Aaron & Co.’s Mike Laudino and Lindsey Portnoy-Rodner know all eyes are on them.

Laudino, 32, and Portnoy-Rodner, 28, are third-generation executives at the Piscataway, N.J.-based distributor of plumbing, heating and cooling products. Laudino’s father, Richard Laudino, and Portnoy-Rodner’s father, Barry Portnoy, are two of the company’s three principal owners (along with Laudino’s uncle, Frank Laudino Jr.). Mike Laudino and Lindsey Portnoy-Rodner are part of the company’s succession plan and will assume ownership when the current regime retires.

“The most obvious negative is that people might think we have entitlement because our fathers own the company,” Portnoy-Rodner says. “I don’t feel entitled to anything. It is not a first right that we get the company because we were born into the family. We don’t deserve anything. We have to earn it.”

Mike Laudino adds: “Nothing is going to be handed to us because we are the children of current ownership. This is something important to not only the owners, but the people that work here. The last thing we want to do is to take on a position in the future that may hurt the company. What both of us strive for is to be worthy of those titles one day.”

Laudino and Portnoy-Rodner, who both have siblings not in the business, have been hard at work not only best-preparing themselves in their current positions at Aaron, but also readying themselves for the future. They are two of many young executives making a difference in supply houses and showrooms around the country.


Early beginnings

Laudino and Portnoy-Rodner, who have known each other since early childhood, are no strangers to Aaron & Co. Laudino started out sweeping floors and cleaning bathrooms during summer vacations in high school. “I was dusting areas of the warehouse people didn’t know existed,” he says with a laugh.

After graduating from the University of Delaware, Laudino earned a law degree from Seton Hall Law School and practiced at a Philadelphia law firm for several years before returning to Aaron.

“I wanted to get a different perspective coming out of college,” he says. “I wanted to be more well-rounded and ultimately a more successful person if I ever came back. Coming back seemed like the right fit. Sometimes things just work out.”

Portnoy-Rodner, who also worked at Aaron during her younger years, graduated from the University of Hartford with a degree in marketing and went to work at Aaron right out of college.

“I had an entry-level position when I first started. There was some transitioning in the marketing department and I took on some added responsibilities,” she explains. “It was perfect timing. I always wanted to be part of the business. I see how hard my dad, Richard and Frank work. I knew it would be an honor to work here if I was given the opportunity, but it was never guaranteed I would work here.”

Laudino has worked in a plethora of capacities at Aaron, including order picking, counter sales and inside sales. He currently is the assistant branch manager at the company’s Piscataway headquarters.

“I gradually moved through every possible position,” he says. “It’s helped me develop a strong foundation and a good understanding of what we do here. I wanted to understand all aspects of the company. You can’t just plug someone into inside sales without that person going through the ranks. You have to earn your way.”

Portnoy-Rodner also has been plenty busy during her career at Aaron, working in the warehouse, accounts receivable and in the company’s showroom business among other positions.

“We believe in an all-hands-on-deck philosophy in learning all aspects of the company,” says Portnoy-Rodner, the company’s marketing manager. “You can’t understand the business as a whole unless you experience all aspects of it yourself.”


A thirst for knowledge

Laudino and Portnoy-Rodner are huge advocates of training and education to enrich an employee’s knowledge of the company and the industry.

Portnoy-Rodner notes the Aaron Employee Development Program, a year-long training presentation that exposes new hires to all aspects of the organization, has been a huge success. New hires start out on the night crew loading trucks, picking orders and learning customer names. Stints on the day crew, the drive-through area and the counter follow.

While on the year-long program, new hires are enrolled in Aaron University, which provides additional Web/textbook-based training and requires employees to complete sections and testing within certain timeframes. Aaron University was developed with the help of the American Supply Association Education Foundation and HARDI.

“We’re taking a new hire and giving them the opportunity to be put on a fast-track for growth with the company,” Laudino says. “We’re giving them the experience and learning opportunities they need so they can be successful.”

Employees earn salary raises based on the sections of Aaron University they pass. Additionally, Aaron has started Dale Carnegie training for its managers and outside salespeople. 

“Training is a very important part of our philosophy here,” says Portnoy-Rodner, who is on the board of trustees of the ASA Education Foundation. “We strongly believe in continuing education, employee development and leadership training.”

Laudino adds: “Education never ends in this business. If our employees are properly trained, that means we can provide the best possible service to our customers.”


Learning from your peers

Laudino and Portnoy-Rodner also have benefitted from an external-type of learning. Both are members of ASA’s successful Young Executives division, which provides important networking and educational opportunities for today’s up-and-coming industry leaders.

“Michael and I talk about the networking benefits of YEs all the time,” Portnoy-Rodner says. “You get to meet and network with your peers from other supply houses, manufacturers rep firms and manufacturers. If a regional manager comes into our office, we might only get to talk for 15 or 20 minutes. At the YE convention, you get to meet them at a different level.”

The ability to discuss common topics with someone in his own age range is what Laudino enjoys most about his YE connection.

“YE members are in the same positions we are,” he says. “I’m able to pick up the phone and call somebody and discuss how their company might be handling succession planning or other best practices. Without that mechanism, Lindsey and I are on an island. Nobody else knows what we are going through as young executives. It’s a support group, but it’s way more than that. I want to keep going forever.”

Laudino and Portnoy-Rodner agree the industry has reached a critical stage where attracting new talent is of utmost importance.

“It’s a huge topic and challenge,” Portnoy-Rodner says. “It’s a good industry with a lot of retention, but a lot of people are going to start retiring around the same age. We need to attract these young people into the industry. We need to change the perception that this is not the most glamorous industry. We have to do a better job of showing there are growth and training opportunities. You can make a real career working in this industry.”

Laudino’s pitch to a perspective young recruit centers on family. “A lot of companies in our industry are small, private firms with a family feel,” he says. “You’re not just a number. This is an industry that cares about you as an employee. You will have the opportunity to grow and be rewarded with a fulfilling career. You’ll be able to work with some of the best and brightest people around. This is a hidden gem of an industry. Not many people leave when they experience what we have to offer.”


Planning for the future

Laudino and Portnoy-Rodner recall when they first were approached about being part of the company’s succession plan. “I was 24 years old at the time,” Portnoy-Rodner says. “It was not easy for either of us to have that conversation. It’s pretty daunting. Is this what I want for the rest of my life? Ultimately Michael and I made the decision that it is something we both want very much.”

Aaron & Co. has grown from a single location in founder Isadore Aaron’s basement to a company that currently boasts eight locations (three locations contain Aaron Kitchen & Bath Design Gallery showrooms). Since current ownership took over in 1993, the company has added five locations.

The 82-year-old company purchased Brielle N.J.-based Dickson Plumbing Supply last May and is planning a grand opening of that location (which was devastated by Hurricane Sandy) this June.

Portnoy-Rodner adds other new key company initiatives on the horizon include new catalogs, a new showroom website, a continued emphasis on training and even the establishment of a young leaders group within Aaron. “We’re always trying to update and make ourselves better,” she says.

Both young executives say they’ve learned immeasurable amounts from their fathers.

“I’ve learned everything from my father and Barry,” Laudino says. “They are incredible mentors. We joke that they are a walking MBA class. We’ve decided our fathers are better than any class we can take. We’d rather go to Aaron University.”

Portnoy-Rodner adds: “The best piece of advice my father has given me is be the best you can be. I can’t be my dad and I don’t want to be him. I want to be me and be the best leader I can be. When the time comes, Michael and I will be prepared to embrace a tremendous opportunity.”