Cruising the moonlit waters of San Francisco Bay aboard the yacht San Francisco Spirit, two cigar rollers, busy at their craft, roll premium tobacco leaf from around the world for guests.

On the yacht's top deck, captains of the electrical business savor a good smoke after dinner at Sonepar's Billion Dollar Bash, a coming-out party held during this year's National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED) annual conference for the company that reached $1 billion in sales faster than any distributor in the electrical industry's history.

When it was time for Richard Worthy, Sonepar USA's president and CEO, to say a few words after dinner, one would have forgiven him if he soaked up a few moments in the industry spotlight. But that's not Worthy's style. More than anything he seemed humbled and perhaps a bit awed by the moment, and just how far Sonepar USA had come in the six years under his leadership — growing to nearly $1.5 billion in sales, 217 locations and 3,700 employees. He thanked employees; guests; and his wife, Lisa; for making the night possible. Then he left the microphone, and let the party roll on.

Worthy, just north of 40 years old, is pretty darn humble for a guy who was one of GE's rising stars before taking the electrical wholesaling industry by storm after he joined Sonepar. His stint at GE included time as a branch manager for GE Supply in New England, as manager of business development for the GE Locomotive division in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and as president and CEO of GE Capital's Commercial Vehicle and Trailer Leasing division in Amsterdam.

Yet he somehow blends that background in the world of high finance with the persona of an average guy. The son of a Boston mail carrier and musician, Worthy has a healthy addiction to sports in general and golf and hockey in particular. A former referee in the American Hockey League, Worthy doesn't have the time to lace up his skates as often these days because he and his wife are busy keeping up with the sporting interests of their three sons.

Add up some of the more notable experiences in Worthy' business career — selling pipe and wire in New England or locomotives in Russia, blowing the whistle on a two-minute slashing penalty in a hockey game, and building an electrical distributor that he believes could one day top $4 billion in sales — and you have one of the electrical industry's most interesting tales.

Think of Sonepar as a many-sided kaleidoscope. Because of its decentralized operating philosophy, what you see depends entirely on your perspective. The Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who interviewed Richard Worthy in 2003 saw Sonepar USA as one of the fastest-growing privately owned firms in the Philadelphia metropolitan market. An electrical contractor wiring lumber mills in Oregon sees the company as Eoff Electric, while a contractor working in the Paris suburbs knows the company as Sonepar, one of the two biggest distributors in Europe.

Although decentralized operating strategies are common in the electrical industry, you don't normally see them employed on a scale as large as Sonepar. It has been a difficult concept for some of Sonepar's business partners to grasp, says Jay Bricker, the company's senior vice president of marketing. Bricker, who worked for Efengee Electric Supply and Idlewood Electric, both headquartered in Chicago; and Cooper Electric Supply, Tinton Falls, N.J., (now owned by Sonepar) before taking a corporate post with Sonepar, spends much of his time explaining Sonepar's business philosophy to vendors.

“I make sure the market understands who Sonepar is, what we do, how we are doing it and how we are different,” he says. “Frankly, that has not been something that has been easy to get people to understand. It's hard for the market to conceptualize a company like ours that is so decentralized, but is a billion-plus dollars in sales in the United States. More than that, they really struggle with the fact that we have a small headquarters.

“Our brands are our distributor businesses in the local markets. That's what we really try to focus on and build. That's been a big part of my role.”

Worthy says Bricker's close ties with vendors helped get Sonepar USA through a difficult transitional period a few years ago when the company left the Affiliated Distributors buying/marketing group and needed to establish purchasing relationships on a corporate basis with electrical manufacturers.

PATIENT GROWTH

Some common threads tie the U.S. operations back to its French corporate parent. Patience is one of them. The Coisne family launched Sonepar in 1969 and built the company into a global powerhouse that today has over $7 billion in sales, 1,146 branches and 19,700 employees in 32 countries across four continents. It rivals — and by some measures surpasses — Rexel in size on the international scene, and is ranked No. 90 by Family Business magazine in its 2004 listing of the world's 250 largest family-owned businesses.

