BWA South Co. prides itself on being a family — a family that continues to grow.

In April, the Hilliard, Ohio-headquartered manufacturers representative firm added two employees, bringing the company to a robust 28 people. The two new BWA South team members have found a family that truly will care for them the way it has its past and present colleagues.

This, along with a litany of business and industry excellence, is what makes BWA South Co., pme’s 2017 Manufacturers Representative of the Year.

“Our staff is unique because of the longevity and work ethic among our team members,” BWA South Partner Bob Armbruster says. “Half of our employees have been with us for 10 years or longer.

 “With that experience and knowledge, our people are not only well-trained on products, but are well-versed on the customers as well.”

Jen Morton, Armbruster’s daughter, who has taken over leadership duties with Nick Hanes as partners as Armbruster has reduced his responsibilities, says she knows the faces in BWA South’s 34,000-square-foot office more than her own blood.

 “I have spent more time with them than my siblings,” she states. “We are literally more like family than coworkers.”

That work-family sentiment is shared with BWA South employees, helping them fulfill their roles in the company. In fact, Bill Stemler, who works out of the Cincinnati branch in inside sales and quotations, has been retired since 2000 but still comes in a couple days a week to fill out quotes. He even has a key to the office. 

“I can’t give it up. I love this work so much,” he says. “BWA South is family-oriented. We do a lot of business, but we’re small. You have that ability to feel comfortable and you don’t have layers of leaders above you that make a lot of decisions.”

Aaron Briggs, a 17-year BWA South veteran currently in an outside salesperson role and who the team jokingly describes as the “troublemaker” of the staff, enjoys coming to work every day.

“You must have fun with your job,” he says. “This is plumbing.”

Outside salesman Bill Hutchinson adds: “As long as you take care of your job, they’re going to take care of you. It’s not really a job or employment, it’s a passion.”


Cornering the market

BWA South was founded by John Armbruster (Bob’s father and Morton’s grandfather) in 1956 along with Harold Bergman and Ralph Woodcock. Since its inception, BWA South has covered the entire state of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. The firm currently has offices in Hilliard and Cincinnati, while other employees work out of their homes in Taylorsville, Ky., and northern Ohio. 

BWA South grew with the acquisition of Pittsburgh-based DM Harrison in 1997, forging the company’s reach into western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. In 2004, BWA South entered the specialty construction products market after acquiring Patterson Case Co.

Elkay and Charlotte Pipe are BWA South’s longest-tenured lines at 58 and 51 years, respectively. Zurn and Willoughby Industries have partnered with the firm for more than 30 years.

“They have been our foundation,” Morton says. “As each of them recognized changes in the industry and adapted their products to meet the new challenges, we followed their lead in the plumbing sector.”

Zurn National Sales Manager Mark Marini notes BWA South has the largest share of the marketplace for its region and the other lines the company represents perfectly align with Zurn.

“They’ve been strong, one of our best agencies,” he says. “We have a great deal of respect for BWA South. The relationship between our leadership and theirs is very strong.

“They represent top brands. The commercial package BWA South has is unrivaled in the market and provides an added level of service to its customers.”

Marini notes BWA South excels in the vertical markets such as healthcare, education and general office construction.

“Those are really good footprints for Zurn. They’ve been one of our best reps at owning the relationship in that value chain,” he states. “Look at Ohio State. When those higher-education projects come out, our spec position is strong, the owner relationship is strong and it helps Zurn get in there.”


Commercial projects and markets

BWA South is fortunate to be headquartered in Hilliard — 15 miles northwest of Columbus, Ohio, the home of The Ohio State University and a booming downtown district. Morton notes the city was awarded $50 million in grants after besting 77 cities in the 2016 Smart City Challenge. The money will be used to improve quality of life, grow the economy, provide better access to jobs and opportunity, become a logistics leader, and foster sustainability.

“I was downtown on a recent Friday night and went out to dinner with some friends in a restaurant that I’d never even heard of,” she says. “I was sitting around looking at this area and I felt like I wasn’t even in my own city that I’d spent my entire life in. Every time you go downtown it’s like that because it’s constantly expanding.”

