YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Through all the ups and downs of the region over the past six decades, Power Tool and Supply Co. has been a steady supplier to manufacturers and contractors in the area. And while the landscape has changed drastically since it was founded in 1961, says owner Lisa Springer. The importance of convincing customers to shop locally is greater than ever.
“The reality is that if we can’t continue to get [local] business, companies like us won’t be here. And when you lose that, you lose part of what makes communities thrive,” she says. “No one wants to see businesses close and be replaced with empty buildings.”
Even though industrial and commercial suppliers like Power Tool & Supply, Austintown, serve a different market than consumer retail – the focus of the shop local movement and events such as Small Business Saturday – business leaders cite many of the same benefits for opting to do business-to-business buying locally.
“There are the obvious ones like community well-being, local character and prosperity around those businesses. It all stretches to the fact that you’re keeping dollars in the local economy,” says Jim DeRosa, general manager of Yesco Electrical Supply Inc. “If you buy from a national competitor, that money goes up the corporate ladder to be divided out however they want. When you buy from us, it supports a business that ultimately creates more jobs and wages for local people to pay local taxes.”
That community support creates a cycle, adds Cody Holmes, sales manager of ME Lumber Supply in Columbiana. He uses a hypothetical example of a customer coming in to buy wood for a deck.
“Then they might host a party [on the deck]. If their kid plays sports, they might have the team over,” he continues. “Well, we sponsor teams. For part of that profit, it’s not going to a corporate office in Arkansas. It’s staying here and being used for things like sponsoring sports teams or providing wages to people here.”
Big chains like Lowe’s and Home Depot may be the most visible sources for lumber, power tools, bolts and the myriad other supplies, but local businesses don’t necessarily view them as competitors even when they stock the same types of products.
“Against a Home Depot or Lowe’s, they can’t compete [with us] as far as things like fasteners go. They’re priced like a hardware store while we price in bulk. That’s not an issue,” says Adam Jugenheimer, sales manager and vice president of Jugenheimer Industrial Supplies in Hubbard.
“What is an issue is all the other items. How we can compete is find out what the customer is already using and if there are any bulk items and if it’s something they’ll need right away, we add it to our inventory.”
It’s that flexibility and service that sets apart the local suppliers from the national chains. At Yesco, the company has moved beyond simply offering the items contractors need. DeRosa, who worked in the tech industry before he came to the Austintown-based company, says it instead operates much like his previous field. In recent years, Yesco has focused on data and automation, positioning itself among customers as a supplier that can integrate a wide range of software systems into one cohesive unit.
“It’s transformed us, from being less of a sales organization to being more of a data organization. That’s important for the customer because as they grow, they’re going to have needs that require connections to companies that have those capabilities,” DeRosa says. “Then, if they prefer to do business locally, we can satisfy that need.”
Even as Youngstown Tile & Terrazzo has expanded its footprint across Ohio, most of Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia, it’s still focused on the companies in the Mahoning Valley that it works with.
Earlier this year, Youngstown Tile & Terrazzo opened its first retail showroom at its Canfield headquarters. Beyond just giving Youngstown Tile a place to work with its customers, the company also offers the showroom to contractors, architects and designers that buy from them.
“We let them use our showroom as theirs. We’ll let them talk it out with their customers and then handle the back-end business once they decide what they want,” says the company’s president, Joshua Cohol. “We want to help them, give them and their customers the knowledge rather than just selling a product. Up until COVID hit, we had classes here where brands like Schluter or Mapei would come out and host technical seminars.”
Another key aspect of the success of local suppliers is making sure their clients are ahead of the curve, both on product education and the time it takes to get jobs done.
For Jugenheimer Industrial Supplies, that’s taken the form of managed inventory, removing the need for customers to watch their own stock and delegating that responsibility to Jugenheimer. For Power Tool & Supply, that means a well-versed staff who’s up to date on just about everything in stock.
“Where [chains like Home Depot] can direct you to the right aisle, we direct you to the right part. We can be more specific and get you the right tool. My salespeople place value on the educational side of it. So they all stay up on what’s new, what’s faster, what’s better,” Springer says.
For ME Lumber, that expertise means saving contractors time sorting through wood before it even arrives at a construction site. Holmes points to differences in how big-name stores source product versus a local company like his own, which picks each load of lumber specifically after considering where it’s from and what mill produced it.
“When they buy, they buy 300 or 400 [train cars of lumber]. It doesn’t matter what’s on it or where it is. But it’ll be at this price,” he says. “We care about what mill it comes from. We care about environmental stewardship. That’s a big reason we use Weyerhaeuser for a majority of our dimensional lumber and sheeting. You can call them any day and talk to someone at the mill who knows the product.”
While such a strategy means pricier products, the quality can affect the end cost, Holmes posits. If a contractor doesn’t have to spend a day or two sorting through all the studs purchased – checking them to make sure they’re the right length, are straight and are usable – and can instead spend that time on construction work, that means fewer days on site, reducing the overall cost of a project.
It’s a similar mentality at Yesco, DeRosa says, as the supplier taps into data and information from product manufacturers to better stock its warehouses and have on hand what contractors need exactly when they need it.
“We aim for 100%, even though that’s not always possible. But when you get between 90% and 100%, that’s a big deal,” DeRosa says of product lists submitted by customers when they’re trying to price a job. “It’s all about cutting costs and finding efficiencies. When we do it, we’re doing it for our customers.”
While the broader shop local movement has pushed consumers to patronize local retailers and perhaps spend a little more than they would at chain stores, the suppliers say efforts are often made by their customers to shop locally. But supporting local companies isn’t always the reason they choose a company like Jugenheimer Industrial Supplies or Power Tool & Supply.
“It really depends on the buyer. Some just want the absolute cheapest price. They’ll shop around and decide based on money,” Jugenheimer says. “But many want to buy local. There’s a good attitude in this area to buy local when they can.”
Adds Power Tool’s Springer: “It comes down to pricing, availability and service. I think the relationships we have, over the years, have evolved. We’ve seen it when people switch jobs. If someone goes from company XYZ to ABC, even though they moved, they still call us. For us, it all comes down to the relationships you have and what we’ve built with customers.”
And those relationships, Youngstown Tile & Terrazzo’s Cohol says, are what keep local suppliers thriving.
“We’re not just here to sell something. We are here for them. We answer phones. We text customers, email them. … If they want to do it at night, we do it at night. If it’s the weekend, it’s the weekend,” Cohol says. “Business owners make sure they do business with each other and that’s always positive.”
Pictured: Youngstown Tile & Terrazzo president Joshua Cohol.