Marie-Christine Coisne, Sonepar's corporate chairman and CEO, now runs the company that her father, Henri Coisne nurtured over the years. She focuses on finding the right people who can produce the financial return Sonepar requires on its investment and then letting managers do their own thing.

The company works at its own pace. Although Sonepar had been interested in the North American market since the 1980s — and publicly announced those intentions in an Electrical Wholesaling cover story in December 1986 — Sonepar didn't make its first acquisition across the Atlantic until the purchase of Lumen in Quebec in 1984. Still, the U.S. market beckoned.

Enter Richard Worthy in 1998. Sonepar him hired away from GE Capital to build a presence in the United States for Sonepar. Although he set off on his mission in the midst of the go-go 1990s acquisition binge, he wasn't going to spend Sonepar money on acquisitions that wouldn't produce the return on investment the parent company expected. He said in a recent EW interview that “people, process and IT” are the keys to the distribution business, and over the past six years he made his investments accordingly. The following strategies are the foundation of the Sonepar USA expansion formula:

  • Building market presence branch by branch, whether it be through acquisitions or branch start-ups.

  • Focusing on small- and medium-sized electrical contractors as the most profitable customers to serve.

  • Using central distribution centers (CDCs) to serve branches in regional clusters.

  • Moving a distributorship's business mix from direct business to the more profitable stock business, and servicing that stock business through CDCs.

  • Finding key personnel in a regional market and basing growth initiatives on recruiting that local talent, every bit as much as acquiring the bricks and mortar in an acquisition.

  • Maintaining the local identities and branch personnel of distributorships after acquisitions.

Worthy and his management team work with Sonepar's regional distributors to hone these strategies. True to its decentralized philosophy, Sonepar has just 11 employees at its Berwyn, Pa., headquarters. Each senior manager at the Berwyn headquarters has a specific focus. Kathy Rusko, the company's chief financial officer and another GE veteran, has spent much of her time integrating the various IT systems and backroom business functions of Sonepar's acquisitions. It has been a mammoth task over the past few years, particularly the integration of at least 21 different IT systems. Worthy credits Rusko's collaborative management style with maintaining and building employee morale while working with financial personnel in the field.

GROWING ONE BRANCH AT A TIME

For a company that has made headlines for more than 20 acquisitions over the past six years, it might surprise some people just how many branches Sonepar has started from scratch. These start-ups, coupled with the purchases of several dominant distributors with strong existing branch networks (Brook Electrical Distribution Co., Lincolnshire, Ill.; Eoff Electric, Salem, Ore.; Viking Electric Supply in Minneapolis; and Cooper Electric Supply, Tinton Falls, N.J.), and acquisitions of some smaller companies with relatively small market share, have helped Sonepar blanket select regional markets.

“If there's one thing that separates us from other distributors, it's growing businesses,” says Worthy. “Buying some businesses that other people didn't think were dominant players, not having a lot of debt, taking our cash flow and reinvesting it in branches. We opened over 30 branches in the last five years and had to close only six branches.”

While Sonepar's growth by start-up has indeed been impressive, the company's acquisitions have attracted most of the attention. A deal that didn't happen had a huge impact on the future complexion of the Sonepar presence in the United States. In 1998, Sonepar tried to purchase one of the largest national distributors, but the bid was not accepted. Because that company had several hundred branches at the time, the acquisition would have created an immediate presence in the U.S. market for Sonepar. Worthy's management team saw a different way to dig into U.S. soil: building the business region-by-region.

“When we started our plan, we wanted to buy branches,” he says. “That's what will bring small contractors. You have to have branches. If you are just buying revenues, that makes your business rather suspect to a couple of customers or industry segments.

“We said, ‘We are going to build this piecemeal. We can always stop it, if it's getting out of control and we have too many moving pieces that aren't making the profits that we want. But if we take each region and get it up to the desired level on profitability, then we go to another region.”

