Ohio wholesaler Active Plumbing Supply strives to meet all of the needs of its showroom customers.

Dip your hand into a bubbling whirlpool on display. Savor the flavor of a warm cookie, baked that morning in a working oven. Test 24 different showerheads to see how the water flows.

These are a few of the experiences a visitor can enjoy at the recently expanded and totally renovated bath and kitchen showroom operated by Active Plumbing Supply in Bainbridge (Chagrin Falls), Ohio.

SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES attended the grand opening of the redone showroom in July. It has a new name and logo - Active Kitchen & Bath Design Center - to convey the fact that it offers more than the standard plumbing supplies.

What a visitor sees first upon entering the showroom are the “museum pieces,” high-end, exotic products that set the tone and encourage upgraded sales. About 5% of the showroom's inventory falls within this category. Even if only one of these luxury items is sold, it will make a difference, says Stu Bennett, manager of the Bainbridge branch.

The showroom also offers standard grade builder products and middle-of-the-road lines. It carries plumbing products, cabinets, countertops and appliances. If a customer asks for a product it doesn't carry, the showroom staff will provide referrals for where it can be purchased. Products designed for homeowners who are “aging in place” and those that meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act are integrated throughout the facility.

The showroom targets the trades, interior designers, builders, remodelers and plumbers, according to Chuck Rathburn, president. However, like many other wholesalers, it will sell to the end user at list price and “encourage that it be professionally installed,” he notes. Active also provides homeowners with referrals to builders or contractors through its Active Plumbing Qualified Contractor program.

“If the customer has a problem with a product three years from now, they know they bought it from us - we stand behind what we sell,” Rathburn says.

Showroom hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday, with evening appointments available Mondays and Wednesdays, and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“We generally recommend appointments, but if someone walks in, we will try to help,” Bennett says.

Left to right: Stu Bennett, branch manager; Drenda Lunka, showroom manager; Chuck Rathburn, president and co-owner


The renovation of the showroom included installation of an in-store projector that can display a customized message or provide a slide show on the wall. For example, when a builder sends a homeowner into the showroom to select fixtures, Active is able to project a personalized message onto the showroom wall including the builder's logo, welcoming the customer.

Also, Active sold a towel warmer just from projecting an image of the product on the wall.

“The projection system allows us to show high-end products that we may not have space to display,” says Peet McCain, a salesperson based in Active's Cleveland branch. The projector has already paid for itself with those types of sales, he notes.

In addition, the projector can be used for PowerPoint presentations of standard product selections for a particular builder, McCain says.

For kitchen or bath design work, the projector can provide life-size images of the fixtures, he adds.

The projection system enables pre-sales of newly introduced products, says Drenda Lunka, showroom manager.

The showroom also has a mechanical room, where customers can see how a tankless water heater, well booster system or radiant flooring installation would be set up in their basement or utility room.

Left to right: Chris Hook and Peet McCain, outside sales; Cy Hasto, sales manager


Active Plumbing Supply, based in Painesville, Ohio, has five wholesale facilities and three showrooms, but its Bainbridge showroom is the largest and most “state-of-the-art,” according to Bennett.

The Bainbridge branch opened in 1982 with about 1,800 sq. ft. of display space. It is located in a rural area with high per capita income. To better capitalize on the sales potential of this location, Bennett spearheaded a committee of company employees including a kitchen designer, outside salesperson, a showroom manager and a new hire fresh from college. Its mission was to redesign the facility and rethink its merchandising efforts. The committee members visited other showrooms, both local competitors' and some outside their market area, to gather ideas.

“We expanded upon some of the best things we saw,” Bennett says. The showroom renovation was completed in-house. Now the showroom occupies 5,800 sq. ft. The layout is designed to convey a sense of openness and maintain “freshness” of displays.

“The purpose of the showroom expansion was to increase the awareness of the variety and depth of product available to the more discerning customer,” Rathburn notes.

The wholesaler selected its product offering based on what would provide a nice profit margin and not be available in big box stores. For example, its appliance line, Fisher Paykel, has limited distribution.

Bennett tells the story of how one of Active's major plumbing contractor customers was going to buy a kitchen from a competitor, but when Active showed it could be competitive on cabinet pricing and also provide the appliances, it captured the sale. The showroom carries five lines of kitchen cabinets.

“We were able to offer a complete package, where our competitor could not,” Bennett says.

Displays That Work

The redesigned showroom has working displays of 24 showerheads and several whirlpools and air-jet tubs. A customer who saw the water flowing from a $300 showerhead in the showroom bought it without even asking the price, Bennett says. “It would be hard to sell a showerhead at that price just using words, but when you can show it in operation, it sells,” he adds.

Customers are invited to turn on a booster pump to see the difference in water pressure from the showerheads. “That could mean a $1,000 upgrade by selling a pump,” Bennett says.

Having working displays of whirlpool and air jet tubs has helped customers make better informed decisions, Lunka says. “A lot of people are unfamiliar with air jet tubs,” she notes. “They can dip their hands in the tub to feel the massage action.”

