The quest for knowledge never ends.

It’s five in the morning, 65 degrees, with a cool breeze pressing against my face. I’m in a huge warehouse with over 30,000 different items surrounding me. The aisles seem to go on forever. I’m 15 years old and the essence of the building is beginning to sink in. The smell of truck fumes and coffee litter the yard. People are yelling and laughing, all at the same time, while you’re just wondering where you’re going to start.

We all remember it, our first day in the supply house.

I’ll admit I was given a break because I started working with a cousin of mine and it was in a family business, so at least I knew some people and there seemed to be an incentive for other employees to treat me right and get to know me. But regardless of your family or the people around you, trying to work your way into a group at a supply house is a daunting task. You have to accept that you know nothing and that these people know a lot more than you and will for quite awhile. Most of the staff is skeptical of you or anything that you’ll try to do.

Some of the first advice I got was to “keep my head down and my mouth shut.”  By the end of your first day you will realize either that you cannot leave this kind of work or you can’t handle it. I’ve seen people leave after two hours on the job while others, after two hours on the job, seem to have a better handle on things than many who have been here for years.

I’m Joshua Brown, a fifth generation member of the family that founded and owns Metropolitan Pipe & Supply based in Cambridge, MA. I’ve been working in the plumbing supply business my entire working life, and full-time since 2002. My career started with decidedly unglamorous duties in the warehouse, but I’ve since worked my way up to become head of marketing for Metropolitan Bath, our showroom division.

My experience reflects that of many others working in this great industry. As a family member I’m well aware of being in a privileged position with regard to virtually assured employment. Yet, like most family members working in PHCP supply houses, I also understand that more is expected of me both by family members and non-family associates, and I feel personally obliged to perform above the norm.

Product knowledge is key

The supply business isn’t a terribly difficult one, but it isn’t a walk in the park either. Unless you’re committed to learning the product, you’re going to be stuck on a lower tier forever. I’ve been in the business for only six years, but I was born into a family that at every new place we’d go, the first stop would be the bathroom.  The first toy I remember was a Weil-McLain truck. I’ll never claim to know everything, and I don’t think there’s a person in this business who can. But there’s a certain joy that comes with starting to see how everything fits together, and being able to at least choose the right copper fitting for a customer and get him out the door.

When I started in the warehouse, I basically had an adventure every day. I wasn’t sure what I’d find, and I wasn’t sure how it worked. I suspect most of you never really lose that sense of adventure, and with it comes the desire to learn new things. This is pretty hard not to do when every other week there’s a sales meeting regarding a new product. My grandfather has been in the business for 40+ years, and every time he turns around there’s another new product that even he hasn’t heard of yet. You have to pass the time learning and absorbing as much information as possible, instead of just answering the phone, “Hello Met-Pipe.”

With over 20,000 items in stock in our warehouse, I can’t even pretend to know every single one of them, and I bet that I haven’t even seen every single one of them. No matter how much time I spend here, it’ll be impossible to really see everything.

Last month I decided to pack a few orders just to see if I still could. There was one item I had never picked before, and it was a humbling experience to discover that I didn’t have as good of a grasp of things as I thought. We’ve all seen that wily guy walking around, head in the sky but feet on the ground, who could answer any question you throw his way. I want to be that guy, although I’m not there yet.

What’s encouraging is knowing there was a time when the know-it-all didn’t know the difference between a copper street elbow and a copper elbow, or if he knew, he’d need to spend all day trying to find it in this crowded warehouse. Sometimes you might think someone knows more than he actually does simply because of how he carries himself. Recently I was walking around the warehouse when a new employee introduced himself to me and asked me a question. I guess I projected some aura of authority, so he assumed I could answer his question. Frankly, it made me feel good, knowing that I was pretty much in his position six short years ago.

Maybe it has to do with how you represent yourself. If you project knowledge and authority, you’ll be treated as such. It reminds me of the saying, “dress for the job you want.” If you act like a manager, you’re going to be treated like a manager. But if you act like an idiot …

Authority has to be more than acting like you know what you’re doing, however. Fact of the matter is, though I have so much more to learn, I’ve learned so much more than I knew when starting out six years ago. Knowledge means everything in business, and the quest for knowledge must never stop - just as it doesn’t for my grandfather after more than four decades in this business.

In the months to come, I hope to share some of the things I’ve learned and hope to learn.