Business

Plumb Supply provides 'everything but water'

73-year-old supplier works with professionals, DIYers

Cabinet hardware is displayed at Plumb Supply on Blairs Ferry Road NE in Cedar Rapids Thursday, May 9, 2019. The longtime wholesaler of plumbing supplies has expanded its business to offer custom cabinetry for projects within a broad range of budgets. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Cabinet hardware is displayed at Plumb Supply on Blairs Ferry Road NE in Cedar Rapids Thursday, May 9, 2019. The longtime wholesaler of plumbing supplies has expanded its business to offer custom cabinetry for projects within a broad range of budgets. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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Plumb Supply long has been a familiar name to Iowa’s professional plumbers, homebuilders and remodelers. Not so much to do-it-yourselfers and homeowners, but the company’s set out to change that while maintaining its longtime professional market.

An early example of the company’s emphasis on sales directly to consumers is the new cabinet showroom at its 1716 Blairs Ferry Rd. NE location, in Cedar Rapids.

While most homeowners still work with professional contractors, they now can buy cabinets directly from Plumb Supply. The product line will be expanded to countertops and lighting, putting the company in the game with the big-box home store chains.

“Basically everything without water,” General Manager Greg Wolfe said. “We do like them to go through a plumbing contractor on the plumbing side.”

“Most people are already working with a builder or a plumber,” said Jill Herman, sales consultant for the company’s cabinet line. “But if they’ve had that experience, we will definitely go with them.”

Started in Des Moines in 1946, Plumb Supply distributes plumbing pipe, valves and fittings, and heating, air-conditioning and ventilation equipment to plumbers and contractors from 37 locations in Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas.

The family-owned company bought the Chandler Co. and its locations in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Oelwein in 1979. Its second Cedar Rapids branch, since relocated to Blairs Ferry Road, opened in 2001.

The company has 53 employees at its Cedar Rapids and Iowa City warehouses and showrooms, Wolfe said.

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“Their market has always been the plumbers. That market has been their bread and butter,” Herman said. “But with the demand, we’re getting more into the builders, the contractors, the designers.”

The transition began when Plumb Supply became sole Iowa distributor for Indiana-based Schrock Cabinets. The company is retiring the Water Concepts brand for its plumbing-supply stores, Wolfe said.

“Now that we’re going into cabinets, we’re just going to be switching it over to Plumb Supply kitchen and bath showrooms,” Wolfe said. “We are evolving, as all businesses are.”

While homeowners often see new products and design ideas on improvement websites and cable TV shows, the showroom experience remains key to sales, according to Herman.

“People want to see it, they want to touch it, they want a full 3D effect of their project, and they’re not going to get that online,” she said. “They’re not going to get the one-on-one help, they’re not going to get the individualization” from TV or the internet.

“There are just so many avenues of where to buy,” Wolfe added. “One of the biggest things that separates us is the service after, the warranty.”

New residential construction amounts to about 30 percent of the company’s plumbing supply sales, Wolfe estimated. Plumb Supply representatives often help contractors install new, unfamiliar products.

“There are so many new products,” Wolfe said. “A standard water heater isn’t a standard water heater anymore.”

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Recent developments include the internet of things, with apps linking water heaters, thermostats and other appliances to homeowners’ smartphones, creating the “smart home.”

“You can tie in your HVAC, you can tie in your sump pump,” Wolfe said. “The snowbird people, they love it. They can see what the temperature is, if there’s going to be a problem.

“We have water sensors to put near your water heater — in case there’s a leak they can alert them.”

Wolfe stresses Plumb Supply isn’t about to give up its traditional professional customers.

“We have always been contractor-driven,” he said. “That’s always been in the forefront of our business.”

That includes educating consumers about benefits of buying through a contractor over those big chain stores.

“If you buy through the contractor, they’re the ones taking care of that warranty for you, through us,” Wolfe said. “If you buy it direct and you’re not the one putting it in, they’re going to have to come back and they’re probably going to bill you. If they’re not buying through a contractor, that’s one of the things they’re going to have to be aware of.”

Plumb Supply has added new staff with experience in the new product lines.

“The most important thing right now is just letting people know that we do cabinets,” said Dereck Davis, cabinet division manager.

“It is a new transition for us,” Wolfe said. “So far it’s worked out very well.”

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AT A GLANCE

• General manager: Greg Wolfe

• Business: Plumb Supply

• Address: 1716 Blairs Ferry Rd. NE and 4700 J St. SW, Cedar Rapids; 1925 Boyrum St. and 214 Southgate Ave., Iowa City

• Phone: (319) 393-1441

• Website: plumbsupply.com

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