In a consolidating interior building supplies industry full of large, corporate-driven companies, Best Supply has flourished by driving decisions to the local level
By: Erik Cassano
Tim Small was supposed to go to law school, but a summer job took him on a detour that has lasted 35 years and counting.
During college at Bowling Green State University, Small worked weekends and breaks at construction companies. It was in his blood—his father, Richard, was in the business, and Small enjoyed the work, especially the administrative aspects.
“I worked for companies buying materials, and I became interested in the distribution business model,” Small says. “After I graduated from Bowling Green [in 1983], I was planning to go to law school, but I had a chance to open my first construction supply yard. I took the chance, and never went to law school.”
That first supply yard, in Mentor, marked the beginning of what is now Best Supply Inc. Today based in Eastlake, the interior building supplies company has 140 employees and operations in Ohio, North Carolina and Tennessee.
Best Supply has grown steadily since its inception despite operating in an industry that has become increasingly populated by private equity firms that purchase and consolidate companies.
In fact, the business has thrived by doing exactly the opposite of what has become the industry norm.
Creating local autonomy
Relationship-building at the local level is a sound aspiration for any business, but it’s far more to Small and his team. Without excellent customer service on the front lines, the business simply couldn’t function.
Customers can spend thousands of dollars per order, but they won’t spend it with a supplier they don’t trust.
“The key to success in this business is treating customers with respect,” Small says. “It sounds simple, but it’s much more difficult to maintain good customer relationships if you’re based in, say, California, and you’re trying to manage relationships in Texas, Ohio and Florida.”
While Best Supply has a multistate footprint, it avoids the issue of customer disconnect by pushing decision-making authority and customer relationship cultivation down to the local level. In each of Best Supply’s markets, local managers and sales representatives have a high degree of autonomy to act in the best interest of customers.
“It has to be built into the culture of the company,” Small says. “You hire people and train them with the idea that you’re going to trust them to make the best decisions for the customer and for the company. You understand that they will sometimes make mistakes, and when they do, you don’t automatically yank their authority away—you trust them to learn from it.”
To give ground-level team members that level of empowerment requires great hiring practices rooted in a well-defined mission and set of core values.
“We want to do right by our customers, and we want to do what we say we’re going to do,” Small says. “It’s simple, but if we believe in those things, we’re going to look for people who believe in those things when we make hires. That’s what we’ve done, and it has served us well for 35 years.”
Best Supply deals exclusively in large orders to commercial and residential construction contractors. In its early years, it stocked several hundred products; today, it stocks more than 10,000, usually sold together in large quantities and shipped directly to the worksite.
“If you’re going to buy enough drywall for your kitchen, you go to a home improvement store,” Small says. “If you need 10,000 sheets of drywall for an entire building, you come to us. A contractor that needs drywall, metal studs and insulation to finish the interior portion of a building would be our perfect customer.”
Small has attracted many of those customers over the years, and his aim is to continue attracting more.
“I would like to see us grow by 40 percent within five years, doing it by the same principles we always have,” Small says. “There has never been a better time to be in business. If you run your company right, there is plenty of room to grow if you make good decisions, hire the right people and have an entrepreneurial spirit.”
A smooth transition
When Huntington acquired Best Supply’s former bank, the transition could not have been simpler, says owner and president Tim Small.
“We went to sleep one day and they were FirstMerit, and woke up the next day and they were Huntington,” he says. “It was totally seamless. From the customer’s standpoint, it was a name change, nothing more.”
All of Best Supply’s bankers stayed with Huntington, assisting the company in every aspect of the transition. That’s why Best Supply continues to do business with Huntington for all of its banking services.
“It felt like they simply flipped the switch, and considering how much of a headache a bank change has the potential to be, that is a major relief,” Small says. “And our relationship with Huntington continues to grow. They really root for Best Supply and help us in any way they can.”
For more information, visit www.bestsupply.com.