To an outsider on June 18, 1971, it looked like Cleveland-based Merit Brass Co. wouldn’t make it to June 19, 1971, let alone to current day. But even as young boys, Marc Schlessinger and Alan Lipp knew, no matter what, this day would come.
The company’s 75th anniversary.
Back on that fateful June 1971 day, a fire ravaged Merit’s downtown Cleveland facility leaving the company with next to nothing. Lipp – who was just a boy – vividly recalls the night of the fire when his father, Simon Lipp, grandfather, Louis Schlessinger, and uncle, Sheldon Schlessinger (Marc’s father), met at Louis’ home and discussed a plan of action.
“They just chatted very calmly after they worked alongside their people trying to salvage whatever they could salvage,” says Lipp, Merit’s current COO and third-generation leader. “Here they were later that evening discussing what their next moves were. There was absolutely never a consideration that this was the end. There was never a thought about doing anything other than finding another building and marching forward.”
Quickly, Merit Brass found a new 40,000-sq.-ft. building that was suitable and close enough for all its downtown employees to transfer to without issue. But what about the machinery lost in the fire? It wouldn’t be until years later when Lipp would learn of the respect the Merit Brass elders held in the marketplace.
“When our grandfather passed away, my sister went to his apartment and was going through some of his personal effects,” he says. “They found a letter from a competitor that he had been carbon copied on. The letter was written to the Landis Machine Company. The letter I saw years later advised (Landis) to have the delivery of the machines it had ordered and were due at any moment to be delayed and redirected to the Merit Brass Company. This is the level of respect that Louis Schlessinger held within the industry.”
Other companies pitched in to help Merit Brass move forward as soon as possible. Schlessinger remembers his father telling him other competitors sent brass nipples to the company free of charge to help the company regain its foothold, so long as the company sent the same amount of brass nipples back when it was fully operational again. Of course, Merit returned the favor in time.
“Not only did it show how well-respected we were, it demonstrated what a great industry comprised of great people our family was fortunate enough to be engaged in,” says Schlessinger, Merit Brass’ current president and CEO. “Acts like those are what convinced me that this was the industry I wanted to spend my entire career in.”
The perfect recipeThe Merit Brass model for creating 75 years of success and forging its path to becoming an industry leader is like your grandmother’s recipe for mouth-watering chocolate chip cookies. What’s worked out in the past will work well in the present.
Lipp says Merit - now led by the third-generation of himself, Schlessinger and, Sheldon’s sons-in-law, Vice President of Sales Michael Charna and Vice President and CFO Edward Waters - is two businesses wrapped up under one tent. Merit has the manufacturing side and the master distribution side, both of which continue to experience substantial growth.
“With manufacturing, we’re like Kentucky Fried Chicken. We do one thing and we do it very, very well - that’s manufacturing pipe nipples,” Lipp says.
Brass and chrome-plated fittings and nipples were the bread and butter of Merit for a number of years, but in the early 1980s the company began manufacturing stainless-steel pipe nipples, and by the mid-1980s the company began adding stainless-steel pipe, valves and fittings. Today, stainless-steel PVF accounts for more than half the company’s total sales. But don’t wait for the company to change its name anytime soon. Schlessinger won’t even consider it out of deference to its founders.
Always evolvingMerit continues to be at the forefront of technology and application changes. The company now manufacturers and master distributes stainless steel, aluminum and forged carbon steel products. It has also successfully launched lines of domestic and import lead-free brass fittings and further expanded its stainless-steel ball valve offering to include flanged-end ball valves. “We’ve got a dynamic sales team that consistently demonstrates we’re up to the challenge of bringing new products and services to the market and providing even greater value to our customers,” Charna says.
Today, Merit’s outside sales group is focused on estimating the anticipated impact of the upcoming federal no-lead laws for potable water in 2014. While the company’s brass nipples are already in compliance with the new laws since they do not contain lead, the planned purchase ratios of brass fittings (lead-free vs. leaded) is still in flux. Lipp says the company will be ready before the law takes effect nationally. Veteran Regional Sales Manager Terry Maddox is leading the comprehensive effort to gather and discern applicable feedback from Merit’s customer base within the scope of its formal strategic planning process.
“The lead-free initiative is certainly a major, current focus of ours,” Schlessinger says.
Families working togetherMerit began its venture into master distribution in the 1950s – long before it became an industry term – when it purchased the entire inventory of brass threaded fittings from Acheson Manufacturing Co., Merit’s primary supplier at the time.
“Our grandfather was very close to Acheson’s owner,” Schlessinger says. “Brass nipples, threaded fittings and brass pipes were used to plumb commercial buildings back then. There was a little bit of strife in the family ownership of Acheson and our grandfather got together with his dear friend and a deal was struck to purchase their entire inventory.
“That thrust Merit from a regional player to a national player and was the true beginning of master distribution for our company and perhaps the industry.”
Merit Brass also has forged long-lasting business relationships and friendships overseas. For 30 years, Merit Brass and Bangkok, Thailand-based and family-run Siam Fittings have enjoyed a mutually beneficial partnership.
“By extension we became Siam’s manufacturers representative, if you will, for its line of brass-threaded fittings in this country,” Lipp says. “Today, Merit and Siam have become synonymous brands in the market.”
For its stainless-steel 150-lb. fitting line, Merit recognized there was going to be an impending shift away from the sand-casting model of the past to an investment-casting model. This change also would come with a shift in manufacturing location from Taiwan to China.
“We knew China had a distinct advantage to do investment castings because it takes a lot of two things: people and space,” Lipp says.
