This past summer my nephew got married in Wilmington, North Carolina. With a long trip to the wedding from Indiana, we pulled out a map and considered where to visit after seeing the sights of Wilmington. Myrtle Beach was located a short hour-and-a-half drive to the south. So we contacted other family members to find out their plans.
It appeared that Myrtle Beach was the destination of choice. A chance for the 50,000 golf courses to eat us up and prove we should be in the plumbing profession, not the PGA. Right down the road from all of the golf courses is the headquarters and plant of Wolverine Brass.
I've always thought of Wolverine Brass as an interesting company. It's one of the last of the door-to-door salesman companies in the plumbing business. I can recall being knee-high to a grasshopper when the Wolverine Brass salesman came calling on my father. The salesman always got an education when he visited my father. He got chewed out for the things that were going wrong and complimented for the things the company did right.
A few months later, the salesman would always return. He would start off with a response to the comments my father laid on him the previous visit. Now that's good salesmanship.
Blast From The PastBeing that close to the plant, my father arranged for my brother, myself and him to visit Wolverine Brass for a plant tour. He let it be known that this guy who writes for PM magazine, his son, would be joining them on the tour. It's always nice to have your father proud of what you do.
Quite frankly, I have been on many tours of brass plants. I didn't need to go, but my father and brother had never joined me on any of these tours. It would be fun to hear their side of the story during the tour.
One of the plant engineers at Wolverine Brass met us. This engineer previously had worked for another faucet manufacturer, so it was interesting to hear him compare his work at Wolverine Brass to his previous employer.
The first thing our tour guide mentioned was what the engineering profession now calls "value engineering." That's a fancy expression that means make it cheaper. He showed us a part on one of the faucets he had suggested the company change to a lower-cost component. The current part was brass, the suggested part was a high-grade plastic.
The management team at Wolverine Brass hit him with a series of questions: Will the part improve the faucet? No, it will remain the same. Will the part increase the performance or life of the faucet? Again, no. Will the part change the perception of the faucet by the plumber? Yes, when they see a brass part going to plastic, they will think we cheapened the product. The response from the Wolverine Brass management team: Don't change the part.
He turned to me and in engineering lingo said, "That's rather strange to have an employer who isn't concerned with the price, only the quality." I had to agree. But I mentioned we have had a change of heart in this country and that while Wolverine Brass has always had this view, other manufacturers are seeing the light.
I'll have to admit, I didn't see anything new on the plant tour. It was a typical brass works facility. My father and brother, however, were impressed by how much manual labor really goes into the manufacturing of a faucet.
Service From The Heart: After the plant tour, the national sales manager popped out of his office to say hello. Since he had a few plumbers there, he asked some questions regarding Wolverine Brass' upcoming campaign. He also demonstrated its new portable display case.
Of course, the national sales manager gave his normal spiel about the company. I always enjoy listening to this. You can always tell when the spiel is coming from the heart and they really believe in the company. His comments were passionate. There was an emphasis on serving the plumber. It was pointed out quickly that it never would sell in a home center such as Home Depot, Lowes or others. Then he commented that many of the good ideas come from the feedback we receive from you, the plumber. I knew that was true, having listened to my father always tell the company how to do things better or improve its product.
As we left the plant, a lot of things raced through my mind. What kept coming back to me was, "Does anybody care?" I mean, do you care?
The reason I kept asking myself this was because I thought back to a presentation I attended by another manufacturer. It was defending its practice of selling faucets in the home centers. What I remember most about the presentation were the statistics. It estimated, rather accurately I might add, that 60 percent of the faucets sold in this country are purchased at home centers. Boy, did that seem high.
What was even more amazing were the crystal ball statistics it delivered next. It estimated that within the next 10 years, 80 percent of all faucets sold in this country will be purchased at home centers. That sure doesn't leave many for the plumbing contractors to sell.
Then I thought maybe the home center won't capture all of this market. Perhaps the dot-coms might start taking some of the home center business of selling faucets. Imagine, a homeowner buying a new faucet on the Internet.
So I repeat my question to you: Do you care? Does it make a difference to you that some manufacturers (there are others besides Wolverine Brass) won't sell to the home center? Does it matter that some companies go out of their way to build higher quality into their product, normally resulting in a slightly higher price? Or is it price, price, price that you are after?
I would sure like to know what you think. Please e-mail or fax your comments. You can leave word on the Web site at www.PMmag.com.
Do you care?