Homegrown talent at Southern Wholesalers Association
Coley Herrin will be Southern Wholesalers Association’s first president to rise through its young leaders program.
Coley Herrin got his start in the plumbing business at the young age of 12.
Herrin, now president and COO of Lawrenceville, Ga.-based wholesaler Plumbing Distributors Inc., helped out at his father Jimmy’s plumbing contracting company (Herrin Plumbing). “I started working on service trucks, getting parts and helping put up trim in houses,” he recalls.
After getting a taste of the business, Herrin wasn’t too keen on making plumbing a career. “To be honest, I wanted to do anything but something plumbing-related,” he says.
Herrin, who chatted with Supply House Times for this story at the 2013 SWA Convention on Hilton Head Island, S.C., graduated from Georgia Tech in 1992 with a degree in management science and walked right into a tough job market. “It was very hard to get a job during that time,” he says.
But the industry Herrin wanted to avoid was there to provide a lifeline. Herrin went to work for support system and enclosure solutions manufacturer B-Line Systems (now known at Cooper B-Line) and later bathroom products manufacturer Spurlin Industries.
He switched over to the wholesale side of the business in 1998 when he was hired at Marietta, Ga.-based Apex Supply Co. After a
nine-month stint at Apex, Herrin moved on to PDI and set forth in motion a career that has seen him work his way up the ranks at the 150-employee company and become heavily involved in the best practices and advocacy aspects of the wholesale industry.
The 43-year-old Herrin will take over as the 63rd president of Southern Wholesalers Association and in doing so will make a bit of history. Herrin is SWA’s first president who has come from the Leadership Development Council — the organization’s young leader development arm.
Herrin says his experience in the contracting and manufacturing areas of the business greatly helped smooth the transition to the distribution side of the tracks. “The experience working for my dad was very beneficial,” he says. “I can relate to what’s going on with our customers. That gives you a lot of credibility. I know what the customers’ needs are. I know where they are coming from. It’s the same thing with my time in manufacturing. The manufacturers we work with know I have worked on both ends of the business. There is that good balance.”
Herrin adds his multi-faceted experience gave him an extra head start learning the nuances of distribution.
“It’s never been a struggle. I grew up with all this,” he says. “I had a good understanding of contractors. I could walk through the warehouse and identify a particular drain or valve. I was in a very comfortable position.”
Rising career path
Herrin was PDI’s operations manager from 1999-2007 and was promoted to executive vice president and general manager in January 2007. He held those roles until being named president and COO in 2011.
Herrin oversees a company that features seven branches with six residing in the metro Atlanta area. The seventh branch opened last year in Nashville, Tenn. PDI, which ranks No. 83 on the 2013 Supply House Times Premier 125 list of top wholesalers (ranked by sales from the previous year), stocks plumbing and lighting supplies with a heavy focus on the residential plumbing sector. PDI has six showrooms, including its first standalone location that opened in 2011 in Alpharetta, Ga.
Gladston Mealor(died in 2010) and his son, Sidney (died in 2011), started PDI in 1973 with four employees operating out of a single location in Lawrenceville. The company moved to its current 137,000-sq.-ft. Lawrenceville headquarters in 2006. Herrin feels the Mealor family’s continued ownership of PDI is something that sets the company apart in the markets it covers.
“It goes beyond profits with us,” he says. “We’re a privately owned family company. We take that family perspective into everything we do. Our customers and employees are part of our family. We are here to fill the needs of our customers. We keep that in mind when we put material into inventory or with the special deliveries we do. We do whatever our customers’ needs allow us to do.”
PDI, a member of ASA and the WIT buying group, benefits from a workforce that features both seasoned veterans and eager newcomers. Herrin, a self-described sports nut with an impressive recall of baseball players of yesteryear, notes the company’s turnover rate is quite low. “It’s the whole family atmosphere concept again,” says Herrin, who along with his wife, Tammy, are the proud parents of 6-year-old daughter, Anna.
“We get to know our employees and their spouses and kids. I’ve seen a lot of families grow up here. It’s part of our culture. We have employees who are very loyal to us and we are extremely loyal to them. The job is important, but it should never be put ahead of family. Family needs always come first.”
A top-notch workforce helped PDI navigate through the recent economic downturn. “That was a great learning opportunity for us to go through,” Herrin says. “The recession made us look at and analyze everything we do. The whole notion of ‘we do this because we always do this,’ went right out the window. We started questioning everything we do.”
The company made the decision to not make drastic changes to its training and marketing programs during the recession. “Those were two things that were left alone and we actually increased them,” he says. “We have management and showroom training programs that continue to grow. Training is extremely important to us. We knew at the time those two aspects were important to the long-term growth of the company. We didn’t want to take a step backward.”
Herrin sees signs of improvement, but still takes a cautionary tone in terms of what lies ahead. “We’ve seen markets starting to improve,” he says. “Business is growing and that’s encouraging, but things are still a little dicey. When you go through what we’ve all gone through, you are kind of skeptical. We’re still not in a situation where we’re putting the foot on the accelerator and driving as fast as we can. We’re looking at what is causing the markets to be where they are at and then making sure we are sustaining. And when we invest we want to make sure that’s part of our long-term strategy.”
The future of the business
Early in his PDI tenure Herrin received some vital advice from Sid Mealor that would help shape his professional development. “Sid impressed upon me that PDI’s business is very important, but so is the industry as a whole,” he says. “Sid always found time to give to the industry and told me we needed to be involved and dedicate our time to it.”
Herrin’s first exposure to the wholesale business beyond PDI was at an SWA convention. “SWA has helped me and it’s helped this company,” he says. “Since joining SWA, I’ve developed a huge network of contacts. The networking and the relationships I’ve built make it feel like I’m never on an island by myself. There is always somebody in SWA I can reach out to with a question or for advice.”
Herrin notes a big draw for him and his staff has been the continually increasing learning opportunities SWA provides. “The education I’ve received with SWA is irreplaceable,” he says. “We’ve added quite a few things in the last couple years with our Leadership Development Council and the best practices panels we conduct at our convention. Those things are why SWA continues to grow.”
Herrin’s goals as SWA president are quite simple. “I want to continue to grow SWA and get our message out there,” he says. “We still have a lot of people in our markets who are not SWA members or they are members who are not involved.”
Another focus for Herrin will be the continued growth of the Leadership Development Council, a group that has a great deal of meaning to him. “I came through the Leadership Development Council,” he says. “We want to reach out to that next generation in our industry. That’s extremely important to us. We have to tap into that next generation and continue to grow and develop those young leaders of tomorrow.”
Looking back, Herrin is glad his career path led him back to the plumbing industry. “This is an incredible industry from the contractors to the manufacturers to the distributors,” he says. “My dad was a customer of this company and now I’m part of the family at PDI. I’m fortunate to be able to work for such a great family. I probably couldn’t have planned it any better than it turned out. I wouldn’t change any of this.”
Plumbing Distributors Inc. at a glance
President and COO:Coley Herrin
Branches: 7 (6 metro Atlanta, 1 Nashville, Tenn.)
Sectors serviced: Plumbing and lighting
Main focus: Residential plumbing