It doesn’t take long to notice John Strong’s laidback and fun-loving approach to life.
A conversation with the tell-it-like-it-is Strong almost always contains some type of humor. For instance, when talking about his affinity for the game of golf, Strong, president and CEO of Indianapolis-based Economy Plumbing Supply, joked about his penchant for hobby-hopping.
“I’ve always been chasing the next big hobby,” he said earlier this year at the company’s downtown Indianapolis headquarters. “I’ve tried skiing and boating and now golf. My attention span isn’t very long. My new hobby next year is being ASA president.”
One also can count on some laughs when Strong steps up to a podium. That certainly was the case when he gave a speech at the ASA Young Executives Spring Forum in Kansas City, Mo., earlier this year.
“It says here to turn the page,” he dryly noted as he glanced down at his notes in the midst of giving an impactful talk to the assembled audience.
But when it comes to the wholesale business, Strong is just that — all business. ASA’s 2014 president and longtime advocate of industry involvement is ready to help the association build off its recent momentum and reach even greater heights.
When he takes over as ASA president in January, Strong will make history as he becomes part of the first father-son team of ASA presidents. His father, Herb Strong Jr., was ASA president in 1996 after serving as vice president from 1990-1995.
Where it all started
Economy Plumbing Supply was founded in 1932 by Hebert, William and Edward Strong. Herb Sr. had been a salesman for American Standard, while his brothers were plumbers. The trio decided to start a supply house and opened a single location at 311 North Alabama in Indianapolis. Seven years later the company’s first showroom opened and a warehouse was constructed next to the store.
Herb Jr. joined Economy in 1946 after graduating from Purdue and completing his tour in the U.S. Navy. His uncles retired from the business in 1947 and his father finished up in 1960. The company later expanded its footprint by occupying six buildings on Alabama St.
The company moved to its current location on North Capitol Ave. in downtown Indianapolis in 1984. The 60,000-sq.-ft. facility brought Economy’s counter, showroom, warehouse and offices under one roof. The move also included a retail concept of self-service plumbing supply aisles, something unheard of in the industry at the time. That aspect still remains one of the key features of the North Capitol location.
Economy, which has 20 employees, now operates two locations after opening a 10,000-sq.-ft. facility in suburban Fishers off Interstate 69 in 1995. Both locations include showrooms. “We’ve always been a very small wholesale distributor,” Strong says.
Economy caters to a wide-range of customers, including plumbing/mechanical/maintenance and repair contractors, as well as builders and remodelers. Economy’s main focus is residential and light commercial products.
Strong, a graduate of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, joined Economy a year before the move to Capitol Ave., and a year after the company joined ASA and the Omni buying group.
“This was before computers,” he says with a laugh. “When you sold a water heater, you pulled out a card and the inventory was on it. When I first started, I worked in every aspect of the business, including logistics, warehouse, delivery, dispatch and purchasing.”
Strong, however, wasn’t exactly keen on getting into the business. “Growing up, the last thing I wanted to do was be in the family business,” he says. “The last thing I wanted to do was sell toilets, but the first thing I did after college was go work for dad. It was the early 1980s and there was a slight recession occurring. I wanted to go to Chicago and get a big job.”
Making it work
It turns out Strong ended up with that big job. After holding many roles in the company, he bought out his father in 1995 and has been president and CEO of Economy ever since. And he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty in all aspects of the business.
“I like to be involved,” he says. “I’ve become more involved in the financial aspect of the business and I’m still very involved with sales management, brand management, marketing and selecting the lines and maintaining relationships with vendors. I still do the payroll and I still sign every check.”
The gravity and responsibility of being an owner of a company is something Strong takes seriously.
“I feel extremely fortunate to have the opportunity presented to me through our family business,” he says. “I’m responsible for X-amount of employees and I’m actually responsible for four times that number when you factor in everybody’s families. I take a lot of pride in being able to take care of our employees. I’m thankful these people want to come and work for us.”
Strong doesn’t sugarcoat things when talking about how his company was affected by the recent recession.
“Looking at 2013 vs. 2007 pre-recession, it’s still a strained economic market,” he says. “We have not seen a recovery of sales from those pre-2009 numbers, but our numbers are up. Last year we were up 10% and traffic is definitely up this year, which is encouraging.”
Strong is well-aware he’s in a business that is constantly changing from both technology and regulatory standpoints.
“Things are much better than they were two years ago, but as business conditions are improving, there are pressures that continue to expand,” he says. “We all know about lead-free, health care, S-corp, EPA and OSHA. Business is a little better, but bottom lines aren’t much better because of this increased (regulatory) activity.”
Strong says another topic he’s keeping a watchful eye on is the continued emergence of e-commerce and the Internet in the industry. He uses an example of visiting the optometrist to hammer home his point.
“It used to be if you needed eyeglasses, you went to the eye doctor and they took you up to the front of the office and picked out frames from 500 choices and you got yourself a pair of glasses,” he says. “Now you can take a picture of your face with your laptop and send that in and they put frames on your face. They’ll pick out five frames and mail them and you select the frames you want to keep at a great discount.
“Now you’re seeing Internet retailers coming up with virtual representations of bathrooms for customers and showing them what their new bathroom is going to look like right there on the computer screen. Someone is going to figure this all out and make it profitable, but what happens to the wholesaler? This business is constantly changing. What does the Internet mean to us five years down the road? I need to know now and not five years down the road.”
Giving back to the industry
Strong gives a lot of credit to his father for his development not only as Economy’s leader, but also with the contributions he makes in the industry.
“Everything I know about the industry I learned from my dad,” he says. “Everybody respects him. He’s a tremendous gentleman.”
Like his father, Strong continues to take a leadership role within industry organizations. In addition to roles with ASA’s Young Executives, Strong also served as president of the North Central Wholesalers Association from 2010-2012.
“My dad always was a big proponent of being involved in what you do whether it’s locally or on a national level,” says Strong, who along with his wife of 30 years, Debbie, are the proud parents of Stephen (who works in copper mining) and Samantha (a freshman at Indiana).
Strong says ASA’s four main points of emphasis — education, benchmarking, networking and advocacy — are great tools to help increase the strength of the industry. He’s particularly interested in getting that message across to small independent wholesalers much like Economy.
“Who needs the help of these four elements more than anybody else?” he asks. “It’s the small, independent wholesaler. I’m the small, independent wholesaler. I like (current ASA President) Jeff Pope’s message about focusing on the programs that are in place and then implementing them. My message is to encourage the small independent wholesaler to look long and hard at ASA. There are a lot of great programs coming online.”
Strong likes where ASA is headed in the near future and is thrilled to be part of that upcoming journey. “We know we still have a lot to do,” he says. “We’re improving our reach with the small wholesalers and we’re doing that through the regionals. Manufacturers reps are getting more involved. We’re continuing to follow-through with the implementation of established programs. We are expanding our reach and encouraging participation from existing members. ASA is in a good place right now.”