As the least consolidated market in the United States in the late 1990s, the East Coast was a natural place to start buying companies.

“Most of those distributors on the Electrical Wholesaling Top 250 listing (at the time) were from Boston to Washington,” says Worthy. “The most consolidated markets were Florida and the West Coast. CED and a few others had taken a lot of market share on the West Coast. There wasn't a lot for sale that we wanted in the Midwest. There were a lot of distributors for sale on the East Coast, and that was the biggest market.”

Worthy says while Sonepar didn't necessarily buy as much sales revenue in its acquisitions compared to the other large acquirers during the 1990s — WESCO, Rexel and Hagemeyer — it did buy more branches.

The acquisition of Boston's Eagle Electric in 1998 was the company's first purchase in the United States. Although Eagle historically enjoyed a terrific reputation as an industrial powerhouse with the coveted Allen-Bradley line, the timing of the acquisition wasn't the greatest.

“We bought Eagle at the beginning of the industrial downturn,” Worthy says. “No one foresaw the industrial market imploding.”

Timing on some other acquisitions has been just right. “Cooper and Viking have been great successes. The right timing, the right teams. It all came together,” he says.

In other regional markets, instead of purchasing a dominant player, Sonepar has attempted to build its own by buying smaller distributors and supplementing their existing branches with start-ups. That's the strategy Sonepar USA used to move into the Washington, D.C./Baltimore/Virginia market.

“Washington was a critical market,” says Worthy. “You had Hagemeyer, Rexel, and we needed to be there. Graybar was building a CDC. If we don't move, then we are going to be too late.”

Sonepar purchased several distributors in the region, including Capital Lighting & Supply, Alexandria, Va.; Lee Electric, Baltimore; and Dixie Electric Supply, Richmond, Va. Worthy gave John Hardy, Capital Lighting's president, the job of creating a dominant regional player. Hardy has focused on building a corporate culture that emphasized the local strengths of the companies Sonepar acquired.

“We had to build a culture,” Hardy says. “We didn't have a culture. We had six cultures. Our people now understand that we are part of Sonepar. They recognize that and are excited about being part of Sonepar USA, that being part of that gives them some advantages.

“On the local basis, they feel empowered. They can make decisions and act fast and get to market fast. Our people understand the goals of the organization and that they are part of achieving those goals. They understand the correlation between Capital Lighting & Supply achieving goals and them being successful. It's all driven toward internal and external customer service. It's a winning attitude, and it's contagious.”

There's a bit of luck woven through Sonepar's growth story in the right people and right companies being available at the right time. But there's definitely a method to the madness, and Sonepar is patiently building its business market by market. (See sidebar on page 28.) In mid-2004, the company's key regional operations are:

  • Eagle Electric/Northeast Electric in New England.

  • Cooper Electric Supply in New Jersey, metropolitan New York and Philadelphia markets.

  • Capital Lighting & Supply, Alexandria, Va., covering metropolitan Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, as well as the Route 95 corridor to Richmond.

  • World Electric Supply/Warren del Caribe, Miami, covering Florida and the Caribbean.

  • Brook Electrical Distribution Co., Lincolnshire, Ill., in the Chicago market.

  • Viking Electric Supply, covering metropolitan Minneapolis and northern Wisconsin.

  • Eoff Electric, Salem, Ore., covering Oregon and much of the Pacific Northwest.

Interestingly, most of these companies have grown so large over the past few years that if ranked as independent entities on Electrical Wholesaling's listing of the Top 200, they would easily rank amongst the 50 largest electrical distributors. Several of the Sonepar companies are probably already large enough to rank amongst the 25 largest distributors. To reach this size, Sonepar hired market veterans at these companies, gave them financial goals, and let them run their own show. Sonepar needed them to stay with their companies.

“We are more like the restaurant business,” Worthy says. “If a great chef leaves the restaurant, it might have the same décor, but you can watch that place go out pretty quick.”

