Falk Plumbing Supply
– by Lynne Brandon
Southern PHC recently visited Falk Plumbing Supply at their North Little Rock showroom to learn their perspective on current challenges and opportunities facing wholesalers in our industry and to find out what has created their showroom success.
Falk Plumbing Supply – In the Beginning
In 1937 times were still hard but Jacob Falk went out on a limb and started Falk Plumbing Supply. In the beginning, it was considered almost a junk business with a plumbing perspective as Jacob traveled from Hot Springs to Illinois to find products to sell. He quickly found a niche serving high-end customers – one that the company has maintained for 80 years as a thriving business with 12 branches run by fourth-generation family. Falk’s current president is Ira Kleinman, grandson of Walter Kleinman, who married Jacob Falk’s daughter.
Decades later Falk Plumbing Supply is known for its attention to customer service, an exceptional internal training program and elaborate showrooms. Four employees manage the showrooms that are busy year-round.
The North Little Rock showroom is the largest of the three showrooms at 3,500 square feet. It is twice the size of their showrooms in Memphis or Hot Springs (company headquarters). “We had a strategic plan for each of the three showrooms,” said Alan Donahue, showroom manager for Little Rock, Hot Springs and Memphis. “Hot Springs was the Falk’s first showroom and is close to the distribution center. North Little Rock was obvious because it has a big market in the state– it is the epicenter for business in Arkansas. Memphis was a good, central location in Tennessee, which is not too far of a drive from Arkansas.”
Supply Chain Disruptions
Like most businesses, Falk Plumbing Supply hit some rough patches with supply chain disruptions in 2020 particularly in the fall when demand started outstripping supply. “When October rolled around the demand for product and the ability to supply the product started to get out of proportion,” said Donahue.
Still, Falk did not experience serious supply chain issues until January 2021, when suddenly pipe, fiberglass and faucet suppliers couldn’t get the product out in a reasonable amount of time.
Bathtubs by American Bath Group (parent company for Hamilton, Aquatic and Maax) are currently on back order due to the supply crunch. “I have never seen a time where we have been out of stock on showers and bathtubs,” said Donahue. “It is bad because it is one of the first things to go into a house. Plumbers are in shock over the situation.” Donahue recalled a lost sale for an order for a $3,000 cast iron claw foot bathtub. The order was pushed out nearly a month longer than normal, and ultimately, they lost the sale
But, there is more bad news for customers currently due to a resin supply shortage. The hurricane last year in the Gulf where refineries are located caused a resin supply problem. “You can’t sell a faucet without a valve which needs resin,” said Donahue. PCV and pipefittings are products that are in short supply.
Even with these bumps in the road, Falk’s three showrooms continue to be profit centers. Profit figures for 2020 were running at 28.5% GP (gross profit) which is an amazing figure in the year of Covid. Most plumbers reported a 30% GP for 2020 according to Donahue.
Plumbers Drive Business
Falk personnel work directly with plumbers and homebuilders in various capacities in the three showrooms. “Ultimately the plumber drives the business,” said Donahue. “And if we can’t keep the plumber satisfied, no matter who walks in the door to the showroom, it’s not going to be a good deal. The plumber draws a business over the builder.”
Essentially, contractor business is coordinated with outside salespeople who work directly with plumbers who then hand off the customer to the showroom personnel. The business model takes into consideration the plumber’s cost of materials and customers are quoted accordingly. In Little Rock, the relationship with customers is generally through decorators and building contractors, and not as closely with plumbers.
The plumbing profession continues to experience a workforce shortage like many essential businesses. “I have a repair plumber in Hot Springs, and he just needs somebody to bring tools and help them carry water heaters,” said Donahue. “He can’t keep an employee that can do something that simple. Ideally, the younger generation will step up and fill those shoes.”
The New Consumer and Big Box Stores
Supply houses like Falk Plumbing Supply play a key role in the relationships between customers, builders and contractors. The personal touch is what Falk is known for – a family business that treats its clients like family. Advice is dispensed to customers at the family owned businesses which is not the case at big box stores.
Falk has its share of DIY and Internet customers. These customers will come in with an issue with a product that they did not purchase from Falk Plumbing Supply but purchased on the internet or at Lowe’s or Home Depot. These situations prove to be tricky and many times Falk’s hands are tied — there is nothing they can do to help resolve the issue. Other times, “the customer will play the price game and reference seeing a product for ‘a hundred dollar less’,” said Donahue. “It is usually revealing when a customer says they are being their own builder.”
In these situations, Falk’s relationship with manufacturers makes a difference, and often allows Falk to offer a better price (than online) with suppliers like Delta. Falk is honest with its customers about why they do not have lower end products found at big box stories and the reason those products are at a lower price. Still, with some products, Falk offers a better price than Lowe’s or Amazon.
