Port City Plumbing Supply
The Right Approach at the Right Time
David Morrison and his wife Tammy opened Port City Plumbing Supply in the North Carolina port city of Wilmington in 1992. The Morrison’s have been able to capitalize on the city’s explosive growth in the nearly three decades since the late 90s to expand their business.
In a market surrounded by regional and national players the single location plumbing supply house likes to think of itself as a “mom and pop” business. It is in that spirit that they’ve been able to attract and keep top talent with vast plumbing experience represented at the counter and in the showroom.
Port City opened a showroom in 2010 to better serve their plumbing and builder customers and have reaped the rewards of the higher margins that showroom products allow.
Southern PHC Magazine caught up with David Morrison to learn how his business has continued to survive and thrive as an independent wholesaler.
Southern PHC Magazine: Prior to you and your wife starting Port City Plumbing Supply in 1992 what was your background in this business?
David Morrison: I was selling plumbing supplies as an outside salesman for Ihrie Supply. I started in the plumbing supply business right out of high school in Dunn, North Carolina, driving a truck when I was 16 and then moved to Wilmington in 1983 and worked for several different companies. I developed a local clientele and have been really fortunate, really blessed. We went into business at the right time in ‘92, and it was just perfect timing. We went through some hard times like everybody in the early two thousands but we’ve been very fortunate, and business has grown way beyond anything I ever expected.
The economy was in recession in 1992. How did your business fare?
Yeah, it was, however, all the financial projections that I did in ‘92 for the bank… the goals that I set for a two-year plan… we hit those numbers in four months. The little base of business that I carried with me into the business was super busy. Timing is everything. We just hit it just right.
Over the years, we’ve evolved from a nuts- and-bolts sort of company to one that stocks about everything for light commercial, single family and multi-family and a little bit of high-end product.
Your business is set apart from the competition by being open on Saturdays. That’s unusual for a supply house.
The counter is the main part of the business that’s open on Saturday. It’s open from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. simply because I want to serve our professionals on the counter. We do get homeowner traffic on the weekends but our counter is open mainly for the professional. My showroom manager will also schedule an appointment on Saturday if the homeowner needs us that day.
It sounds like you offer a high level of service. Does it translate into a competitive advantage over the supply houses that don’t open on Saturday?
Absolutely. I think there are six supply houses in this town and we are one of only maybe two that are open on Saturday, and I believe the only one with a showroom that is open on Saturday as well.
Treating people the way you want to be treated is the biggest key to our success.
It’s the main thing.
You opened a showroom in 2010. What was your original goal in opening a showroom and do you feel it has that met your expectations?
It has met our expectations. From the time we started in business in 1992, until we opened the showroom, we were pretty much strictly focused on supplies for “rough-in” of single family houses and we specialized in the everyday items, PVC, pipe, and fittings and that kind of stuff. And, really did not get into the products for higher-end houses. We wanted to get into that market because a showroom fixture is a more profitable item than your run-of-the-mill product.
We wanted to boost profits and the showroom definitely does that for us. Having said that, I’ll add that it brings us headaches, too, as a customer can change their mind and we can end of with a $1,000 tub that we didn’t want to stock. So it’s got some good points and it’s got some bad points but overall I’m definitely glad we did it.
How much space in your facility is devoted to the showroom?
My building is about 17,000 square feet and I would say that probably 1,500 square feet of it is showroom.
How is the showroom staffed?
One fellow, Chick Coleman, runs our showroom. He needs some help but Chick has got more product knowledge than anybody in this town, probably anybody in the state. That’s an incredible advantage for our showroom but also on the residential plumbing side. Somebody can bring in a three-handle faucet that was installed in 1957 and he can look at it and identify it without pulling a book out. And, plumbers around here know that Chick can identify about anything they bring in. Chick has a wealth of product knowledge.
How has the typical consumer that comes into your showroom changed over the years?
There’s a certain percentage of those people that come in that are price conscious, but I would say at least 50% of them are not. If a customer is building a $300,000 house in a super nice neighborhood you’re probably going to be watching prices. But most of the customers that have been referred by builders have been given an allowance and going over that allowance by five or 10% is not a big deal … they are going to get what they want. Let’s face it – the Internet is a factor. Sometimes people come in and tell our showroom manager, “I can get it for this price – can you match it?” Most of the time we’ll say, “no,” and explain we can’t compete with the Internet. And, ask the customer if the Internet can give them the service we can offer them.
