How F.W. Webb is Pivoting Business Through the Pandemic

Interview with President Jeff Pope.
FW Webb building

• F.W. Webb is a $1.7 billion-a-year distributor of plumbing, heating, cooling, PVF and industrial products.

• Jeff Pope is a third-generation family member to run the business following his grandfather (Roger) and father (John).

• Business has been good for F.W. Webb during COVID thanks, in part, to Pope’s leadership during the crisis.

• Revenue increased 20% last year, and the company has found — and is continuing to find — success through both organic and acquisition growth.

Jeff Pope represents the third generation of the Pope family to serve as president of F.W. Webb Co., the Bedford, Massachusetts-based distributor of plumbing, heating, cooling, PVF and industrial products.

His grandfather, Roger W. Pope, and his father, John Pope, both ran the company. Jeff joined F.W. Webb in 1980 and took over as president in 2003.

Nearly 20 years into his tenure, business is booming at the family-owned company whose roots date back to 1866 in Boston. In 2020, F.W. Webb posted sales of $1.4 billion, a 4% increase from the prior year. At last count, the company had 2,660 employees, 95 branches and 47 showrooms — and it pulled off several acquisitions and new branch openings during the pandemic.

To find out what’s been behind the distributor’s success, we spoke with Pope about how F.W. Webb has navigated COVID-19, the levers he’s pulled as president and owner, and what’s next for the 155-year-old company. Here’s what he shared:

MDM: How’s business and what’s driving growth for F.W. Webb in 2021 and 3Q in particular?

Pope: Business in 2021 has been strong. A good portion of that growth is from the economy opening back up and surges in spending. This paired with acquisitions and new markets we have entered over recent years has allowed the company to see an increase in sales. F.W. Webb is committed to expanding its footprint into the New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania markets.

During the third quarter, we made great strides in this area. We opened our third wholesale store in New York City and expanded our presence in Long Island with a new location in West Babylon. We are especially excited about the West Babylon location because it offers fire protection fabrication services that were only available in New England before.

MDM: We’re hearing about a lot of supply chain issues; anything you can share here about pain points with supply and how F.W. Webb is approaching this?

Pope: The supply chain has certainly been a challenge throughout 2021. For the most part, we have been able to manage through it thanks to our large inventory and the strong relationships we have with our manufacturing partners.

 

MDM: What were some key steps you and your leadership took last year when COVID-19 began disrupting business to keep the company on track?

 Pope: First, I want to say that throughout the pandemic we have been committed to acting in a responsible manner, while ensuring that our customers get the service they need. As an essential business, our trade stores and wholesale operations across the Northeast remained open during the height of COVID-19.

To keep our employees and customers safe during that time we adhered to CDC and local state safety protocols. We also enacted split shifts across locations and encouraged online ordering, will-call and contactless pick up/deliveries whenever possible.

As the economy closed down in 2020, we like many of our peers, had to make the difficult decision to furlough employees, mainly those who couldn’t perform their usual responsibilities because of the climate at that time.

I want to stress that we did not take this lightly, but for the health of the company it was the right thing to do. We took advantage of the stimulus bill so that all of those furloughed could collect unemployment and get close to if not 100 percent of their normal salaries.

Meanwhile, we cut unnecessary expenses in areas like marketing, traveling, promotions, advertising, etc.

I’m glad to share that after a couple of months furloughed employees were called back. During the furlough, Webb paid for their benefits and when the employees returned, Webb reinstituted all of their sick and vacation days.

One clear important element of this was that we kept constant communication with all employees about the state of our business, especially those furloughed. I cannot stress how important constant communication with employees was to keep them informed and motivated during such a challenging time.

 

MDM: How would you rate the company’s overall performance during the pandemic, including your ability to keep things running smoothly for both your customers and your employees?

 Pope: We are proud that we kept all of the wholesale facilities open 99 percent of the time. Did we have positive cases at our locations? Yes, just like everyone else we had to deal with positive cases here and there, but we responded to them quickly. We have our own environmental division.

When we had a COVID positive case, we would shut down the facility and have our trained and certified environmental team clean the whole facility. All employees would get tested in order to come back to work. As the pandemic continued in 2020, and as test kits became more available, we bought our own test kits and our in-house nurse would travel to the facility and test all the employees.

I also want to highlight our employees’ dedication to supporting our customers. They understand the important work our trade and industry professionals do for their local communities.

They showed up every day ready to get them the supplies they need in a responsible manner and we are lucky to have such great dedicated employees who always put the customer first. We also appreciate how our customers and vendors adapted to a new way of working with us.

