Service Centers
Thursday | 07 December, 2017 | 11:50 am

Wholly individual

By Corinna Petry

Above: Car rental garage at Austin, Texas, Airport. Photo: Thomas McConnell

Distributor discovers path to growth in being inspired to serve—daily and in emergencies

December 2017 - Reflecting the fervor of marching activists, customers often seem to be chanting: “What do we want? Product! When do we want it? Now!” McNichols Co., North America’s largest supplier and fabricator of perforated metal, expanded metal, wire mesh, architectural metals and gratings products, has heard the customer’s voice and is ever ready to respond.

Founded in 1952 by Robert L. McNichols, the second and third generations lead the family business today. President Scott McNichols says the company started with one location in Cleveland, but by the 1970s, his grandfather saw the need for expansion and opened shop in Tampa, where the company is headquartered today.

“We just opened our 19th location in Salt Lake City in September. Our footprint is national—we are coast to coast, covering all four corners and everything in between,” McNichols says.

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Museum on the Square in Santa Rosa, California. Photo: David Wakely

Placing branches in key regions is necessary for a specialist like McNichols Co. Metal products are heavy and “in order to deliver value and products to market, we must be local.” The product line supports infrastructure and architectural applications. Each location has product displays for walk-in customers.

One reason to diversify geographically, says McNichols, is that regional economies can be different. Although the energy market in the Southwest took a hit two years ago, with rapid stoppages at drill rigs affecting sales in states like Texas and Oklahoma, “our other regions carried the lunch pail for a while. It helps us stay competitive and profitable, and fosters good relationships with suppliers so we have the right amount of inventory in the system. Serving customers locally is a key strategy,” he says.

Disaster zones

2017 has been one for the record books, with back-to-back hurricanes, wildfires and an earthquake (Mexico). “Unfortunately, we’ve had some practice with major storms,” says McNichols. The Houston branch “was down for eight days. Thankfully, there was little damage to our facility but we couldn’t get to it because of road closings. We had customers in similar situations.”

However, when a service center is down because of a forest fire or hurricane, “we seamlessly move calls to other locations. When Harvey came through, we had a customer with several clients whose first concern wasn’t about whether or not we were open.” This customer had to evacuate her own worksite, but she “went to a hotel somewhere, got on Wi-Fi and reached our Dallas location. They took the call and shipped the orders out for her.”

In another instance, McNichols serviced the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “FEMA arrives with their trailers to feed people, hand out supplies and help claims adjusters. In the areas where they set up, there is still a lot of water, which brings the critters out,” says McNichols. “We got orders from FEMA to attach wire mesh to the bottoms of trailers to keep rodents out,” which, like every other creature, were seeking dry habitat.

“We get so much encouragement from those kinds of opportunities,” McNichols says, adding, “It validates the reason we are in business: to serve others.”

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Bar grating, tread plate and other perforated metals.

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Rush work

Most emergencies are not disaster related, including customers needing material to keep production lines in motion or to prevent a jobsite from shutting down. “We have a lot of MRO customers and building contractors that receive change orders. Perhaps they didn’t order enough stair treads for a stairway roof access; or a particular pattern that was ordered didn’t quite have the impact the architect was hoping it would,” says McNichols.

“Sometimes a customer just shows up with a pickup truck and needs a piece of expanded metal,” he continues. “Some of that is MRO business. Numerous orders are to cut to size, often within 24 hours—or with a rush, in the same day.

Although all McNichols service centers have welders on site, “we aren’t competing with fabricators,” the company president says. “We complement them, help them with inventory and try to add value.”

Seamless service

Apart from the seamless phone transfers—calls go global if all lines are busy at one location—McNichols installed an integrated customer relationship management system. Any customer service associate can access an account that normally works with a specific location. They can view purchase history, prior inquiries and meet the customer’s need.

Every location has shearing and sawing equipment and the manpower to cut material. “We call it the ‘Hole Network.’ If we get a call from Los Angeles, and the customer wants a size that location doesn’t have at the moment, they might pull the product from our Phoenix service center.” Sales associates “are able to look up inventory anywhere in our network and have the authority to move it.”

Each branch can cut material into shapes or to size and assemble and weld grating stair treads. “We stock customer-specific pre-assembled kits and perform JIT releases for many customers,” says McNichols.

Value-added services are rapidly becoming an expectation of customers. “We like the fact that customers can come to us for products and trust us to get them installation-ready.” The company also will coordinate secondary processing such as hot-dip galvanizing or powder coating. “Customers come up with great ideas and we gladly provide a solution,” he says.

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Having the right amount of inventory in the system and serving customers locally are key strategies.

Growth drivers

The company’s top-line revenues will eclipse $180 million in 2017, up 10 percent over last year. “We have our sights on a bigger year in 2018, growing another 10 percent.” McNichols credits a flat organization that’s very nimble, with knowledgeable employees and a culture that is focused and “inspired to serve.”

In certain markets, McNichols competes with enormous industrial distributors like W.W. Grainger, big box retailers and Amazon.

“With industrial distributors including Amazon, I think of them more like brokers but they do distribute,” Scott McNichols says. “However, when you dig deeper, it is often our competitors that are shipping the product on behalf of large online storefronts.”

McNichols’ customers, too, might order from them and receive good product and service, he concedes, “but it is not their sole mission. We’ve done this for 65 years. It’s our specialty. We know who we are, do what we do well and that’s a big deal.

“That’s our advantage,” he says. “We don’t sell hardhats and perforated metal. We know the applications for our products inside and out. Domestically, we are absolutely the largest and most knowledgeable about hole products. We have the depth. We are a trusted resource.”

The work of McNichols Co. “is not about a bunch of transactions. It is about that one transaction. If we do right by that one, what comes from that is tremendous satisfaction,” he emphasizes. “The Hole Team, every day, asks themselves, ‘Am I incrementally more inspired today than yesterday?’ It’s not about an order, it’s not about making money, it’s about service.”

The culture is not for everybody, he says, yet “our pay and benefits are very competitive, it’s a purposeful environment and our associates choose to enjoy what they do. Our associates love our customers and regularly show they want to provide extra care.” MM

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