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Friday | 24 July, 2009 | 6:24 am

Of the essence

By Lisa Rummler

July 2009 - Industrial Metal Supply Co., Sun Valley, Calif., has always prided itself on customer service, even before the term became part of the national lexicon.

Since it was founded in 1948, IMS has striven to provide rapid turnaround for customers in Southern California and Arizona, supplying aluminum, brass, copper, silicon-bronze, stainless steel and tool steel in bar, plate, sheet, shapes and tooling.

The company's recent decision to convert its Irvine, Calif., branch into a full-service retail storefront facility underscores its dedication to both speed and service.

"It came out of a need to get closer to the customer and be where they can reach us," says Eric Steinhauer, president of IMS. "We're going to better serve the customers in the L.A. basin with about half the travel time or travel distance that they have right now."

Drive at 5
According to Steinhauer, IMS' client base consists of people who need product quickly, such as maintenance workers, contractors, machinists and sign-makers.

"These are people who don't know what they need next week--they know what they need tomorrow," he says. "They frequently walk in and pick up [their material] right over the counter. What's really important to them is saving time."

Over the last few years, however, IMS was finding that walk-in business, or end retail, was diminishing somewhat.

"At first, we were concerned that maybe we were paying too much attention to big customers and ignoring the small guys," says Steinhauer. "But as it turns out, they're coming less and less frequently because it takes longer to get here. And it's not our fault. It's the fault of congestion and delayed times on the freeways. So even though the distances haven't changed, the time has gotten longer and longer."

Taking action
Because traffic patterns are out of its control, IMS decided to implement changes where it could. This prompted the company to consider establishing satellite operations throughout its service area.

"We have five locations--four in Southern California and one in Phoenix--and the ones in Southern California are all 60 to 70 miles apart," says Steinhauer. "We want to put a location in between, so potential customers have to travel only half as far to get to us."

Choosing Irvine as the location for the pilot satellite retail facility was a matter of circumstance, according to Steinhauer.

"Because our lease is coming up and we have our most modern facility in Riverside, we've decided that we're going to let Riverside support the truck-based customers and take care of all those deliveries for Irvine," he says. "We're going to start building the retail satellite model out in the Irvine facility."

IMS plans to spend the rest of the year constructing that facility and then replicate it in other locations that are about halfway between existing locations. According to Steinhauer, the Irvine storefront satellite and the ones that are scheduled to follow will help IMS streamline its distribution system and facilitate growth.

"We want to use the first one as a pilot shop and a model for others," he says. "And it might require a little bit of tweaking, but the idea is to get the first one in place, get it up and running and see what the customers respond to--what they like and what they don't care about."

IMS hopes to have the Irvine facility fully operational by 2010, with at least one more satellite location in place by the end of next year.

"Beyond that, who knows?" says Steinhauer. "But from where I sit right now, in five years, my ideal [situation] would be that each of our existing warehouse facilities would have two or three satellites that they service. That will increase our density of locations within our existing areas, but it would also allow us to expand beyond our existing areas." MM

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