Then, the fact that most, if not all, of our manufacturers were able to keep the supply chain open in 2020 despite COVID-19 was remarkable. They worked creatively with us when needed, prioritized products that were in high demand and helped us deliver educational webinars to our customers and employees.

 

MDM: Did F.W. Webb adopt any new technologies or digital capabilities (e.g., analytics, BI) in hopes of growing market share or increasing wallet share with existing customers? If so, how is that going?

 Pope: We have over 48 Frank Webb Home bath, kitchen and lighting retail showrooms across the Northeast.

Depending on the state, many of them were shut down for two to three months. Meanwhile, there was an increase in home improvement projects since people were spending more time at home than ever. We quickly needed to find another way of doing business and developed virtual tours and consultations that allow customers to shop from the comfort of their own homes. The feedback has been so positive we continue to offer it today for those who wish to use it.

We also saw an increase in online ordering via our wholesale customers. While building strong business relationships and face-to-face interactions are important to us, we also see the need to invest in the e-commerce side of our business and will continue to do so over the coming years.

 

MDM: Were there some changes made over the last 18 months regarding workplace (shift to remote or hybrid work, shift from outside to inside sales, hire from outside the Boston area for HQ positions, etc.) that might be fixtures for the company moving forward?

 Pope: Of course, because of the pandemic those employees who had health concerns and childcare concerns because of COVID-19 were allowed to work from home. As things opened up and vaccinations became readily available, we have required all employees to come back into their place of work.

As long as the appropriate safety measures are put in place, we believe that our employees build stronger relationships by seeing our customers and partners face-to-face and are able to collaborate better with colleagues when in-person.

 

MDM: Did you find that there were some opportunities to add talent to F.W. Webb’s roster during the pandemic, and where was the overall HR focus for the company (sales, marketing, operations, etc.)?

 Pope: We are always looking to add talent, pandemic or no pandemic, and that is across the board. With labor shortages caused by the pandemic, the war for talent has become a big topic.

However, we are confident that F.W. Webb is in a strong position to attract and retain talent. We have a long-standing practice of promoting from within and offer a comprehensive and competitive benefits package, long-term growth and many career development opportunities. Most importantly as a family-owned company, we are proud to have a number of employees who spend most of their careers at F.W. Webb and many who also bring their family members into the business.

 

MDM: The company made a few business acquisitions during the pandemic; how did you approach the M&A process and did the onset of COVID-19 present some unexpected or strategic opportunities for growth? Any more activity on the horizon?

 Pope: COVID-19 has caused a number of changes in the market. We have adapted by stocking up on products that are in greater demand and by offering new technology and services. This includes hands-free products and indoor air quality solutions.

During downturns our philosophy overall is to adjust to the issue and make strategic moves that align with our long-term vision. We loaded up on inventory, continued to add locations and replaced older facilities with bigger facilities. In addition, we continued to explore acquisitions. We entered into an agreement to purchase Danbury Plumbing and HVAC Supply Co. in Connecticut right as the pandemic was beginning and negotiated another one in New York during the pandemic that should open in the beginning of 2022.

Back in 2008/2009, we used the same philosophy and saw our market share grow at that time as well.

 

MDM: Do you have any plans to introduce any new or expanded verticals for the company (e.g., fire protection), and if so, what is driving those decisions for you?

 Pope: We currently have 16 divisions. The last one we added was environmental services with the acquisition of Alliance Environmental Group in 2016. They have presented a number of natural synergies between our disciplines.

For example, we have a number of customers who may need help with hazardous material management, compliance and permitting services, PCBs in building materials, etc. Alliance handles all of these and more.

The division has been especially in high demand during the pandemic because of their COVID-19 decontamination and indoor air quality services. We invested in COVID decontamination equipment and we were able to not only help our own company, but we were contracted to do some big customer jobs.

Alliance has added duct cleaning as another service within their indoor air quality portfolio. It’s primarily focused on the commercial and industrial markets and has really taken off because of all the clean environment initiatives due to COVID.

 

MDM: What’s the outlook for F.W. Webb for the remainder of 2021, heading into 2022 and beyond, and with those plans in mind, where do you see both strength and weakness with your end markets?

 Pope: We see 2021 being a great year. The sales volume we are currently experiencing will continue. Margins are holding despite inflation in the market. We still are experiencing some labor concerns and supply chain shortages will need to be managed closely, but we have a positive outlook and honestly feel that we have positioned the company well.

We believe there could be a slowdown in the economy in the middle of 2022 due to inflation, excess spending by the government and the potential for higher taxes and interest rates. Whatever occurs, we know that we can adapt because of our diversity in disciplines and markets.

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