Eye on the prize: Celebrating its 70th year in business, BrassCraft continues to focus on innovative ways to help its customers throughout the supply chain
Robert Zell founded BrassCraft Mfg. Co. in 1946 with the desire to sell innovative plumbing installation products. Seventy years later, Zell’s vision is alive and well with the Novi, Mich.-based company leveraging an experienced and market-knowledgeable workforce to manufacture high-quality plumbing products in its U.S.-based facilities in Lancaster, Texas (brass fittings and stops), Corona, Calif. (gas connectors), Thomasville, N.C. (stops), Swedesboro, N.J. (drain cleaning and tools) and Brownstown, Mich. (distribution and packaging assembly, as well as the company’s Asian operations — BrassCraft Asia).
We recently traveled to Novi to speak with BrassCraft executives Rick Mejia (president), Pete Kattula (vice president of operations) and Jennifer Burke (director of product management) about a number of topics, including its continued commitment to listening to customer’s evolving needs in a changing marketplace, combating import products and what 70 years in business means in the company.
Your founder Robert Zell once said, “The company that is never quite satisfied is the company that satisfies.” What does that statement mean to BrassCraft today?
Mejia: We have a continual improvement process. We’ve always had it, but we’re starting to apply it even more to our business process and functions. With what we do today, how can we improve on it and get better? We’re a strong brand that resonates well with distributors and plumbing contractors. We make dependable products that folks recognize and use for that reason. For us it would be easy to be complacent with the position we have in the marketplace. We are challenging the paradigms that have been built that have made us better over time.
Burke: We’ve made phenomenal products for 70 years and the foundation that has worked for us throughout the years is constantly trying to make sure we are not resting on assumptions. What is relevant in the marketplace? Are we best meeting the needs of our customers? We constantly are trying to refresh and make sure we remain relevant in the marketplace.
Which product categories are seeing the biggest growth for BrassCraft?
RM: One of the biggest challenges we have is people view us as a stop company. Our product offering is much broader than stops. We are focused on water stops and gas connectors and continuing to grow in those categories. But we also manufacture high-quality fittings, flexible braid connectors and corrugated stainless-steel connectors. We are applying a different lens from a product adjacency standpoint. A lot of research goes into what we add and why we add it. You will see us continue to get into deeper value propositions with gas connectors and stops.
JB: We look at different adjacencies, but we never want to forget our core. When we look at new adjacencies we have to ask does it help or hurt our core? Sometimes companies can reach too far. For us it’s about fully understanding the different needs in the marketplace.
How important is the company’s relationship with distributors?
RM: We have a great relationship with our distribution partners and are getting smarter about how we work with them. I was recently on a hotel shuttle to the airport and learned the driver also was the maintenance man. He told me depending on the situation he buys products from the local distributor, a catalog company, such as Grainger, or from Home Depot. That speaks to the complexity of the buying decision of the professional plumber. He’s making buying decisions across three channels. Our challenge is how do we organize ourselves with the support we provide those channels with the requirements being so vastly different. We are diversified with the channels we go to market through. Different buying decisions end up having different values applied. How do we organize ourselves with those requirements? We have a national point of view, but want to be as local as we can. We don’t have that local reach that our distributor partners do with those long-term local grassroots relationships. It makes sense for us to take the knowledge those distributors have developed over the years and form beneficial partnerships for both parties.
How are you best connecting with plumbing contractors?
RM: We are making an even greater effort to connect with the contractor. The average age of the plumbing contractor is 59 and that contractor base will continue to shift. We’re doing a lot of primary market research and spending a lot of time in the field. We’re reaching out to contractors who have not bought from us, may have before or are loyal customers. We are listening to their challenges and making sure we respond to their needs. The end result is we want to continue to get our name out in the marketplace in a positive and productive way.
BrassCraft has a long history of producing American-made products? How important is the Made in the USA label in today’s marketplace
RM: Made in the USA is a big part of who we are. To be frank, one of the biggest challenges is it probably used to mean more in the market. As the generation of plumbers starts to change, Made in the USA doesn’t resonate like it did with the older generation. That doesn’t mean there is not a market for it. We are going to continue to fulfill that requirement. The challenge for us is how do we think more broadly? If contractors indicate a lot of things matter to them, but this one is falling down the list, we still can address their requirements without going away from who we are.
How are you dealing with the issue of the acceleration of import products in the spaces you reside in?
RM: Connectors is a competitive product category. It’s a tough space to figure out how folks are making money. It’s still a segment of the market we really like and we are the only manufacturer that still makes braided connectors in the United States (in its Lancaster plant). We need to develop an alternative offering to be competitive with those companies that are making product overseas. We’ve done a good job of getting strength and traction by focusing on the BrassCraft brand and emphasizing Made in the USA. At some point the tide is what it is and you either get comfortable or learn to fight it. We are going to introduce a new brand with a different value proposition, likely an import product. If the industry has made a decision on imports and is comfortable with it, for us to ignore that is to ignore our position as a leader in the marketplace.
Is there any specific timetable for this new offering?
RM: Likely the beginning of next year with a soft launch over the course of the remainder of this year. Unlike a plain importer, we make the product. We will leverage our product knowledge and quality understanding into what this new brand will be. Finding the right partner will be key, but leveraging our knowledge of more than 70 years of making this product line is paramount. We will be able to compete at a more competitive price point and still have the attributes folks have come to expect from BrassCraft.
What’s the one key piece of the puzzle that has allowed the company to enjoy success for seven decades?
RM: We have a lot of long-tenured people who take incredible pride in the work we do. We focus on the role everybody in the company plays. Everybody has an important role here and we all are equally important in what we do. That commitment, loyalty and the focus we have on craftsmanship are the reasons we are where we are today.
Kattula: The most important thing you can invest in is people. People are paramount to what we do. People come to BrassCraft and end up staying a long time. We have some people who have been here 40 years and in some cases we have families in their third generation working here (63% of BrassCraft employees have worked at the company for more than 10 years). These are the people who help us develop top-quality products and deliver them in the right quantities at the right time for the best value. We will continue to invest in our people who are our future.
One issue that keeps you up at night?
RM: The number of people entering the trade. It goes beyond that contractor level and to the manufacturing level as well. Two years ago the Bureau of Labor Services said there is a deficit of 800,000 machinists in this country — that’s a key component in what goes into making or product. We’re doing a lot of work in trying to attract people into the industry, but it’s an uphill battle. We work with the local schools near our plants to engage machinists and we are doing a lot of work with trade schools across the country — giving scholarships to help apprentices. We as an industry need to attract talent broadly across the segments of the industry.
What does 70 years in business mean to BrassCraft?
RM: We have been able to build a strong tradition in the first 70 years, but quite frankly we are not done. We have a lot of room to run. To use a baseball analogy, we still are in the bottom of the first inning. We listen to our customers, not just the end users, but our distribution partners who are the ones that pay our bills. No manufacturing company is perfect. We’ve evolved over time with our customers in mind and that will continue to take place. We feed off what the marketplace is telling us. Our journey has a long way to go, but we are off to a great start. We’ve done a lot of good things in building the BrassCraft brand in the marketplace, but we are far from done. We’re going to get to that next level in the next several years.