It is apropos that Rich-Tomkins Co. is headquartered just outside Philadelphia. There is a litany of historical events that transpired in the City of Brotherly Love.
History plays a pivotal role in how Rich-Tomkins Co. and president Stew Chaffee do business. On a mid-April day, pme sat down with its 2014 Manufacturers Representative of the Year at Rich-Tompkins headquarters in Aston, Pa. There, Chaffee rounded up former president and founder Stew Tomkins and retired President Ken Holloway to speak about company’s evolution.
Tomkins, 90, started the company in 1961 with Stu Rich out of a small office in downtown Philadelphia after working at Bradford White for 10 years. The duo’s relationship with Bradford White fueled a representation which has lasted 53 years. Rich-Tomkins Co. has partnered with Delta Faucet for more than three decades, while BrassCraft, VitrA, Woodford Mfg., Fernco and, very recently, Uponor also have been brought into the fold.
“It’s been a pleasure for me to watch what they’ve done with the company,” Tomkins says. “They’re very gracious that they still carry the name. It’s built a good reputation and we’re just tickled to see where they’ve gone.”
Understanding the region’s commercial markets has been a primary focus for Rich-Tomkins since before Chaffee came aboard in 1983.
“We have been immersed in the engineering community since back in the 1970s,” Chaffee says. “Ken’s father used to do engineering calls for Rich-Tomkins back then. Since then, we have always had a commercial specialist on board. We’ve never wavered even through the difficult times. We’ve always had someone in that position to call on the engineers.”
That someone to call on is Kevin Brace, who has been with Rich-Tompkins for the last 13 years. Brace began his tenure in the firm’s retail department making sales calls, but jumped at the opportunity to become the commercial point man.
“The engineers are a curious lot,” Brace says. “They’re always asking, ‘Why?’ That forces me to learn the products even more. A wholesaler asks, ‘What’s the price and when can you get it to me?’ The engineers want to know what the system does and how it works.”
Brace sees the multifamily markets heating up in the company’s region and student housing at the many nearby universities is an active segment. Brace was able to secure projects at Temple University, West Chester University and the University of Pennsylvania.
“When I went to college you had a dorm and a gang bathroom,” Brace says. “Now these dorms are better than any apartment I ever had.”
The engineering community has welcomed Brace and the expertise Rich-Tomkins Co. brings to the table during the design process. According to David Drake, a Philadelphia-based plumbing designer with engineering firm Wick Fisher White, the area has many retrofit and rehab opportunities that require a thorough specification.
“This work requires a good deal of thinking outside-the-box in terms of new equipment and installation” he says. “Having a representative who specializes in the equipment it carries and can reach out to the manufacturer directly as the situation dictates is extremely useful.”
Drake continues: “I’m not too proud to admit that I have avoided a potential nightmare a time or two throughout my career thanks in large part to a representative educating me on something I was unaware of, such as a little-known local code amendment.”
Drake also understands where engineers fall in the hierarchy for the majority of manufacturers reps where plumbing and heating contractors are the major source of sales. His dealings with Brace and Rich-Tomkins have always left him feeling like he was top priority.
“It’s typical to receive an email response from a manufacturers rep after a request for help with a recommended series model and a suggestion to visit the company’s website for more information,” Drake says. “To receive an email from Rich-Tomkins with suggested selection submittal attached for use, marked up with requested option, installation manuals, etc. — it’s those little things that go a long way. Rich-Tomkins and especially Kevin have been outstanding over the years providing support.”
Jerry Oflazian, P.E., with the Philadelphia branch of engineering firm AFK Group, has been working with Rich-Tomkins for more than a decade after an innocuous visit to the firm’s office. Oflazian says from a simple visit a burgeoning business relationship – and even better friendship – blossomed.
“That is a combination that is rare. Rich-Tomkins is one of the most respected and reputable companies I have come to know from the products it represents to the service support it provides,” he says. “Their prompt response to our questions is of the utmost priority and is done in an efficient and impressive way.”
Oflazian praises Brace and Rich-Tomkins for their innovation and desire to never stop learning.
“Kevin’s knowledge in our industry is unprecedented and is a definite must to our firm,” he says. “Kevin is a solid asset to Rich-Tomkins. I am confident that I am not alone in stating this fact.”
Brace says a big difference in today’s commercial construction landscape is the significant acceleration with turnaround time. A project that used to be slated for a month or longer has been cut down to a couple weeks.
“They know I’ll return a phone call. You need to have an answer quickly,” he says.
In November 2008, the first full month under Chaffee’s watch, Rich-Tomkins Co. had its biggest month financially in company history. Holloway playfully chides Chaffee about this fact.
