2-J SUPPLY A Better Way of Doing Business

Oct. 1, 2009
If 2-J Supply Co. Inc. was begun on a wing and a prayer by Jerry Trimbach and Jim Winget, according to Trimbach's son, Larry, nearly 50 years ago, it

If 2-J Supply Co. Inc. was begun on “a wing and a prayer” by Jerry Trimbach and Jim Winget, according to Trimbach's son, Larry, nearly 50 years ago, it reflected what it took back then to succeed in the HVACR distribution business: hard work, perseverance and a little bit of luck. Today, Trimbach's sons run 2-J Supply, and their philosophy for success is not based on wings or prayers, but rather, as Larry puts it, a line from a Beatles song, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”

Certainly the folks at 2-J Supply still work hard, but brothers Larry and Greg Trimbach understand that it takes more than that to succeed in the wholesale distribution business today. Especially in difficult economic times, it takes an understanding of and an ability to act upon what's happening in both the local markets and the world — from managing your sales force to proactively planning for the future. Relying on the expertise and experience of their employees is key; the Trimbachs also count on a number of formal and informal networks to bounce around ideas and seek advice as well as a Board of Advisers to help guide them and keep the business running long into the future.

Trimbach and Winget founded 2-J Supply in Dayton, OH, in 1962, and the business has since expanded to eight locations in three states, built on “serving the customer, trying to determine their needs and fill those needs,” Greg says. The business first expanded in 1988, when it opened a location in Cincinnati. Larry moved from Dayton to Cincinnati to open the new location. Two years later, a third location opened in Columbus, and they moved one of their counter people from Dayton to open the new branch. Two years after that, its fourth location opened in Louisville, KY, with a local person hired to run that operation.

The next four locations opened by 2-J Supply between 1999 and 2002 were different in that the company purchased existing distributors rather than starting from scratch. Those branch locations are in Lexington, KY, Lima, OH, Piketon, OH, and Huntington, WV. Larry says they learned that transitioning to new markets was much easier when customers knew the employees rather than bringing in existing 2-J Supply people — once again demonstrating the power of relationships in the HVACR distribution business. “It's much more difficult if you don't know the customers,” Larry says.

2-J Supply is heavy on residential replacement, with some commercial replacement and a small percentage of new residential. The poor economic climate has hit the Midwest particularly hard, and Larry says business for the first half of 2009 was down 13 percent. Its sheet metal fabricating shops in Dayton and Cincinnati have taken a harder hit than the distribution side of the business.

While business is down, the Trimbachs say they had been preparing for the downturn since 2006, and they credit HARDI for much of this readiness. “What helped us tremendously is being part of HARDI and having resources like the Institute for Trend Research,” Larry says. Using forecasts and trend data that the Institute supplied through a partnership with HARDI, the Trimbachs were able to gradually pare down their work force over two years without resorting to the large-scale layoffs or reorganizations that have hit other businesses. “While being down from a sales standpoint, we've worked hard at controlling expenses and trying to retain as much profit as we could,” he adds.

Throughout its history, 2-J Supply has “had a real bond” with small to medium-sized contractors, says Greg, but now serves larger contractors, too. Part of this bond is rooted in its training programs. “We've always been out front in providing training to contractors,” he says. “We have a full-time trainer, and that's been a way to connect with small to medium contractors.” Ohio and Kentucky require contractor licensing, and 2-J Supply's training also allows its contractor customers there to receive continuing education credits through its programs.

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What goes hand in hand with training is having the people who can answer a customer's questions. “We feel that this is part of the value that we're supposed to bring,” Greg says. “It's not sending you to an 800 number but hopefully have the answers readily available and give the guys the technical support they need.”

At the 2-J Supply headquarters in Dayton is a Wall of Fame, and that, says Greg, goes to the heart of why the company has built such customer loyalty. “These are people who have been with us for 10 years or more,” he says. “We recruit and retain really good talent.”

To ensure that 2-J Supply will continue to succeed, the Trimbachs created a Board of Advisers about two years ago to serve as a sounding board and help better prepare where they want to take the business. The board comprises three outside executives in sales, human resources and HVACR distribution and their advice and counsel have been “invaluable” to the business, Greg says. “They have been a tremendous help to us, making us more accountable and do a better job of planning where we want to go.”

As the Trimbachs look to the future of this family-owned business, they look toward the third generation. Two of Greg's sons, Kevin and Jason, have joined the business — Jason is the branch manager of the Dayton location, and Kevin is the inventory and logistics manager. The Trimbachs have also been working with Aileron, a nonprofit organization that helps business owners lead and manage their businesses. To further support the transition to the third generation and to bring more structure to the business, Greg and Larry also brought on a chief operating officer, Jeff Runyon, and a sales manager, Nathan Borders. “We had a plan of how that transition was going to take place, and this ensures that the transition plan we have in place will succeed,” Larry says.

The Trimbachs also count on strong relationships with their manufacturing partners. They partner with manufacturers Maytag and Westinghouse to sell dealer-based products and Ducane for their open line. Bard, Lau and White-Rodgers have been associated with 2-J Supply since its founding. Their manufacturing partners provide training opportunities for both 2-J Supply's employees and their customers. “They'll spend a whole day at a branch and work with counter people, salespeople and many times they'll put on lunches or dinners and work directly with contractors to bring them the product knowledge they need so they can succeed,” Greg says.

