Corken Steel Products Company: At Your Service

Aug. 1, 2010
There are more than 26 delivery vehicles at Corken Steel Products Company, and every day you'll see them on the road departing from any of nine locations in Kentucky, western Ohio and eastern Indiana and delivering to their customers. No matter the time of day or the part required, Corken Steel will be there for its customers.

There are more than 26 delivery vehicles at Corken Steel Products Company, and every day you'll see them on the road departing from any of nine locations in Kentucky, western Ohio and eastern Indiana and delivering to their customers. No matter the time of day or the part required, Corken Steel will be there for its customers. "At Corken Steel, the answer is yes. Now what's the question," says Jeff Corken, the president of Corken Steel and the son of one of the founders.

Delivering for customers — in every sense of the word — is what defines Corken Steel. Whether it's getting the parts to the job site quickly, having skilled employees who can answer technical questions or providing them with innovative products that can lead to more sales, Corken Steel has become a crucial link for its customers in the HVACR distribution supply chain.

This is a philosophy that the family-owned and operated business has lived by since four Corken brothers, a cousin and a friend opened Corken Steel in Covington, KY, in 1955. Beginning as a supplier of sheet metal products for the roofing industry, the founders realized that many of their roofing customers were able mechanics and needed something to do in the winter; so they started stocking furnace fittings, got an equipment line and entered the HVACR market. With the addition of a key employee, Dick Bucher, that part of the business began to grow.

Today, Corken Steel focuses primarily on the residential replacement market, although it continues to expand in the construction market. The company has nine locations — including its Florence, KY, headquarters — in southwestern Ohio and northern and central Kentucky. It maintains its roots in the roofing business — part of its loyalty to customers who depend upon Corken Steel for this part of their business. Corken Steel also has expanded into sheet metal fabrication, which is a significant part of the business today. "It helps with the one-stop shop concept," says Don Corken Jr., director of roofing. "The fabrication shops offer both standard stock materials as well as custom made-to-order items they can quickly turn around for customers."

Corken Steel's willingness to expand its product line led management to carry products for the geothermal market. Jay Kaiser, director of Sales and Marketing, says geothermal has become the "hottest" product line, driven by the desire of consumers to embrace more environmentally friendly ways of heating and cooling their homes as well as the tax credits available for these products. Geothermal product sales now account for 20 percent of Corken Steel's equipment sales. "We sell everything for the entire system including loops grout, tools and solutions," he says, "everything you would need to do a complete geothermal project."

When Corken Steel began to sell geothermal about six years ago, the company spent time educating customers about the products — taking some of the mystery out of what it involved. Today, geothermal is a more widely known concept, and contractors and dealers come to them. "People are aware of geothermal, and they're asking their contractors about it," he says.

Because Corken Steel has a reputation in the region for its work as a geothermal distributor, many consider the business a trusted source for knowledge and technical advice. In fact, Corken Steel holds regular classroom training at its headquarters. Several Corken Steel employees are considered to be geothermal experts, and they work closely with customers — one-on-one and through classroom training — on installing and maintaining geothermal systems. Kaiser points out that tax credits make geothermal installation very attractive — with a 30 percent tax credit available on an installed system with no maximum limit, which is in effect until 2016.

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Another product that Corken Steel touts as having an enormous potential for saving energy is KoolDuct. "It's starting to take off," Kaiser notes. KoolDuct uses high-density foam as an alternative to sheet metal ductwork, and many consider it better for the environment. Not only does it have some of the highest R-values of any duct system, but it also has the benefit of zero air leakage.

Corken Steel has invested in equipment to fabricate KoolDuct sheets into ductwork. For contractors, the product can save on labor costs and is very lightweight compared to sheet metal. The smooth aluminum interior provides excellent airflow characteristics, with high indoor air quality benefits that resonate with customers. "KoolDuct ties in nicely with the green theme," Jay Kaiser adds.

While Corken Steel has an array of cutting-edge products that appeal to its customers, it is customer service that has carried the company into the 21st century. Says Jeff Corken: "It's a culture inherent in the company. People trust us and they like us, and we're easy to do business with." In a very competitive market that encompasses the Ohio markets of Cincinnati and Dayton down through the Kentucky markets of Louisville and Elizabethtown where many good HVACR wholesale distributors are available, "You have to be good at everything, every day." he says.

"It's all about them," Jeff Corken says of the customers. "It's what we've been doing since 1955." Don Corken Jr. recalls talking to one customer who had recently switched to Corken Steel from another distributor. "They do care about us. Corken Steel Products is No. 1 in service, and there is no No. 2," he recalls the customer saying.

