Karla Fiebelkorn: It’s exciting to run your business and make it grow

“Sometimes you have to figure out that the grass isn’t greener on the other side,” said Karla Fiebelkorn, president of Gillette Winnelson in Gillette, Wyo. She reached that conclusion in 1982 after leaving N.O. Nelson (Winnelson’s predecessor) for three months to be a marketing person for a local furniture store.

“I got a call back from N.O. Nelson and realized it was probably the best opportunity for me,” she said. Little did she know how true that would be.

Six years later in 1988 she became president of the local plumbing supplies and equipment company. “The president at that time moved to another location. I had the opportunity to buy stock and take over, which was very scary and exciting all at the same time,” Karla said, laughing at the recollection.

The scary part, she said, was the unknowns – getting a loan for the investment and making sure she had the ability to do the job. “You question yourself on those kinds of things,” she said.

As president, Karla brought experience to the job

Karla had worked in the company for eight years and knew its operations, inventory, customers and products cold. She kept the inventory up to date, worked the sales counter, did outside sales and just about every other job in the company.

But in 1988, “There weren’t a lot of women in this type of business, and I was warned by the previous company president that could be a challenge,” she recalled. “It came off pretty easy though. Nobody really questioned it (a woman president.) My product knowledge was strong and it worked out very well.”

Today there are 28 women who are local company presidents in the Win Group of Companies.

“The exciting part of becoming president was being able to run my own business and having the opportunity to make this company grow,” Karla continued to recall about the decision to seize the Spirit of Opportunity. “It’s a pretty exciting business and a challenging one that can be rewarding.”

Grow it did over the years, and the company’s not finished growing. Gillette Winnelson is a successful business that has doubled its revenues and gone from nine to 13 employees in the last two years due to mushrooming community growth and mining operations in the Gillette area.

For Karla, the Spirit of Opportunity, which is the bedrock of the WinWholesale culture, means being able to do whatever is required to get the job done and being provided all the tools to make it happen.

Local decision making helps profitability

“We saw what we could do here and took the opportunity to do it, and WinWholesale provided the tools for us to do the job better than anybody else. It’s amazing to watch the company and employees grow, and great to help your employees become something they thought they could never be,” Karla said.

WinWholesale’s philosophy of leaving decision making to local companies is another reason for Gillette Winnelson’s success and growth. “Working at a Win company is different from other companies. You can make the majority of your decisions right here. That makes a huge difference between us and anyone else,” Karla explained. “We can choose who we sell to and what products we sell. Having that flexibility has definitely made us profitable.”

The bread and butter of Winnelson companies across the U.S. is selling plumbing supplies and equipment to local plumbing contractors. Gillette Winnelson does a lot of that. However, when Karla became president she wanted to sell other products supporting the region’s open pit mining industry.

“We’re more versatile in what we stock (than competitors.) We have it all and will stock everything.”

Nontraditional products help Gillette Winnelson grow

She’s not kidding. To serve the company’s mining customers, Gillette Winnelson carries all sorts of nontraditional items for a Winnelson. “We sell them gloves, rags, toilet paper, coffee, water, Windex, drill bits, tape – all kinds of things. We’re one of the few companies in the area willing to stock those items. If someone will buy it from me, I’ll stock it to make a profit,” she said.

Good business move. The contracts for eight mines generate revenue in the low seven figures.

It turns out that properly managing growth is one of Karla’s biggest challenges. “We’re growing so fast that the averages (used to manage the business) don’t make sense anymore,” she said.

Meeting that challenge means staying on top of everything, being cautious about receivables, making sure the right people are in the right jobs and having the freedom to get the job done for customers.

Besides presidents, other people needed for success

Making sure she has the right people also has helped Gillette Winnelson succeed. It requires people who are self motivated and want to do the best job they can, Karla said. “If they’re here for just a paycheck, they’re probably not going to last in the job, by my choice or their choice,” she said.

That doesn’t seem to be a problem in Karla’s company. Turnover is low among the five men and eight women who work there. Trust in the employees is high and teamwork is the way work gets done to serve customers.

When you have the right people, you also may have future Win company presidents somewhere in the 574 local companies in 44 states – maybe even at Gillette Winnelson. Growing presidents internally is a primary way they move to a company of their own. Karla has some words of advice for any potential president before making the decision to own their own company.

“Stay focused, be willing to work hard, long hours. Have the product knowledge required and make sure you’re ready to become a president,” Karla said. She’s quick to add that in her view not everyone is cut out to be a president, and that’s okay.

“We also need other people who want to do their job and do it well,” she said. That includes warehouse people, sales representatives, operations managers, office managers and people filling other positions to make a company successful.

