2014 MDM Market Leader Profile
Diversity is a key element to F.W. Webb’s continued success. While maintaining its position as one of the largest plumbing, heating, HVAC and PVF distributors in North America, the company actually serves 14 distinct disciplines from plumbing to pumps to high purity process components. And, according to President Jeff Pope, they’ll expand into additional disciplines if opportunity arises. Editor Jenel Stelton-Holtmeier spoke with Pope about how F.W. Webb has evolved to meet changing customer needs and the direction the company is going.
MDM: How’s business?
Jeff Pope: Business has been good for us. We’re up about 8 percent over last year, and we have an aggressive plan for the rest of the year. We’re on target for now, and we have six and a half months still to go. We’re trying to get double-digit growth by the end of the year.
MDM: The industry keeps changing. What are some of the key drivers you’re seeing?
Pope: Customers’ changing needs, but those are always changing. For example, vending machines seemed to be a driver that had come, but now seems to be waning, at least in our area. So now it’s back to just doing the blocking-and-tackling of trying to have the products when the customers need it and get it over to the customer just in time for them.
MDM: F.W. Webb has been focused on integrated supply over the last several years. What role does it play for the company and the industry?
Pope: Integrated supply for us has grown a lot. We seem to be in more of the “partner mode” for our customers than we have been over the last few years. Customers are going in that direction, so we’ve had to adapt. Industrial accounts seem to be using that more and more these days. Whether it’s a phase or not, I’m not sure. But for now we’re a partner and a supplier.
MDM: F.W. Webb serves a very diverse set of sectors. Why so many different directions?
Pope: It helps because you have economic cycles in all the different markets. So if one is down, it’s good to be in many others to offset that.
It also helps with meeting customer needs. With an industrial account, we’re able to provide them not only with the MRO and PVF material, we also have a sprinkler division so we can fabricate, thread, cut and weld grooved pipe for their specific needs. We have a plastics division, so we have all the industrial pipe, valves, fittings, pumps, gauges, etc.
We have a High Purity Process Division to provide the products in that world. Valve actuation – we play a role in that market through our Process Controls Division. This group includes instrumentation where we can make panels and skid-mounted systems for customers. We also do safety relief valve repair through this division.
MDM: What drove your company into these diverse areas?
Pope: Our customers did. In New England, it used to be that paper mills were the major customers for us, but now they’re not as big as they used to be. So we’ve adapted. And there are markets we can get into where we might not be the biggest fish in the pond but there’s a lot of opportunity that we can take advantage of – that’s where the biopharmaceutical effort came from and many of the other areas, as well.
MDM: Has most of the expansion come from acquisitions?
Pope: It has been a mix. The sprinkler division started through acquisition, but that occurred over 30 years ago. It has been more of an organic development.
Our High Purity Process Division was not an acquisition. We saw an opportunity in biopharmaceuticals and added people that knew that industry. We set up shop in one of our branches and provided them with the inventory and resources they needed to play in that market. We’ve since grown that team to service other high purity industries such as food & beverage and nutraceuticals.
Others, such as valve automation, safety relief valve repair and thermoplastics were through acquisition.
We recently added a person to focus on the power market, an area we’re just getting into.
MDM: Do you plan to continue expanding the areas you operate in?
Pope: Sure, as the opportunity comes. We’re in a lot of places that have a lot of opportunity for growth. We have more than 80 locations throughout the Northeast, with New Jersey and Pennsylvania being our latest entries.
MDM: F.W. Webb recently upgraded its WebbCONNECT platform. What role does it serve for your customers?
Pope: WebbCONNECT is our platform for entering orders online. Our challenge is that we have around 180,000 SKUs that we have to get coded in the system, and we have a data governance group that has to put the words to it to describe all 180,000 items. It’s an ongoing process, too, because manufacturers keep adding products.
It’s an ongoing, five-days-a-week effort to populate our website with easy-to-understand products, pictures and easy-to-enter orders. We’ve been at the data governance part of it for three or four years, but we’re still just scratching the surface.
We first launched WebbCONNECT about five years ago. I think the Internet has become more user-friendly than it was back then, so more customers are going right online to find stuff. And we want to make it as easy as possible to find Webb and to buy stuff.
MDM: How important is e-commerce to F.W. Webb?
Pope: It will be very important, even though right now it’s just a small piece of our overall sales effort. We certainly expect it to grow, that’s why we have the data governance team. That’s why we have an IT department that’s adding benefits and features and products, trying to figure out on a constant basis what’s the best way to present it for customers to order product. How easily can we get them to where they need to be?
But there are a lot of other important elements for our customers. About 22 percent of our business is sourcing products that aren’t on our system. So customers have needs, they call us up at one of our more than 80 branches, and we’ll spend 22 percent of our time finding those products. It goes back to being a real partner to our customers.
MDM: Are there any other challenges with e-commerce?
Pope: Photography is a challenge. People want to see pictures of the products naturally, and when you have 180,000 products, that’s a lot of pictures. It’s a matter of hoping the vendors have quality photos, and if not, we have to find a different way of doing it. We had a full-time product photographer for a few years. Now we’re doing custom photo work on a case-by-case basis.
In the plumbing world, we have things like fixtures and faucets that the homeowners want to see, too, like a virtual showroom. So we want to make sure those photos are a little more dynamic than the basic photos.
MDM: How do you identify your customers’ needs?
Pope: We conduct customer focus groups to listen to what our customers want and try to anticipate what they are going to want down the road.
We have customer advisory councils that help, where we ask customers as groups what they would like to see in an ideal supplier. Through that we implemented a call center to provide customers with answers more quickly rather than having to sift through everything online.
The challenges they bring up are a lot of the basic ones: Time is the biggest challenge. They want to talk to the person they call right away – they don’t want to wait on hold. They want to get in and out at the counter right away, but they also like talking to our people at the counter. We try to provide both experiences for the customer.
F.W. Webb will be 150 years old in 2016. We’ve gotten here by listening, responding and changing with our customers needs.