Keeping product coming through the branch locations and into customer trucks or delivered directly to the job site is critical, says Mary Burck, director of operations. "The purchasing is all done here at the corporate offices, and we're feeding every branch every day." While most of the products come through Corken Steel's Florence central distribution center, branches also receive direct shipments from the manufacturer for some orders.

The training and technical service also keep customers coming back. "We have good technicians who will help their customers even if it's not our equipment," Burck says. A training room at Corken Steel headquarters is where customers and employees go to learn about the equipment. "We have a complete training room with operational units including geo, boilers and mini splits," says Jay Kaiser. "Having the classroom and the hands-on training has been a huge help, and contractors love it."

Corken Steel's responsiveness to customers cuts both ways. The service that Corken Steel has shown its customers over the years is repaid by their loyalty. To thank customers, Corken Steel holds several events throughout the year that involve education, product information and some fun. Jay Kaiser says the annual dealer meeting in April is an opportunity to get together with more than 100 dealers and give them full access to Corken Steel's management team and update them on everything from new products to the state of the HVACR market. Their annual business seminar also has been a popular draw for customers who want to learn more about how they can better run their business.

Corken Steel is holding its second annual geothermal training day, Geo Farm, this fall on a 300-acre farm in Indiana for contractors, where it will demonstrate everything from the drilling of the system to how to make the loops. The demonstration will be located in a historic house that had its oil furnace replaced with a geothermal system, which will allow 150 contractors to see geothermal in action and remove some of the mystery about how to install it and examine how it works. "It will be a huge success," Jay Kaiser says.

Other customer events that have become popular include trap shooting, a drive-around at the Indianapolis Speedway and a trip to a NASCAR race at Kentucky Speedway. Customers also can qualify to earn trips based on their sales. Jay Kaiser says its co-op marketing program has been successful, allowing dealers to enhance their visibility in the community and drive new business.

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Having a broad product line that cuts across diversified markets such as sheet metal fabrication, roofing, geothermal and traditional HVACR helped Corken Steel navigate through the recent economic downturn better than most other wholesale distributors, says Jeff Corken. A drop in metal prices and a housing market that, by and large, remained fairly stable also helped the business. "Cincinnati is pretty conservative with money," says Don Corken Jr.

Corken Steel also received a great business boost from its membership in Affiliated Distributors (A-D), a wholesale buying and marketing group that comprises more than 520 independent distributor companies with some 3,000 locations in the United States and Canada. "One of the best things that we did was joining A-D. It's been a huge benefit to the company," says Kaiser. "In terms of exposure, we get to the cream of the crop — the top distributors in the country — and exchange ideas with them. It's also enhanced our relationship with many of the key vendors in the industry. It's really been tremendous."

Corken Steel also counts HARDI as a key part in helping its business flourish. It was through HARDI that Corken Steel found a consultant, Vern Dupy, who helped restructure the business about 15 years ago, placing it on a path for its future growth. Corken Steel became a HARDI member in the mid-1980s. Because there is so much happening around the HVACR industry, it's more important than ever to have an industry association like HARDI watching out for wholesale distributors, says Jeff Corken. "We'd be lost without them," he says. "It's a tremendous organization."

Michael Maynard is a business writer based in Providence, RI. He writes frequently on HVACR, construction and architecture issues. Contact him at [email protected].

Corken Steel Products at a Glance

Management Team: Don Corken Jr., Jeff Corken, Denny Smith, Mary Burck, Jay Kaiser, Andy Bucher Headquarter Operations: Florence, KY Employees: 150 Major Product Lines: Tempstar, ClimateMaster, Lochinvar, LG, Snappy, Johns Manville, Hart & Cooley, Honeywell, White-Rodgers, Ductmate, Selkirk, Follansbee, Lomanco, Berger Bros., Metal Sales Website: Year Founded: 1955

Best Practice

Corken Steel Products recognizes the critical part that training plays in the success of both its dealer/contractors and itself. To that end, the company just completed construction of a new training facility with fully operational equipment. This permits hands-on training for both employees and customers in the areas of installation, service and diagnostics.

Also, the company just completed a 12-week training program in which counter personnel from various branches received classroom and hands-on training on a wide array of products. It was presented by the company's own training staff and outside sources. In addition, the company training team (all NATE-certified) conducts NATE certification for the dealer base. More than 600 dealer personnel completed various classes in 2009, including 60 on geo products, Ohio and Kentucky continuing education hours and EPA refrigerant certification. The company also conducts customized on-site training at many of its customer locations.

Finally, Corken recognizes the need for continuing education in the area of general business practices and offers its customers the opportunity to participate in a number of these classes during the year.