The owner of Wool Supply Co. waves a flag of independence.
Randy Wool’s earliest memory of the family business dates to 1957 when he was seven. That was the year his father, Carl Wool, started the business in a manner that serves as an entrepreneurial script.
The incipient Wool Supply Co. was a one-man show that Carl operated out of the garage of his house in Miami, FL. Back in those days a newcomer found it just about impossible to acquire lines from the major manufacturers, so the founder would visit plumbers every day to ask them what they needed and what items had been backordered from other distributors. During the day he would travel around to existing supply houses in the area to acquire the missing supplies, then at night package the orders and deliver them to various plumbers’ shops in his station wagon.
Of course, all of those shops were closed at night. So Carl Wool would open the back door of his station wagon, stand on top of the open door and throw the boxes over the fence.
“My greatest thrill was watching the boxes hit the ground on the other side of the fence, especially when they split open and all the fittings scattered,” Carl’s son recalls with a youngster’s delight.
Beginnings don’t come any humbler, but Wool Supply has come a long way since then. Carl Wool is long retired from the business, though still spry and enjoying life at age 85 with wife Shirley. Their son, Randy, presides over a company headquartered in Ft. Lauderdale, one of seven branches spread around south Florida.
Each facility is around 25,000-30,000 sq. ft. in size, and crammed almost to capacity with inventory in testimony to the old-fashioned “can’t sell out of an empty wagon” philosophy of distribution. “When a plumber has 10 items on his list, he wants to find them all in one location without having to run to two or three supply houses,” Randy explains. “Not just A and B items, he wants the C and D items to be available too.” Doesn’t that raise havoc with inventory turns? I asked. “Yes, it does,” he replied, “but I’m willing to pay the carrying costs of extra skus on the shelf, because for us the value far outweighs the cost.”
Strictly a plumbing distributor, Wool Supply services the residential/light commercial market, along with a little exporting. Each of the seven locations operates as a stand-alone entity. They exchange inventory back and forth when needed but none serves as a true distribution center. “When we put goods on a delivery truck, I’d rather see them go to our customers than to our branches,” Randy commented.
Each facility has a showroom, reflecting a merchandising state of mind that has existed from the earliest days of the business. (This reporter covered a story about Wool Supply’s luxurious “House of Baths” in the June 1978 issue of Supply House Times, which happened to be a commemorative issue celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Southern Wholesalers Association.) The aging Ft. Lauderdale facility is about to get rebuilt, with a 9,000-sq.-ft. showroom replacing the current 3,000-sq.-ft. version. I asked Randy if there’s enough business out there these days to support such a makeover.
“Not really,” was his candid reply. “Showroom business is down, but it will eventually get back to where it was in 2006-2007. We’re building for the future. That’s one of the benefits of being an independent. I only need to consult myself and look ahead five years down the road.”
Wool Supply today is a much more sophisticated business than back in the days of over-the-fence deliveries. Yet it retains some unorthodox ways that you would only find in a business that celebrates its independence like every day is July 4.
Here’s one of those quirky things that blew me away.
The company got into the habit of shutting down operations for up to a week each year to indulge employees and spouses with a company trip, all expenses paid. Not just for managers or sales contest winners, but truck drivers, warehouse workers, office staff - everyone gets invited to these excursions.
Randy’s father started the tradition in the early years of the business as it began to grow and prosper. The trips started out as overnights, then expanded into three-day cruises (Ft. Lauderdale being the nation’s cruise capital), and in some years they’ve gone away for an entire week. To celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary in 2007, Wool Supply treated all employees and spouses to a week-long visit to London, England. Some 150 people participated.
The harsh recession has put the trips on hiatus the last few years. Like most other companies in our industry, Wool Supply has had to trim staff and cut back hours and raises. “We felt it wouldn’t be appropriate to spend so much money when people are making so many sacrifices,” Randy said. Sales started on a double-digit upswing in 2010 and look poised for similar gains this year, “so probably next year we will reconvene the trips.”
Keep in mind that not only does Wool Supply pay for the excursions, their business shuts down for up to a week. They notify their customers in advance and encourage them to stock up, but Randy acknowledges they may end up losing some business while everyone is away. “But I feel the benefits outweigh the risks. I’m not aware of any other company that does this for all employees, and having happy employees is the key to success in our business.”
Payback comes in the form of negligible turnover of personnel, and consistently high morale even during tough times. Randy estimates that almost a fifth of Wool Supply’s 110 employees have been there 20 years or more, and they have about a half-dozen 30-year veterans. One of those long-termers is Operations Manager Calvin Palmer, who has been with the company 28 years. “I could not run the company without him,” said Randy. I accompanied the owner on visits to three company branches and witnessed him greeting every employee we encountered by their first name, as they did him.
“Our strength as an independent distributor is that our employees feel like they are part of the organization and their voices get heard,” Randy commented. “The larger the organization, the more distant people are from management and the owners.”
The Randy Challenge
Here’s another tidbit that says a lot about Randy’s personal touch.