“I told him, ‘I should’ve waited one more month,’” Holloway says. “I could’ve reaped a little more benefit.”
Then the calendar flipped to December and the bottom dropped out. Holloway, who transitioned to the company’s controller, quickly rescinds his earlier joke before recalling the troubling times.
“It was like it went off the cliff,” Holloway says. “December and January were pretty rough months. Then came February and slowly we started to crawl our way out of (the recession).”
Rich-Tomkins Co. adjusted its approach and Chaffee drew up the play in the dirt for the company to execute.
“I remember one of the conversations we had with our sales team. We said that every sales call has to be like a fourth-and-2 in football,” Chaffee states. “It has to happen and you have to get those two yards.
“When you make a sales call, it has to be productive. The sales team and its leadership answered the call and rallied. We were down and we were down a lot. But we were able to keep everyone in the company employed. I’m proud of that. Of anything, I’m proud of that.”
Vice President of Sales Bill Bradshaw and Director of Sales Alan Cohen were the leaders out in the field making sure Rich-Tomkins was picking up first downs and eventually touchdowns. They thought practically and in very real, sobering dollars and cents.
“We made a decision as individual salespeople to decide whether or not we were walking through those doors,” Bradshaw states. “That’s first and foremost. Does this make sense? We had a dollar figure in our mind. We believe it costs the company about $250 for us to walk through that door. Knowing that and having that guideline is how we produced the agenda and the outcome of that sales call. We placed a dollar value on it.”
If a sales call comes up incomplete, in theory, money was owed to Chaffee. “I don’t really collect on it,” Chaffee states with a laugh. But, it’s rooted in a truth that motivates Rich-Tomkins Co. salespeople.
“That was the mindset. We made every single call count,” Bradshaw says. “I always go back to what Ken will say, ‘Plan your work and work your plan.’ That’s what we do.”
The dark times of late 2008 through 2010 allowed Rich-Tomkins Co. to foster and strengthen its relationships with industry partners. It was time to show engineers, contractors and wholesalers that they all could ride out the storm together.
“We went out and put our arms around the guys. Their business was being threatened as well,” Cohen says. “We watched people lose their jobs – and these weren’t (companies) from the bottom of the barrel. These were good, quality guys who showed up and did a professional day’s work at the time and they were losing their jobs. We didn’t run from it, we showed up and made them call us. We said we’re going to get through this and we did.”
Rich-Tomkins has put a significant emphasis on knowing the green product markets because customers are continually asking for more energy-efficient solutions. It doesn’t hurt to represent Delta Faucet; the 2013 EPA WaterSense Partner of the Year, since Cohen says ‘green’ is front and foremost right now.
“It’s almost as important to know the energy efficiency ratings on a water heater as the price of the water heater,” he states. “That question comes up quite often.”
Holloway led the charge and had Rich-Tomkins join the Association of Independent Manufacturers’ Representatives nearly 25 years ago when the meetings could be held in a moderately sized conference room. Today, Chaffee is the association’s senior vice president in charge of the 2014 conferences. In late April, he scouted locations for AIM/R’s annual conference set for Sept. 29-Oct. 2 in Lake Tahoe, Calif.
“I’m targeting for around 240 people for the conference this year,” he says. “AIM/R has been a game-changer for us just because of the networking and that we deal with people from around the country. In my opinion it’s the ‘who’s who’ of agencies. I look at so many past rep of the year award-winners from pme, (BNP Media Plumbing Group sister publications) Supply House Times and Plumbing & Mechanical. They’re the guys who are constantly changing best practices. It’s been invaluable.”
Chaffee says that its warehouse is full of products because of what AIM/R relationships and its members can do for one another.
“As difficult as the times were in 2008, 2009, etc., we cut a lot of things,” he says. “Our constant participation in AIM/R, not just membership, was not one of the things we cut. That’s because in times of desperation, when things get bad, that’s when you want the strongest team possible around you.
“That’s how we got through it. By chatting with what I view as the best businessmen around the country. They’re a part of our network.”
Chaffee has been able to secure four people under the age of 30 for Rich-Tomkins Co.’s roster of 20 employees. It wasn’t too difficult to achieve that accomplishment either.
“All our talent that we have, so far, has been recruited by team members here,” he states. “I don’t believe we’ve placed an employment ad in the paper since back in the 1990s.”
One rising star is Jim Stout. He received an internship with Rich-Tomkins Co. in 2013 after studying business management at West Chester University. He came to the industry with a clean slate and in one year became a trusted resource to the company.
