Commentary: A branch can be much more than sheetrock, cinder blocks and warehouse shelving.
Two fine articles in this issue offer some great tips for running profitable branches (“Out of the Fire,” page 23 by Neil Gillespie and Allen Ray, and “Survival Skills for Small Branches,” page 33, by David Gordon). These features got me thinking about the huge role an electrical distributor's branches play in the perception customers have of their companies.
Logistically, branches all perform the same basic functions of providing local inventory and a point of contact. And most of the thousands of branches in the electrical industry have little more than a counter area, warehouse, some basic office space and a few parking spaces. Sure, there have been a few palaces. I used to hear lots of snickering about the “Taj Mahal” All-Phase Electric's Ron Kinney once opened in Port Charlotte, Fla., but most All-Phase Electric locations were a heckuva lot closer to the renovated A&P supermarket that he started out in.
While most distributors' branches won't win any design awards from Architectural Record, some certainly have their own distinct flavor. I loved visiting the old-time saloon Independent Electric Machinery Co.'s Jack Launder had in the second story of a warehouse in Kansas City, Mo. And I will always remember the collection of knives and swords Babe Scavelli had mounted on the wall of his office at Suffolk Lighting Supply, in Riverhead, N.Y., or the distributor in Queens, N.Y., who was short of parking, so contractors would park their trucks on the sidewalk.
I would have loved to have seen the movie theater that served as the first location for Goody Gilman's Gilman Electric Supply, Newport, Maine, and still wonder how he ripped out all the seats to make a warehouse, or did business from an office on what was once the theater's stage. And anyone who ever visited Griffith Electric Supply's Trenton, N.J., headquarters won't ever forget Meta Griffith's wonderful office, packed with memories and mementos from her 101 years.
One of my favorite branches of all was Hobb Electrical Supply's location on 34th St. in Manhattan. Led by Lou Moskowitz and Paul Hillstrom, the place was loaded with wise-cracking New Yorkers, and I always felt like I was walking onto the set of a television sit-com. The jokes from the counter workers and office staff were nonstop. But all joking aside, that one branch could pull in more business from 10 surrounding city blocks than some distributors could scare up in 10 counties, and in its day that location topped $20 million in sales.
Another one of my other favorite branches was about 1,800 miles away from the streets of Manhattan in Cheyenne, Wyo. In the 1990s, Winlectric had a branch in an old bank building. The bank vault was still in there and they used it to store products.
I learned a lot about the basics of branches from Winlectric , which is part of the WinWholesale family of distribution companies, Dayton, Ohio. Winlectric branches are all locally owned, run according to a set of business ratios that have powered other Winlectric locations for years, and feed off of WinWholesale's centralized business and IT systems.
Local company presidents often start locations of about 6,000 square feet in size with a handful of employees, and little more than milk crates and lumber for desks, telephones, and shipping pallets doubling as shelving in the warehouse. WinWholesale also operates companies in the plumbing, HVAC, industrial, fastener, PVF and waterworks industries, and in some towns these businesses are co-located in the same location in what the company calls a Win Plaza.
I have always wondered why more distributors haven't considered a similar approach. Schaedler YESCO Distribution, Harrisburg, Pa., is one of the few companies now utilizing a similar concept. In the 1990s, Turtle & Hughes opened an “industrial mall” in Bridgewater, N.J., that joined its industrial supply and electrical operations, and in the 1980s Maynard's Electric Supply, Rochester, N.Y., and a group of residentially oriented distributors had branches in a renovated shopping mall.
Branches come in many different flavors, but they will always go a long way to defining the distributor. Companies will be bought and sold and the names over the doors will change, but customers will always remember you by how they were treated at your local branch.
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