Meet the Wholesaler: Steve Bellar
Name and Title: Steve Bellar, President
Company: Thrifty Supply and Interstate Manufacturing (furnace, pipe and fittings)
Location: Bellevue, Wa
No. of Branches: 9 branches: Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Northern California
No. of Employees: 79 employees at Thrifty Supply and 15 at Interstate Manufacturing
Year Founded: Thrifty Supply was founded in 1951, and Interstate Manufacturing was purchased in 1976
Major Product Lines: Maytag, Intertherm, Interstate Manufacturing, JPL flex, American Water Heater.
Give us a thumbnail sketch about yourself and your company?
Steve Bellar: I have a B.S. in Civil Engineering (1970), University of Colorado and a MBA in marketing (1971), University of Colorado. I played football (linebacker) and played in two bowl games (beating Alabama in the Liberty Bowl in 1969). I was a partner in a structural engineering firm for 10 years before joining Thrifty Supply in 1985. Thrifty Supply was started in 1951 as a plumbing wholesaler by brothers Harold and Morris (father of Kenny G, the sax man) Gorlick. Harold bought a sheet metal manufacturing plant in Portland, Oregon, in 1976. At the time I joined Thrifty, the company was failing. I suggested to Harold that we go into heating and air conditioning wholesaling since sheet metal is a basic part of that industry and we had our own plant. We converted from plumbing to HVAC in approximately six months.
What has been your biggest challenge during the past five years in operating your business?
Bellar: Our biggest challenge and a goal I had set for the company was to shift as large a percentage of the new construction part of our business, nearly 95 percent, to the add-on and retrofit part of the industry. We have been very successful in doing so because 40 percent of our business is now retrofit and add-on.
If you quit the HVACR business and opened a restaurant, what kind of food would you serve?
Bellar: I was born and raised in southeastern Colorado where there were a large percentage of Mexican laborers. I became a real lover of Mexican food. I played on Little League Baseball teams and would occasionally have dinner with a Mexican family and was served authentic Mexican food. It seems the food industry is getting away from the basic combination of foods such as tacos, enchiladas and tamales, to single giant enchiladas or burritos. I like the old-fashioned combination dinners.
Who had the biggest influence on how you run your business?
Bellar: One of the biggest influences on my management style was the reinforcement I got when I read the book, First Break All The Rules by Marcus Cunningham. As in the book, to be successful, your employees need three things: first, know exactly what is required of them, second, give them all the tools, training, advice required to do the job, and third, they need to know that someone in a supervisory position really cares about them and wants them to be successful. That is the backbone of our management.
What interest(s) do you have that very few people know about? A hobby, for example. Tell us something about it.
Bellar: I have been interested in quantum particle physics for many years. The characters of this field of science have names such as quarks, neutrinos, antineutrinos, leptons and baryons to name a few. For years, scientists have tried to come up with a unified field theory that would explain the microas well as the macro world. It would complete Einstein’s theory of relativity. The latest star is Stephen Hawking. I read the theories and understand them to some degree. It can get very esoteric but is mentally stimulating.
Is there anything different about doing business in your region compared with the rest of the country?
Bellar: Doing business in the Pacific Northwest is very different than most other parts of the United States In the East and Midwest, there are at least 50 or more wholesale houses in a 100-mile radius. In our region, there may not be a human being in a 100-mile radius. Several national companies have put a branch or even a few up here. But they have all failed. The magnitude of the geography gets them. There are only two full-line wholesalers in the Pacific Northwest. There are, though, several equipment-only type distributors.
If you hadn’t gone into the HVACR business, what would you have done?
Bellar: If I had not gone into HVAC, I probably would not have stayed in engineering. I would have likely gone into construction with the idea of building a medium-size company. Managing people is the favorite part of my job.
What is the best book you have ever read?
Bellar: As mentioned before, my favorite book is, First Break All The Rules, and I explained why. Closely following is the book, Good to Great by Jim Collins. I have used the basic premise of that book to motivate our employees to better themselves as well as the company. It has been very successful.
When you talk to other wholesalers, what is the No. 1 topic that arises and why?
Bellar: When I talk to other wholesalers, we almost always talk about our common equipment manufacturers. It seems that historically there are always equipment issues with respect to product quality, timeliness of delivery of product and the complexity of their marketing programs, vis a vis our HVAC customers.
What is your perfect way to relax?
Bellar: I relax in one of two ways, depending on the weather. Nothing is better than playing a round of golf with friends and finishing the day off with a cold one or a glass of great cabaret and waxing philosophically. When the weather is not conducive to playing golf, I love reading spy novels. My favorite authors are Baldacci, Childs and Follett.
If President Trump called you and asked you to take over a cabinet position, which one would you choose and why?
Bellar: Based on what I feel are my best skill sets, I would choose Secretary of State. I have years of experience negotiating with factories whose positions are, by definition, completely opposite to those of distributors. It did not take me long to realize that to reach an agreement, a win-win environment had to be created. I actually find this part of my job quite satisfying – to get both Thrifty Supply and our factories going down the same paths with complementary goals.
If you had a magic wand and could change just ONE thing between wholesaler and manufacturer relations, what would it be?
Bellar: One thing about factories has always been disappointing, and that is their attitude that the distributor’s job is easy, and why do we even need distributors? One way to get a good level of appreciation by the factories for distributors is when the factories have distributor adviser meetings. These have proven to be very helpful for both sides to state their issues and get some significant resolution for those issues for both sides.