Each year during the week between Christmas and New Year, the CEO engages in what he calls “The Randy Challenge.” He picks a weekday to visit each of his branches, where he will greet every employee and hand them a bottle of wine as a way of saying thanks for their service. Trunk packed with some 110 bottles of wine, he leaves his home in Coral Gables south of Miami at 4 a.m. in order to beat traffic and get to his farthest West Coast location by starting time at 7 a.m., after which he works his way back.
“The ‘challenge’ part is to finish before everyone leaves at five o’clock closing time,” Randy noted. He has honed his timing to the point where he knows he can’t spend more than 20 minutes at any of the seven locations. The Miami branch is the final stop on his way home, and so precise has been his timing that he has always made it there before closing, but never with more than 15-30 minutes to spare.
“Any organization is only as good as the people around it. We are blessed with having some of the best people around, and I believe in treating them as such,” Randy offered.
“We have very few levels of management,” he added. “It’s just myself, Calvin Palmer and the branch managers. I am a hands-on type of manager and like to get involved with employees at all of our locations, and that makes them comfortable.”
“Hands-on” does not mean micro-managerial. Randy takes on no operational duties himself. “Generally speaking, my day is filled with decisions on ‘curveballs’ that arise, where the managers don’t feel comfortable making a decision, so they will call me. But I don’t get involved in day-to-day tasks.”
He spends a lot of his spare time flying his own helicopter, which Randy purchased about a half-dozen years ago shortly before he acquired his pilot’s license. It’s stored at Tamiami Airport, a general aviation facility near his home in Coral Gables. The chopper serves occasional business purposes, like the time he spent a week working at the Ft. Myers branch and commuted to and from home each day. “But mainly it’s for recreation,” he said.
The SWA experience
Randy noted that having a strong number two man like Calvin Palmer is a major asset in presiding over the Southern Wholesalers Association. The SWA presidency will take him away from the business quite a bit, but Wool Supply is a company geared to run without its CEO presiding over every little detail.
“I’ve gone through the chairs of SWA, and it’s been a great experience working with wonderful, supportive people. It’s amazing the time some of these people devote to the association. I’ve gotten closer to them as a result,” he commented. Randy also has served on the boards of ASA and his Affiliated Distributors buying group.
Like its members, SWA has been downsized somewhat during this miserable recession, but he said membership has turned around a bit since the darkest days. “We’re working very hard to reach out to former members and some newcomers, and I think they’re seeing the value. The convention coming up in June probably will be our best in many years. David Kohler will be our keynote speaker, and we’ve tweaked the activities over the last several years to attract members and get them to participate. We also started a Vendor Advisory Council several years ago, which has boosted support and participation from manufacturers,” Randy said.
I asked him to imagine me a prospective SWA member and give me his “elevator pitch” touting membership and its benefits. Randy’s response:
“SWA is strong, financially stable, well-run and rebuilding membership lost during tough times. Your peers include some of the oldest, largest distributors in our area with tremendous knowledge to share. There is a lot of talent in the organization, which offers training, a chance for liaison with senior management of key manufacturers, and to interact in social settings. In recent years we have changed the format of our conventions to make them family-friendly. Young children who come to the conventions will someday be in business and will end up meeting future fellow owners. I’ve been going for 25 years, and had I not been involved, I don’t think I’d be as successful as I’ve been,” Randy stated.
“In addition, SWA has developed the Leadership and Development Council (LDC) which is comprised of the young executives and future leaders of our industry. The LDC is responsible for developing and making suggestions to our board to keep SWA current with its programs. ”
Towards education & understanding
What are the most important things associations like SWA can provide to their members? I asked.
Randy paused for a few seconds to gather his thoughts, then replied, “Feedback on the economy, what’s happening with competition, with manufacturers, with home builders, and what’s happening in Washington that will impact us.”
This part of our conversation led to some soul-searching about the role of distributors and their place in the supply chain.
“I believe in the concept of value added,” he stated. “If you don’t add value to the chain, you won’t be needed and will be bypassed. Going back through history, our market was clearly defined with a narrow channel of distribution. Today distribution is accomplished through various means. Retail is now a significant part of our marketplace, along with mail order distributors. Since everyone is looking to cut costs out of the distribution channel, I believe that in the future manufacturers increasingly will be looking toward large plumbing contractors, builders and developers, bypassing wholesalers.
“That’s a concern,” he continued. “I don’t believe wholesale distribution can stop the changes. What we need to do is be able to adapt to those changes and look for opportunities to add value.”
Third generation on board
Randy has two sons now working in the family business who are poised to take over as third-generation leaders when he decides to call it quits.
Justin, 33, came aboard about a year ago after parlaying a degree from Duke University into a job with American Management Systems, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm that provides software that runs many federal government agencies.
Jeffrey, 30, is an engineering graduate of the University of Maryland who has been in the business about five years. Prior to joining Wool, Jeff worked for a defense engineering company in Washington, D.C. Currently, he serves as co-chairman of SWA’s Leadership Development Council.
“I never tried to talk them into coming to the family business, they made their own career choices,” Randy said. “But my wife Barbara and I are thrilled they decided to come back on their own. The game plan is for them to learn every aspect of the business, and it’s nice to know the family business will continue after I retire.”