Donahue’s favorite customer is a returning customer due to their relationship built over time. “A good example is a large and exquisite home that took about three-years to complete.” said Donahue. “The homeowner’s daughter was an interior decorator in Florida. After she finished working on her mother’s house she asked if we could help her on a project in Florida. She was impressed with our service and pricing. The opportunity to work with the decorator on her mother’s house opened the door to work with her later on another project out-of-state. You can’t buy better advertisement than repeat business.”
Alan Donahue, manager of Falk Plumbing Supply’s showrooms, knows that having the right personnel staffing the showrooms is critical to success. Regan Myers (left) and Crystal Holmes (right) are his key players at the North Little Rock showroom.
Major Wholesale Lines
The Little Rock location has dedicated a significant portion of its showroom space to Kohler, the most of any of the three showrooms. It has earned the nickname, “Kohlerland” among employees. Kohler has a large manufacturing facility in Sheridan, Arkansas. By having a dedicated showroom space for Kohler product lines and making it exclusive, Falk gets the benefit of price discounts and is “bumped up” on Google searches when customers are looking for Kohler.
Kohler dedicated showrooms are rare because of the large investment involved. Each year the Falk showroom has spring and fall updates from Kohler that they have to comply with, and discontinued products have to be pulled out of the showroom. The showroom is charged a price for the displays and installation, but the display prices are at a significant reduction. Kohler makes little to no profit on these displays. While toilet and sink displays can be sold to customers faucets cannot be resold.
Kohler is supportive of its showroom products and is known to show up for ribbon cutting. Mr. David Kohler came to Falk’s grand opening in Memphis. The brand also shows support of their product by offering the Kohler training school known to be exceptional by industry standards with hands-on activities at their Atlanta headquarters. Sales and management employees learn first-hand how to assemble a product. “When you do hands-on training it’s a whole different experience,” said Donahue.
Some of the lines Falk carries are high-end products like the Kohler Margaux Collection.
Delta is a primary product line (about 1/3 of the showroom). Delta has three wholesale product lines that consumers can’t purchase at Lowe’s. Unlike Kohler, Delta does not charge for installation of display products.
Mansfield is a key supplier of products from China like toilets, bathroom sinks, and bathtubs. One-third of Falk’s sinks and toilets are Mansfield. The Mansfield brand is considered a good American-made value toilet, and favored by spec homebuilders for its good value. Mansfield’s Summit Three is a number one toilet for consumers who are replacing toilets. Due to the current supply crisis, Falk can’t get Mansfield tanks so they are not able to sell the brand. Forty bowls were in stock waiting for tanks at press time.
The Mansfield toilets have a good flush system like Kohler, which makes them popular with consumers. “I am wondering why Mansfield, now of all times, would sign a national contract with Lowes,” said Donahue. “Wholesalers have made them successful. So what’s that going to do to us? Our back up plan will be to sell Sterling toilets if we have a problem getting Mansfield. It is a competitive line with Kohler.”
Freestanding tubs have become big sellers at Falk with a range from $1,300 from suppliers such as Hamilton (more basic), to Aquatic (decorative, higher end) and Kohler that sell for $4,500. The bestselling bathtubs tend to be acrylic.
Falk sells two or three accessible bathtubs each year because they are price prohibitive. Accessible bathtubs are a product that is often shopped on the Internet by consumers trying to find a lower price. “People are looking for these bathtubs for half the price but what they don’t realize is that they are also getting half the product,” said Donahue.
Customers are sometimes surprised to learn that the Jacuzzi family, inventor of the world-famous Jacuzzi brand, are now located in Little Rock and producing tubs under the Jason and Son’s brand. It is one of Falk’s key brands and business partners since the early nineties. Jason, founded by Ramos Jacuzzi, does not stock their product as the bathtubs are made to order. For that reason, Jason often trains its sales force in Falk’s showroom. Customers also receive a perk. They are allowed to try-out the specialty bathtubs in the showroom.
Jason’s MicroSilk technology is popular with customers who have skin conditions such as eczema. The hydrotherapy component produces micro-bubbles, which revitalizes the skin.
Falk currently does not have plans to open more showrooms – for now. “What we’re trying to do is focus on being the best at what we have currently,” said Donahue. “We are always interested in growing our showroom business. The doors are always open. I have learned to never say never.”
Donahue leads a culture at Falk Plumbing Supply that centers around taking care of customers first and foremost. Relationships, he says, are the key to the company’s on-going success.
Delta is a top seller in the Falk Plumbing Supply showrooms. Delta’s move several years ago to provide some wholesaler-only product lines has had a positive impact on Falk’s business.
Members of the original Jacuzzi family manufacture the Jason and Son’s line of spas near Falk’s North Little Rock location. Jason and Son’s uses the Falk Plumbing Supply display for training their sales personnel.
Other Articles in this Series
This article appeared as part of the feature story in the June / July 2021 print issue of Southern PHC following a visit with Falk Plumbing Supply at their showroom in North Little Rock, Arkansas. Read more from the feature about their showroom success in the articles How to Find Qualified Showroom Staff and Six Steps to Becoming a Great Showroom Salesperson.