In the middle of the night I’m jolted awake by a startling thought: A customer had come into Met Pipe and I was unable to help him. For the first few months that I was part of the counter staff, dreams like those were pretty common. I’d spend my nights afraid that I had done my job incorrectly.

For a young 17-year-old who had been in the business only as a general warehouse employee the thought of working at the counter with “the big boys” was something that I may not have been emotionally ready for - but I was, at the very least, intellectually ready for it. I knew my product, I knew the computer software, and I knew the way the warehouse worked. Honestly, being a member of the counter staff was some of the best work I’ve ever done. It was what I looked forward to the most; it’s where I met the most people, and where I had the most fun.

For the first few months it was mostly training with the other counter staff, but very quickly I inserted myself as a prominent member of the staff. Salesmen would call me specifically when their customers were coming in very quickly, and my co-workers were no longer looking at me like a student, but more like an equal.

The counter is one of the most important places for young people to gain knowledge about the plumbing supply business. With all the technology these days it seems like a picker or receiver is just scanning mindlessly and putting things where they “belong.” Unfortunately, no matter how much people follow technology, they still make mistakes. And suddenly there is a ¾-inch copper elbow in the same bin with a ½-inch elbow and your customer can’t finish his job on time.

It’s not as easy to learn while picking these days, and the counter is one of the best places to do so. There are always one or two young guys at the counter trying to learn to become a salesman or to break into the plumbing field. Three guys taught me about working at the counter and all three of them are still at the counter helping new young guys through the process.

Working at the counter is stressful. For the first time at the supply house there are people directly in your face, asking you questions and depending on your answers. Met Pipe does a great job of getting people ready for this. When I was still just packing orders my warehouse manager, Leo Vecchiarello, used to give me little tests as to where the product was, what the product was, and what the product did. It was one of the most helpful things for me. My warehouse manager is an intimidating man, as I believe warehouse managers should be. If he put you on the spot, you’d better keep up or you’d spend the next few hours sweeping off the dock.

Metropolitan Pipe has more than 15 employees who have been working there for more than 20 years. They all started out in the warehouse and worked their way up. We have inside and outside salesmen, plus our parts manager, our warehouse manager, our shipping manager and our general manager who are all homegrown guys. They know the business and the company.

Everyone is always trying to find a way to keep employees from leaving. All you need to do is give them a chance. Have faith in your employees and have faith in your company’s ability to teach them.

In just over a year I went from being a student down at the counter to being another teacher. Leo would assign young guys to come down to the counter with me so I could train them. Met Pipe is family-owned - maybe that makes it easier for us to keep things in-house and create a family atmosphere - but we’re still a big company. Of more than 75 employees I can only think of two who have been there less than five years. The only reason we had to replace those two is because one retired, and one unfortunately had to leave work for medical reasons. Very rarely do people quit, and even more rarely are people fired.

The first chance you can give your employees is at the counter. Give them that chance; let them sweat it out with the “big boys” a little bit. They’ll either strive or crack, but no matter what happens they’ll learn something. They’ll either be a more efficient packer/receiver because they see how much their work affects the counter staff, or they’ll be a vital part of your customer service staff. They may wake up in the middle of the night because they’re afraid they did something wrong. But isn’t that what you want? An employee who is so determined to do things right that he has nightmares about doing it wrong?