Elkay CEO and President Timothy Jahnke

pme recently interviewed Timothy Jahnke, CEO and president of Elkay Mfg. Co., in his office in Oak Brook, Ill., about issues facing the plumbing industry. Before joining Elkay in 2007, Jahnke was group president of the Home and Family Products Group of Newell Rubbermaid where he worked for 21 years in a variety of leadership positions.


pme: Where do you see the greatest business opportunities for plumbing eningeers in the second half of 2014?

TJ: New construction has been better the last 18 months than it was the last five or six years but is still lagging where we thought it would be. We’re running at roughly 1 million housing starts, which historically has been a low point. Commercial construction has continued to lag, and it really has not come back since the housing depression in 2008 to 2012.

Right now we’re seeing activity on a regional basis where commercial is starting to pick up nicely. I was in New York a couple weeks ago and I saw a lot of cranes. In San Francisco and Miami, we’re seeing some nice activity. In large sections of the country, however, there is not much activity for schools, hospitals or office buildings. But you get the feeling some of those projects are starting, and over the next couple years we’ll see great growth opportunities.


pme: How will Elkay help them take advantage of these opportunities?

TJ: We’re making sure we have the products they need and are servicing them to the level they need. We’ve listened to a lot of folks about what else they would like to see and tried to integrate those ideas into the new products. A few years ago we launched our EZH2O water bottle filling station. That’s been a very nice success for us because it addresses a need our customers brought to us — providing a green solution to meet consumers’ desire to take their water with them in a refillable bottle.

What is really important is making sure we are flexible enough to create unique products. Everybody wants something that’s a little different, and we have to make sure we make those products available. We are fortunate to have a fairly broad product lineup that more often than not addresses the bulk of our customers’ needs. But we also have to be flexible because it’s not about how we want to do it but how our customers and the trade want the product and service.

In the huge projects going up in New York right now, the developers don’t want what everybody else can have. A couple years ago we launched a product called Perfect Drain, which is very innovative on the stainless-steel sink side of our business. It has given us a foundation for something that is very different and very design-friendly. We’re excited about that product and it’s a good example of what we need to do.


pme: What more can the federal government do to improve business conditions for U.S. plumbing manufacturers and engineers?

TJ: I would like to see a change in focus on the part of the federal government to provide businesses the support they need to help our economy grow and thrive, to keep manufacturing alive and well in the U.S., in turn providing meaningful employment for millions of American workers. The fact is, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find and hire skilled manufacturing employees coming out of school today — and it is going to become even more so over the next five to 10 years.

Anything that the government can do to help turn this trend around — to support programs that lead to manufacturing careers and ensure that adequate vocational training exists to maintain a skilled American labor force — would be helpful for businesses that want to keep manufacturing in the United States.


pme: How can the plumbing industry attract the next generation of employees and management?

TJ: One of Elkay’s key values is that we’re going to be in business forever. For that to happen, we have to have our partners in business forever. For example, we ask our reps, “What’s your succession plan?” The answer can’t be, “We’ll figure it out when we need to.” The next generation has to be identified and put in place whether they’re sons, daughters or people from outside the family.

It takes years and sometimes decades to prepare the next generation to run those businesses because many of these businesses are complicated.

In the industry, we support activities such as the American Supply Association’s Young Executives program, where I spoke on leadership. What I found amazing about that group is the interaction among the members.

That camaraderie is what is important to the industry. I worry less about them leaving once they’re here because this is such a great industry and the opportunities are significant. We are going to be building buildings for a long, long time.


pme: What can plumbing engineers expect to see from Elkay the rest of this year and in 2015?

TJ: On the product side, the next generation of our EZH2O bottle filling station will be the biggest, single introduction. It will come out late this year, with a second version of the next generation coming out early in 2015.


pme: You recently spoke on leadership to a group of young executives in the plumbing industry. How would you describe your management style?

TJ: Other people are better to ask about my management style, but what I try to be is accessible, whether it is to our employees, customers or all our partners. As a company, we treat customers and suppliers as an extension of our family and that means they have to have access to me.

Every day I am here in Oak Brook, Ill., I do my best to make sure I wander through the offices. When I travel, I go to see our plumbing wholesalers, our reps or whomever, so I have a chance to find out what is going on and really listen to what they’re saying. To think we’re always going to be perfect as a company is crazy, but I want everyone to know that as a company we really care.

And we will always care about fixing the things that we could do better. I am so proud of our organization because we have such great people, including many long-term people who have given their entire careers to Elkay.


pme: How is Elkay using social media to communicate with its trade customers and their customers?

TJ: Like many companies, Elkay makes social media a part of our plans, whether it is Facebook, Twitter or another platform. We have to communicate with all the groups in the ways they want to be communicated with. One thing we try to do with social media is to help direct consumers to our partners. Our products aren’t bought every day. Consumers need to know where and how to purchase our products. We want to make sure they know the different design elements that are available. Social media is another way to listen and another way to be accessible.


pme: If you had only one piece of business advice to give to plumbing engineers, what would it be? 

TJ: You have to learn to be nimble because the world is changing. Those who adjust and adapt will survive, and those who don’t won’t. If you dig in and continue to do things the same way, you are signing your own death warrant. Years ago, I worked with a guy who had a sign on his desk that said, “Not all changes make you better but to be better you have to change.” That was so true then, and more so today than ever before.