BWA South worked hard to get its product lines into the region’s major commercial projects such as Ohio State University’s new north residence halls and James Cancer Hospital, the Standard Building in Cleveland, the University of Cincinnati’s Nipert Stadium, the Christ Hospital Bone & Spine facility in Cincinnati and the in-construction Omni Hotel in Louisville.

Hanes notes water conservation, energy efficiency and labor-saving products have been the largest areas of growth for BWA South, particularly with Elkay’s Green Spec bottle-filling water coolers, Zurn’s 1.1-gpf Eco-Vantage low-flow toilet system, HTP’s 98% efficient Elite Premier volume water heater or Aquatherm’s environment-friendly piping systems.


BWA South Co. Line Card
American Specialties
Bootz Industries
Charlotte Pipe and Foundry
Comfort Design
Construction Specialties
Ideal Clamp Products
Jomar Valve
Willoughby Industries
Zurn Engineered Water Solutions


“Our goal is to have our manufacturers as the basis of design in the specifications,” he says. “Our manufacturers have developed products that are energy- and water-efficient, have a long life cycle and meet the visual aesthetics a building owner wants. It is our job to make sure the specifiers are aware of the benefits our products can bring them.”

Ernie Laucher, a 45-year veteran and an outside salesman in the Cleveland office, says his region that includes Akron, Canton, Mansfield and Youngstown, Ohio, consists of a lot of educational, health-care and assisted-living community projects on the docket.

“It’s quite a variety, but none of them have broken ground yet,” he notes.

Thanks to the litany of corporate headquarters based in Cincinnati, 20-year veteran Hutchinson and Scott Henn, his inside sales partner, don’t have a moment to rest because they constantly are chasing sales opportunities.

“We always are busy,” Hutchinson says. “It’s great to say we have something on every commercial job in the area. It’s part of our goal to sell through service.”


Taking on all comers

Twenty-one-year BWA South veteran Tim Gleich works directly with engineers and has witnessed the evolution from catalog-driven designers to the new generation of online-only engineers.

“Designers are unique,” he says. “When you bring them information, a lot of the details aren’t there anymore. They’re pressed for time and trying to push out work faster, meaning they rely on us more for the technical information.”

Gleich also notes that as BWA South continues to expand, communication has to be key among the branches.

“We see trends coming from Cleveland down or from Kentucky up,” he notes. “We see different things and we can see trends. We’re better as a team and always are working to open up the communication more.”

Briggs notes the HTP water-heater line has been a strong success for commercial and residential properties with forward-thinking building owners.

“It’s an all stainless-steel water heater, no one sells those anymore,” he says. “We’re getting 98% efficiency out of these. It is fun to sell those units.”

For almost 30 years, Dave Dexter, P.E., currently with Cincinnati-based engineering firm Fosdick & Hilmer, has appreciated BWA South’s desire to be a “one-stop shop.” But most important, the staff’s response and product knowledge is top-notch.

“They’ve always been able to assist me where they can,” he says. “Any time I have needed to work out something, it hasn’t been a problem to do that. They call me back quickly and we solve it. They have always come through.”

After the Patterson Case acquisition, BWA South developed its architectural division. The department currently has five team members led by Melissa Heckman who calls on architects, designers, general contractors and owners.

“This established us in all phases of the construction cycle,” Armbruster says.

Heckman and the team’s desire is to add value to BWA South and the changing landscape of business. Heckman received her LEED certification after joining BWA South and attends WELL Building and other seminars.

“We have to be a valuable resource,” she states. “Not just in product knowledge, but with certifications such as LEED. I’m surprised at the things architects call me on that have nothing to do with products, but just need some guidance.”

Lexington, Ky.-based Jenny Weaver came to BWA South in late 2016 after more than 20 years of freelance design. She constantly was on the road picking up her own meals and is adjusting to life with BWA South, which covers everything. She also enjoys being trusted to get her job done with very little to no interference from Armbruster, Morton and Hanes.

