Remembering Familian NW founder Jerry Stern
Mike Long remembers his first meeting with Familian Northwest founder Jerry Stern.
“The first time I went to work there I got to the regional office at 6 a.m.,” Long recalls. “Some other guy shows up in a 1964 Chevy Impala and gets out to open the gate. I got out to help him and asked who he was. He said his name was Jerry Stern. I asked, ‘You are Mr. Stern?’ He said, ‘No! I’m Jerry.’ He was the most down-to-earth guy you could know.”
Stern, who died Dec. 20 at the age of 89, also was one of the powerhouses in our industry, building Familian Northwest into a major plumbing and industrial PVF success story. When Familian Northwest was sold to Ferguson parent company Wolseley plc in 1988, the company had grown to 1,500 employees with some 50 branches in Oregon, Washington, Montana, Alaska and Hawaii. Familian Northwest won Supply House Times Supply House of the Year honors in 1982 and 1996.
Long worked for Familian Northwest for 34 years, starting in the warehouse and working his way up to branch manager of its Longview, Wash., location (about 40 miles from Portland, Ore.).
“Longview was a rough-and-tumble and very industrial area at the time,” he says. “Jerry was a visionary. We were coming out of the Vietnam War and he saw an opportunity there. There are about 100,000 people in our county. When I retired it had developed into a multi-million-dollar branch.”
Stern’s son, Tom, who worked 27 years in the company, the last 11 as CEO, says the recipe his father used for success was simple. “He had a wonderful way with people,” he says. “They wanted to come through for him. Everyone always felt he had their back and as a result they wanted to reciprocate. He never asked for much, but everybody wanted to produce for him.
"His employees were like his family and kids. Jerry left the company when we had 1,500 employees and 50 locations, yet even at that size he could travel around and remember names and remember wives’ names. People felt they mattered when they worked at Familian Northwest because of Jerry’s style. By example, he taught us no one in the company is better than anyone else. We all worked together to do our part to find success.”
Stern, talking via phone from Oregon, pulled out a letter from a former employee. “He started as employee No. 21 in the company,” he says. “He previously was working a warehouse job in Portland for $2.54 an hour and started at Familian for $3.50. He’s retiring this summer after 47 years and working at 13 branches, six of which he managed. There are a lot of stories like that. We had minimal staff turnover because they were given opportunities to grow.”
Stern estimates at the time of the sale to Wolseley, 40 of the 50 or so branch managers worked their way up through the company ranks. “They had learned Familian street smarts,” he says.
Jerry Stern also excelled at the art of promotion, as Long can attest. “Jerry was a promoter and knew exactly what to do,” he says. “Longview was very blue collar and customers loved prize fights. We had a promotion at the branch and showed the Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns fight. There were more than 1,100 people there. We had 11 large-screen televisions and had to bring in outside bathrooms. We went through 125 pizzas and 35 kegs of beer. That event cost us $12,000, which at the time in the late 1980s was a lot of money. Jerry said it was worth every dime and told me what a great promotion it was. He always was very supportive.”
Long uses the word respect when talking about his longtime boss. “Jerry was well-respected by everybody,” he says. “I think his competitors probably disliked him, but respected him. He was aggressive and hired aggressive people to work for him. Nobody else could get a foothold in the Northwest while Jerry owned the company. People would say they were going to take business from us, but they didn’t have a chance.
"We always were there price-wise and the big thing with Jerry was always take care of the customers. Jerry was great. He let us get in there and do our thing and then he would support us. I’d say it worked out well.”