Family Owned Wholesaler Hits Anniversary Milestone
Thos. Somerville cites strong leadership as key to success
Many people are impressed when they discover plumbing and HVAC distributor, Thos. Somerville Co., is celebrating its 155th anniversary this year. However, the milestone is not as momentous for company employees, according to Doug Riley, president of Thos. Somerville.
“Being a family owned business is something we talk about constantly – we’re still family owned after 155 years,” he said. “Maybe we take it for granted a little bit. To an outsider, 155 years may be a bigger deal than it is for us, just because we live it every day. To us, it’s just who we are.”
Thos. Somerville was founded in 1861 by Scotland native, Thomas Somerville, as a small brass foundry named The National Brass Works. The company kept busy providing Union armies with castings and fittings for cannons and howitzers during the Civil War. Since then, Thos. Somerville has evolved into a plumbing and HVAC wholesaler, carrying high quality products for both residential and commercial applications.
Caroline McInerney Williams, a member of the company’s Board of Directors – and a fifth generation Somerville – said the company’s longevity is not due to luck.
“My Dad and I were just talking, wondering how many companies even reach the fifth generation,” she said. “So we started looking into it, and when you get to the third and fourth generation, only about 2 percent of companies make it. So it’s a pretty unique place to be in. And I think the biggest reason [we’re still here] is the company’s long term vision, always adhering to it, and not just thinking about the short term. Building the best for the future has been something that has served this company extremely well and has allowed us to get through the downturns in the economy and the downturns in the industry. That has been the key to it all.”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
One thing unique about Thos. Somerville is its Family Advisory Council, made up of each branch of the Somerville family, which meets quarterly to discuss issues and company updates.
“They’ve created sort of a junior board – kind of building the bench and preparing for the future,” Williams said. “The way the company started was with five siblings, so each of those branches are represented on the council. They are the touchstone to the five family branches. It really started out as a form of communication – and it’s not just information coming from the company – it flows both ways. They communicate things to the Board of Directors from the family perspective.”
Williams said being in business with family is incredible. “One of the challenges you come across when you get that far down [the family tree] is people’s situations are different and their families are different. There are conflicts at times, but we all come back to the same mission – that together, we’re stronger than we are as individuals. That’s something that has played out through the past 155 years. At the end of the day, we remember what this is all about. And being so spanned out, we haven’t had some of these horror stories you hear about where family companies kind of fall apart. We stay together and work through everything and build on each other’s strengths.”
LEADERSHIP AND GROWTH
Dan Kelly, executive vice president of the company added that there has been very low employee turnover, which also helps account for the company’s longevity. “Management has been very stable the last 20 years and we promote from within for the most part.”
Low turnover is right – Riley started with Thos. Somerville as a temporary summer employee in 1986. After graduating college and turning down a full time job with the company three times, he was finally convinced to take a sales position because of the opportunities. Riley worked his way up to become the third non-family president of Thos. Somerville.
Kelly started with the company in 1988 in the warehouse. “We had great mentors along the way. That’s the tradition here at Somerville. One generation does pass it onto the next.”
Thos. Somerville has grown to 25 locations, including outside showrooms and a central distribution center. The company currently has about 400 employees, according to Riley. And, the company is in the middle of a growth spurt. Riley said he is looking to add 38 new employees before the end of the year. The company has hired about 15 as of mid-May.
“It’s been a difficult task to find talented people who want to come into our industry and develop a career. So we are actively searching for people – we have about five or six recruiters from different companies working to help us find people,” said Riley. “I know we’re not alone – the pain we are experiencing trying to find talented people is shared by everyone in the industry.
“We want to grow – we have places we want to open new locations, but we can’t do that without the proper people to put into the buildings,” he continued. “The other side of the coin is, as a financially stable, well-run, well respected company, we have long term employees. As a result, we have many people approaching retirement and their positions will need to be filled in from somebody on the bench. We’re working on building that bench as well as on expanding. Finding talented people is our single biggest challenge currently. It’s the thing that keeps me up at night.”
Another struggle is to continue to find ways to differentiate from the competition.
“It’s an ongoing battle,” Riley noted. “Traditionally, people shopped face to face with the wholesale person or over the phone. A lot of that interaction is now being done digitally. We have to ensure we’re adapting properly to that.”
Additionally, there is the worry of how online retail giants will impact the industry. “Our biggest concern is understanding how Amazon and all of these online retailers are going to impact our market and our business,” Kelly added.
Overall, Williams has one goal in mind – to ensure the company lasts for another 155 years. “One of the hard things now is the balance between tradition and innovation. The company has navigated that brilliantly so far, and I hope we continue to do that. I want my children’s children to have the opportunities that I have had to be part of this company. So we’ll see.”