay in this industry as long as I have, it has to be exciting. My being a woman should have no impact other than setting a precedent for the future.

SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES: How strong/viable is the traditional structure of ASA and its regional affiliates?

Ramsey: We know we have got some problems. We had a recent strategic planning conference in July (see sidebar). The concept of a strong national and a strong regional is the best possible way to benefit our members. We will be working more closely with regional affiliates going forward. Also we will try to re-energize interest in regional activities in parts of the country not currently being served, such as the area that had included WDA. One of the challenges facing ASA involves demonstrating our ability to provide a solid value proposition and communicate that to our members. We have to do a better job of letting members know exactly how they can benefit from what we offer.

SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES: What benefits does attendance/participation in ASA bring to your company?

Ramsey: When I sent five people to one of Southern Wholesalers Association's regional educational seminars, four of the five came back pumped up. I called ASA Education Foundation Executive Director Paul Martin and asked about Dr. Kathy Newton of Purdue University, who has been leading the “Essentials of Profitable PHCP Distribution” seminars. We hired her to do a seminar for us last January. We had 60 employees on a Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at a private country club. We gave them a great breakfast and lunch and paid them for their time. They asked questions and took a test. If half of those 60 people are improved by that experience, it was money well spent. We had people from all seven of our locations. To break the ice, we mixed together employees from different locations and asked each group to come up with 20 things they had in common.

ASA is providing industry-specific training programs. It is developing e-commerce standards and advocating our interests in Washington.

SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES: What benefits does participation in ISH North America bring?

Ramsey: This is where you will meet the key people from your vendors and get to know them one-on-one. You'll get to know who you are doing business with and see their newest products. But the manufacturers told us they did not want to do this show every year, so now ISH NA is going to every other year. We are trying to achieve more consolidation with other associations but we have been met with a lot of opposition. We'd like to see the manufacturers put some pressure on the other associations. The associations involved with ISH NA have had to give up things, but it seems that other groups aren't as willing to make similar sacrifices. It becomes a personality or even an ego issue in some cases. No one wants to give up his or her way of doing business. As a wholesaler I don't want to go to five different conventions. I'm willing to spend a week and see everything at one convention. It will take exhibitors to make this happen.

SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES: What unique benefits does ASA provide when compared with buying groups or other industry affiliations?

Ramsey: We belong to a buying group, but with ASA I get to see vendors that do not belong to our buying group. That is very important. ASA is the umbrella. I like one-stop shopping. I can pick up the phone and call ASA to ask who I need to talk to about an employment update or applications or employee testing. They can refer me to someone. I don't have to go on the Internet or call different people. Of course, ASA also provides the educational training and technology tools that the buying groups don't.

SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES: What is the biggest challenge facing the PHCP industry?

Ramsey: The biggest challenge is staffing, personnel - finding people with the right attitude. You can find people anywhere - someone waiting on you in a restaurant or performing a service for you somewhere. Just start talking to them. We look for an attitude and a way of speaking to people. We will train them. We want them to know this is a long-term career. Ralph, one of our truck drivers, has been with us for 26 years. He is probably one of our best salespeople. He is the face of Modern Supply. Our customers see him every day.

SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES: Where do independent wholesalers fit in the industry's scheme of things?

Ramsey: Years ago we were worried about big boxes. That did not put an end to our channel. Then consolidation of our ranks hit us, but it lost its momentum. That may come back. Being an independent is a challenge but also an opportunity. A big box or a national organization has to get approval from corporate and consult with attorneys, while an independent can make a decision just like that (snaps fingers). If the marketplace is changing, an independent can react to it faster.

Independent wholesalers are community oriented and can make a decision quickly. It's surprising how many contractors would rather do business with people they know. Many of our customers have become friends. We have been doing an annual trip for 28 years, mainly with our customers and their spouses. That has resulted in bonds. Some of our customers have been on every single trip with us. They come in from Kentucky, Virginia, Georgia and eastern Tennessee. Customers have to qualify for these trips by achieving a certain buying volume. It really helps to grow our business. We have taken our customers on trips to Hawaii, Spain, Morocco, England, Italy, Portugal, South America, the Caribbean. Next March we are taking them to Los Angeles and going to the Mexican Riviera on a seven-night cruise. Many of these customers would not do this on their own. We have fun with them.

SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced at Modern Supply?

Ramsey: Three years ago our business and the economy were way off. We had to realign, reducing our employee count from 120 down to 95. We kept our “A” players and did not settle for the “D” players. As a result we have become more profitable. Our people are more well-rounded. They no longer do just one specific job. They are cross-trained so people can fill in for each other. We all know how to do each other's jobs.

SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES: Do you feel your future is bright, as bright as 20 years ago?

Ramsey: Absolutely. I see a bright future. Modern Supply just opened a new branch this year and we are looking at possibly opening up another. <<

Sidebar: Company Overview

Modern Supply, Knoxville, Tenn.

Key management: Pace Robinson, chairman/CEO; Dottie Ramsey, president, COO; Debbie Steele, sales manager; Jack Brantley, plumbing product manager; Kim Miller, product manager for cabinets, appliances, electrical lighting; Tim Powers, product manager for HVAC; Greg Stephens, operations manager.

Locations/facilities: Corporate facility in Knoxville is 150,000 sq. ft., including office, counter sales area, 10,000-sq.-ft. showroom and 100,000-sq.-ft. warehouse. Branches are located in: Johnson City, Tenn., 45,000 sq. ft., with a 4,000-sq.-ft. showroom; Chattanooga, Tenn., 45,000 sq. ft.; Sevierville and Morristown, Tenn., each 30,000 sq. ft.; Middlebrook Pike/Knoxville, Tenn., 25,000 sq. ft.; and Bristol, Va., 10,000 sq. ft. All locations carry plumbing and HVAC products.


Mitch Robinson (father of Pace Robinson, current chairman/CEO) founded the company in 1949. When Dottie Ramsey joined the company in 1965, it had 19 employees. Today it has seven locations and 95 employees. The company started out in plumbing, then added HVAC, then electrical. In 1966 it added kitchen cabinets and appliances. Lighting was added in the 1980s.

Showroom Operations:

Even before the big boxes opened, Modern Supply used to have showroom hours for half a day on Saturdays. Two years ago management decided to close on Saturday except for appointments. The big-box customers will shop at the big boxes regardless, Ramsey says. Showroom staff is available after hours during the week or on Saturday by appointment only. This discourages the “tire-kickers” from visiting the showroom and just brings in the serious customers. The showroom is open to the public. In addition to traditional bath and kitchen products, the showrooms offer lighting, cabinets and appliances. The wholesaler chose to carry appliances in the showroom as an added value for its builder customers. Installation is available through one of the wholesaler's heating and air conditioning contractors, on a price-per-item basis. The Knoxville showroom is currently undergoing a major renovation following a change in plumbing fixture vendors after more than 30 years. The showrooms now carry TOTO and American Standard lines.

“The contractors/customers we supply trust us to give them quality merchandise at a good competitive price,” Ramsey says.

Memberships: In addition to ASA and SWA, Modern Supply belongs to the Wit buying group and also to Equity.

Sidebar: ASA's Strategic Plan

Fifteen volunteers and senior staff met in Chicago July 21-22 to participate in a strategic planning session for the American Supply Association. Like countless other associations across the United States, ASA is facing its share of challenges moving forward, as its membership base of distributors and manufacturers merge and consolidate.

“In addition to consolidation, other factors, including changing member demographics and marketplace dynamics, have created outlets that compete with ASA for our members' time and support, placing a bigger burden on us to demonstrate true, tangible value,” says Inge Calderon, ASA's executive vice president. “We've put together this task force to help us more clearly define the value of what we're already offering our core members, as well as to chart a course for future benefits to enhance that value.”

Facilitating the two-day meeting was Marcia Poell Holston, CAE, of Harrison Coerver & Associates, a Kansas City consulting firm specializing in association work.

Holston led the group in a thorough examination of the association's core strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, employing a series of exercises designed to elicit maximum input and build consensus. “Because of the way that ASA and our regional affiliates are interrelated, we needed this kind of logical approach to look at what we do best, and what our regional network does best,” says Mark Theis, ASA's current president.

