Since I sold my showroom business in 1995, I have had the unique pleasure of working with dozens of wonderful plumbing wholesalers; some of the very largest and a number of smaller ones, as well. The relationships I’ve built with these great folks are by far my favorite part of the business. The owners, managers and employees of these businesses are some of the nicest, smartest and hardest-working people I’ve ever met. How lucky can one guy get?
Whenever I go out on a consulting job or to deliver one of my workshops, I almost always learn something new. People are almost always willing to share their history, their numbers and what in their opinion has made them successful.
This month I want to feature a plumbing wholesale business that truly walks to its own beat. From its inception this company has focused on the retail customers, and yet it doesn’t do everything that I preach. Best Plumbing Tile & Stone, headquartered in Somers, N.Y., opened its doors on February 19, 1960. The founders, Mel and Adele Weiner, saw the plumbing supply business from a unique merchandising viewpoint; they wanted to present bath and kitchen products directly to the end user. In addition to traditional supplies, they gave customers the opportunity to see the products in a showroom environment; a concept that was unheard of in the industry at that time. They were truly years ahead of their time, and the Weiners continued to persevere.
Mel and Adele’s oldest son, Jonas, joined the business in 1972 and his younger brother, Jess, came into the business in 1979. Together the Weiner family grew the showroom business, opening their first auxiliary showroom in 1981. Today, Best has grown its business to four showrooms throughout Westchester County, N.Y. and Fairfield County, Conn., serving many of the surrounding areas. Best transcended three generations when Mel and Adele’s eldest granddaughter, Kymberly, joined the business in 2006, followed by their grandson, Michael, in 2011.
A solid foundationLittle has changed since 1960, except that the kitchen and bath have evolved into the most important rooms in the home. There also has been incredible growth of great-looking products for these two rooms. Best has evolved and become more sophisticated, but the fundamentals have not changed. It is still a “people” business. Best has developed a team of more than 80 professional associates, including a sales staff that has been with the company for an average of more than 10 years, and a team of managers that have been with the company for an average of more than 20 years. Doesn’t this speak volumes for how they treat their employees?
After 50-plus years, guests are still treated with the same level of high-touch service excellence. The Weiner family’s strong vision, innovation and passion for the customer allows them to remain one of the leaders in their marketplace.
The wholesale trade centers, which make up more than 30% of Best’s business, sell all of the traditional products, including pipes, valves, fittings, water heaters, heating specialties, oil and gas boilers, oil tanks, and water filtration and treatment products. I asked the Weiners if they did anything unique, different or better than their competitors in the wholesale business, and they spoke about two different experiences:
1) Self service in the Yorktown Trade Center. This allows customers to be able to “build and visualize” their job before they get to the job. The company has a more traditional “city counter” in Somers, where orders are taken, then pulled, checked and staged for either immediate pick-up or held for 48 hours. The branch’s fill rates are better than 99%. That’s fantastic!
2) They offer their repeat trade customers “shop-stock pricing” even without the shop-stock order. The goal is to help their loyal trade customers “win” the order.
Showrooms are a showcaseTwo of Best’s four showrooms are located adjacent to the wholesale facilities, and the other two are free-standing facilities with no trade centers. The showrooms average 7,000 sq. ft. in size. Total showroom sales equate to just less than 80% of the company’s total sales. Needless to say these folks are very committed to showroom selling and it all started more than 50 years ago with Mel and Adele’s vision. They declined to share specific numbers, but I know for a fact, having worked with them, that they enjoy margins well above industry averages. Sales consultants are paid a salary plus a commission based on gross profit dollars. Best works very hard to treat its employees as family, and it shows in how the employees think about Best and how the company treats the customers.
A majority of the showroom products are displayed in vignettes. Faucets and tile are displayed along the walls. They have no “wet” displays, but do have Kohler’s Numi, DTV and VibrAcoustic Bath hooked up to electricity so clients can visualize the experience. They also have Robern’s TViD cabinet playing at all times.
Best does not show model numbers on display product, but each product is priced. However, it does show model numbers on the printed quotes that it gives to customers. As you know, philosophically I don’t agree with this (giving away your hard-earned knowledge just so they can go shopping somewhere else). Obviously these nice folks have made it work for them in their marketplace. Showroom sales to customers break out as follows:
- Plumber - 20%; Builder - 10%; Remodeler - 20%; Homeowner - 40%;
Designers - 5%; Dealers - 5%; Tile and stone account for approximately 10% of the total showroom sales revenue, and the margins are very attractive.
When showroom quotes turn into orders, the sale associates get 100% of the credit. It doesn’t end up at the counter or with a wholesale sales associate. I wish every wholesaler had systems in place to do this at their businesses. Too often the showroom folks don’t get full credit for all of their hard work.
Best does very little traditional advertising (magazines, newspapers, TV, radio, etc). Its 50-plus years of great service has earned the company the best word-of-mouth “advertising” you can get. It does support a number of local charities in each of the markets that it serves, and its 10 delivery trucks all act as moving billboards. It continues to work hard to keep its website up-to-date and well-done, making it a great success with PPC advertising. The company works hard to stay connected to the architects, designers and builders in the area, and it regularly sponsors programs that offer CEUs. Best uses social media to help get the word out. Its Facebook page is updated on a regular basis and is promoted on the website and on its brochures.
Staying in the loopHere are two things that the company does that I loudly applaud: 1) It has written job descriptions for all employees and 2) It does job performance evaluations twice a year. I wish that all of you would do both of these very important HR activities. The Weiners also have a short-term business plan for their showroom business. When I asked if there were any plans for additional showrooms, however, they pled the fifth.
I’m told all four showrooms are designed to be very easy for homeowners to use without becoming overwhelmed. The vignettes are carefully thought out, and combine tile and plumbing in a very customer-friendly way so that clients can come in and say, “I want that.” Best tends to sell what it displays, and it stocks about 80% of the products on display. The showrooms are updated twice a year. How many of you can say this?
It tracks sales of showroom display products and if something isn’t selling, it’s sold off display. The faucet walls are displayed by style, not brand, which makes it easier for clients and sales associates in the selection process. I also like this concept. You can break it down even further by showing products by price category (i.e. high, medium, lower), as this helps qualify the customers.
In summary, I’m impressed the company started out focusing on the showroom business and after more than 50 years, it hasn’t lost that focus. Best has put profitability ahead of volume.
Return on investment is paramount in its business philosophy, and this is how I think it should be with all of you.