The sign that reads “A Century of Solutions” in the building in Baton Rouge, La., can be taken quite literally these days. Manufacturers rep firm A.H. Deveney & Co. celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2016. It reached this milestone by providing high levels of product expertise and customer service to plumbing contractors and other customers.
“We always strive to be a solutions provider,” says Mike Mullen, who came to work for the agency in 1992 and has been an owner since 1995. “We want the plumbing contractor, wholesaler and engineer to be calling us for answers even if we don’t rep the product line. They’ll call and ask, ‘Where can I find it?’ We find it for them, and that usually endears us to those customers. They continue to rely on us for answers for whatever solutions they need.”
Steve Venable, owner of Venable Plumbing in Breaux Bridge, La., says he talks with Mullen at least once a week. “I call Mike because he is an expert on so many products,” he says. “If I’m spec’ing a job, Mike always gives me really good selling points on products. His product knowledge is way above the norm.”
A.H. Deveney represents 28 product lines, all related to plumbing with close to a 50/50 mix of residential and nonresidential sales. Annual sales reached $24 million last year, up 10% from 2014. The firm’s sales territory covers Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Arkansas, West Virginia, Tennessee and the Florida Panhandle.
“We want the contractor to call us first,” says co-owner David Coleman, who joined the company in 1996. “If someone else has the product to fit that need, we’re happy to make the referral to solve the problem. If the contractor is not making money, then he’s not going to be around. That’s a key concept. We’re partnering to help the homeowner or building owner get a quality product.”
Teamwork is a core value at A.H. Deveney, which has referred to itself as Team AHDeveney since shortly after Mullen and Phil Patenaude bought the company in 1995 from Chuck Schwabe. Chuck’s father, Hank Schwabe, had purchased the firm from its founder, Arthur Hood Deveney.
The new owners wanted to make employees feel they were part of the team. More recently the Team AHDeveney concept has expanded to include contractors, wholesalers and the manufacturers of the lines they represent.
“A.H. Deveney does a great job of engaging us,” Uponor North America President Bill Gray says. “From a team standpoint, rep firms that don’t let us behind the curtain with their customers aren’t going to be with us for long. We want to enhance the customer experience to make it a real pleasure to do business with us.”
For its exceptional customer service — and for its longevity in providing it to the plumbing industry — A.H. Deveney is Plumbing & Mechanical’s 2016 Manufacturers Rep of the Year.
Mullen and Coleman both cover a sales territory — Mullen in Louisiana and Coleman in Alabama and the Florida Panhandle — along with their ownership duties. They believe their company’s hands-on approach is a big reason for its success.
“The owners are outside making calls and staying in contact with the contractor, wholesaler and engineer,” Mullen says. “We’re not sitting in an office, directing a sales team to make calls.”
Neither Mullen nor Coleman came from the plumbing industry. Mullen has a degree in criminal justice from LSU and previously owned a landscaping business. Coleman’s degree from Auburn is in marketing and he worked in retail in building materials before answering an ad for an opening at Deveney.
Today, Team AHDeveney consists of 10 outside and three inside sales reps along with two full-time support staff. Part-time employees are Mullen’s wife, Kim, who does the accounting, and Coleman’s wife, Kathy, the webmaster of www.ahdeveney.com.
The sales reps’ backgrounds before joining the firm come from both inside and outside the industry. Craig Nunnelley, who owns a share of the company, formerly worked for a pumps distributor in Kentucky while Mike Andrus worked for a contractor in Arkansas and Darrell Hoffpauir was employed by an industrial wholesaler. On the other hand, Mike Jones’ degree is in broadcasting.
Each of the lines that Deveney represents has a sales coordinator who becomes the principal contact with the manufacturer. That allows each of the sales reps to deepen his expertise on a handful of product lines and keep the rest of Team AHDeveney posted on new products and developments. The sales coordinators also give each manufacturer the attention it deserves, Mullen says.
Each sales rep acquired product knowledge by attending factory training from vendors such as Grundfos, Gastite, Milwaukee Tool, Miro, Schier, Swan, Uponor and Zoeller Pumps. They also rely on each other’s expertise.
“Everyone here is patient and willing to help you learn,” says Jones, who joined Deveney a year ago as the company’s first-ever rep based in West Virginia.
“We take the team concept to heart,” Coleman says. “A few weeks ago I had to send a contractor to Darrell because he was more familiar with a product application than I was.”
Product expertise extends to the inside sales team led by Jason Horcasitas, who owns a share of the company. “Because of our line mix, each inside rep focuses on different ones to become experts,” he says. “We always can answer questions about all of them but we like to have someone who is the person for that line. That way, if anything unusual comes up, we can get an answer.”
In fact, answering questions from customers could be the best way to learn about products, Mullen says.
“I tell our guys they are going to learn mostly by answering questions the contractors, wholesalers or engineers are going to ask us,” he says. “Our guys may not initially know the answer, but they will know where to find the answer and get it back to the customer. I’d rather have them do that than tell someone the wrong answer.
“Eventually, our guy will have looked up a product enough times to know the answer. He’s retaining that information and can now talk about the product with confidence.”
The entire inside sales team excels at quotations and assists with system design. Their product and application expertise is something many area engineers have come to rely on. Horcasitas was even listed by name in an engineer’s spec on a pump system.
Products aside, Team AHDeveney members have sharpened their selling skills by taking advantage of resources such as the Association of Independent Manufacturers Representatives and the Manufacturers’ Representatives Educational Research Foundation. Mullen, Coleman, Hoffpauir and Nunnelley are Certified Professional Manufacturers Representatives through MRERF, and others are currently going through that program.
