HVAC Distributor Robbie Thompson Keeping the Tradition Alive for the Future
Q: Would you please share with us a thumbnail sketch of the products that you carry and the territory that you cover?
Robbie Thompson: We are a distributor of all types of sheet metal, HVAC and duct fabrication supplies. We service the entire southeastern U.S. out of 10 branches. Almost 85 percent of our business is commercial HVAC ductwork. A large portion of our business is flat-rolled sheet metal, but the majority of our business is duct fabrication, air distribution and HVAC supplies. This includes products like duct liner, 4-bolt flange and corners, snaplock pipe and fittings, canvas connector, slips & drives, sealant, spiral pipe, duct board, flex, grilles, registers and diffusers (GRD), copper, refrigerant, etc. We also sell sheet metal fabrication machinery like brakes, shears, pinspotters and roll formers.
Q: Your company has an impressive history; it’s more than 140 years old and got was founded less than a decade after the end of the Civil War. That’s remarkable lineage. Please give us a recap of what the company did initially and how it got to where it is today.
Robbie Thompson: The founding of Conklin Metal Industries dates all the way back to 1874. It originally operated as a stove, tinware and house-furnishing business on Whitehall Street in Atlanta under the name A.P. Stewart & Co. This business was managed by Andrew P. Stewart, who later became the Fulton County Tax collector — a position he held for 26 years. In 1888, Charles A. Conklin moved to Atlanta from Baltimore, bought A.P. Stewart & Co., and began operating under the name Charles A. Conklin Mfg. Co. The nature of the business was “Tin Plate, Metals, Tinner’s Stock and Stoves, Etc.” He continued to operate the Whitehall store as the retail department.
Conklin grew the business considerably and beginning in 1891, conducted business out of a newly constructed four-story, 40,000-square-foot warehouse near the current site of Philips Arena. An article in the Atlanta Constitution referred to the operation at that time as “the largest factory in the southern states and one of the largest in the country.” In 1902, Conklin sold the entire tin ware manufacturing portion of the business to the American Can Company, a young company that was buying up similar manufacturing companies throughout the country.
The business continued out of the same warehouse under the new name of Conklin Tin Plate and Metal Company. Having sold the largest segment of the company, Conklin closed the retail department on Whitehall Street, and the focus shifted to that of the wholesale trade of tin plate, metals, solder, sheet copper, sheet iron, conductor pipe, tinmen’s machines and tools.
By the late 1920s, the emphasis remained heavily on sheet metal. In the late 1930s, with the advent of HVAC, sheet metal was being used to fabricate round and rectangular ductwork. By the 1960s, the product offering was a complete line of sheet metal, roofing products, heating products and machine tools. And in the 80s, the company purchased a cut-to-length line and began processing galvanized sheets.
Q: How did you become the owner of the company? After we had met at the HARDI Focus Conference in Charlotte, I learned that you have three children and they’re young. Are you grooming them for the top spot some day?
Robbie Thompson: My brother and I are the only family members who are active in the day-to-day business. I took over as president when my father retired in 2004. My brother Harry is vice president sales. We complement each other well, and each has roles that fit our strengths. In terms of a potential fifth generation, I do have three young children — an -11-year-old son and two daughters, who are 8 and 6. They have shown some interest in the business, but they have many years before they really will know what they want to do. I do not plan to put pressure on any of them to make this their career, just like my father never did with either of us. I would love to give them more exposure to the company as they get older (maybe as a summer intern), but ultimately I want them making their own career choice and in a field that they enjoy and find satisfaction.
As far as a little bit of our family’s history as it relates to our company, we are a fourth-generation family business, but we were not the founders of the company. My great-grandfather came to Conklin in 1898 as a teenage office clerk. He worked directly for the founder, Conklin. My great-grandfather became president in 1949, so he served the company for more than 50 years before he became president. He held that position for only four years, but by that time, had established a foundation for a family legacy that would span four generations. My grandfather, Harry B. Thompson, Jr., came to Conklin in 1928 and served as vice president until 1953, when he succeeded his father as president. My father, Harry B. Thompson III, came to Conklin in 1962 and became company president in 1971. He held this position until his retirement in 2004. It had been 105 years since his grandfather first started as a billing clerk.
Q: What interest(s) do you have that very few people know about? Tell us something about it.
Robbie Thompson: One of my passions is woodworking. I love creating something out of nothing but a pile of rough-sawn planks of wood. It has always been very therapeutic for me. I don’t make anything that intricate. It has been mainly limited to tables, bookshelves and blanket chests.
My other passion that hopefully people do know about — at least if they know me — is my faith. I am a Christian. I follow Christ. He is my savior, my authority, my source of hope and peace and comfort. My faith influences every aspect of my life, informs every decision I make [and] inspires every challenge I face.
Q: Is there a business leader (or someone from any discipline or profession) whom you admire and even try to emulate? Why?
Robbie Thompson: I was expecting a question about a recent book that I’ve read, so I am going to use the same answer. A leader I admire is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I just finished reading his biography. He was a German pastor who stood up against the evils of Nazism and was actually involved in the Valkyrie plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. He was ultimately executed for his involvement in it. He was a man of integrity who did what was right even when it hurt. Integrity is so important in business and is a reason why it is one of our core values. I think an important role for a company leader is to speak joyfully and encouragingly to your people. I would say that I am not always great at that, but I try to be intentional about it.
Q: What has been the hardest decision that you have had to make in the HVACR business? Tell us about it.
Robbie Thompson: It would definitely be personnel-related. It was probably back in 2009. In response to a drop in sales of more than 30 percent due to the recession, we implemented a mandatory 5 percent pay cut across the board. It was not an easy message to convey, but we did it in the form of a furlough where we gave employees time off in lieu of pay. It was a time when many companies had pretty severe cuts; this furlough prevented us from having to make layoffs. Making decisions that adversely affect people’s pocketbooks is very difficult — whether it is a pay cut, a termination, or even passing along benefit cost increases.
Q: What’s the one practice in your business that you keep meaning to implement but haven’t so far? Why?
Robbie Thompson: Probably customer resource management (CRM). We’ve considered it for years but have never taken the plunge. I know it is not something to enter into casually, and there have been other more pressing projects that have taken precedence.
Q: What do you tell a person who’s a rising star in the company and yet must accept the fact that the business is family-owned? How do you keep the person motivated and loyal when they know they probably won’t make it to the top position? Isn’t this one of the most vexing question every family-owned business has?
Robbie Thompson: That is a good question. My answer would be ... that you just never know what the future holds. My children are very young, and there is no guarantee they will join choose this profession. I hope they do, but it is more important to me that they do what they enjoy. Interestingly, this is our “Company Goal” ... “To be a world-class distributor and a company where people enjoy and find satisfaction in their work.” We are successful as a company because of our people, and there is no greater key to success than to have people who love what they do. So just because this is a family business does not mean that there isn’t someone here now who won’t eventually hold the “top spot.” As a matter of fact, that is how it worked for my great-grandfather. He started as an office clerk and eventually became president and owner.
Q: If you sold the business tomorrow, what would you do?
Robbie Thompson: Open a woodworking shop and build furniture, and spend as much time with my family as possible.