The result of this meeting is a strategic plan for the association's near-term future (through the next three years) that revolves around promoting its existing value more effectively to current and prospective members and relies on creating new programs and services to enhance that value.

Before launching into a new set of action items, the participants agreed on the need to take a proactive role in reaffirming the details of the regional/national association partnership. The participants felt strongly that working to build and enhance that partnership was critical to enabling the achievement of any progress toward many of the specific strategic objectives developed during the meeting. A meeting of regional and national volunteers was planned for October.

Meanwhile, members of the task force, including both volunteers and professional staff, who have each been given “ownership” of their own set of strategic initiatives, are getting to work.

Here are the strategic objectives that were developed:

1. Develop marketable training, testing and certification programs for inside sales, branch manager, and outside sales for delivery at the branch level in both in-house and other formats. This was a challenge to the ASA Education Foundation as it continues to build on its great menu of training programs. The availability of funding from the Karl E. Neupert Endowment Fund will enable these kinds of programs to be created and offered at attractive prices to members.

2. Re-examine ASA infrastructure and governance. The task force's recommendation to convene a group of regional and national volunteers later this year will begin this process. Because ASA's membership includes distributors, manufacturers and reps, an eye toward ensuring optimum representation and benefit to these constituencies is vital.

3. Establish a protocol of mutual accountability between ASA and its regional network of associations. In tandem with objective No. 2, it is important that ASA have a system in place that provides consistent service and benefits on a regional level. These two objectives are closely interrelated.

4. Develop a repository of marketing data on products by market with input from wholesalers and manufacturers. Identified by the task force members as a tremendously powerful and marketable program, this kind of market data does not currently exist. A feasibility exercise will be conducted to determine if this is something ASA, using an independent third party, might be able to develop.

5. Develop a dues structure to support ASA. Perhaps one of the most misunderstood areas is ASA's dues structure, which is tied in with the dues structures of its regional affiliates. In the 2004 revenue projections, dues comprise only 33% of ASA's total, with the remaining 67% coming from other sources including the convention and trade show. Task force members believed that a gradual shift toward balancing these sources of revenue would be in the best interests of the association's long-term future, but also realized that the ability to create a shift is closely tied with providing enhanced and more identifiable value to all ASA wholesaler and vendor members.

6. Identify and provide value to ensure a supportive supplier base. It was noted that ASA enjoys the support of a strong Vendor Division, but that many of its members aren't sure of what value is being offered. Plans for heightened awareness and focus will be implemented.

7. Develop and fund a comprehensive membership marketing plan/system. Working in conjunction with ASA's regional affiliates, more attention should be paid to mining the field of potential ASA and regional distributor members. This is also closely related to objectives Nos. 2 and 3.

8. Grow the candidate pool for entry-level management positions. One of the most common problems shared by ASA members is the lack of qualified candidates for employment. ASA will look into partnering more closely with the university programs to provide access to their student populations.

9. Investigate mergers with compatible industry organizations. This was felt to be a logical strategy in a consolidating industry, and owing to the good relationships that ASA has developed with other industry groups, an appropriate stage is already set. Cooperative ventures, such as that between ASA Center for Advancing Technology and HARDI, for example, are already proving to be mutually beneficial.

10. Establish a system for regular evaluation of ASA products and services. It may seem logical to some, but associations are often guilty of maintaining a menu of benefits that aren't benefits at all. Regular evaluation will enable ASA to “clean house” of outdated programs or those that aren't being utilized.

11. Expand participation in, and the quality of, the Operating Performance Report. One of the great tools in ASA's existing arsenal is the venerable OPR, which is a great tool for those who use it, but which could be further enhanced both in scope and in the number of companies who are represented.

Each of these objectives was discussed in detail, and held up to the test of whether or not they are in keeping with supporting the association's core mission, which was defined by the task force as follows: “The core purpose of ASA is to help PHCP and PVF distributors run better, more profitable businesses.”

In looking at the current programming, task force members noted that the association's existing major initiatives, including the Annual Convention, ISH NA trade show and Center for Advancing Technology, are of continued importance to the industry and to ASA and should be supported on their current track.

For more information, contact Inge Calderon at or telephone 312-464-0090.