In a wholesale and distribution industry dominated by men, Modern Supply isn’t afraid to show its feminine side. The Knoxville, Tenn.-based kitchen, bath and lighting distributor’s marketing and social media efforts are centered on “Millie,” a “kitchen and bath fashionista” who appears in print ads, radio advertisements and in the company’s showrooms. The spokesperson/character also offers tips about home décor and promotes products on social media as well as a blog. “We wanted to go for a softer image in our advertising, and that’s really helped us stand out,” says Dottie Ramsey, the company’s president and COO.
Millie’s radio spots typically focus on the level of customer service the company is known for as well as its local ties, which extend back to 1949, when it was founded as a plumbing supply company. “We really push that our people are experienced professionals that help, advise and care about our customers, as well as the fact that we are locally and family owned, which distinguishes us from the big-box stores,” she adds.
The female influence at Modern Supply is also apparent in its front office. Ramsey, who celebrated her 50th anniversary with the company earlier this year, and Vice President Debbie Johnson work closely with CEO and owner Pace Robinson, son of company founder Mitchell Robinson. “Having that female intuition on your side works very well for us,” Robinson says.
“Millie” has also been seen on trips the company takes with customers, employees and some of the manufacturers whose products it stocks in its showrooms and warehouses. Past trips have included Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and Alaska.
“We make it a priority that we know the head person at every manufacturer we deal with, not just the local rep,” Ramsey explains. “Our customers know that if there’s a problem they can’t get an answer to themselves, we can pick up the phone and get them one.”
Modern Supply executives also regularly meet with manufacturers at trade shows, conventions and an annual golf tournament. More than 40 major brands including GE, Kitchenaid, Kohler, Elkay and Delta are represented in the company’s retail showrooms in Knoxville, Chattanooga and Johnson City, Tenn.; all of which have been renovated within the past two years.
Serving Two Markets
Although retail customers have long been and continue to be the company’s primary market, Modern Supply within the past year began stocking commercial HVAC products. “Heating and air conditioning is becoming a bigger part of our business,” Robinson notes. Many of these commercial products are manufactured by Rheem, for which the company has distributed residential products for several decades. Rheem in 2014 named the company a “Gold Premier Performer” distributor.
Commercial customers are served from locations in Knoxville and Crossville, Tenn.; and Bristol, Va. All six of Modern Supply’s locations have an attached warehouse. In addition, a lighting studio in Knoxville displays indoor and outdoor lighting, ceiling fans and accessories targeted to retail customers and contractors alike.
Technology plays a big role in Modern Supply’s operations. The company has an enterprise resource planning (ERP) and warehouse management system in place in all of its locations, and also uses iPads in its showrooms to demonstrate products that are in stock, but not on the showroom floor.
Many of Modern Supply’s retail products are picked up and taken home by customers, though the company also operates a fleet of trucks it either leases or owns.
Finding the Right People
Hiring the right employees is a high priority for Modern Supply. “Our No. 1 job is putting the right people in place,” Robinson says. “It’s a never-ending and can be a difficult process.” Robinson, Johnson and Ramsey work together to find ways to recruit employees.
The company’s competitive pay structure and benefits and its status as a family owned business are among its more attractive traits. Modern Supply also offers regular on-the-job and vendor training. “Our people are what we’re most proud of,” Ramsey says. “You can have a lot of inventory in place, but if you don’t have people, you don’t have a business.”
Although the company grapples with hiring and retaining new employees, it is fortunate to have a number of long-term employees. “They truly take it to heart that this is their business,” she adds.