As a corporate parent, Sonepar is available for support, but the face of Sonepar that customers see remains that of the local distributor they have known over the years. This “local first” strategy is evident right down to the business cards, where the local distributor's logo reigns supreme, and the Sonepar logo is not emphasized as much.

WHERE THE SMALL CUSTOMER IS KING

Although most of the Sonepar distributors work with larger contractors that focus on large construction jobs, the company has identified small- or medium-sized electrical contractors as a sweet spot in the market. Worthy says contractors of this size place importance on a distributor's branches being close to the construction projects on which they are working. Sonepar USA's expanding branch network fills this need.

Although the Sonepar companies all cater to electrical contractors, several of them have distinct specialties as well. For instance, Cooper Electric Supply is the Koehler Generators distributor for much of the metropolitan New Jersey/New York and eastern Pennsylvania markets; Eoff Electric has a thriving business in energy-efficient products and has on-staff experts in project management; Viking Electric carved a niche in tool sales; and Brook Electrical and Viking Electric have made serious strides in the voice/data market.

Along with the focus on contractors, automation is a core competency for several Sonepar companies. For instance, Eoff Electric, Fromm Electric/Cooper Electric and Warren del Caribe have large automation businesses. Worthy says Sonepar's North American operations (including Lumen, which has the Rockwell franchise for Quebec) in total are actually one of the 10 largest Rockwell Automation distributors on the continent.

MILES OF AISLES AT CDCS

Several of the companies are now operating central distribution centers (CDCs). Worthy is a big believer in CDCs, a not-always-popular method of feeding a network of branches through a large central warehouse. Not all of the U.S. Sonepar operations use CDCs. For example, its branches in the Florida market are too far apart for them to work effectively.

Worthy admits that not all of his team was crazy about CDCs.

“CDCs are here to say,” he says. “John Hardy laughed when I talked about them. Carl Brand (president of Eagle Electric/Northeast Electrical) hated them. They work. They are a leap of faith, but they are a $5 million to $10 million investment. These mechanisms are the footprints to a $200-million to $300-million distributor. When you look at the tradeoff, they work. Ultimately, this is the gateway. If you want to have a broad customer base — small, medium and large contractors; schools; hospitals; institutions — turn your inventory six times, and have high fill rates, there is no better way to do it. It doesn't work in Florida or Montana, but it works in the metropolitan markets where half the deliveries can go direct to the customers.

Key to the CDC strategy is a focus on flow goods (stock sales). Many of Sonepar's U.S. distributors are moving their business mix to stock sales from direct shipments. “There is a lot of mix change going on,” says Worthy. “We like the predictability of stock sales. It's a more sustainable business.”

DOWN THE ROAD

Worthy says the decentralized operating strategy that Sonepar has used to build its U.S. business will not vary in the foreseeable future. He says if other electrical distributors had raced far ahead of the pack because of investments in centralized ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems, Sonepar may have considered centralizing some operations around a centralized computer system.

For now, decentralization will remain the name of the game at Sonepar. Worthy might eventually combine some operations if his team ever found some proven methodology that wouldn't negatively impact the customer, possibly in backroom operations or sourcing. But it all gets back to people, processes and IT, in that order, he says. It's a formula that he will follow to meet the parent company's financial goals.

“At the end of the day, when you start from zero and you have a foreign parent, they brought the money,” he says. “We brought the management team and market knowledge, but they brought the capital. What was their tolerance of investment? We worked back from that. They said, ‘Here is the total dollar amount we want to put in. How can you grow us a billion-dollar business?’ We have to achieve those targets. We are a private company, but we are run like a public company.”

How big can Sonepar get in the United States? Worthy says it all depends on finding the right people. The company is strongest on the East Coast and in the Upper Midwest. It does not yet have operations in the Carolinas, the Atlanta market, or much of the Sunbelt through California. On the West Coast, Jack Mumford, president of Sonepar USA/Western Region, is searching for the right people and electrical distributors to expand in western U.S. markets such as Seattle, Denver, Phoenix and northern California.

