An Interview With Kevin Symmons, president, Symmons Industries Inc.

PM: Many of the changes we've talked to other plumbing executives about have to do more with the changes brought on by catering to the growing retail market. Much of Symmon's strength, however, is in the commercial market. How has this particular market changed?

Symmons: The biggest change comes from dealing with the application of codes and standards, and the whole advent of code-writing organizations. Our salesmen not only have to be experts in products and how they apply to entire plumbing systems, but often they also have to act as interpreters of codes for local plumbing engineers and contractors.

PM: Are the codes so much more complicated these days?

Symmons: I would say so. Also, the codes are more enforced. When codes were first passed across the country, you had a low initial compliance rate. Now there is far more enforcement and compliance.

PM: Other than codes, what else is different?

Symmons: There's more selling today. It used to be that your product was specified and that's all there was to it. Now, other manufacturers have other options that can meet the spec as well. Demand also continues past the sale. The retail "no questions asked" approach in dealing with any customer issues has migrated into most markets today.

PM: Your company was instrumental in passing some of these codes in the 1970s, particularly regarding antiscald shower valves. Most companies would just send out more salesmen and knock on more doors.

Symmons: The company was an engineering company run by engineers solving problems using engineering solutions. We really needed something in order to make our company grow. We were a regional, niche company that really didn't know what marketing was. An engineering solution isn't to go out and buy an ad; the engineering solution is to go out and get your product mandated by law.

We were pretty much on our own when we started lobbying for these changes. As we progressed, many groups became our allies. We started in Massachusetts but had a lot of influence with many other state code changes. Today, out of the 7 million showers installed annually, safety-type units account for more than 80 percent.

PM: What about the effects of consolidation in wholesaling and contracting on the commercial market?

Symmons: The effects are similar to what you'd see for the retail market. We've had to leverage service and quality to maximize their impact. The numbers these consolidated operations represent are huge. Size does attract size. That makes it more difficult for us to make inroads since we aren't as big as other manufacturers. So it provides a problem and an opportunity.

Beyond that, everyone's roles have changed, whether due to consolidation or other factors. That means we all have to be more of a resource to our customers. As qualified people become more difficult to find, it becomes more important that we design something with ease of installation in mind. That means going beyond just technical attributes and inexpensive price.

At the same time, the contractor's role is expanding, too, because they often do their own design/build and create their own specs.

PM: How have these changes affected your company's operations?

Symmons: At our sales meetings, we always say the ante to do business continues to go up. On one hand, we can talk about the value of our product, which virtually lasts forever. People who are astute businessmen find that value very attractive. But we also recognize that price will always be an issue.

As a result, that helps to make us more competitive. We've invested a tremendous amount of dollars in capital equipment - millions in the last several years. Vendor-managed inventory has also saved us significantly in the first six months of this year. We always prided ourselves on being a service company, but I think that what we offered was more a technically-oriented service. We now have a whole customer service department that contains separate groups for engineering support, customer support, credit service and returned goods. Ten years ago, we maybe had two or three people.

Also, we went 20 years with very little in the way of new products. In the last five years, we've come out with a number of new products. This $1 in every $5 or $6 will come from new products.

Last year, we introduced Ultra-Sense, our first venture in electronic plumbing products. We are working right now to expand our presence in the electronic faucet market. We also have plans to continue to improve on our strength in pressure-balancing shower valves; electronics may play a big part in that. For example, in Europe, much of this control is centralized, rather than having a plumber deal with individual valves.

PM: Let's talk about your relatively recent entry into the residential faucet market. How did this move come about?

Symmons: Size and opportunity of marketplace - there are three times the number of faucets sold compared to shower heads every year. We had a commercial faucet line in the 1970s, but we used to think of our faucets as a necessary evil to compliment our shower valves. We characterized ourselves as a shower valve company that sold faucets, just as we may have thought of many of our competitors as faucetmakers that also sold shower valves. So while we still pride ourselves as a fine shower valve company, our push into faucets means we had to take a more design-conscious approach than we had to in the past. Consequently, an industrial designer who helped launch a wide variety of consumer products also designed our Symmetrix faucet line.

To be competitive, we also needed to offer a broader suite of products. Our competitors have 1,200 to 1,500 skus in their faucet lines. We have far fewer. But our fastest growing sales are in faucets - sales of our single-handle faucets have grown 45 percent this year.

PM: How does marketing to the residential market differ from marketing to the commercial market?

Symmons: One of the things we find that's great about being a commercial company coming into the residential market is that people do know us and know our products work. They make that mental translation between the commercial market - which means durability and quality - with the fashion orientation of the residential market. We've leveraged our commercial reputation to the point where people think of it of as a "minicommerical" faucet when they buy it for a home. That combined with its attractive styling has great appeal.

The downside is that if people don't look closely at the product, they automatically assume that it must be more expensive.

We've done a good job so far, considering that the last thing a wholesaler wants to stock is another faucet line. But we have a long way to go. Outside of the areas of the country where we are a strong competitor, people just don't consider us a residential player yet. I always get a touch of reality when I see an ad from a competitor in Sports Illustrated or another consumer book. That one ad would represent a significant portion of our annual advertising budget.

PM: Speaking of advertising, how has it changed since launching the Symmetrix line?

Symmons: The content of the ads has changed, although we just stick to trade and professional advertising. The ad is no longer solely features and functionality. Its content is more consumer oriented while still appealing to the contractor.

PM: What is your presence in Home Depot and the like?

Symmons: Very small. We've never actually actively pursued home centers, although they've actively pursued us. They pursue us in our strong market areas, such as New England. Home center executives are very good business people, and they aren't going to put anything on their shelves that isn't going to turn for them. We sell our basic shower valve, and we sell it directly to the home centers. The major reason we sell directly is that we have more control over how our product is displayed.

PM: Shower valves don't sound to us like the run-of-the-mill DIY project.

Symmons: The only reason I can give is that we have such a unique niche on such a specific product. People around New England equate the name with shower valves. So they'll come in asking for one of those "Simons" shower valves because the one they had in their old home lasted 30 years.

PM: What are you currently doing on the Internet?

Symmons: We have plenty of information for contractors and engineers. Specs. Product information. Sizing help. The big benefit we see right now with our Web site is that it can provide customer service 24 hours a day , seven days a week. A contractor or engineer on a Saturday afternoon can log on and get a spec or a rough-in, which they couldn't do just a few years ago.

PM: What's next for the Web?

Symmons: What we're moving toward is to have our key customers, in this case, I mean our main wholesaler and several key reps, on line all the time. We have several district offices around the country, and we want them to have immediate online access to order information. That to me is the first step toward e-commerce - enter an order from a remote site. Customers can have access to the data, get the order shipped to them and not have to talk to anybody in our customer service group.

PM: Do you plan on a day when contractors will be able to order directly from your Web site?

Symmons: At the moment, I don't think the trade perceives that ability as a big benefit. But that's not to say we don't anticipate it happening. Tradesmen tend to be cautious; they generally are going to take changes slowly.

Ultimately, we see the Internet as a great equalizer. In the future, the Internet may narrow distribution so that a contractor will want to use his credit card to get a case of S-96-2 valves. That eliminates, from our perspective, the advantage one of our competitors may have with multiple regional distribution centers.