Incoming president Travis Elrod wants to push Southern Wholesalers Association to greater heights
Leading the way at SWA.
Travis Elrod’s early professional career was headed in a slightly different direction than the plumbing supply industry.
Back in 1998, the University of Georgia graduate had entered into hospitality management with Marriott and was eager to make an impact.
“I had this grandiose idea when I took the job that working in the resort industry would be wonderful,” he says. “At that age you have misconceptions about the business world. I got a real quick brush with reality. It’s a tough business and I have a lot of respect for the people who work in hospitality.”
While still working in that field, Elrod was offered an opportunity to join the plumbing distribution company of his future wife’s father,
Ted DeVore, chairman of Athens, Ga.-based DeVore & Johnson.
“The job was initially appealing to me because I grew up in a family with a construction background. I was apprehensive at first, and as you can imagine, it was a tricky proposition for both of us,” Elrod says of going to work for his now father-in-law.
“We both were real open about it. Ted, simply put, said give this thing a shot and see how it works out. There’s nothing binding and there are no hard feelings if it doesn’t work for either one of us. His words were very comforting at the time. It’s worked out just fine.”
Elrod is now in his 15th year at DeVore & Johnson where he currently is the company’s vice president. He’ll have some additional duties added to his plate when he takes over as the 64th president of the Southern Wholesalers Association (SWA), succeeding fellow Georgian Coley Herrin (Plumbing Distributors Inc.). Elrod has been actively involved with SWA since 2001 and has been a member of the group’s board of directors since 2007.
Working his way up
From the get-go, Elrod was exposed to many different facets of the DeVore & Johnson operation. “I started out as a grunt,” he says. “I started out in the warehouse learning the shipping aspects, picking, stocking and receiving. I received a real education on the receiving process and the importance of contact with the material.”
Six months later around the turn of the century, Elrod was asked to be part of the company’s software conversion team.
“We bought into the Y2K hype like a lot of people did. Today, it sounds kind of silly,” says Elrod, who has been married to Monica for 14 years (the couple has two daughters, McKenzie, and Sydney). “We had an outdated software platform, so we needed to make the switch anyway. I guess the fear that the world was coming to an end pushed us over the edge. Myself and our controller Charlie Holt, who started with the company about the same time I did, became the lead managers on the whole project. We’ve been in charge of all the upgrades ever since.”
Elrod says that trip down the IT road is one of the main things he enjoys about the company. “We’re not a stratified company,” he says. “We don’t have an individual IT person. We take on a lot of different roles here. We are the epitome of a multitasking environment. I worked primarily in outside sales for a time and I managed our showroom a year after joining the company.”
These days, Elrod still does a little of everything, including calling on key customers, overseeing showroom operations, managing the company’s employee training program and IT initiatives, as well as being part of the executive management team with Ted DeVore (chairman), Mike DeVore (president) and Holt (controller).
“It’s a little cliché, but we all wear a lot of different hats,” Elrod says. “That’s typical of the wholesale industry. We’re a small business and that keeps things fresh and exciting every day.”
Competition breeds friendship
DeVore & Johnson was founded by T.C. DeVore (Ted and Mike’s father) and Cecil Johnson back in 1950. Elrod tells the story of the two being fierce competitors in the late 1940s, calling on the same northeast Georgia territory. The two used to cross paths at a particular Athens inn where one night due to a lack of available rooms the two rivals were forced to share a hotel room. “That one night turned competitors into close friends and the rest is history,” Elrod says.
In 1995, Ted and Mike DeVore took over ownership from T.C. DeVore. The 60-employee company now features a 30,000-sq.-ft. headquarters and showroom in Athens. A second Atlanta-area location in Forest Park (40,000-sq.-ft. warehouse facility) opened in 1991 and the newest location in Suwanee (30,000-sq.-ft. office and showroom) opened in 2004. The Athens and Suwanee locations feature Kohler-registered showrooms.
Elrod says the company does roughly 40% of its business in the residential marketplace, 40% in multifamily and 20% in commercial. “We’ll adapt depending on what the market is doing,” he notes. “With residential and commercial swings, it becomes more important to adapt accordingly. We can make quick decisions and change as needed.”
Geography also plays a big role in the company’s plan of attack. “We’ve never relied on only our immediate area,” he says. “We have to get out in a 150-mile radius from each location. We service the southeast out of our locations. We’ve never put all our eggs in one basket.”
Having an experienced and knowledgeable staff doesn’t hurt the company’s chances either. “Our sales team averages 20-plus years of experience and we have employees who have been with us 10, 20 and 30 years. We have one employee who has been with us 45 years,” Elrod says. “We hire for the long-term. Our primary focus is on customer service and our people. Our objective is to make good hiring decisions and put people in positions where they can flourish. We hire and retain good employees and stay focused daily on what’s important — the customer. The customer is why we open the doors every day.”
Elrod, 40, notes that DeVore & Johnson is proactive when it comes to current technologies, but cautions a balance must be maintained. “I’m young enough to fully embrace new technologies and will gladly champion the benefits and efficiencies that come with it,” he says. “At the same time, I’m old enough to respect the traditional ways of doing business that made this industry great.
“The relationships and one-on-one face-to-face interactions will never be replaced by email or text messages. We place tremendous value on our outside sales efforts and cite those efforts as a key component to our success over the last 64 years.”
The future of SWA
Elrod is on his second term with the SWA board of directors after first serving from 2007-2010. “I was under the impression I would get a reprieve, but I got pulled back in again,” he says with a laugh. “Being on the board for a second time has been a great learning experience. There is a lot of industry experience represented on our board. I feel fortunate to be in their company. We have a great environment to learn.”
Elrod is the second SWA president from DeVore & Johnson. He follows Ted DeVore, who served the 1989-1990 term. “Ted has been instrumental in introducing me to all aspects of the plumbing supply business,” Elrod says. “He also introduced me to SWA early on and taught me the value of industry involvement and relationships. Ted always has set a positive example of leadership here at DeVore & Johnson and through his commitment to the industry by involvement in SWA and Embassy (buying group).”
Like his predecessor Herrin, Elrod also comes from SWA’s Leadership Development Council young executives group.
“Myself and Eddie Agee (Premier Marketing) were the two founding chairmen of the LDC a few years back,” he says. “I can remember we were in a board meeting in Atlanta in 2008 and the conversation of recruitment came up. What do we need to do to get more members and specifically more young/emerging leaders involved in the association? Dottie Ramsey (Modern Supply), who was a great past SWA president, came up with the concept. She suggested developing a leadership group similar to ASA’s Young Executives and start recruiting young leaders. It was that simple. Eddie and I were selected as chairmen and we ran with it.”
Today, the SWA LDC has around 40 members and creates its own agenda for the winter board meeting and convention. “The coolest thing for me is seeing input from the LDC being felt throughout SWA,” Elrod says. “We’re pumping a lot of energy into the association and we’re becoming a feeder platform for the SWA board with Coley, myself and then Brendan Donohue (Cregger Co., 2016 president).”
Elrod’s goal as SWA president is to keep the association’s foot on the gas pedal.
“Simply put, it’s more of the same,” he says. “I want to see further recruitment efforts for this association. There are wholesalers in this region who are not involved with SWA. We’re going to do our part to get them involved in SWA and show them the value and the continued educational opportunities available for members.
“I’m going to keep spreading the word about the value and the networking relationships available with SWA. The LDC is a huge part of what we do and we’ll continue to recruit the younger generation and keep them involved. SWA is extremely strong right now. Attendance and participation in our convention is at an all-time high. We can’t settle. We have to continue to grow.”