Sonepar will continue to blend branch start-ups with acquisitions. Worthy believes more distributor owners will be willing to sell their businesses in the years to come because of the increased investments required to survive.

“This industry was driven by strong, determined, persistent leaders that just had that doggedness to get through the industry's ups and downs,” says Worthy. “They would say, ‘I have many reasons for being in business, and if I make $1 million on $100 million in revenues, I made $1 million. I don't care if it's 1 percent.

“Now they are waking up and saying, ‘I am always putting money into these new IT systems and CDCs and it's not five delivery trucks, it's 55. My accountant says I have to make 4 percent. My bank suddenly wants me to put in equity, because it's a big business now.' That is just something they didn't signup for. When the economy was robust, that was one thing. But more of them are finding out the risk/reward doesn't justify it.”

Worthy believes Sonepar USA could eventually have 10 regional businesses, each with annual sales of $300 million to $400 million. “That's probably where this company maxes out,” he says. “That $4 billion range will take six to 10 years to get to. Then you have to make a decision if you run out of good customers. We are a reflection of our customers. There are a lot of customers that we just don't match up with what we provide.”

SONEPAR USA'S KEY ACQUISITIONS IN THE UNITED STATES

Sonepar USA has used acquisitions as the base its 217-branch network throughout the United States. These are the company's key purchases over the past six years:

2003

Levitan-Robbins, Woodside, N.Y.
Warren Del Caribe, San Juan, Puerto Rico

2002

Fromm Electric of Piscataway, N.J.
Eoff Electric, Salem, Ore.
Lakeshore Lighting, Green Bay, Wis.

2001

Daniels Electric Supply, Yorktown, Va.
Richard Electric Supply, Miami
Del Electric Supply, Gaithersburg, Md.
Elite Electric & Utility Supply, Charlottesville, Va.

2000

Viking Electric Supply, Minneapolis
Capital Lighting Supply, Alexandria, Va.
Dixie Electric Supply, Richmond, Va.
Light Options, West Deptford, N.J.
Brook Electrical Supply, Lincolnshire, Ill.
Davis Electric Supply, Clearwater, Fla.

1999

Cooper Electric Supply, Tinton Falls, N.J.
MarLe Co., Stamford, Conn.
World Electric, Miami
Branch Electric branches in New England
Lee Electric, Baltimore, Md.
West Philadelphia Electric Supply, Philadelphia
All-Phase Electric Supply branches in New England

1998

Eagle Electric, Canton, Mass.

THE MANY SUBSIDIARIES OF SONEPAR

COOPER ELECTRIC SUPPLY

Tinton Falls, N.J.

Cooper Electric reflects several key Sonepar operating strategies and in many ways exemplifies the type of regional distributorship the corporate parent would like its other U.S. divisions to become.

Cooper had a commanding presence in the New Jersey market before brothers Richard and Bill Cooper sold the company to Sonepar in 1999. With a mix of acquisitions and branch start-ups, Cooper Electric has expanded that presence to include metropolitan Philadelphia, New York City, Long Island and the northern reaches of the New York metropolitan area. With the exception of its Light Options national account business in the lighting market based in southern New Jersey, the company feeds its 28 branches in the region from a CDC in Linden, N.J., with 1.3-billion cubic feet.

The company operates under five brand names in this market: Cooper Electric, Cooper Power Systems for the business that operates as Koehler distributorship for New York, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania; Levitan-Robbins in New York City, offering access to key Local 3 union contractors; Fromm Electric of Piscataway for central New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania; and Light Options for its lighting business.

Greg Griswold, Cooper Electric president, forecasts $270 million in 2004 sales.

“We are the largest in our territory by far,” Griswold says. “Most of our growth will come in the New York and Pennsylvania markets. We still haven't reached up to Albany, and we could probably get out past Harrisburg. We still have a lot of opportunity in and around Philadelphia and the New York markets.