Merit began work on this upcoming switch and approached its long-term Taiwanese supplier, Yih Tai Industries, and recommended relocating the manufacturing facility – or at least making sure the company had a presence – to China. That family-owned company was slow to react and had many internal debates about a major move.
During that lull, Kingdom Industries, a Taiwanese-owned manufacturer already operating two Chinese manufacturing facilities, visited Merit and laid out a plan for the product line. Lipp says Merit took its time getting to know the principals of Kingdom and got a feel for the culture and values of the family-owned company while deciding whether Merit and its customer base was ready to handle a change.
After verifying Kingdom possessed the quality and capacity, it was determined there were genuine synergies between the organizations. Once its previous Taiwanese partner wasn’t ready to commit to a move to China, a deal was agreed to with Kingdom.
“As soon as we understood Kingdom Industries’ vast capabilities, penchant for continuous improvement and commitment to serve the U.S. market for the long haul, we felt very strongly we had someone we could truly partner with,” Lipp says. “We mutually agreed that placing the ‘MB’ logo on every single fitting would help relieve some of our customers’ concerns and demonstrate that Merit Brass was taking full responsibility for the product quality.”
But Merit did not abandon its relationship with Yih Tai Industries. It transitioned toward sourcing instead of manufacturing and since that relationship was already built on many years of close, mutual trust and support, it was a natural progression for Merit to lean on Yih Tai’s expertise and relationships cultivated throughout Southeast Asia.
The golden ruleAfter the fire, Merit Brass was treated with class and respect, just as it has treated its employees, customers and suppliers for 75 years. Merit has more than 200 employees with around 170 working at its Cleveland headquarters.
Lipp – who began work at the family business in the summers of the late 1970s and joined the company full-time in 1982 – says one of management’s major priorities is to make sure every employee is comfortable and recognized for their efforts. Hardly a day goes by when Schlessinger isn’t seeking out an employee in Cleveland to shake hands in recognition of a work anniversary or making a call to one of Merit’s national distribution centers to say happy birthday to a long-distance employee.
“It’s crucial that we earn and maintain the respect of everybody in the company and work alongside every associate to satisfy our customers’ needs,” he says.
Waters embodies that principle in serving a variety of roles, none more important than heading up the company’s human resources division. “We view a stable, engaged and passionate workforce as the most crucial aspect of continued success, he says. “Our people are far and away our most treasured asset.”
Employees respond with dedicated loyalty. “They have to understand that they’re appreciated and they’re valued no matter what their role is with Merit,” Lipp says. “People are very instinctive. They can smell whether leadership is phony or if they generally care about them – not just the organization – but the people who comprise it.”
In addition to the four members of the family’s third generation, Timothy Cornett (director of purchasing & logistics), Steve Evans (corporate sales and product manager) and Kimberly Wallingford (marketing manager) comprise Merit’s executive management team. Schlessinger takes great pride in the fact the seven executive leaders have a combined 180 years of service with the company. The average tenure of Merit’s inside and outside sales staff is 12 years.
Two years ago, with major assistance from IT manager and strategic business planning team member Teri Tucker and Merit associates from every department, Wallingford initiated its Sense of Urgency Lives program. SOUL has created many company initiatives including:
- U Matter – emphasizing each associate’s contribution to
- 20/20 Vision – an information sharing program regarding customers.
- Merit Blog – an employee feedback and suggestion
- Merit Cares – the company’s community outreach program.
“It has really grown into something amazing,” Wallingford says. “Everyone on our team brings incredible value to our mission to truly enhance the relations we have with our associates as well as maintain continuous communication.”
Through Merit Cares, 61 people have participated in the local chapter of United Way’s Day of Caring. Merit Brass employees have helped Cleveland’s homeless and underprivileged children as well as maintain the grounds at Cleveland Hospice.
“Our intent is to increase sociability amongst associates to foster respect and increase teamwork,” Wallingford says.
Growth and the futureIn 1989, Merit outgrew its 40,000-sq.-ft. Cleveland-based facility and moved into a 140,000-sq.-ft. building near Cleveland’s Hopkins International Airport. Today, Merit is in the beginning stages of planning another expansion on its headquarters. It also has regional distribution centers in Reno, Nev. (33,000 sq. ft., opened in 1995), Dallas (opened in 2000 and relocated in 2012 to a 43,000 sq. ft. warehouse), and at the end of 2011 opened its Birmingham, Ala. location (33,000 sq. ft.). Even with the recent settlement in Alabama, Merit needs to grow back at home.
“Our fathers went a little bit overboard and put this building in the center of 20 acres of land,” Schlessinger says. “We do have the ability to expand this facility in any direction we need to. We’ve got a group of leaders from every area of the company meeting and planning this carefully because it’s a huge initiative.”
With four generations of family invested in Merit Brass there are a lot of shared memories in the collective unconscious. Schlessinger and Lipp both fondly recall the day in April 2001 when their fathers decided it was time to pass the torch to their sons. There was a ceremony celebrating Sheldon Schlessinger’s and Simon Lipp’s tenure at the helm.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” Marc Schlessinger recalls.
If everything stays on track, the fourth (Alan’s son Kevin Lipp is currently an inside sales representative), fifth and sixth generations will be there ready and waiting to follow the Merit Brass Co.’s path.
“The things that got us to where we are today; the values, the obsession with customer satisfaction, the assertive leadership and innovation displayed by management haven’t changed,” Alan Lipp says. “The culture is the same and that’s incredibly gratifying. That’s a testament to our forbearers. They’re the ones who planted the seeds.”