In the economic downturn of 2009-2010, Ardmore, Pa.-based. Hajoca Corp., like many other U.S. companies, aggressively challenged every place it was spending money.

One of the line items current Hajoca President and CEO Rick Fantham questioned was the national PHCP distributor’s American Supply Association membership.

“We looked at every expense line on the income statement,” he says. “We had a leadership team meeting and made the decision to leave ASA. Very few of our people were involved in ASA at the time and we felt we weren’t getting enough value from it. At that point, ASA was going through some tough times.”

Fantham called ASA Executive Vice President Mike Adelizzi to inform him of the company’s decision. Adelizzi urged him to consider a counterproposal.

Professional Road Map
Jump Right On

“Mike asked me to not fully cancel our membership,” he says. “He asked me to visit the ASA offices and meet with some key wholesaler members, and if at the end of that we didn’t believe there was value in ASA he would respect our decision. He wanted us to give him the opportunity to prove ASA could bring value to our business.”

Fantham took Adelizzi up on the offer and reached a different conclusion on the source of the disconnect.

“I went to the meetings, I talked to other members, I did my homework and then talked to some of our region managers to get their input at the local level,” he says. “Over a six-to-nine-month period, Mike demonstrated to me that we were the problem and that our passiveness was the reason we weren’t getting sufficient value out of ASA. I went back to our leadership team and suggested we jump into the deep end of the ASA pool at the local, regional and national level. I told Mike that I will assume we were the problem and that we were ready to fully commit to ASA. We haven’t looked back.”

Fantham laughs when reciting Adelizzi’s next proposal. “Mike said recommitment wasn’t enough. He’s quite persuasive,” he says. “He wanted me to join the ASA board and get involved with the executive committee and jump in with both feet with our commitment. Five years ago we went all-in with ASA. We quickly went from 0-out-of-10 to 10-out-of-10. We made a wonderful decision.”

Fantham and Hajoca’s commitment to ASA will reach its apex Jan. 1 when Fantham takes over as ASA president from Economy Plumbing Supply’s John Strong. While Strong made history by becoming part of the first father-and-son team to hold the ASA presidency, Fantham also will put himself in the record books as ASA’s first international president. Fantham is a Canadian citizen who resides in London, Ontario Canada.

Professional road map

The 56 year-old Fantham grew up in Ottawa, Ontario and earned a business degree from Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. “I became a CPA, but I never planned to be an accountant,” he explains. “I felt finance was a great foundation to have regardless of what I was going to do later on. I always wanted to be a general manager — whatever that meant. During my career I’ve had exposure to finance and accounting, responsibility for sales and marketing, and I’ve spent extensive time in operations. It was all centered around having the ability to one day become a general manager.”

Fantham worked for Canadian public accounting heavyweight KPMG and also spent four years working for Canadian auto parts giant Magna International before making the transition into the distribution industry in 1988 with London, Ontario-based Emco Corp. (now owned by Hajoca).

His switch to distribution was spurred by a potential change in Canadian governmental policy. “In 1988 the federal election in Canada was fought on a debate on free trade, which was a big deal for the country,” Fantham explains. “I felt free trade would be bad news for manufacturing in Canada and great news for distribution, so I decided to make a career switch from manufacturing to distribution.

“It was a good thing for Canadian manufacturing because it rose to the challenge of becoming world-class. I was 100% wrong on free trade, but 100% right with wholesale distribution as a career. My macroeconomics was a little off, but it led to me moving into an industry I fell in love with.”

Fantham, who has been with Emco Corp. for 25 years, holds the dual roles of president and CEO of both Emco and Hajoca. He became the leader of Emco’s distribution group in late 1999 and after Hajoca purchased Emco in 2003, Fantham started taking on U.S. responsibilities three years later. He became Hajoca’s COO in 2007 and its president and CEO in 2009.

