Name: Gina Ladefian
Title: President and Owner
Company name: T.F. Campbell Co.
Number of locations: 1
Number of employees: 10
Year founded: 1920
Main lines: Belimo, Johnson Controls, ASCO, Honeywell, Prolon, Fireye
Gina Ladefian used to call on Pittsburgh’s T.F. Campbell Co. as a manufacturer’s representative for Honeywell. Now, Ladefian owns the 103-year-old HVAC distributor, which specializes in building control products and related equipment and serves mostly commercial and industrial markets in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and also sells some residential equipment.
Ladefian, who grew up in the Pittsburgh area, majored in communications at Penn State University. But an internship at Westinghouse Electric changed her career path before she was finished with college; she took as many business classes as she could and went to work for Westinghouse following graduation. Interest in becoming a manufacturer’s rep brought her to Honeywell for nearly 16 years, and Ladefian ran her own rep company, Precision Technology Associates Inc., before buying Campbell from the retiring owners in 2012.
Distribution Trends sat down with Ladefian, via Zoom, earlier this year to talk about her career and why T.F. Campbell has been successful while keeping its focus on building controls. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
DT: So, let’s get started what motivated you to work in the HVAC industry?
Ladefian: My initial career was as a buyer for Westinghouse Electric here in Pittsburgh. I would meet with different sales reps that came in from the metals industry, fabricators, machine shops, and realized I would rather be on their side of the desk than be a buyer.
A few years later, Honeywell was looking for a local sales rep in Pittsburgh, for an outside sales rep position. I applied, and I interviewed, and I got the job.
I traveled and I enjoyed meeting people, meeting customers. We had to attend trade shows, and during that time, whatever product launches there were, we had to go out to our distributors and wholesalers and contractors and train them on the new products. That was the beginning of my HVAC career and that’s where I’ve been ever since.
DT: Working for Westinghouse, why did you decide you’d rather be on the other side of things?
Ladefian: It’s kind of hard to say. I was an intern at Westinghouse, which happened during my Penn State career. They wanted me to join them when I graduated. … so to have a job offer before you graduated made sense to me.
Once I got into it, I enjoyed it. It was a technical position with Westinghouse and I learned a lot, but still wanted to move on to a sales or marketing career.
DT: You went to Penn State. What was your major subject, and how did your education there prepare you for what you’re doing now?
Ladefian: I entered as a communications major and I wanted to work in the field of advertising or marketing, or maybe journalism. And then, during my sophomore year, I had this opportunity for an internship with Westinghouse, and everything changed.
I stayed in the communications field, but I focused the last two years of my studies in business and took as many business courses as I could. Westinghouse wanted me to come back as a full-time employee, so I wanted to learn as much as I could to have a stronger business and industry background.
The marketing and business piece was helpful with my career there, but also later in sales. And then it was a great background for launching my own rep firm, and ultimately buying T.F. Campbell when the retiring owners were ready to sell.
DT: You had dealt with T.F. Campbell for some time before that, correct?
Ladefian: I knew them from the beginning of my career at Honeywell; they were assigned to me as one of my distributors. I covered western Pennsylvania and western West Virginia. I was responsible for the commercial control sales, (which) at the time was called trade line sales. So T.F. Campbell was one of my key customers here in Pittsburgh.
DT: Why did you decide to make the move to buy T.F. Campbell when you did?
Ladefian: We sold through two-step distribution, which Honeywell and most of the manufacturers still do today. So we sold to distributors and contractors, and our key role was to provide technical support for the products that they were buying.
At the end of that tenure, I left the industry for a few years. I started my own business as a manufacturer’s rep, and Campbell was one of the companies that I sold for under my rep firm. During that period, they had no specific plan for succession. So it was an opportunity to buy their company, and I made that decision and purchased the assets from them.
DT: Why have you focused historically on controls components?
Ladefian: That was how it originated.
Initially, when I bought the company, I thought, you know, everyone had mini splits, and maybe equipment was the way to go. We’ve had some limited success. But the foundation of the company, the reputation of T.F. Campbell in Pittsburgh, was from this early beginning as a controls house.
Pittsburgh was a dynamic industrial market — U.S. Steel, a lot of the bigger steel companies were here. T.F. Campbell provided a lot of controls and panels for industry, flame safeguard controls, so that was always what they were known for. Of course, it expanded into to other controls as environmental controls came on the market, and building management controls.
DT: These are interesting times in HVACR, with the pandemic, supply chain, inflation, etc. How has T.F. Campbell been able to weather these storms?
Ladefian: Well, we suffered during the early part of the shutdown, like most businesses. We were open and operating; we limited walk-in trade for a few weeks, and then we began to open up to folks who were comfortable coming back in to the offices, and had to offer curbside for people who weren’t comfortable coming in.
When I look back at the employees that I have ... they were just amazing. They stepped up.
They were just always very supportive and did whatever we needed to do to keep the business going. They’re a tough group of professionals. To me, that’s what really made it bearable. But it was very difficult. We lost some business during that time.
DT: How about the kind of aftereffects or fallout from all of that – inflation, supply chain, labor shortages… How have you managed all of that?
Ladefian: You know, we’ve had pretty much the same crew my whole tenure here. So we haven’t had to face the labor part of it.
The difficulty was the supply chain — which we still continue to face — that we thought would be back to normal by now.
So we spent really an inordinate amount of time chasing controls and calling manufacturers, expediting, trying to find substitutions for parts that you weren’t going to get for months, and finding workarounds. And it continues to be an issue.
Because we are a very technically oriented company, we are able to find a lot of controls to do a job that perhaps are not (easily) available, and find another way to do it. And that’s due to the experience of the group of sales engineers that I have, and support staff too.
We’ve made a decision to increase stock just because we know how limited, how quickly something can go out of stock. Manufacturers put a lot of hefty surcharges on. Price increases are continual. So that’s also a battle: You’re continually uploading new pricing. Where you might have seen it once a year, you’re seeing it four times a year.
We certainly are concerned that there is an end user that somewhere down the line is paying for this and, ultimately, how long can that go on?
DT: What was the best business advice you’ve ever received?
Ladefian: Someone said, “Never be afraid to ask for your own money.” And it’s always a battle in business, collecting from people that owe you money.
Don’t be afraid to ask for it. I thought that was good advice.
DT: And what was the worst?
Ladefian: Well, I was always told if you owned your own business, you’d be independent. And I laugh because it’s hard to be independent.
You have people that you’re responsible to, you have manufacturers that you’re responsible to. So the independence is difficult.
DT: If you weren’t running this company, what would be your fantasy career, however realistic or unrealistic?
Ladefian: When I was a young woman, my dream was to be a television news anchor or broadcaster.
More and more, recently, my second dream job would be to be in public office, as awful as that may sound, and try to restore some of the things that I think are important that we’ve lost in our country, some of the values, some of the rights.
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