At an ASA Young Executives outing several years ago, Zach Hudgins was having a heck of a time at Kohler-owned Blackwolf Run golf course in Kohler, Wis.
“I lost a dozen balls on that course and I had never lost a dozen balls in my life,” he says with a laugh.
During his golfing misery, the name of the course caught Hudgins’ eye. “I told Kohler Chairman and CEO Herb Kohler that if I ever had a company I wanted to put wolf in the name,” he says.
Hudgins did just that. After runs on the manufacturer and manufacturers rep side, including a stint as national director of sales for Watts Water, Hudgins started White Wolf Group, a Marietta, Ga.-based rep agency and AIM/R member now in its third year of operation with lines mainly in the industrial, water works and HVAC/plumbing sectors.
“I was ready to try my hand at being an entrepreneur,” he says. “At the time, the economy was beat down. Is there a better time to start a business? Other people contested that. It turned out to be the best time. Our business is flourishing and we’re continuing to grow. Everything looks bright.”
Family was another factor in Hudgins’ decision to venture out on his own. Hudgins and his wife of 11 years, Michelle, are the proud parents of 3-year-old son, Parks.
“I was ready to be a family man and be a dad,” he says. “Before, I was never home. I would be at Ferguson one week, John Deere the next and Grainger the week after that. I was ready to be home with my son and family and my parents are getting a little older now. I liked the idea of controlling your own destiny. With working on the factory and rep sides, I had a pretty good idea of how to go to market and with whom, having a business plan and running a business. The challenge of operating and owning my own business was something I was looking forward to doing. Before, I was already doing it, but I didn’t own the place.”
In the span of a little more than two years, White Wolf Group has increased its staff to nine employees and now represents 15 lines, including the likes of Apollo Valves, Zoeller Pumps, Elkhart Products, Gastite, Keeney Mfg., Hubbell Power and Trenton Pipe. The company operates out of a 7,500-sq.-ft. building in Marietta that houses offices and a 4,500-sq.-ft. warehouse. Hudgins is proud of the Made in America product slant of the lines White Wolf Group represents.
Being able to settle down and concentrate on a specific geographic area is something the 42-year-old Hudgins doesn’t take for granted.
“I wanted to get grounded back home with local folks,” says Hudgins, a lifelong Georgia resident. “I have acquaintances all over the nation, but you spend maybe one evening with them at an event. Here, we have close personal business ties in a couple of states. We are partnering with local people. Our partnership mentality drives business to our supporters.”
Hudgins says the secret ingredient to the nascent company’s success is simply being different. “We’re changing the game in our industry,” he says. “We don’t want the status quo to be the norm.”
For starters, employees have square business cards. “Everybody has the same rectangular card,” White Wolf Group General Manager Anthony Bolden says. “Our cards are square and laminated and are very loud. It almost looks like a Pokémon card. Everybody that sees the card has something to talk about.”
To get the word out about the company, Hudgins and Bolden developed several creative advertisements showing the duo in a Partridge Family-like bus and an old-school airplane. The company’s website at www.whitewolfgroupinc.com is loaded with information and presents the company’s message in a clear and concise manner.
Hudgins has even changed it up when it comes to the technology the company uses. There is no fax machine in the office and third-party providers are used for telecommunications and Internet usage.
“We’ve embraced technology,” he says. “We use QuickBooks online. Why do I need to be attached to a computer to do my books? There are ways to minimize your exposure with expenses.”
Keeping it simple
Hudgins and Bolden, whose business relationship and friendship dates back more than a decade when both briefly crossed paths at Watts, subscribe to the less is more theory when it comes to the lines they represent.
“We don’t believe in having 50 ‘C’ and ‘D’ lines and only one ‘A’ line,” Hudgins says. “We give the manufacturers we do have 100% effort. We hustle and we work hard and we try and close every deal. We don’t close every one, but we get our fair share. We have something special here. We give manufacturers a darned good reason to want to hire us. We want to grow market share and advocate for our manufacturers.”
Hudgins and Bolden are big on two other core principals — education and communication.
“I tell our guys the reason customers are calling you is because you are an asset and you know what you are doing,” Bolden says. “If you don’t know what you are doing, they are going to call someone else. If you are not bringing something that is an asset to a wholesaler, manufacturer or end user, you are costing them money.
“The other thing is do what you say you are going to do. Return a customer’s phone call. You don’t want a customer calling you at 5 p.m. asking where his order is when he called you at 7:30 a.m. If we’re working on an order, we’ll call people right after lunch just to tell them we are working on it and we haven’t forgot about them. You wouldn’t believe how much people appreciate that.”
Lunch and learns and in-house training are commonplace at White Wolf Group. “When someone calls us about a product, I feel like we’re the experts in our market,” Bolden says. “One of the biggest things that slips through the cracks on all levels in our industry is education. Continuing education is a major focus for us.”
Hudgins places a major emphasis on relationships with the company’s wholesale partners. “We call our key wholesale partners supporters,” he says. “We set our pricing strategy for supporter pricing and non-supporter pricing. We’ve worked that price model with manufacturers and have been able to enhance profits for the distribution base for those folks on board with us. Our partner wholesalers are extremely important.
“When we take on a manufacturers’ line, the first thing we tell them is we are getting ready to break a few eggs to create the omelet. We are going to do things different and we might kick some sand in some peoples’ faces to see who wants to partner with us. I was at a meeting the other day with a multi-truck service contractor who said one of his great distribution partners was looking to go with product ‘X’ and they were not familiar with the brand. The contractor gave us the guy’s name and number and we helped him with that product. We return the favors.”
In addition to being active in AIM/R, Hudgins holds a position on the ASA YE’s Board of Directors and is the current co-chair of Southern Wholesalers Association’s Leadership Development Council. One of Hudgins key initiatives is attracting young talent into the industry.
“There is an extreme shortage in talent right now,” he says. “I’ve been asked by the governor of the state’s Go Build Georgia Committee member Suzanne Wallace to assist them in ways to grow the skill set for not just our industry, but for the trades as a whole. How do we get younger folks into our industry? A lot of people think this isn’t the most glamorous business, but I know a few plumbing apprentices who make $70,000 or $80,000 a year with a high-school degree. Opportunities are available.”
White Wolf Group’s staff comes from a variety of backgrounds. Hudgins points out three inside salespeople have backgrounds in owning a convenience store, selling copiers and home-building management. “I’m going the route of teaching people the right way to do it and give them the opportunity to do what they want to do and control their own destiny,” he says.
Hudgins admits starting his business was a dream come true, but that doesn’t mean his anxiety level hasn’t been ratcheted up a few notches.
“This was 100% funded by me,” he says. “When we first started, I was paying guys out of my checking account. People told me they couldn’t believe I was doing this. I said I’m rolling the dice and we’ll see what happens. If you aren’t concerned and don’t worry every day, then you aren’t motivated. Guys who own their own business are scared every day. I want to keep that fear going so I don’t slack off. There are still those, ‘What have I done?’ days, but I’m happier now than I ever have been.”