Birmingham, Ala.-based American Pipe & Supply Vice President of Sales Harry Hays likens his long industry career to that of a professional football player.
“It’s like the NFL,” he says. “I’ve been in the league a long time but I have played for several teams. Sometimes I’ve been traded and sometimes I’ve been a free agent.”
But the incoming Southern Wholesalers Association President feels his varied background in the wholesale industry has helped prepare him for both the present and what lies ahead.
Starting youngHays started in the industry directly out of high school in 1967, going to work for Mississippi-based Southern Pipe Supply where he first drove a truck and later moved to receiving and shipping. After a brief stint driving a truck for a meat-packing house, Hays returned to the industry and worked for Smither Supply, the forerunner to what is now known as Ferguson Enterprises.
Hays held a variety of positions at Smither before again leaving the industry for a short time to take a position as an estimator with a mechanical contractor. He returned to Smither and stayed until 1982 when he was approached by independent wholesaler V & W Supply about opening a branch in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Hays ran the Fort Walton Beach operation for three years before embarking on a seven-year run with a local manufacturers rep.
From there, Hays landed at Kenny Pipe where he advanced to regional manager and oversaw the expansion into three new Alabama cities. After returning to V & W Supply for a few years, Hays settled in at American Pipe & Supply where he has been vice president of sales for the last seven years.
Hays says the Fort Walton Beach run in particular, and his time with the mechanical contractor helped set him up for future career success.
“Owning my own business in Fort Walton was important,” he says. “It was a small operation. We had maybe 10 people. As president of the company I was dealing with banks and accountants. It gave me a deeper appreciation of the business from the management-ownership side. Working for the mechanical contractor gave me perspective on what the needs and desires are on the other side of the fence. That was very beneficial in the growth of my career.”
Covering all basesToday, Hays is part of a company that features branches in Birmingham, Montgomery and Decatur, Ala., as well as Nashville, Tenn. Hays notes growth and expansion are current points of emphasis for the company, whose Birmingham headquarters features a 35,000-sq.-ft. warehouse. And thanks to a diversified inventory portfolio, American Pipe & Supply has been able to thrive the last several years despite less than ideal economic conditions.
“We have great inventory and knowledgeable employees,” he says. “We’re a very diversified company. We do commercial plumbing, mechanical PVF, industrial, fire protection and underground utilities. We’re kind of a one-stop shop.”
Hays points out 2008 was American Pipe & Supply’s best year ever financially. “Underground slowed down first, but the mechanical, PVF and commercial plumbing were still going. When things really slowed down in 2009, our industrial piece was still holding up with a lot of contract work with paper mills and power plants.”
In addition to an inventory that reaches many different construction sectors, American Pipe & Supply also puts customer service at the forefront. “We have a commitment to service. Our motto is: ‘We are the supplier of choice,’” Hays says. “We spend a lot of time and effort on customer service.”
Hays notes the company doesn’t have a lot of formal customer service programs, but it does schedule a pair of corporate hunting trips among the four branches that include customers and vendors. “We spend a lot of quality time with our customers,” he says.
Other key initiatives include a corporate tent sponsorship at the Regions Tradition pro golf tournament at Shoal Creek. Each branch also holds numerous customer appreciation days, special counter days and breakfast events.
“We take a personalized and individual approach with our customers,” Hays says. “We’re more low-key and focused on developing good and long-standing relationships.”
Future businessHays says there are indications of a financial recovery, but overall confidence in changing business conditions is still guarded. “We’re seeing a little uptick as far as activity,” he says. “We’re still not seeing a lot of confidence as far as direction.”
In American Pipe & Supply’s local markets, Hays is noticing varying degrees of recovery based on location. While Birmingham is predicted to remain flat or slightly increase, Nashville, Decatur and Montgomery are a different story.
“Nashville has a lot of big companies that are growing,” he says. “Nashville is a big hot spot for us. We have a building under contract there and are looking to double our size. Decatur is right on the Tennessee River where there is all kinds of chemical activity and a lot of industrial plants. Decatur is only 20 miles from Huntsville and there is a lot of work scheduled there. We see Nashville and Decatur as two really hot markets going forward. And with Montgomery, you typically have state money and it’s close to Auburn University. It’s another good growth area. A lot of it is about being in the right place.”
SWA moving forwardHays notes his involvement in SWA as a board member the last seven years has been invaluable, particularly from a networking standpoint.
“Being able to talk to wholesalers in Virginia, Florida and Kentucky, you learn what is going on in those areas,” he says. “You learn what they are doing and not doing and what types of trends they see.”
SWA’s Profit Enhancement Institute has been of particular help to American Pipe & Supply’s staff. “We have sent many of our branch managers to the profit enhancement course where there is a lot of sales management, accounting and human resources information,” Hays says. “It’s a lot to absorb in only 2 1/2 days, but it’s been very valuable to us.”
As far as his goals in leading SWA forward over the next 12 months, Hays says it’s full steam ahead. “My main goal is to keep the momentum of the association going, he says. “We have that momentum right now. Our convention is growing every year and we have great participation from the manufacturers and reps. We’re kicking some different things around with training and keeping things fresh and perhaps adding a networking piece. I want SWA to keep moving forward and I’m going to stay out of the way and make sure nothing hinders that.”
One critical element that Hays believes must continue to be addressed is increasing the amount of younger workers that enter the industry.
“It’s crucial,” he says. “We have to really focus on attracting bright young people in our industry and bring them up through the ranks and train them and let them learn our business and culture. As a company that is branch-specific, you want people to come up and understand your company values and how you value customer service. It’s definitely been a challenge for us attracting people in this industry. It’s not glamorous and it’s not rocket science. It’s something we must continue to work on. We’re trying to recruit out of the colleges and we’re trying to attract people from related industries with knowledge of construction. There has been some success in doing that.”
Before accepting the presidency, Hays spoke with his wife about the position. “With our four branches and the buying groups I travel a lot,” he says. “My job takes up a lot of time. My wife told me I needed to do this. Being in this business all my life, I consider this one of my greatest achievements. Some of the past SWA presidents are giants in the business who are very respected. I am in great company, but I know I have some big shoes to fill. I’m very humbled and appreciative. It’s a great honor.”
Passing The TorchA look at the SWA presidency since 2000.
2000-2001: Stewart Hall (Hughes Supply)
2001-2002: Lee Steinhouse (Steinhouse Supply)
2002-2003: Ewin Ottinger (George G. Lee Co.)
2003-2004: Bob Christiansen (Chris-More)
2004-2005: Bill Kenny (Kenny Pipe & Supply)
2005-2006: Sam Williams (Gateway Supply)
2006-2007: Joe Lawrence (Lawrence Plumbing Supply)
2007-2008: John Landrum (Landrum Supply)
2008-2009: Pace Robinson (Modern Supply)
2009-2010: Mike Larkin (WinWholesale)
2010-2011: Reggie Hickman (Brock-McVey)
2011-2012: Randy Wool (Wool Supply)
2012-2013: Harry Hays (American Pipe & Supply)