Butler Bros. focuses on being a proactive player in the industry as it continues to evolve to meet the machine tool and industrial supply needs of its customers. Two years into its most recent five-year plan, the company is looking for continued growth in new geographic markets, as well as expanded product lines to better serve the ever-changing needs of its customers.
“Our management team looks at the resources we need to best accomplish our annual growth goals,” President Pat Butler says. “We find that our five-year planning process allows us to take an extended view of where we want to go as a company. We try to build flexibility into our plan because we know that change is inevitable in our industry and we need to prepare for evolving situations with both customers and vendors. I remain very encouraged by our position in the market, and I feel that our role as a technical, independent distributor remains very viable. Customers want to deal with people who care about their business, can remain flexible, and will work tirelessly on continuous improvement to increase their manufacturing efficiencies. The big-box player cannot do this as efficiently and effectively as we can.”
Butler’s father, John T. Butler Sr., founded Lewiston, Maine-based Butler Bros. in 1952 with a vision to provide personalized service and quality products at a fair price. The company started by serving the footwear and leather industry, which Pat Butler says was big business at the time in New England. “We were a niche supplier of the products that went into manufacturing shoes,” he adds. “When I graduated from college and joined our company in 1979, the industry was changing dramatically. With increased manufacturing costs in the U.S., a lot of our customers began moving production off shore to China and Mexico. We had to change our model quickly or be forced out of business.”
With a great service foundation in place, Butler helped his father move out of the footwear industry. They started with the Norton abrasive line, which had been sold extensively throughout the shoe and leather industry, and secured a sizable abrasive contract at Maine’s largest shipyard, Bath Iron Works. The company then proceeded to work with the many furniture plants in the area, assisting with their coated abrasive needs.
Because of the great service Butler Bros. provided, the customers’ demand for other products and cutting tools became a natural progression. “One interesting thing about the footwear industry is that it is a very service-oriented market since styles and fashion change quickly,” Butler explains. “Because of our experience, we found that as we began servicing customers in other industries, they were unaccustomed to the level of service we provide. Our customers very much appreciate the fact that we will carry special inventory for them on a hand shake and deliver just-in-time or even on weekends, if necessary.”
In 1979, Butler Bros. had a staff consisting of four people. Today, the company employs nearly 100 people. Butler Bros. operates out of a 54,000-square-foot warehouse in Lewiston, Maine, with a showroom that displays many of its industrial and packaging machines, and vending solutions. The company also has branch locations in New London, N.H., Randolph, Mass., and East Syracuse, N.Y., to better serve its customers to the south and west.
At 94 years of age, John Butler still comes into the office every day to sort the mail, separate checks and go to the bank with daily deposits. “He’s like the ‘Energizer Bunny.’ He comes to the office six days a week and we love having him here. He still contributes and it gives him a great sense of purpose,” Pat Butler says. “When we moved into our new facility in 2000, I had an office built specifically for him and told him that we still need him to come to work as long as he is physically able. He was 79 then, now he’s 94. It’s great that he, as the founder, still comes in to see where we are taking the company. He loves the people and the action that happens daily in the distribution business.”
“Butler Bros. is the largest independent distributor in New England with $70 million in annual sales,” Butler says. Selling to 48 states with the bulk of its business in New England and upper New York, the company also distributes products to the Dominican Republic and exports overseas. “Fifty percent of the business is through the traditional distributor role and fifty percent is through our strategic partnerships programs like vending, Integrated Supply and Vendor Managed Inventory,” Butler explains. “We will always continue to adapt to the changing needs of our customers.”
The company is looking to expand into areas where its customers are asking it to go. “One of our large customers recently began production in North Carolina and asked us if we would go there and manage their stockroom and document cost savings,” Butler explains. “We have three employees down at the site now, servicing them with cutting tools, safety, and packaging solutions. We are also looking at expanding branch locations into Connecticut as we increase our footprint.”
One of the reasons Butler Bros. has continued to grow over the past 60 years is because of the vast amount of products it offers. “We are so much more than just cutting tools,” Butler says. “We also stock and sell all forms of packaging, safety and janitorial products. We have technical sales specialists in all of these areas and our ‘team selling strategy’ allow us to provide total solutions for our customers.”