Either way – company president or another type of employee – the rewards working in the Win Group of Companies can be great both personally and professionally.

Albuquerque Winair’s goal: Be the best HVAC distributor it can be

From the time he was 17 years old, driving a pick up and delivery truck for a local heating and air conditioning company in Albuquerque, N.M., Chris Lopez has always been in the supply business. And, he’s always had the spirit of an entrepreneur, exemplifying the WinWholesale Spirit of Opportunity long before he even knew about the company.

“When I left that first company looking for a management position, I wanted to run the show,” he recalls. Chris wanted to not only be in charge of a business, but to own a business as well. He became a manager and owner in 1998 when he started Albuquerque Winair Company as its president, which he remains today.

Owning a local Win company: the best of both worlds

By the time he opened Albuquerque Winair, Chris had already earned his stripes in the heating, air conditioning and ventilation (HVAC) distribution business. He had been very successful as a branch manager with two Albuquerque HVAC wholesalers, substantially increasing their sales and revenues. He expressed interest in acquiring an ownership stake in the second company, but only a small percentage was available. It wasn’t enough for Chris, so he decided to go out on his own.

In an odd twist, Chris investigated buying a small independent HVAC distributor in Albuquerque at the same time WinWholesale considered acquisition of the same company. For different reasons, WinWholesale and Chris decided against the purchase. In the process, Mike Samuelson, WinWholesale’s Western Region area leader, talked with Chris about buying into and opening a new Winair company. It wasn’t an immediate sell for Chris.

“My goal wasn’t to partner with WinWholesale in a new company,” Chris said. He wanted complete ownership of a company, and WinWholesale is the majority equity partner in all local Win companies in 44 states. But the more he talked with WinWholesale, the more he saw the advantages of partnering.

“It was just a matter of spending some time together and learning about WinWholesale. I didn’t think at first it was entrepreneurial enough for me,” Chris explained. “My wife and I had a lengthy conversation and decided that going with WinWholesale was the best of both worlds, and that it was really the future of distribution. Small independents have a habit of either going out of business or getting gobbled up by larger companies after a while.”

What does the “best of both worlds” mean for a local WinWholesale company? It means several things. For example:

  • Operating independently to a large degree.
  • Making decisions for the company locally without having to get the okay from a corporate office.
  • Being part of the larger WinWholesale organization and receiving support to help companies succeed, such as inventory management systems and national buying power for products and fleet services.

“Being associated with WinWholesale means having the credibility to deal with manufacturers in our industry and being viewed as a player because of who you’re associated with,” Chris said.

Success requires effort day in and day out

But being successful at a local Win company like Albuquerque Winair is mainly due to effort day in and day out. It’s working hard, establishing and maintaining superior c

ustomer relationships and service, and running the company according to tried and true WinWholesale business procedures proven over more than 50 years since the organization’s founding.

According to Chris, even though associated with a large organization, there still should be a unique nature to local companies that sets them apart from the competition. For Albuquerque Winair, he says that includes:


  • Direct access to the company president
  • All employees feeling they’re part of the team and have ownership with profit sharing, so there’s a stake in the business that translates to customer service
  • Returning customer phone calls quickly and being able to answer their questions
  • Taking care of customer warranties immediately
  • Helping customers reduce job costs in innovative ways, such as time saving ideas
  • “Everyone here has a strong desire to be the best HVAC distributor we can be in WinWholesale and in Albuquerque. It’s a strong motivation,” Chris said. The company was the Winair Company of the Year for fiscal year ending Jan. 31, 2008, and has had strong financial performances for several years in a row.


Company fire brought out best in Winair and others

Perhaps nothing in the nine year history of Albuquerque Winair speaks to what the company is made of or how it is viewed by employees, customers, vendors and competitors, than when a devastating fire occurred in October 2007. The fire that started in the business next door to Albuquerque Winair resulted in extensive smoke and water damage to Chris’ company. The $680,000 inventory was a total loss.

“That first night, the employees showed up to look at the fire and discuss what we had to do the next day. I found out there was a strong sense of ownership and that failure was not an option,” Chris recalled. “Out of adversity, we were going to pull out of this and be in a much better situation than before. That was the goal.”

Albuquerque Winair’s customers also cared about what happened to the business and to its employees. “Customers offered their buildings – whatever Winair needed. And vendors did their part to get the company back on its feet,” Chris said. “One competitor actually offered their building and employees to help us out.”

“We had a tremendous amount of support from the WinWholesale organization,” Chris said. “In my opinion, it was much better to have been part of WinWholesale than to have been an independent.”

It’s just one more validation of the decision by Chris and his wife in 1998 to open Albuquerque Winair with WinWholesale Inc.