“He didn’t know the difference between a water closet and a water heater a year ago,” Chaffee states. “Now he’s designing radiant-floor systems for hospital heliport pads and homes. Just two weeks ago he worked on his first install job to get some field experience. He had to go buy work boots. I said, ‘You can’t show up in white sneakers to a job site.’”
Passing the torch at Rich-Tomkins Co. has been smooth throughout the years. Tomkins-to-Holloway. Holloway-to-Chaffee. While there isn’t a timetable set yet for Chaffee, it’s definitely something on the president’s mind.
“We don’t have tremendous turnover. Ken was here 37 years, others have been here 22 years, 30 years,” Chaffee says. “What I’m working toward right now isn’t just the next generation of Rich-Tomkins. I’m trying to build the generation beyond that.”
The manufacturers take notice of that plan, too. Delta Faucet and Rich-Tomkins Co. have had a working partnership for 37 years with no end in sight. That’s because Delta admires Rich-Tomkins for never being caught in neutral.
“What I’m impressed with is that organization is forward thinking,” says Jon Dartt, Delta Faucet’s vice president of sales. “From a standpoint of developing a solid succession plan; they continue to groom their young people.
“They are very good at going after the traditional decision-makers in the market, but they’ve sought out new decision-makers and influencers such as the high-rise developers. Those are accounts our agencies would never had called on five years ago. Rich-Tomkins realizes that it’s not just the contractors that are making the decisions anymore. There are a lot of other players in the market.”
Uponor and Rich-Tomkins’ partnership is still in its infancy (just more than a year together), but it’s spurred big-time growth for both companies.
“Our base of business in that market had been residential and more so on heating,” states Uponor North American Vice President of Sales Brent Noonan. “One of our big strategies is moving into the commercial space. That has been one our fastest-growing parts of business and still our biggest opportunity.
“The exciting part of Rich-Tomkins and how they’re structured is their ability to tackle not only the residential, but how they have accelerated our commercial piping business.”
Make it happen
Chaffee stresses to his staff to have the courage to be free-thinkers in hopes of springboarding Rich-Tomkins now or in the future. Todd Alexander, an office and operations manager with Rich-Tomkins for the last 22 years, has a degree in marketing from Temple. A few years ago, Alexander felt it was time for the company to rebrand itself.
In late 2007, Alexander began with the old logo (featuring the company initials and an arrow swooping upward) and modernized the typeface, color scheme and added a globe.
“There was a lot of brand equity in there,” Alexander says. “I started here a long time ago. We’ve always been known as dependable. I wanted to make sure we captured that.”
Alexander also led the way to modernize the company’s website (www.richtomkins.com). Today, visitors and customers can get a more detailed look at the products Rich-Tomkins represents as well as the company’s history. They also can visit Rich-Tomkins’ YouTube channel, Rtv235, to watch videos that delve into products and promote Rich-Tomkins’ fully functional training room with respected teacher Herbert Harvey.
Alexander also started Rich-Tomkins on the path to selecting its latest project-quoting system. He evaluated about five different systems and brought his findings to Chaffee. The group sat down and selected ISQuote, a system designed by a manufacturing rep.
“We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve, and that’s an arduous task for me. You’re looking into software programs and you’re asking, ‘What does it really do? I don’t know,’” Chaffee says. “But that’s why we have Todd and other people a lot smarter than I am in those arenas. We just rely on them. Whatever you buy, make sure it lasts 10 years. That’s all I want.”
Rich-Tomkins has enjoyed a relationship with sales professional coach Charlie Hauck, the principal of Growth Dynamics, for the last 20 years. Hauck provides training and continuous education for the sales staff so they’re as prepared as possible to serve current and future customers.
“Investing in our people and the trade is what we’ve done best,” Chaffee says.
Gary Brake, a 13-year inside salesman with Rich-Tomkins, says manufacturers who embrace technology will get the bigger piece of the sales pie. Having a partner in Bradford White become fully invested in Rich-Tomkins’ training room has been very beneficial.
“They’re embracing the training aspect of it more and more because they realize the value of more knowledge,” Brake says.
Brake strongly believes a progressive approach to his position has positioned himself and the company to succeed.
“You feel like there is nothing you shouldn’t try,” he says. “Around here it’s, ‘Hey, if you think it’s a good idea, go out and try.’”
Industry topics such as a shortage of young people joining the plumbing and heating trades, the new 24/7 work schedule and how the federal government is walking a fiscal tightrope keep Rich-Tomkins’ leadership team up at night.
“If there is anything that is going to affect our future, our people, it’s not going to be what Rich-Tomkins can and can’t do,” Chaffee says. “It’s going to be those things out of our control. We can sell plumbing and we can sell heating. It’s pretty simple. We’ve proven that the last half century.”