Riding On Radiant
“We encourage system creativity that allows the contractor to offer the homeowner the most comfortable/affordable system for the money,” says Michael. “We try to think of it as one system rather than a bunch of mini-systems all operating independently of each other.”
As part of its system approach, the wholesaler has aligned itself with a number of different manufacturers so it can offer good/better/best options and customize applications.
“We have multiple tubing, control and boiler manufacturers supplying us,” Michael says. “We try to incorporate these products into whatever system will make sense for the end user.”
This approach has worked well for Able, which now does 20 percent of its business in radiant and has grown from a single 1,000-sq.-ft. facility to three branches.
“Our radiant business has grown significantly over the last 10 years,” Daniel says.
The wholesaler operates a 16,000-sq.-ft. branch in McHenry, Ill., and recently expanded its Evanston, Ill., location to 14,000 sq. ft. Its 28,000-sq.-ft. headquarters is on the northwest side of Chicago. It has 30 employees company-wide, with 20 based in Chicago and five each in the other branches. All three locations have radiant-heated floors in the counter sales area so contractors and their homeowner customers can experience first-hand the comfort of radiant.
Selling radiant heating products involves a big investment in time, money and manpower for the wholesaler, according to Michael. Yet it is one of the most profitable things a wholesaler can sell. There is, however, an expensive learning curve.
“I have radiant plans on my desk all the time,” Michael says. “Maybe 30 to 50 percent of those plans actually happen. There is a lot involved in a radiant take-off. We learned over time, with the help of computer programs and classes.
“The key is speed,” he adds. “We strive to be a turnkey radiant distributor for our contractors. Able provides a CAD drawing of the mechanical challenges of the job as well as a complete radiant take-off and extensive material list for future use in purchasing and tracking job costs.”
The company has been in the wet side of heat since its founding in 1980 by Andrew Bleier, the late father of Michael and Daniel, and his founding partners, Scott Gorgius and George Taylor, who are still active in the business today. Andrew was a contractor from Budapest, Hungary. Coming from Europe, he had worked on boilers as an engineer.
When Andrew injured his back and had to quit his work as a contractor, he decided to open a wholesale business and hired Gorgius and Taylor from another supply house. “They knew the wholesaling business,” Michael explains.
“I was in college studying accounting,” Daniel says. “My father thought that my knowledge of systems and accounting would mesh with his knowledge of what a contractor wants.”
Helping ContractorsThe company uses the tagline: “The wholesaler that works with you.”
“We help contractors identify the problem,” Michael says. “We can go on calls with the contractor. Most of our counter people have worked in the field.
“Some of our people have spent their entire working lives with us,” he continues. “This deep commitment to the industry and our market place allows our contractor/customers to feel a sense of comfort when they run across a difficult situation.”
The first places to have radiant heat in Able’s market area were older homes in the North Shore area of Chicago.
“The intial jobs we were involved with were mostly retrofit applications driven by the end user,” Michael says. “People wanted to heat a room or do something to an existing house. These were staple-up applications.
“Sometimes we would find a manufacturer who did not have many local outlets to sell his product,” he continues. “We offered to be the guinea pig, working with contractors and getting systems down. It has been a long process. The systems we were doing 12 years ago vs. what is available today are worlds apart. We built a reputation. Now we are getting more new construction business for radiant.”
Because of the amount of time Able Distributors has been involved in radiant heat and the knowledge its people have acquired over time, contractors look to it for new products and for design and marketing help.
“I try to keep abreast of what is going on inside the industry, whether it be a new type of panel or insulation,” Michael says. “I attend seminars, read books and articles, and search the Internet. If I find an interesting article, I scan it into my computer and reprint it for my customers. It may be new boiler technology from Europe or an interesting radiator.”
For example, Michael attended the Radiant Panel Association convention in May. “I went to the seminars and talked with manufacturers and contractors. When I meet contractors I ask them which wholesalers they work with and why. I try to find out what the wholesalers in their areas are doing to keep them interested.”
“This is a relationship-driven industry,” Daniel says. “People rely on us for answers, service and logistics.”
The wholesaler cooperates with manufacturers to provide training for contractors. During a 45-day period it helped send 20 contractors to Canada for extensive boiler training and sent another 20 contractors to Weil-McLain for boiler training. The company also does internal training.
“In the last two years we have really geared up on education,” Michael says. “We’ll let contractors know about the training with phone calls, letters, signs and e-mail.”
Future PlansThe company has been working on a customized catalog that includes nearly all of the products it carries, along with charts and sizing information.
“We have been working on this nonstop for months,” Daniel says. “It goes beyond product and pricing. We want it to be a tool for our customers.”
In addition to a print version, the wholesaler plans to put the catalog online.
Also, it is in the process of redesigning the counter sales area at the Chicago facility. That will include updating the radiant heating, which was installed 10 to 12 years ago.
“The challenge for us, as for any distributor, is to continue to reinvent ourselves,” Michael says. “We have to find a better way to store and move inventory. We are constantly coming up with new ways to rack and stock.”
“The future is radiant,” Daniel says. “It will be a growing market for upper-end homes. Radiant is not going away, it will only increase.”
Radiant is moving into more commercial/industrial applications, says Michael. For example, the company recently sold 27 boilers to a contractor who will install them in schools in Portage, Ind.
“Our goal is to help develop more affordable radiant systems for middle and lower-end homes,” he says.
“We know of a builder in downstate Illinois who is using radiant on affordable housing,” Daniel says. “That is of interest to us. Radiant systems can be as affordable as forced air. We want to bring this concept to the Chicagoland market.”
Sidebar: Serving A Diverse Customer BaseThe headquarters facility of Able Distributors is in a neighborhood with a large and diverse ethnic population, including Romanian, Polish, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Bosnian, Salvadoran, Hungarian and Italian people.
Six different languages are spoken by various members of the company’s staff: Polish, Russian, Spanish, Hungarian, English and Czech.
“We held an International Day at Able in which we invited contractor customers to bring in foods that reflected their ethnic heritage,” Michael Bleier says. “More than 35 different countries were represented with food.”