A few years ago, I was being deposed in a case involving an unlicensed plumber and his error installing the wrong product. I was helping defend the product manufacturer’s honor.
One of the questions I was asked was this: “Mr. Ballanco, what responsibility does the supply house have in selling the wrong product to this contractor?”
I had to think of a polite way to describe how a supply house operates so that a lawyer would understand.
I responded: “The person behind the counter at the supply house is like your friendly bartender. He will listen to your stories, he’ll tell you a few stories, and he’ll sell you whatever you want. That’s their job — to sell plumbing products. The supply house has no responsibility in this case whatsoever.”
Of course, the supply house’s attorney loved hearing this response.
My intent was not to be insulting, I was trying to justify the supply house’s right to sell a product that may be used incorrectly in the field. It made me think of the supply house I used for many years in Montvale, N.J. — John M. Hartel & Co.
I still recall with fondness the many trips I took to Hartel’s. When I could first drive the truck myself to the supply house, my father would always instruct me: “Only speak with Fred Hartel when you get to the supply house. The others won’t understand what we need.”
Fred was the CEO and son of the founder. Even as CEO, you often found Fred working the counter. Hartel’s was, and still is, a family run plumbing supply house.
Fred always had a big smile and would greet me by name. That always amazed my brothers and me since there were six sons in my family. When you worked in the family plumbing business, you were usually one of the Ballancos. With Fred, I was always Julius. He knew all of us by our first name. He also knew about us, how we were doing in school, sports we were playing, etc.
Unlike my bartender comparison, Fred was the opposite. He was extremely knowledgeable and always helped out. He took the time to understand the type of plumber my father was. We even had some special fittings on the shelves marked, “Ballanco Plumbing.” When others were switching to some low-cost fittings, my father asked Fred to keep him supplied with some higher-end, higher-cost fittings. Fred had no problem accommodating my father.
When the plans and specifications for a project came in, Fred would go over the plumbing items and meet with us to go over the products. His suggestions were often taken. When new boilers or new fixtures hit the market, we were kept up to date on the pros and cons.
My current supply house — Milne Supply in Munster, Ind. — is also family-owned. Scott Milne and his father remind me a lot of Fred Hartel. Scott and I have been friends for many years.
Even though I left the area, Fred still knew what I was up to. He let me know that he was proud of the fact that I was writing for the leading plumbing contractors’ magazine. I would occasionally stop in to visit Fred, but my last visit was many years ago.
Fred and I spoke at my father’s wake. He commented on the success of all of my father’s children. He still knew all the goings on of our family. Around the holidays, he still called my mother and told her to come pick up her turkey at the supply house. Even though my father was gone, he still gave her a turkey. It was his way of saying thanks for all of the years of business and friendship.
I was saddened to learn that Fred Hartel recently passed away. He was 90 years old and fought brain cancer to the end.
For the last 30 years of his life, he was dedicated to raising funds for the Colleen Giblin Research Laboratories at Columbia University. The funding was for children’s neurological and cancer research. He got many of the plumbing contractors and local businesses involved in supporting the Colleen Giblin Research Laboratories. I would hear about the golf fundraisers and other events from my father when he was alive. He admired the work Fred was doing in raising money for a good cause.
Even at 90 years of age, Fred could be found in his office at Hartel Plumbing Supply. His sons and grandsons continue the family tradition of running the supply house. I recall running into one of his sons at a trade show in Chicago. Of course, we had to talk about both of our fathers, who raised us in this profession.
Family supply houses were always the backbone of our profession. With mergers and acquisitions, there are fewer and fewer family-owned supply houses. While I applaud the large supply house chains, I also hope that family-run supply houses stay a part of our profession.
Many of the large chains have learned to run their businesses like a family run business. They have learned from the likes of Fred Hartel. The personal one-on-one, the community involvement and the support of the profession should always remain a part of a good supply house, whether a chain or a family-run business.
When you hear that our profession is a family, it truly is. Most of that family attitude started and continues at the supply house. Contractors run into one another at the supply house. There are lunches, dinners, openings and celebrations at the supply house. With each new generation, the family atmosphere needs to stay a part of plumbing.
So I thank all the supply houses supporting the plumbing profession. I thank and praise my friends at Hartel’s and Milne Supply. I support all of the good help at the supply houses across this country. You’re more than bartenders — you’re the professionals that help us out.
I’m going to miss Fred Hartel. He was both a mentor and a friend. But he leaves behind a legacy for others to follow. Thanks, Fred.
This article was originally titled, “Thanks, Fred” in the February 2018 print edition of Plumbing & Mechanical.