Meet the Wholesaler: Jeff Corken
The Geothermal Expert
Name and Title: Jeff Corken, president
Company: The Corken Steel Products Co
Location: Florence, Kentucky
No. of Branches: 13
No. of Employees: 250
Year Founded: 1955
Major Product Lines: ICP residential and commercial, Snappy, ClimateMaster, Lochinvar, Hart & Cooley, Johns Manville, Ductmate, Modine, Heating & Cooling, LG, Research Products, Honeywell, Duro Dyne, Majestic
Please share with us some background about your company. Even your name — Corken Steel Products — seems somewhat different from the usual wholesale name.
Corken: My dad, along with his three brothers, started the company in 1955. Dad’s previous employer was Inland Steel. Since his own company would be selling essentially the same products, I assume it seemed to him that Corken Steel was a logical name. In the beginning years, the core business was metal products related to roofing and other construction. The company moved slowly into HVAC driven by a couple of things. First, Midwestern winters did not allow for much roofing to get done during these months, so they were looking for something to generate income. Second, most roofers were also very good mechanics, which made a move into HVAC a natural choice for their business expansion.
I know that you’re heavily into geothermal. You also sponsor a large GeoFarm event every summer. Tell us how you got so involved at that end of the industry.
Corken: I would like to say I was the driving force around here who got us involved in geothermal, but as is usually the case, it was not me. One of our contractors needed a couple of geo units and our guys found a source. Not long after that, we found out about a distributor of ClimateMaster not too far away who was interested in getting out of the business. Jay Kaiser, our director of sales and marketing, contacted ClimateMaster, and we decided to make the commitment to geothermal and take over the territory. We inherited one fairly large geo contractor who really helped jump-start us into the business. The 30 percent federal tax credit was in place at that time, so the timing could not have been better.
The last time I was in the Cincinnati, Ohio, and Covington, Kentucky, area, I saw that they have a bourbon tour, one of my favorite pleasures. Have you ever taken the tour, and would you encourage like-minded distributors to do the same?
Corken: I have been on a couple of tours, and they are great. However, what has been even better treat for our customers, is over the past several years, we've purchased entire barrels of various bourbons and Jack Daniels. These are personally selected (tasted) by Corken employees. We then receive approximately 200 bottles that we distribute to customers over the holidays. It’s created a great deal of fun and conversation.
Tell us about your management style. We’d like to know if and how it might have changed from your early days in the industry.
Corken: I really don’t think I have a style - certainly not in the early days. I am fortunate to work with some really terrific people who are extremely capable. I just try to let them do their jobs and not get in their way. No micromanagement! If we do have an issue that requires collaboration, we get together and talk through the solution. Most of the good ideas around here are not mine.
As a company, we just try to do what is right and fair, and try never to be shortsighted or worry about near-term achievements at the expense of future success. We try to live the golden rule. Usually that works pretty well.
If someone could look at your reading list (this can include websites), what would they find on the shelf or on your browser?
Corken: As far as books, I read mostly nonfiction. My last few have been a biography of the Wright Brothers, the autobiography by the Secret Service agent who was in the back of the Kennedy limousine in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, and Hillbilly Elegy. I do read all the industry magazines and finally anything about the Alabama Crimson Tide.
The Amazon effect is always the obvious threat that people like me bring up. But is there a regional challenge that you have which might not exist in the other parts of the country?
Corken: I don’t think so. I do agree with what Chris Baker said in your June/July 2017 issue that something is going to happen and be disruptive to our channel. We’re just not sure what it will be, but we’d better be prepared to deal with it. I also like to quote Brian Pierce of Pierce-Phelps who said that he’s glad we sell things that can blow up.
Corken Steel Products, which bears your name, made the 39th slot on Distribution Center’s Top 50 Distributor list. Where do you see the company in 2027? Will you or a family member still run the operation?
Corken: I hope to still be here and of value to the company. I now have my daughter working in the company and perhaps my son someday. We are looking into several "what’s next" options. Thankfully, I work with a number of bright and talented people, and we will see what tomorrow brings.
What does Jeff Corken do to relax when he’s away from the business?
Corken: I’m lucky to be able to do pretty much what I want, but it’s really kind of simple stuff - golf, mow the grass and putz around the house. Now I will be able to watch a bunch of women’s college soccer as my son-in-law is the coach at the University of Dayton. Also, I now have a granddaughter living in Boston and hope to see her and her mom and pop as much as possible.
Please tell us something about yourself that most people don’t know. It can be a hobby, interest or a goal that you achieved.
Corken: I have been blessed to have been to the British Isles and Ireland 13 times to play golf. I’m headed back twice more in the next 12 months.
What has been the most frustrating aspect of running a successful HVACR distribution business?
Corken: I don’t know that anything stands out. One thought though: it’s always hurtful when you try to do your best and what’s right, and it’s not appreciated. Fortunately, that is the exception rather than the rule.
If you could meet three famous people — living or deceased — who would they be and why?
Corken: George Washington - by the sheer strength of his character, he led and kept our country together from its beginning.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - created some of the world’s most beautiful and moving music.
Christopher Columbus - just think about what he did.
What is the one piece of advice or conventional wisdom that you believed in when you started in this business and now reject or no longer accept?
Corken: There is an old saying that the customer is always right. Well, I have learned that the customer is not always right, but they are always the customer. That is what must be remembered.
If you ever ran for political office, what would it be?
Corken: This sounds like a cop-out, but I never would. I would, however, gladly try to convince Condoleezza Rice to run for president. I do think we are in desperate need of some folks with intelligence, kindness and integrity to lead and guide us - maybe next election!