“We are running 12 percent ahead year-to-date. Stock sales are up 20 percent and direct sales are up 2 percent. We expect a fairly strong finish, and we are booking business at a rate faster than we are billing out. We are building backlog, and so far it has been a very strong year for us.”

Griswold wants to open several new facilities soon. “Most of the branches we have done in the last year have been startups,” he says. “Our first preference is to open a branch if we can get the right people. Second preference is to buy in, depending on location, purchase price and all the other parameters that go along with it.”

Key to Cooper Electric's growth — in its pre-Sonepar days as well as the present and future — is a healthy commitment to marketing. Cooper Electric has always had a full-time marketing department. Recently, the company developed several innovative marketing campaigns, including a Caribbean cruise for mid-size and larger customers and weekend getaways for smaller contractors. The company also recently gave away a Mini Cooper automobile in a recent promotion. Carl Brand, president, Northeast Electrical/Eagle Electrical, had the initial brainstorm for this promotion.

NORTHEAST ELECTRICAL/EAGLE ELECTRIC

Canton, Mass.

Carl Brand, president, Northeast Electrical/Eagle Electric, has plenty on his plate as head of Sonepar's New England operations. Eagle Electric, Sonepar's first acquisition in the United States in 1998, is still recovering from the cataclysmic downturn in the region's industrial market, and is finally starting to see some new business opportunities in that market segment.

It's a different story with Northeast Electrical, a company Sonepar built from the seven locations it bought from Branch Electric in 1999. Brand is gunning for $190 million in 2004 annual sales for the two companies. An 186,000-square-foot CDC with a $20-million inventory, 32 delivery trucks and 99 percent fill rates provides 24-hour service to 17 locations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.

“Our real story is the Northeast growth,” says Brand. “We were 70 percent project business and 30 percent stock. Through May, we are 63 percent stock and 37 percent direct.

“It wasn't an easy accomplishment. You just don't put up a CDC and become successful. We did a major computer conversion and improved fill rates. Northeast's stock business is up 34 percent.”

The company has driven this growth with its Advantage program, a marketing program with a special emphasis on small contractors. To get the program right for this customer audience, Brand wanted to ensure it had achievable goals for smaller customers often shut out of typical distributor promotions because they aren't large enough to hit purchasing requirements. The company set up focus groups to see what they would want in a distributor program and researched their buying habits at home centers. The company struck on a quarterly program with loads of tie-ins to seasonal outdoor activities popular in New England and to the region's professional sports franchises, including the New England Patriots and Boston Red Sox.

“Whatever they buy in an order, they get gifts that are seasonally appropriate,” says Brand. “We signed up 1,800 small contractors.”

Eagle Electric/Northeast Electrical recently opened a new location in Charlestown, Mass., and is looking at several Boston suburbs and in western Massachusetts for new growth opportunities.

VIKING ELECTRIC SUPPLY

Minneapolis

Forty-year-old Viking Electric Supply joined Sonepar in 2000 and now has 19 locations and 430 associates in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The company plans to add two new branches during the next 12 months. During the past year, Viking Electric spent much of its time building a new location in Mankato, Minn., and integrating its 2002 Lakeshore Lighting acquisition in Green Bay, Wis., into its branch network in northern Wisconsin. Construction of the Mankato branch, which has a similar design to the company's Rochester facility, started in April 2003. Less than four months later the company was stocked and ready for business.

The Green Bay operation enjoyed some big project business in 2003, supplying the second and final phases of the $5 million renovation of the Green Bay Packers' historic Lambeau Field and the Tundra Water Park and Hotel near the stadium.

Viking Electric feeds these branches with $18.5 million in inventory through a 130,000-square-foot CDC in Minneapolis and regional distribution centers in southern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin.