How do you compete with larger wholesalers who carry lines that you do not?
We don’t carry any of the major lines, no Kohler or American Standard – none of the big names. But I pretty much have access to anything American Standard, Kohler, House of Rohl or any other big name through my connections with other wholesalers around the state. My buddies or acquaintances will trade back-and- forth on a cost-plus ten basis or something like that and then we reciprocate. So most of the time, if we have a customer wanting a really high-end product we’re able to get it within just a dollar or two, or few percentage points of what they would pay a regular dealer of that product.
We carry Mansfield and Western Pottery and we do a pretty good business. We stock Moen, which is our main faucet line, and we sell a ton of Moen product. We also stock a little bit of Pfister but its mostly Moen. Moen has perhaps 20 different collections and we probably stock 15 of those collections and almost every sku within that collection so we do one thing very, very well.
However, we can still get just about any other product anyone wants. We do not stock Delta, which is unusual as most people stock both Delta and Moen. But we choose to do one thing and one thing right.
Now that LOWES Home Improvement will be carrying Mansfield are you concerned that it will affect your business?
I don’t think it will simply because our customers are so repetitive. The plumbers that really like Mansfield, they’re going to come in here and buy Mansfield. We just don’t see that much of the occasional consumer that would walk in Lowe’s looking at a toilet and then price shop us. My biggest issue with Mansfield is they can’t ship right now. They are 26 weeks out on a standard toilet. Now, is that related to their taking on Lowes? I can’t get that question answered but they’re definitely having some supply chain issues right now.
Are you seeing supply issues with other manufacturers beside Mansfield?
It seems every manufacturer right now is having difficulty with delivering product. In spite of price increases that have been through the roof they are just not able to ship. So every phase of the business is having supply chain issues. Where we have traditionally expected orders to fill in one or two weeks we now are seeing delivery in three or four weeks. Orders that used to take two to four weeks are now four to six with some product taking as much as eight weeks. It has been really challenging and probably will continue to be our challenge for the next six months. Nobody likes to see price increases like we’ve seen in the last three months, but, you know, I think that’s going to be a small part of the equation here in the next 60 or 90 days if the supply chain issues don’t get fixed.
Do you have a salesman calling on builders and plumbing contractors?
No. Our business here is pretty much by word of mouth. We don’t have any outside salesman and instead depend on referrals. There are people that just come in from time to time that noticed that we have a showroom, but most of the time their builders refer them.
I take just a little different approach from everybody else. I’ll make some outside sales calls myself. I’m the owner, I’ve got three or four guys that I’ll go and see as needed. I’ll pop in and say “hello” …it’s more of a just “good to see you” than a formal sales call.
How much of your sales volume is from contractors versus homebuilder?
Ninety percent of our sales are to plumbing contractors.
Which buying groups are you associated with?
We were among the first to join what is now known as Imark. We were about the third plumbing wholesaler that joined. It was called Equity Buying Group in those days and they only had two or three plumbing wholesalers and we said, well, we’ll join up and see what happens. And that group has really exploded. It’s turned out to be a very big outfit.
To what do you credit your success and continued growth?
Treating people the way you want to be treated is the biggest key to our success. It’s the main thing. We’re the only “mom and pop” type plumbing supply store in this town. Everybody else has multiple branches …we have one location, one showroom. We have had many chances to branch out with additional locations but it’s hard enough to do one thing very well and to find quality help, but that’s what we have over everybody else.
Each of our counter help has 30 or 40 years experience. But, having one location has not hampered our growth. We sell a lot to contractors in the surrounding counties like Brunswick County… we get a lot of business from the Jacksonville, North Carolina area, Holly Ridge, Surf City and other points north and south of us.
Part of what makes this “mom and pop” business so successful is the family-run atmosphere. Son and daughter David Morrison and Haley Morrison Rogers (shown with Tammy and David Morrison) play key roles in the company. Grandson Elliot Rogers (being held by mom) is reported to already be training in warehouse management. Not shown are Tammy’s sister, Vicky Britt and mother Sue Claytor, who work in the office.
Each of the counter help has 30 or 40 years experience in the business. Shown are counter representative Ronnie McLamb and Kirby Smith.
The Port City Plumbing Supply showroom enables customers to view the products they are considering for their homes or the homes of their clients. Showroom manager Chick Coleman provides a wealth of product knowledge.