The showroom also has working kitchen appliances. “On a Saturday if we know we have clients coming into the showroom, we'll bake a batch of cookies to get the aroma and offer them cookies while they shop,” Bennett says.

“We want everyone entering our showroom to feel comfortable and welcome,” Rathburn adds.


The showroom was set up so pieces can be replaced easily.

“Some showrooms do complete vignettes including flooring and wallpaper,” Lunka says. “The product tends to get lost. We've tried to keep our tones neutral and put together small suites rather than entire rooms.”

A separate selection room was created within the showroom where customers can choose from marble and wood samples.

To encourage upgraded sales, Active has set up the displays so the customer has to walk by high end luxury items to get to the builder-grade products.


“If we don't carry a line, some customers still want to buy from us because of the relationship they have with our outside or inside salespeople or our counter sales staff,” Bennett says.

Customer interest is prompting the wholesaler to consider additional product lines for the showroom, such as flooring or lighting, which it could obtain through a buying group. Active is a member of Wit & Co. Ltd., and the Bath and Kitchen Buying Group (BKBG).

“We try to stay with Wit vendors as much as possible,” Bennett says. “Some of the high-end cabinet lines we carry were purchased through the BKBG group.”

Offering cabinets opens the door for Active to sell entertainment centers, desk suites and fireplaces, he notes.

“We are taking baby steps with new product categories,” Lunka says. “We go first to our buying group and consider what line will be easiest for us to learn.”

Active is planning to host separate catered dinners for 20 to 50 interior designers and 20 to 30 builders to learn how it can better serve those customers, Bennett says.

Also under consideration is creation of a separate room for children in the showroom so they can be entertained while their parents shop.

Service With Selection

“We are trying to better ourselves,” Bennett says. “We are selling toilets - anyone can do that. But we are also selling service. That means our delivery driver is polite to the homeowner when he drops off the products. The warehouse person double-checks all orders to make sure everything looks correct. For example, if there's a toilet being pulled without a seat, the warehouse person will contact the salesperson to make sure it's correct. The salesperson focuses on the details of the project, making sure to match accessories to the faucets. A receptionist greets showroom visitors. We all have to work together to sell that service.”

Showroom employees come in an hour early on Tuesdays for product training. Vendors or manufacturers reps book the training three months ahead.

Goals And Challenges

The best reason for a wholesaler to operate a showroom is profit, Rathburn says. Active keeps separate books for its showroom and wholesale operations. “We know where we are, what things cost, and where we want to be,” he says. The salespeople receive daily reports on their progress and have annual goals to meet.

One of the challenges is convincing the trades that there is more profit in a showroom operation for them as well, he adds. “This is not an assembly line business. It takes some effort.”

The biggest challenge for this particular showroom is changing the mindset of people who were familiar with the showroom in its previous incarnation and communicating the greater variety and depth of product now available, Bennett says.

Company History

1956: First facility opened by Fred Mandel and Ben Sesser. Dave Kirk was the first employee.

1958: Opened Painesville, Ohio branch on State Street (moved to Richmond Street in 1983).

1963: Dave Kirk bought into the business.

1982: Opened Bainbridge (Chagrin Falls) branch.

1987: Opened Ashtabula, Ohio branch.

2000: Opened Cleveland branch.

Company Profile

Current owners (since 1991): Cindy Barber, CEO (Dave Kirk's daughter); Chuck Rathburn, president; Bob Kirk, vice president (Dave Kirk's son).

Bainbridge team: Stu Bennett, branch manager; Drenda Lunka, showroom manager; Shannon Christman, showroom consultant; Thom Capretta, showroom consultant; Willie Poore, trade sales; Jim Meyerhoffer, trade sales.

The Bainbridge branch is 15,000 sq. ft., of which 5,800 sq. ft. is the showroom.

Active Plumbing Supply Co. has five locations and 70 employees company-wide. The wholesaler is a member of local building and plumbing associations as well as several national and regional organizations.

Showroom Lines

FAUCETS: Moen, ShowHouse, Delta, Grohe, Fusion, Whitehaus, BLANCO, Elkay, Danze.

FIXTURES: TOTO, American Standard, Mansfield, Mansfield Windsor, Whitehaus, Barclay, Le Bijou, RonBow.

FIBREGLASS AND WHIRLPOOLS: Lasco, Acryline, Swanstone, Best Bath, Mustee.

KITCHEN SINKS: Elkay, Swanstone, BLANCO, Just, Moen, Whitehaus.

SHOWER DOORS: Basco, Celesta, Lasco.

CABINETS AND COUNTERTOPS: Plato, Omega, Dynasty, Quality, Woodstar, Strasser Woodenworks, Windsor, Bristol and Bath, O'Brien Cut Stone, Counters and More, Tower Industries.

MISCELLANEOUS: Ginger, CSI / Donner, Nutone/Broan, Mountain Plumbing, Brass Craft, Cuno, ISE, Geberit, Castelli Marble.