“We are not yet in Milwaukee or Madison,” says Greg Hames, president and CEO. “David Rosenstein (Brook Electrical) and I look at that. Viking Electric covers a territory that's a 250-mile radius from the CDC. We want to stay within that territory where there are still some undeveloped markets for us, and utilize the investment that we already have in our CDC.”

Viking Electric has diverse customer interests that include supplying commercial construction and projects in metropolitan Minneapolis, working with small and medium-sized contractors, doing automation for 3M in Minnesota and globally, supplying paper mills in northern Wisconsin, and doing voice/data work in many different markets.

“Flow goods through the counter is so very big to us,” says Greg Hames, president and CEO. “We also have a major emphasis on tool products, with specialized salespeople calling on nonelectrical trades like plumbing, mechanical, etc. Corporately we do a lot with tools and fasteners.”

Hames is forecasting $211 million in 2004 sales, after $188 million in sales in 2003. Year-to-date sales are tracking at an 18 percent increase over last year.

CAPITAL LIGHTING & SUPPLY

Alexandria, Va.

John Hardy had a different sort of challenge than the other Sonepar distributorships in the United States. After selling Capital Lighting & Supply to Sonepar in 2000, he was tasked with building a strong presence in a key electrical market for the company — the Baltimore-Washington, D.C.-Virginia region.

Part of his challenge was melding the six different businesses Sonepar acquired in the area into one operation — while maintaining that all-important local face with customers.

“We had to create a brand, not only for our customers and vendors, but for our own employees,” says Hardy. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘What is Capital Lighting to them?’ We have tried to standardize the signage in all the stores and how it laid out, and attached ourselves to strong vendor brands.”

Hardy says Capital Lighting & Supply is solid along Route 95 corridor, with a “very strong footprint” in the Maryland/Virginia/D.C. area, with 19 locations. The company plans to open its 20th branch in Manassas, Va., in August, and recently opened a branch in Sterling, Va., in Loudon County, which is consistently ranked as one of the fastest-growing home-building markets in the United States.

“We have four distinct markets areas: Baltimore, D.C., Tidewater (coastal Virginia) and the Newport News, Va., area, and the Richmond/Charlottesville area,” says Hardy. “All are very different in how we go to market.”

Like other Sonepar companies, it maintains local identities where it makes sense. For instance, in the Richmond market, the name of Dixie Electric Supply, a company it bought in 2000, retains its cache, and its operations in that market retain that name.

Along with refining its market identity, like other Sonepar distributorships, Capital Light & Supply is focusing on building its flow goods, and on developing new or deeper business relationships with small- and medium-sized electrical contractors.

A key strategy to growing the business is a very heavy marketing emphasis, particularly in the area of new products. The company often focuses on labor-saving products and will target key accounts with a mailing that contains samples, giveaways and literature. Along with sponsoring a minimum of 20 counter days per month at branches, Hardy says Capital Lighting & Supply organizes special fishing trips, golf outings and trips to NASCAR events.

“We have a lot of opportunities,” he says. “Initially, we want to populate those markets closest to the distribution center because that will give us the biggest bang for our bucks. However, there are some opportunities that will arise that we will have to take advantage of. We have the infrastructure in place now to move fast and get it done.”

The plan seems to be working well so far this year. With sales up 23 percent year-to-date, the company is on target for $171 million in sales.

EOFF ELECTRIC CO.

Salem, Ore.

Eoff Electric is Sonepar's first West Coast acquisition. Led by Les Williamson, Jack Mumford and a management team with a combined 150 years of experience, the company, formerly an ESOP, has eight locations in Oregon and Washington.

Two core markets for the company, the pulp, paper and wood products businesses; and semiconductor/electronics industries, are finally seeing some sunshine after three dismal years. Eoff Electric's sales forecast reflects the uptick in the Pacific Northwest's economy.

Jack Mumford, a market veteran who spent years at a senior management post at Platt Electric Supply before coming to Sonepar in 2001, is looking for a 5 percent increase in sales for 2004. He is also searching for the right people and companies to expand in western U.S. markets such as Seattle, Denver, Phoenix and northern California.

