A Foundation of Family

Wolff Bros. Supply

Wholesale distributor Wolff Bros. Supply has products for plumbing, electrical, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) applications. The family company, founded by a pair of Ohioan farmers in the 1960s, has grown to be one of the largest and most successful independent wholesalers in its market with thirteen locations throughout Ohio. By keeping a clear focus on understanding and meeting the material needs of its contractors, the company has earned their confidence.

Like so much of Ohio’s history, the story of Wolff Bros. Supply has its roots in the struggles of an old family farming business. A few years after the end of the Second World War, a pair of entrepreneurial brothers named Harold and Norman Wolff decided to buy the family dairy farm from their mother. The operation was small enough for the two of them to manage, and together, they put in years of hard work to keep it going. However, as they began to raise families of their own, the meager income they could manage working the farm fell short. They decided that it was time to branch out.

They began seeking other opportunities, and by the mid-1950s, they had opened a second company called Wolff Bros. General Contractors. They helped to build houses with mechanical trades’ services like plumbing, electrical, and heating. As demand grew and they worked to meet it, they realized that the major limiting factor on their capacity to perform was that there was nowhere between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio to buy the materials they needed.

Whenever they drove to one of the big cities, they would buy materials in bulk and store them all in the barn. This meant a more considerable investment upfront, but a lower cost per item, giving them a noteworthy competitive advantage. Eventually, they were stocking so much inventory at the farm that other contractors began going to them to buy what they needed.

The brothers were doing contract work and supplying other contractors with materials, but as time passed, the supply side of the business gained traction. By 1965, the company was officially established under the name Wolff Bros., Inc., and by 1972, it was operating primarily as a wholesale distribution company. Harold and Norman decided to sell off the remaining contracting business and focus their effort on providing materials to an area where they were not readily available.

From those humble beginnings, Wolff Bros., Inc. has grown to be one of the largest independent wholesale distributors to mechanical contractors in the country, with 370 employees working in thirteen locations throughout the state. The company provides its services from south of Columbus north to Lake Erie and from Indiana into Pennsylvania and Michigan. After more than half a century, the company’s headquarters still stands right where it all began at Wolff dairy farm. The facilities are new and much bigger, but never left the homestead.

Beyond its headquarters in Medina, Wolff Bros. operates from Toledo, Akron, Cleveland, Columbus, Sandusky, Elyria, Findlay, Mansfield, Ashland, Marion, Mentor, and Wooster. From these thirteen locations, the company supplies mechanical contractors with the full range of materials they need, including electrical and lighting equipment, plumbing supplies, and HVAC equipment. It provides tool rentals for wiring work and training for HVAC and plumbing technicians.

Despite substantial growth over its lifetime, Wolff Bros, Inc. has maintained its family-owned, close company culture. “Being family-owned, we’re a really open-door, non-corporate environment,” says Assistant Vice President of Sales and Marketing Christopher Wolff. “We are a casual group, but we’re a hard-working group. Many of our employees have been with the company for twenty-plus years, and we think that says a lot about the kind of business that we’re trying to run.”

The company is currently in transition as the second generation is stepping away, and a few members of the third generation are stepping in to take on management positions. As this younger generation begins to bring their expertise to the leadership, the company is working to incorporate new technology and innovation.

“We want to understand not only what our competitors are doing, but to look out and see what leaders in all segments are doing, so that we can find ways to take distribution into the next decade,” says Wolff. As the leadership evolves so does the company’s approach. It is committed to providing the best value to its contractors by embracing fresh ideas in a highly competitive and rapidly evolving space.

Traditionally, Wolff Bros. has focused primarily on working with small-to-medium-sized contractors. Many of these contractors have grown significantly over the years, and the company is now working closely with them to understand how to meet the needs of larger contractors and larger commercial projects going forward. As its customers grow, Wolff intends to grow alongside them so that it can continue to supply them with the products and services they have come to trust.

One of the key ways in which Wolff has been able to distinguish itself from other companies competing in the Ohio market is by paying careful attention to the material needs of its customers and maintaining a well-stocked and well-managed inventory that directly correlates to those needs. It then makes sure to get those supplies to the job site on time.

This helps contractors stay on track and deliver their projects on schedule. “We do a good job of listening to our contractors and being able to react fast. Our inventory is ahead of our competitors as far as stocking levels, and that helps us serve the contractors, so they’re not stuck waiting,” says Wolff.

One of the most substantial challenges facing Wolff’s leadership, as well as many other companies throughout Ohio and the rest of the United States, is a lack of available workers. The current generation of new workers is graduating into professional career paths and leaving a considerable gap in the labor market for trades and low-skilled positions. Over the last several years, it has become increasingly challenging to find qualified people who are a good cultural fit for the company, and this has become a significant limiting factor on Wolff Bros. growth.

“People and technology are our two biggest challenges. Not a lot of people grow up saying they want to go sell toilets, but there really is a lot of cool technology that lives within the plumbing, electricity, and HVAC world that people don’t realize,” says Wolff.

To combat this problem, the company is attempting to bring the more exciting aspects of the field to the forefront. It is organizing an open house for January that it is calling ‘Meet the Trades’ where it will bring in groups of high school students to give them an introduction to what a career in the trades can represent. By educating them on the breadth of opportunities that vocational courses and trades-work can represent, it hopes to help bring a new generation of workers into the field.

Wolff Bros. aims to continue growing and expanding. The company leadership is investigating the possibility of incorporating automation into its workflow and is seeking innovative ways to improve productivity and to help contractors simplify operations as much as possible. By improving operational efficiency, the firm can reduce both expenses and the time it takes to get products to its contractors, which will make those contractors more profitable in the end. For Wolff, Bros. Inc., the way forward has always been controlling costs, managing inventory, and making sure that it can take care of people no matter what the market does.

“We’re a passionate group,” says Wolff. “We’re very excited about what we do and where we are within the market. We like being able to work with our vendors and our contractors to form partnerships that help all of us grow together and to keep the industry moving forward.”

After more than half a century in business, Wolff Bros. Supply, Inc. has grown to be one of the largest, most trusted suppliers to mechanical contractors in Ohio. Its commitment to understanding and meeting the needs of its customers will enable it to stay on this trajectory for a very long time.

Building the Next Generation

As thousands of experienced workers retire across North America every day, it is small wonder many industries are concerned about the future. It has been a decade since the oldest members of the baby boom generation started leaving their jobs, removing from the workplace decades of experience and skills that are tough to replace. The situation is so dire that, when younger workers are not available or knowledgeable enough to take over, retired staffers are often called back to work on a part-time basis.

November 17, 2019, 12:08 AM EST