TOLEDO, Ohio - Not far off U.S. 23 in this industrial town is the newest branch of Robertson Heating and Supply Co., a long-established Ohio wholesaler. When Snips paid a visit in September, employees had just completed their first day of business, so things were still a little disheveled. The Robertson sign, familiar to generations of Ohio contractors, had yet to be erected. But that didn't dampen the excitement of branch manager Jerry Betka and salesman Greg Kronbach.
"We think we can do really good here," Betka said as he showed off the 42,000 sq. ft. warehouse, one of the largest of Robertson's 27 stores. "This building is a very good structure."
Vacant for about a year, it was home to a chemical company before being purchased by Robertson. Almost perfectly square with relatively few posts or other barriers, Betka calls it a "beautiful building" that he predicts will be "easy to manage."
Deliveries will come in about twice a week-drop-shipments from manufacturers and merchandise sent from Robertson's main warehouse in Alliance, Ohio. The docks are being modified to make it easier for the trucks to get in and out. The outlet will carry the full line of Robertson's heating and plumbing products, including brands such as Rheem and State that according to Kronbach, haven't been readily available in northwest Ohio for some time.
"A lot of contractors think that's the greatest thing in the world," he said. "There's a lot of guys who've really missed the Rheem line."
Company officials have big plans for their newest branch. According to Betka, they expect it to be one of the top volume outlets in the chain. Don Fleming, vice president of marketing for Robertson, said it will allow them to serve contractors not only in greater Toledo but make forays into southern Michigan, something that was not possible when the next closest branch was in Wauseon, Ohio, about 40 miles away.
Robertson Heating Supply Co. has grown steadily since it was founded by John Robertson in 1934. For its first few years, the small company concentrated on serving the heating needs of just the immediate Alliance, Ohio area. The building boom years following World War II allowed the company to branch out to serve more communities and Robertson added plumbing supplies to its product mix. During the next fifty years, the company continued to expand and diversify, adding warehouses in Pennsylvania and well as more Ohio locations. A few years ago, the company was given the "Wholesaler of the Quarter Century" award by a trade publication and inducted into the plumbing industry's "Hall of Fame."
Lighting, kitchen needs
In the early 1970s, it opened a lighting center in Columbus, Ohio, marking the company's first venture into the lighting and retail market. A second lighting center opened in 1975. The company also began selling kitchen cabinets and fixtures.
However, while the lighting and kitchen centers have proved successful, Fleming said the company's focus remains the residential and commercial contractor and the heating and plumbing markets. He estimated about 85% of Robertson's business is for commercial work.
Robertson enters a market where several heating and plumbing wholesalers already exist. But company officials seem to be confident they will be able to stand out. "Service is the No. 1 thing," Kronbach said. "We'll get more than our share (of business)."
As at other Robertson locations, all employees at the Toledo branch will be required to take part in up to 30 hours of training designed to keep them up to date with the products Robertson sells. Such training is necessary in a competitive marketplace, Kronbach said, because "every contractor likes to test you."
Another concern for Robertson, as it is for most wholesalers these days, are the "big box" home improvement stores such as Lowe's and Home Depot. But Robertson officials don't consider them to be too much of a threat. "These people have not yet figured out how to deal with the builders or contractors," Fleming said. "They look at the contractor as being nothing more than a big consumer. That's not the case. The contractor lives in a whole different world."
That doesn't mean that Robertson is being complacent. The company is always looking for new ways to expand its business. Robertson has a web site, www.robertsonheatingsupply.com, that Fleming said right now is "basically a billboard," but within the next few months will be overhauled and expanded. He declined to give details, but said pricing and product information would be included and online ordering is strongly being considered.
Robertson is a family-owned and operated business with about 200 employees, many of them long-term. Both Kronbach and Betka are new to Robertson but not to the hvac market. Betka, 53, comes to the company with 14 years in the business while Kronbach, 42, has spent 12 years of his life in the field. Longtime residents of the area, both men are excited about working for such an established company. "I've never worked for a company as well organized as (Robertson)," Betka said.