October 2003

Changing Channels
    How One Distributor Excels When Change Is Constant

by Alan B. Goldberg

At a recent association meeting of window and door manufacturers, it was pointed out that “in order to survive, distributors must adjust to meet change. They must find ways to distinguish themselves, such as value-added service.”

One distributor that knows this very well is Bethlehem, Pa.-based REEB Millwork Corp. (RMC). 
“Our business is in a constant state of change,” said company president and chief operating officer Don Houghton. “Everything around us is changing: channels of distribution, functions of distribution, technology and markets.”

Service Since The Turn Of The Century
RMC’s facility is 120,000 square feet. RMC was founded just after the turn of the century by Llyle Reeb. According to company history, “he was considered a pioneer during a time when the concept of wholesaling building materials was brand new and viewed as a huge risk.” Reeb moved his operations from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Roselle, N.J., and as his business grew, set up branches in East Port Chester, Conn., and Bethlehem, Pa.

Over a span of a half century, the company survived changes in the market and economy.

By the early 1960s, there were signs that both the operation and its management were approaching a retirement mode. It was acquired by Whittier-Ruhle. Only the Bethlehem facility remained in operation. Nearly 20 years later, the company was acquired again. Tom Kerr and Jay Ruhle (its present owners) purchased RMC from Norm Ruhle (a member of the family). Along with the purchase came 17 employees and four inoperable trucks. The business grew. In 1986, it expanded with the opening of a 120,000-square-foot facility in Syracuse, N.Y. Three years later, a 72,000-square-foot facility in Seattle, Wash., was added.

RMC craftsmen ready a Therma-Tru door. Today RMC, a two-step distributor, employs more than 400 people at its three facilities, with more than 400,000 square feet of space. According to Gregg Hoyer, vice president and general manager, the company has made a significant investment in modern, efficient, state-of-the-art fabrication equipment to be able to satisfy the needs of an ever-changing and increasingly complex market.

RMC displays a variety of products in its showroom, including Peachtree windows and doors. Each location prehangs all types of exterior and interior door units and assembles window units and stocks a wide range of product. These include: molded polyurethane millwork; windows, decorative units and louvers; hardware; wood blinds and shutters; flush and molded interior doors; wood interior and exterior doors in pine, oak, fir and other species; entrance doors; steel, fiberglass, and clad wood exterior doors ; storm and screen inserts; stairparts and accessories; mantles; columns and porch posts; cupolas and weathervanes; and custom millwork.

Why It Stands Apart
The company attributes its growth and uniqueness to the way it does business. 

“How well we succeed is based in large part on how well we listen and respond to each customer’s needs,” says Dan Schaffer, vice president and general manager. “We meet regularly with our customers because we want to know how we are doing. We want to know what they are doing, and we want to know what we can do together to achieve results,” Hoyer said.

Four key areas of service have been established based on customer feedback:

• Providing products of the highest quality;

• Maintaining high levels of inventory;

• Offering extensive sales support; and

• Establishing custom industry-specific training.

The company has recognized the value of investing in a huge inventory. The proof is in the warehouse.
“Walk through our warehouses and you’ll see shelves stocked with complete lines of products in all available sizes,” commented John Burchell, window product manager. “We stock items that other distributors do not because they are considered specialty items. We have an inventory of doors in styles, widths and heights that the manufacturer considers custom. We do this so our customers don’t have to either stock or place a custom order four weeks in advance. That is what makes us unique.”

RMC serves customers in other ways that make it different. A group of specially-trained salespeople, referred to as business development representatives, work directly with its customers’ customers. 

“The purpose of this group is to create value, particularly at the dealer level, by facilitating new opportunities,” said Hoyer. “They will meet with architects to get our products specified, they will help builders or remodelers obtain product by bringing them to one of our customers, and they will assist our customers’ sales people in many ways.”

The company not only communicates with and strongly supports its customers, but it also develops programs to educate them. 

“We created this program after hearing an alarming statistic that 90 percent of those entering this [contracting/remodeling] business would not be in existence within five years. We took this piece of information as a threat to our business and our customer-partners and decided to do something about it,” said Schaffer.

The result was the “Contractor Survival Program,™” a series of three consecutive seminars each devoted to a different element of the contracting and remodeling business.

“Through what has become a popular (and very successful) program, we help builders and remodelers improve their ways of doing business, which we believe strengthens the distribution channel. To put it another way, we help reduce contractors’ headaches and increase their profits,” added Schaffer.
Topics include: strategic planning, setting goals, identifying operation costs, sales and marketing. 

The company utilizes many marketing strategies to maintain and ensure market penetration. Products are promoted through customers’ dealerships, promotions and ads in popular magazine publications, hosting many home shows, contractor functions (such as the REEB College—in-house training sessions for customers on products, installation, warranties and related subjects) and in consumer and industry trade shows. 

On the other hand, manufacturers support RMC through co-op funds, special product promotions, factory-to-jobsite direct programs and advertising templates.

Aside from customer partnerships, the company partnered with Memphis, Tenn.-based WoodWare Systems, whose software is designed specifically for a millwork distribution operation. According to Ed Detmer, vice president of corporate development, it is well-suited to handle pre-hung doors and the almost infinite combination of options possible, without requiring labor-intensive paperwork.

A new custom warehouse management system also has just been completed. 

“As we implement this new software with tighter inventory tracking and controls, we expect to see improvements in shipping accuracy and customer service, warehousing, receiving and shipping,” added Detmer. 

A new document management system integrated with office software is being installed currently. 

“This system automatically captures and archives all of our documents and reports electronically. It will eliminate hundreds of files as well as the cost of maintaining them,” said Detmer. 
RMC’s sales staff speaks regularly with customers to find out what it can do better to help them.
The Company’s Biggest Challenge
“The biggest challenge that faces REEB and the industry is to continue to find ways to create value-added services for our customer and their customers. We strive to create an environment that encourages our coworkers to continue to improve on how we do this. In the end, we realize our past, present and future success includes our dedicated coworkers,” Schaffer said.

Don Houghton is optimistic about the coming year.

“Low interest rates have created a strong business climate for both new construction and remodeling,” he said. 

Alan B. Goldberg is a contributing writer for SHELTER.


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