Eoff Electric has an energy management group, expertise in project management and a $9 million automation business. Cross selling between these areas of expertise is a major focus for the company. Mumford says the company is constantly reminding salespeople not to overlook sales opportunities when out on a call. “They get so focused on selling a Phoenix or Red Lion product that they are not selling the lamps,” he says.

Eoff is also known for its annual trade show at its Bend, Ore., branch that focuses on product sales on the show floor. They seem to have hit on the right formula: manufacturers cover the costs of the show and the branch hits 10 percent of its annual sales quota in just three hours.

Like other U.S. Sonepar operations, Eoff Electric has targeted small- and medium-sized electrical contractors as a key avenue to growth. The company also utilizes central distribution, albeit on a smaller scale so far than some other distributors in the Sonepar family. It uses 20,000 to 25,000 square feet of its Portland warehouse to redistribute products.

WORLD ELECTRIC SUPPLY

Miami

Because of the many miles between its array of metropolitan market areas, Sonepar doesn't use a central distribution center to feed its 12 locations in the Florida market. Industry veteran Dick Coates, who was president of World Electric Supply at the time of its 2000 acquisition by Sonepar, runs the Florida operation, as well as the five Caribbean branches purchased in the 2003 Warren del Caribe acquisition and the locations from the acquisition of Richard Electric, Miami, in 2001.

With population growth steady in Florida and a booming housing market, Coates is forecasting an off-the-charts 39 percent growth rate that will propel the World operations to $155 million in 2004. Not too shabby, particularly following 29 percent growth in 2003.

BROOK ELECTRICAL DISTRIBUTION CO.

Lincolnshire, Ill.

Brook Electrical exemplifies several common elements of the Sonepar expansion philosophy. The company focuses on selling flow goods through a large CDC that serves branches, relies on small- and medium contractors for an increasing amount of business and maintains the same corporate identity customers know and trust. It also has a robust voice/data business that accounts for 8.5 percent of sales.

When Sonepar acquired the company four years ago, David Rosenstein, the company's president, says Brook Electrical Supply was probably the eleventh-largest player in a market of about 100 distributors. “Today, we have moved up to the third largest, and probably the largest construction player in Chicago,” he says. “Through five years we have averaged 12 percent compounded organic growth. In 2004 we are running 27 percent ahead of 2003.

“This is in a market that really hasn't shown much growth, so we feel we have taken significant market share from competitors. While the acquisition route may be faster, we feel this is profitable growth for Brook and Sonepar. Over the next five years, we feel we can duplicate what we have done before. We have graduated downward from a large-contractor focus to a small- and medium-contractor focus where the profitability is better and the service and price sets are less strenuous. We have also gone to a retail brand strategy trying to emulate the strengths of some of the mass merchandisers, really promoting our specialty departments in lighting, switchgear and datacom.”

Rosenstein believes the company's Eclipse computer system has helped it maintain high productivity levels, “reach deeper” into existing customers by analyzing purchasing trends, and will allow it to open an online storefront in the future.

Founded in 1927 as a single-branch small contractor-focused electrical supplier, the company serves the Chicago market through a CDC that feeds six branches. The CDC stocks over 20,000 stock-keeping units (SKUs), and the company promotes its ability to stock a customer's “Top 100” most commonly ordered electrical products at all locations.

Rosenstein says because the market's geography is compact and densely populated, it's very service- and price-intensive.

Brook's future growth plans are to expand south from Chicago into Will County and north toward the Wisconsin border. The company may also open a branch in the inner city that will tailor its services to meet the needs of Hispanic customers that live and work in that area.

Other avenues to growth for Brook Electrical Supply include training and marketing. These efforts include weekly training sessions at all locations. They also include a marketing campaign that will focus on flooding the market with new product samples, using a multi-vendor road show approach at the counters, and a Web-based rewards program where customers can earn prizes and awards for doing more business.