“A.H. Deveney is an AIM/R member,” Gray says. “That’s important to Uponor in terms of best practices and having rep firms ahead of the curve.”
Training the trades
As much as Team AHDeveney members learn from contractors and other customers, they return the favor through training.
“We provide one of the top levels of service, not only to the wholesaler but to the engineer and contractor,” Coleman says. “That service includes our training. We train everybody, and we get our hands dirty.”
One focus point for the agency has become pump system start-ups for both Zoeller sewage and grinder pumps and Grundfos booster packages. This verifies proper initial installation and set-up for system longevity and warranty purposes, and allows Team AHDeveney to train the installing contractors with best practices.
Jimmy Lockwood, vice president and general manager of B&D Plumbing in Baton Rouge, says the state requires his plumbers to be trained on some of Deveney’s lines before they can install the products. B&D Plumbing has its own training room for its 64 plumbers and the 40 electricians employed by its sister company, B&D Electric.
“We take advantage of the training programs Deveney offers,” Lockwood says. “We have to be certified to install Uponor’s PEX pipe for domestic water. In addition, when I bring on new plumbers, Mike will come to our shop to train them three or four at a time.”
Lockwood sits on the board of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors of Louisiana. Deveney does product demonstrations and training at the association’s state convention in July along with other PHCC state conventions in its sales territory.
Starting next year, the Louisiana State Plumbing Board will allow Deveney to provide generic classroom training on some of its products such as pumps — sump, sewage and hot water recirculation — for contractor certification.
“We’ve always done training with local unions and apprentice schools, but now we can do this training for master plumbers and journeymen plumbers who come to the state convention,” Mullen says. “They will get their CEUs by attending those classes.”
Other lines such as Swan have AIA-approved product courses the reps are authorized to present for professional CEUs. Lunch-and-learns with both engineers and architects have become a vital part of each rep’s schedule.
Other training venues include counter days at supply houses such as Ferguson, Southern Pipe & Supply, Winsupply, Modern Supply, Coburns and smaller wholesalers. Jared Mullen, Mike’s son, specializes in Milwaukee Tool training, conducting 180 counter days in seven states in a 12-month period, traveling more than 41,000 miles in his van.
Where necessary, Deveney will bring in product experts from its manufacturers to assist in training and other services.
“A.H. Deveney is one of our more motivated rep firms in terms of training the customer and using all the resources Uponor offers to fill in the blanks,” Gray says.
Community colleges provide Deveney the chance to reach students who are considering a career in the plumbing trade. Hoffpauir conducts classes at schools in Mississippi where he does training through their trades division. “These are dedicated classes for plumbing, and they are attended in full with as many students as they have enrolled,” he says. “But their enrollment needs to be quadrupled from where it is due to the number of young people we need to come into the trades.”
Bourbon + beer = business
What sometimes can confuse customers is that Deveney does not rep all 28 lines in all the states it covers. Coleman, however, sees his agency’s broad variety of products as a key reason for its longevity.
“We have a mix of shelf, spec and showroom lines, so we are not tied to one market segment,” he says. “Whether it is commercial or residential construction or remodeling, there’s always something going on in one aspect of our business. Our mix of lines lets us keep going when the market drops down. We’ve had consistent growth over the last 20 years at least. That includes the years after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina when we were up and some reps were forced to let people go.”
Deveney experienced a slowdown as many companies did during the Great Recession. Soft spots in its territory today include parts of Kentucky, West Virginia and the Gulf Coast tied to the struggling coal and oil energy markets.
Overall, though, Team AHDeveney is seeing strong business in many of its market segments. Multifamily housing is being built in Baton Rouge, Lake Charles and Shreveport, La., sales rep Philip Ragusa reports, along with a spurt in single-family construction and hospital retrofits that are installing water-efficient products.
Sales rep Carl Dunn calls middle Tennessee one of the fastest growing areas of the country. “Nashville is really booming right now. The downtown area is getting new hotels in the wake of the convention center that was finished a year or so ago,” he says. “We’re also seeing a gentrification downtown. The areas where old buildings were falling down are being rebuilt with very expensive condos, bistros and restaurants.”
Sales rep Eric Fluitt sees a similar gentrification with condos and lofts being built in New Orleans along with school construction projects there. Nonresidential construction jobs in Mississippi include a new casino going up on the Gulf Coast and a new Toyota plant, steel mill and helicopter factory elsewhere in the state.
Retirement communities, Walmart and chickens continue to bring business to Arkansas, Andrus says.
“Northwest Arkansas is the home of Tyson, and the chicken industry is real big here,” he says. “From the chicken farmers to the processing plants, we sell many products that go into both applications.”
Microbreweries are a growth industry in central Arkansas as they are in Alabama. In Kentucky, Nunnelley says, the bourbon industry is thriving. “Distilleries are taking off with new, smaller distilleries being built all over the state,” he says. “A lot of plumbing, pumps and fixtures are being sold into that industry.”
With the positive outlook for slow and steady growth into the foreseeable future, Team AHDeveney has a succession plan in place to transition the company to the next generation.
“David is the heir apparent, and we’re lucky to have David and Jason being two of our younger guys with ownership stakes,” Mullen says. “We hope others take the opportunity to step up. They know they are not required to buy in, but we want to keep the company going.
“When I took over the company, I remember thinking, ‘I wonder if we can make it to 100 years.’ Now that we’ve done it, I’d like to see it last another hundred years.”
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