Frank Dowd IV
Charlotte Pipe and Foundry Chairman of the Board Frank Dowd IV at the WIT Distributor and Vendor Conference in Dallas, Texas. Photo by Mike Miazga/ Supply House Times.
Frank Dowd IV is part of the fourth generation of Dowds to lead the way at 112-year-old Charlotte Pipe and Foundry. Dowd, the company’s chairman of the board since 1998 and a major proponent of family-owned businesses, was the recent keynote speaker at the WIT Distributor and Vendor Conference in Dallas. His “The Peaks and Valleys of Family Businesses” keynote delved into many issues of importance to owners of family-run businesses. He took time after addressing WIT’s membership to speak to Supply House Times on a number of topics.
Supply House Times: Family-owned business is a topic that strikes a chord with you…
Frank Dowd IV: It’s a topic that comes naturally. Charlotte Pipe is a 112-year-old family business started by my great granddad in 1901; my cousin (Charlotte Pipe President Roddey Dowd Jr.) and I are fourth generation. We took on our current jobs in 1998 and back then not a month would go by where my dad and uncle wouldn’t come by and say, “Boys, don’t screw it up.”
Supply House Times: What is one of your first memories of the family business?
FD: One that sticks out in my mind is the foundry strike in 1974. I was getting ready to go to college and working there in the summer. It was my only brush with the union. We worked the strike and it was a scary time seeing the workforce pitted against each other. My five siblings and I were all aware of what was going on. That was the family’s bread and butter.
Supply House Times: How healthy are family businesses in the U.S.?
FD: I read somewhere that 60% to 85% of businesses in the world are family-run businesses. There are always going to be big public companies, but unless something changes such as the tax codes, family businesses always will be around.
Supply House Times: What hot-button issues today are critical to the health of family-run businesses?
FD: The estate tax is one. If the rates go back to where they were before, it will make it hard on businesses that didn’t plan well. A lot of families don’t prepare for a death of a family business owner. The Affordable Care Act could be a threat to small businesses. You don’t want to see small businesses trimming staff to get below that 50-employee threshold. We need more good jobs, not people trying to escape Obamacare.
Supply House Times: How important is the wholesale channel to Charlotte Pipe?
FD: Wholesalers still are really important. Thirty years ago when I came into the business we were only using the plumbing wholesale channel. In order to grow, we had to explore other channels, but our business-to-business plumbing wholesale trade in the U.S. is still more than 50% of our business. There are always going to be the big companies such as the Fergusons, Hajocas and Winnelsons, but you never want your eggs in one or two baskets. We love and support the individual wholesalers and we love the buying groups they belong to.
Supply House Times: What market sectors is Charlotte Pipe seeing the most movement in right now?
FD: There has been a significant recovery in residential business — both single-family and multifamily. We’re not seeing that big an uptick with commercial right now, but the commercial work we are seeing is government work and hospital and university construction. Overall, we saw a pretty good economic comeback in 2011 and 2012 and we think there will be more in 2013. We’ve started off pretty well in 2013. The worry is if there is any sort of housing bubble coming up and how that will affect residential construction. People are buying up vacant land as investments because prices are so low. Are we going to see that bubble again? It’s a crazy environment with the low rates out there. How long can it stay like that?
Supply House Times: What’s one key piece of advice you have for the owner of a family business?
FD: Folks need to get more politically involved. It doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat, Republican or Liberal. You should get to know your elected officials and engage them on issues that affect you and your business.