While the branch locations are similar in terms of their composition and products, the eight stores are in different market areas — from rural to urban — and that plays into how the stores are structured, Larry says. Smaller-market locations in Piketon and Huntington, for example, have a higher percentage of delivery sales, due in large measure to geography. “That's incredibly important to our customers there,” Larry says of customer deliveries. Stores in the larger, suburban and urban markets rely more heavily on counter sales.

2-J Supply's software allows them to look at sales from each branch, down to specific classes of products and items to ensure the stocking of appropriate items in each market. While its Dayton location is the primary transfer point, Greg says there are also a lot of direct shipments to the individual locations.

The Trimbachs say they still struggle with how much independence to give each location. “We're still kind of evolving in that area, trying to determine what is the best way to do that,” Larry says. “We want to give them the authority to do what they need while maintaining certain standards and requirements.” While branch managers do have some leeway in terms of credit and pricing, it is limited. The managers can request new products that they think will work in their market. “They can say that I'd like to try this product, and we'll allow that,” adds Greg.

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Working through issues like these can be challenging, and that's where the Trimbachs' informal networks help them. About 10 years ago, the Trimbachs got together with about seven other HVACR wholesale distributors to discuss the challenges they face in running an independent business and the best practices that they've found to help them succeed. Called LEAD, the group gets together a couple of times a year. “That group is always there for us,” Larry says.

That group has been so successful that the Trimbachs started a second group comprised of local businesspeople in the Dayton area who run family businesses. While this group is not involved in HVACR wholesale distribution, they all face similar issues — from how to survive the economic downturn to how to best manage receivables. “Greg and I feel that the more we can learn from others, the more knowledge that we can glean from the support and experience of others, then the better off we all are,” Larry says.

2-J Supply is also a founding member of the Blue Hawk co-op, and Larry says this organization, too, has benefited the business and helped it to grow. “The work that Blue Hawk does on our behalf and its members is pretty amazing in the short time that it's been around,” he says.

Larry and Greg have enjoyed a strong relationship — not always a given in a family business. “We've encouraged one another to follow our strengths. When you're a smaller company, you have to wear many hats,” says Larry, who joined the company in 1984 after working in the food service industry for six years. Greg, who is younger than Larry, joined the business in 1976. Greg has always worked more on the asset management side of the business, while Larry has been more involved in the sales and marketing efforts. “That's worked well for us,” Larry adds.

Bringing on a COO and a sales manager represents the next step in 2-J Supply's evolution. “We've recognized the need to bring in different people with different strengths as we prepare for the third generation,” Larry says. “We recognize the need to have good people in key positions.” With staff and owners who are dedicated to using all of the resources available to them (in some cases creating their own resources) to ensure the long-term success of the business, 2-J Supply is well-positioned for the future. “As you can see, Greg and I don't rest on our laurels,” Larry says. “We're certainly always looking for ways that can help us to be a better company.”

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

Best Practice

Definition and Example: 2-J Supply Co. has grown over the years and tackled many obstacles by involving a “multitude of counselors” (Prov 11:14). We have a board of advisers, a local business network group (The King Group), a national HVAC network group (LEAD Distributors), and are involved in Aileron, a local business support network. We don't have all the answers, but we know we can trust HARDI and all the above mentioned resources we've been blessed to have.

Significance: The design of the board of advisers, along with our other groups, allows us to bring outside expertise to raise our company standards and to make us accountable for our actions.

Benefits: We get regular dialogue and feedback from all our groups, and they have the best interest of us (Larry & Greg) and our company in mind.

Procedure: Concerning the board, we went through a course through Aileron on why, when and how to get a Board. The other groups evolved through the years.

People Involved: Three board members, Larry and Greg Trimbach along with Jeff Runyon (COO) and Nathan Borders (sales manager) as senior managers. Often, we ask other senior managers to also make presentations to the board. This makes them better, making them present their plans, strategies and results. In turn, it also gives us another set of “eyes and ears” to evaluate our key people.

Timing: We meet often and regularly. The board meets three times a year, LEAD twice a year, The King Group monthly, and we meet with Aileron whenever needed. Also, we know we can pick up the phone and call any of our “counselors” for advice and feedback. It's reassuring to know that we have available all these people who “have our back.”

Cost: Board members are paid an agreed upon fee for each meeting (three annually), and all the others are voluntary, but everyone participates. Some Aileron events do have a fee.

Other Considerations: We must remain open to new ideas from outside resources. However, we still have to make the final determination as to what is best for the company.

Contact: Greg or Larry Trimbach at 800/228-1325, [email protected] or [email protected].

2-J Supply Co. Inc. at a Glance

President: Greg Trimbach Vice President: Larry Trimbach COO: Jeff Runyon Headquarters: Dayton, OH Operations: 8 Total (Ohio) Dayton, Cincinnati, Columbus, Lima, & Piketon; (Kentucky) Lexington & Louisville; (West Virginia) Huntington Employees: 76 Annual Sales: $32 Million in 2008 Major Product Lines: Maytag, Westinghouse, & Gibson (Nordyne), Ducane, White Rodgers and Bard Website: Year Founded: 1962