Katie Parris’ path to president and CEO of The Part Works Inc., a Seattle-based plumbing distributor, is a familiar one for second-generation business owners. But what she’s done with the company in the last six years has stood apart, and it’s why Parris is one of MDM’s 2021 Women in Distribution award winners.
First, the backstory. When Parris was growing up in Seattle in the 1980s and ’90s, she had trouble explaining to friends exactly what her dad, who owned the plumbing distribution business, did for a living.
“I was almost embarrassed to tell them that my dad’s in plumbing,” says Parris. “They would ask if he’s a plumber, and when I’d try to explain plumbing distribution, nobody understood.”
When she graduated from college, Parris was “absolutely not interested in joining the family business,” she now says with a laugh. What she didn’t realize was that her parents had no intention of bringing her aboard even if she were, at least not then.
“I was a little hurt at the time,” Parris says. “But looking back now, I’m so grateful that he was willing to be honest with me and say, ‘You need to go get some valuable experience under your belt — no matter what you’re planning to do for a career.’”
After a few years working different jobs, Parris decided she wanted to own her own business, and the proverbial light bulb went off. “I thought, ‘If I want to own my own business, and my parents might be interested in working with me now that I’ve done some real work, I should at least ask the question,’” she says. “My parents were over-the-moon excited, and we put it together from there.”
Six years after joining her parents in the business — her dad was the sales guy and her mom was the bookkeeper — Parris’ father died and she eventually took over as president/CEO and owner.
From there, she began putting her past business experience, plus the few years she had as manager and VP with The Part Works, to use. She added e-commerce, ERP, CRM, the tools need for the company to adapt to the current business landscape. When the pandemic hit last year, those tools enabled customers to do more on the company’s website while allowing sales reps to do more in the cloud.
“I launched us into e-commerce,” she says. “It probably would have taken my dad another 20 years to get serious about it. He was a boomer and didn’t see the need.”
A culture of innovation
That focus on digitizing the business inspired her brother, Tim Johnson, to nominate Parris for this award.
“When our parents started The Part Works over 40 years ago in our garage, it was an almost exclusively outside-sales driven, pen and paper, mom and pop (literally) plumbing repair parts distributor,” he wrote. “Over the past 10 years, as Katie has taken over, The Part Works made it the top priority to keep the high-touch, customer service oriented, knowledge base driven customer experience, while at the same time modernizing our reach through technology. This has included a constant commitment to a web presence that acts in service to our people, not as a replacement for them.”
Parris is squarely focused on the future of the company. She has created a culture of innovating, trying new things, deploying the latest technologies — all while keeping a strong distribution model of relationships and customer service.
“You can move to a different technology quickly, but changing the culture takes a long time,” she says. “I started that journey a long time ago, and I hope that we’ve built a culture of collaboration, problem-solving and creativity.”
At the same time, she remains mindful of its past — how much her parents taught her about the distribution business, how they groomed her along the way and how proud she is to carry on the family legacy.
“There are a lot of things that I learned about making the business successful from both of them that are timeless,” she said.
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