Martin Supply’s Doug Ruggles on the Secret to Family-Owned Success

While this privately held industrial supplier with more than 300 employees may not be a Harvard Business School case study in management structure, the three-brother leadership team has managed to buck the odds of many third-generation businesses by nurturing an entrepreneurial culture in an 85-year-old company. Listen to Doug Ruggles share whats worked to drive growth with a customer-centric solutions approach, with host Tom Gale.

Privately held, professionally managed. That’s the way Doug Ruggles describes the attitude he and his brothers bring to their partnership in ownership and management. Martin Supply, based in Florence, Alabama, transformed from a cutting tool and MRO supply house in the 1980s with the growth of its integrated supply business in the 1990s.

The company went from 25 employees to 200 by the late 1990s. The company describes itself today as a regional industrial, safety, integrated and OEM solutions provider across the Southeast U.S. and a recent expansion into Fort Wayne, Indiana. “We like to think that we are big enough to provide all the goods and services our customers want,” Ruggles says, “and small enough to customize and give that attention and custom-tailored solution our customers want, without being cookie-cutter like some larger competitors.”

Also see: “Martin Inc. Acquires SafetyWear.”

The company has executed on that by developing an entrepreneurial culture that takes ownership. “One of the differentiators that we built to guard our culture, which was one of our key differentiators, we think, was to put down our core values on paper,” Ruggles says. “Here’s what the business was built on, this is the way we’re going to interact with each other, and the way that we’re going to work every day.” Today, those are on the back of every team member’s business card.

“We want every person that works for Martin to feel like it’s their company when they’re making decisions; ‘If this was your company, how would you make that decision,’ and if you hold it up to that light when you’re at a crossroads, you’ll typically make the right decision,” Ruggles says.

Innovation with the Future in Mind

Differentiating its value against competitors keeps leadership focused on how to keep innovating for what the customer experience looks like today and in the future. “As the younger generation increasingly is in a position of purchasing power, how do they want to interact?” Ruggles asks. “We’ve brought in analytical tools for our customers, a higher level of technical and engineering expertise, so we’re not just moving boxes. We also invest into our ERP to lower costs and increase our throughput.”

Also see: “Martin Inc. Sells Towsend Door Hardware and Systems Division.”

The evolving culture is anything but what many 85-year-old, third-generation companies look like. “While we are the third generation in this business, I think one of the keys to success for my brothers and me is that we look at ourselves as first generation,” Ruggles says. “That mindset of being an entrepreneur and taking the company somewhere where it’s never been is different than somebody’s who handed something. When we get up every day, that’s what we’re striving to build on and grow and having a passion for that.”

Listen to Ruggles

Listen to the entire interview using the podcast player below.

Stay tuned for the next episode of The MDM Podcast, with executive interviews, topics on the rise of digital platforms, the state of M&A in distribution, innovation and more. Please send me your ideas for who and what you’d like to hear about in 2020. Use the comment area below or email me at I always value your comments.

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