Butler adds, “Our customers have come to know that we represent all of the major manufacturers in cutting tools, abrasives, safety and shipping supplies. They have come to expect that we will deliver the high-quality products they need, at a fair price. Our customers are going to get flexibility with us because we have a willingness to adapt our guidelines to meet their changing needs. We are outstanding at documenting proven cost-savings, and we meet regularly with our customers to review those savings. We stay on our game by training our people with the latest technology offered by our varied vendor base so that we can continue to deliver the best value and product to our customers.”
Training is a major focus at Butler Bros., both to ensure the staff is knowledgeable on the products they sell, but also on the systems they use to sell. Their sales team uses the Prophet 21 system to create in-house and remote sales orders. Utilizing the program feature, Web Connect, the team can monitor their sales daily. “I am most proud of our people,” Butler says. “We have a great team and they are the reason we continue to grow. They are not afraid of hard work and persistently do whatever it takes to get the job done right.”
Butler Bros. provides its sales team with the software it needs, but also with the product knowledge required in the industry. The company’s vendors work directly with the sales team as well as its customers to train them on existing and new products. Butler Bros. hosts a vendor fair for its vendors, customers and employees in order to collaborate and learn more about innovations in the market. “We strive to have vendor product lines showcased and offer day-long seminars on product developments that can help our customers run more efficiently,” Butler explains.
As a member of AD (Affiliated Distributors), the industry’s largest group of independent distributors, Butler Bros. works closely with the vendor partners and attends industry events to learn more about new product offerings in order to help its customers with better solutions. “We are only as good as the vendors we represent,” Butler says. “We strive to maintain good working relationships with our strategic vendor partners. As an independent, technical distributor, we are at our best when we roll up our sleeves and go to work on the shop floor testing tools or providing other solutions. This is a valuable service that cannot be matched by the “Big Box” guys. Our vendors acknowledge that together we can best serve the customer by working closely to solve any issue that exists.”
Employee turnover at Butler Bros. continues to be very low because the company maintains a positive working environment, which encourages employees to be creative. They strive to find the right people to add to their ever growing team. However, Butler notes that “the great challenge we all have in our industry is finding people with an interest in the cutting tool and distribution business.”
Butler Bros. primarily finds quality people to add to the team through referrals, headhunters, local universities and online job boards like Indeed. The company looks for the best candidates with the right skill-sets, who are interested in continued learning. “The ideal sales candidate should have a good working knowledge with some of the product lines we sell, but equally as important is finding candidates that are just good people, who care, and who can develop relationships quickly and are good with their follow-up skills,” Butler says. “I would hire someone with the right skill-set, and train them in the technical aspects any day of the week. In fact, one of our sales managers recently was waiting to interview a sales candidate at a restaurant and was so impressed with the communication skills of the waiter, that we eventually offered a job to him and we taught him how to sell cutting tools. He has turned out to be an outstanding industrial sales person.”
Butler Bros. is in the process of revamping its website and will be ready to launch a new, user-friendly design in January. “It will be a much more interactive site, with over 400,000 SKUs added with product descriptions. Some customers currently use the site for information purposes only, but many buyers and engineers want to be able to go to the site and check stock and order product. Our website will be able to provide this and much, much more when released at the beginning of 2016.”
To increase its brand recognition, Butler Bros. is also developing more of a presence on Facebook and Twitter. “That’s the dynamics of how people are communicating, so we need to adapt,” Butler adds. “We will be able to post on Facebook a product or service success that we have had with an existing customer so others may benefit from seeing it. We have hired a new marketing person who is coordinating these plans and we know her efforts will result in better communication to our existing and potentially new customers.”
As Butler Bros. continues to move through its five-year plan, the company will continue to hire more sales people, expand its geographic footprint and continue to upgrade its software. At a time when many of their competitors have been purchased and rolled up into bigger companies, Butler sees lots of opportunities as a large independent distributor. According to Butler, “We need to enhance our entrepreneurial spirit, stay flexible, and continue to focus on doing the right thing for our customers. As we continue to work with our customers, we can’t help but succeed together.”