Our Wholesaler of the Year shows how a good supply house helps your business.

As a contractor, you expect more from your supply house than a good price. Your wholesaler should perform as a true partner who provides you with the products and customer service you need to run your business profitably.

Plumbing & Mechanical’s 2011 Wholesaler of the Year understands that. First Supply President Joe Poehling believes his company’s success depends on keeping in front of contractors’ needs in an ever-changing marketplace.

First Supply has experienced its own share of changes in its 114-year history. In fact, when I first started covering the plumbing-and-heating industry 21 years ago, the Wisconsin-based company’s name was La Crosse Plumbing Supply.

At the time, the company had just been named the 1989 Wholesaler of the Year by Supply House Times, PM’s sister title. The wholesaler became First Supply in 1997, in honor of its 100th year of operation.

In recent years, three areas of change have given First Supply opportunities to assist contractors from its 28 locations in the upper Midwest. These trends are technology, green buildings and government regulations.

First Supply uses technology to do a better job of connecting with contractors. The wholesaler has equipped its trucks with GPS systems so it can tell its customers when their delivery will arrive, either at their shop or the jobsite. The truck drivers carry cell phones so they can communicate with contractors or can be reached if plans change.

First Supply’s website, www.1supply.com, provides information about products and services to both contractors and their clients. The website has links where visitors can learn more about the company’s 12 Gerhards bath-and-kitchen showrooms as well as special promotions and events.

Another link takes contractors to First Supply’s two-year-old eSupply site. The innovative e-commerce site gives contractors an efficient way to view, save and print invoices, as well as the ability to check order status, order history, product availability and to set up shopping lists.

A key feature of eSupply is its search capabilities, which allow contractors to find what they need through words, pictures, descriptions, manufacturers or their own customized name and lists. An added benefit of eSupply is that it is eco-friendly.

First Supply GREEN is another recent initiative, which includes a new green area on its website. Along with being a partner in the WaterSense and Energy Star programs, the wholesaler is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council.

The company turns its employees into green experts through training from manufacturers, manufacturers reps and off-site classes. Training subjects include: high-efficiency toilets; water-efficient faucets; solar potable water; ground-source heat pumps; high-efficiency boilers and water heaters; variable-frequency drive pumps and fans; low-temperature radiant heating; and chilled beam technology.

First Supply then offers classes to contractors on these subjects. Contractors can get further assistance on challenging projects from the wholesaler’s in-house staff of professional engineers, heating system designers and interior designers.

First Supply is a good industry citizen through its membership in more than a dozen associations, including PHCC and MCAA. Staying active in these groups provides another means for the company to stay on top of industry trends.

A recent trend that alarms manufacturers, wholesalers and contractors is a shift in the stance of governmental agencies away from training and education to more audits and enforcement. Companies say they’ve seen this attitude changing at OSHA, EPA and DOE.

As a member of the American Supply Association’s Safety Committee, which works closely with OSHA regulators, First Supply Risk Manager Mary Prahler picked up on this trend. This gave the wholesaler the opportunity to pass along information to its contractor customers to help them resolve jobsite safety issues targeted by OSHA. Further, this awareness helped these contractors differentiate themselves from their competitors.

In a changing world, however, First Supply always remembers the basics that help its contractor partners make money. The wholesaler delivers products and services to them when they need them on a consistent basis. The supply house provides customer support during the order process and after the sale as well. 

When Joe Poehling talks about the commitment of his company to the plumbing-heating-piping industry, you get the feeling he believes every word he says:

“We really care about this industry and pledge to do whatever it takes to make sure it remains the best industry possible.”

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