“I’m a self-motivator,” she says. “They are very non-micromanaging and that suits me just fine.”

Heckman says the trust management puts in the staff has been incredible. Instead of practically begging for the chance to wine-and-dine customers at her previous job, BWA South doesn’t blink an eye. And when she feels the need to get the green light — such as when she took four interior designers from Columbus to see the rock band Green Day in Green Bay, Wis. — it always gets approved.

“They just said ‘Do what you need to do,’” Heckman recalls.


The next generation

Morton is third-generation and began working full-time at BWA South in 2002, starting in the warehouse, working in reception and then inside sales. Back in college, she didn’t have the desire to work in the family business.

“I always told my dad, ‘I don’t want to sell toilets for a living,’” she recalls. “It is the people that pulled me in. The people here at BWA as well as the industry people. (Plumbing) is never going away no matter what we do. But, it is a really great industry — it sucked me right in.”

Hanes came to BWA South in 2011 from the distributor side of the industry and built a strong rapport with Armbruster throughout the years. Armbruster felt bringing Hanes and Morton in to a partnership would set BWA South up for the next 20 years. The two took in many lunches and dinners to make sure the transition and partnership went smoothly.

“It is like a marriage to some degree,” Hanes says. “You have to be able to work together with the right ideas that go in line with what Bob already established.

“We haven’t had any real hiccups and that’s because we all have the same vision about what the company is now, where we want to go and how to move forward in the future. It’s been a great transition for me.”

The BWA South staff has taken notice how the company is changing and appreciates knowing what it means to Armbruster, Morton and Hanes.

“It’s a nice secure thing to know where the company is headed,” Gleich says. “We know where the future is and we are not questioning our standing in the company.”

Marini praises the longtime leadership of Armbruster and was very happy he and Zurn didn’t raise any concerns about how the transition would go.

“We didn’t have to prompt them. Bob put the plan in place,” Marini says. “We watched it evolve and they are stronger. Jen and Nick have added another element to the agency. The two of them are a good balance of operational excellence, strategic planning and spending time with the customers.”


Changing aesthetics

Morton and Hanes are in the midst of planning an office renovation for the growing company. Office space currently is a premium and the duo knows it wants to make the BWA South family more comfortable.

“As the economy grows and demand for speed grows, so does the demand for people,” Morton says. “Right now as you walk around our office, we are bursting at the seams. Some people are stuffed in corners and Nick is at a cubicle when he should be in an office.

“We want to grow at a pace that is with the economy. Everyone is forecasting growth, so we want to be poised and ready for that to come.”

In Hilliard, BWA South has committed resources to a training room for manufacturers to meet with the local engineers and contractors. Since opening in 2013, BWA South has hosted a litany of successful lunch-and-learns and after-hour events.

“We can do AIA and CEU courses,” Morton says. “We’ve done cookouts with lunch-and-learn trainings here as well.”

Erika Weiffenbach, a customer service representative with BWA South for 10 years, respects BWA South’s willingness to be flexible and make their employees’ jobs more productive. Recently, employees requested more computer monitors and hands-free phone headsets. They received everything in about a week with no questions asked.

Inside salesperson Rachel Wiley confirms: “They invest in us to make sure we can do our job.”

Earl Smith, who covers the Kentucky market, only had one company in mind that he would join in the manufacturers rep industry.

“I worked 22 years in the wholesale business and had many opportunities to join rep firms,” Smith says. “I never did. But when BWA comes knocking at your door, you better listen. I wouldn’t have done it unless it was BWA South.”

After 61 years in business, BWA South has proven it knows how to do business. However, that drive and success is cultivated throughout headquarters and spread across the region. It doesn’t come from the owner’s office on down, it comes from the wide-ranging talent working together as one.

“We can be as good of leaders as we can be,” Morton says. “We are successful because of the people we have. It’s important to us that we take care of them. I hope that is the reason people stay so long. We try to make sure they have enough time to spend with their families.

“Those are all our core values.”


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