“I travel a lot,” Fantham says with a laugh. “I have averaged 47 weeks a year on the road since 2006. I have an office in Philadelphia that could be rented out. I suppose it helps keep my 33-year marriage to Tina alive and well, and we had time for three kids along the way (Ryan, Steven and Mallory). It is a tremendous amount of travel, but I absolutely love it. I think I have the best job in North America. I work for a wonderful company with committed ownership in a great industry — life is good.”

Today, Hajoca, which was founded in 1858 (the first letters in Hajoca’s name stand for the first two letters in the last names of founders William Haines, Thomas Jones and Joel Cadbury), has grown into a company with about 600 locations in North America and thrives on a culture that combines the spirit of the entrepreneur with the power of a national company.

“Our business is very much built around what the United States of America was built on in 1776 and that is people having a dream and working hard and enjoying the rewards from that,” Fantham says. “We have a very de-centralized business model. My mission is to create an environment where our profit-center managers have the freedom to live into their dream. What a wonderful opportunity and privilege it is when you are in a position such as mine to create those kinds of opportunities and to change lives by sharing success in a very tangible way. It’s my privilege to be the head cheerleader.”

Fantham stresses Hajoca would not be in the position it is today without the talented professionals it employs. “We are extremely people-development driven,” he says. “It sounds very unpresidential, but my goal is to never make a decision. We believe decisions made at the local level and closest to the customer will have a higher batting average than my decisions. I haven’t achieved my goal yet, but I am getting closer. We’re very committed to retaining that corporate culture at a time when many U.S. companies are going in the other direction. We are obsessed with preserving a freedom-based business model.

“I am not the business leader. I am the keeper of the culture. We love the plumbing wholesale business and we can operate at 6 inches or 5,000 feet. We don’t get carried away with fads and trends. We stay focused on fundamentals and building a powerful foundation. We’re able to do that because we have great people, loyal customers and committed ownership.”

Jump right in

Fantham’s ASA presidential theme goes back to his earlier swimming pool reference. “What I would say to a prospective member or a member who may have been passive like Hajoca used to be is jump in right now! Jump in with an association where your voice can and will be heard. You can make a difference and shape our future. The level of excitement in ASA right now is extremely high. There is a consistency in the professional manner and quality of all ASA’s services, functions and events. The quality of the ASA team in Chicago is outstanding. There is a positive buzz going on right now with ASA.”

Fantham notes ASA’s reach throughout the industry is greater than it has been in the past. “Twenty years ago we represented 3,000 business locations, today we represent 3,700 locations,” he says. “Our voice is stronger today in terms of comprehensive coverage of the industry.”

Fantham adds Hajoca has greatly benefitted from the networking and educational opportunities ASA offers. “As a company we are more connected to the industry than we ever have been,” he says. “Two of our folks (Mark Hanley and Annamaria Nagy) have been very active with the education side of ASA. Even though we are a big company, we have benefited from the education ASA offers.”

The education component factors into what Fantham describes as the No. 1 Hajoca initiative — investing in leadership at all levels today and tomorrow. “Our number one, two and three priorities are to grow our leadership bench,” he says. “The company has grown dramatically in the last five years. We have a proven business model, committed ownership, a strong balance sheet, high expectations, outstanding vendor relationships and a super customer base. The only thing that keeps me awake at night is developing leaders to seize these opportunities.”

Fantham says Hajoca is addressing that concern head-on through its management development and education program. “In the last three years the number of young, talented folks in our management development program has increased by five times,” he says. “We have doubled down on training for all our people. We are obsessed with selection and development of world-class leaders.”

Fantham is looking forward to his upcoming 12-month term as the association’s president and traveling the country to the many ASA regional and national events. “While I am a proud Canadian, I have been fully immersed in the U.S. business since 2006,” he says. “In eight years I have become an unabashed and ardent fan of the United States of America, the spirit, the culture and most importantly the people. My 12 months as president will be a wonderful opportunity to deepen my understanding of the country and meet even more new people in this industry and build more friendships throughout ASA. These are fabulous times in ASA. I am confident the good old days of ASA are tomorrow.”