CatchTheSpirit v2

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.

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.

Sioux Falls Winair competes and wins in a crowded local market

Like father, like son the saying goes. Kevin Severy’s father, Robert, was president of N.O. Nelson Company in Sheridan, Wyo., which was the predecessor of today’s Winnelson plumbing distributors – part of WinWholesale and the Win Group of Companies. So it was natural that Sheridan was where Kevin, now president of Sioux Falls Winair in Sioux Falls, S.D., got his start in the business when he was in high school.

He left Sheridan and made stops at several Win companies in Missouri and Nebraska to learn the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) business. One stop was an extended stay as president of Norfolk Winair (Neb.) for 17 years. He also was an area coordinator. That was a job in which he oversaw operations of local WinWholesale companies in five states in other industries, such as electronics and industrial supplies.

Then in 2002 the board of directors of Sioux Falls Winair appointed him president of the HVAC distributor. Under Kevin’s leadership, sales revenues doubled in four and a half years.

“We’ve got 25 wholesale distributors in a town of about 125,000 people. There are a lot more competitors to deal with here than in Nebraska,” Kevin said. “You’ve got to be on your A game all the time. You can’t let your guard down, but it’s been a great opportunity.”

Opportunity is the operative word

Opportunity is the operative word in WinWholesale. In fact, the phrase “the Spirit of Opportunity” is the organization’s motto that encourages individuals to be all they can be, whether it’s as a truck driver, warehouse manager, salesperson or company president

Kevin has his own thoughts about the Spirit of Opportunity. “The number one idea I try to convey to anyone I’m talking to, whether it’s a friend or a potential company president, is that it’s the opportunity to invest in a company where they can make the majority of the decisions and have all kinds of help in WinWholesale as a large family to rely on,” he explained.

If a potential market for Win company products and services exists in the first place; if the local company follows WinWholesale’s business procedures, and if hard work is the rule rather than the exception, success will come, Kevin said.

He claims people think the potential for success is too good to be true. “Most people think you’ve got to have very deep pockets for a Win company to be successful. People seem to think it’s a franchise where you have to have millions of dollars to start a company,” he explained.

Not true, however.

Win companies are separate corporations – not franchises

A Win company is not a franchise, doesn’t operate like a franchise, and it doesn’t take millions of dollars to start a company. Win companies are separate corporations with a president and a board of directors that advises and partners with the president as they would in any properly governed corporation.

Just like other corporations there also are opportunities for profit sharing and dividends at Win companies. “It’s rewarding to know that all the sweat equity you put in is rewarded every year after you find that you and your people have done a good job,” Kevin said.

Hard work, customer service, quality products = success

Win companies are places where everyone rolls up their sleeves to get the job done, including the president. Sioux Falls Winair is a busy place that covers lots of real estate with a fleet of trucks to serve customers in four states. Even with employing 17 people, Kevin comes to work in working clothes so he can help in the warehouse, load or unload trucks, work the counter, sweep floors – whatever it takes.

“I do everything that can possibly be done in the company,” Kevin explained. “I think it sets a good example for everyone, including customers, knowing the president is not above jumping in and that the broom handle fits his hands too. It also shows employees they can step up to the next level in the company.”

As you might expect from those comments, a Win company needs people with a good work ethic, good work habits, are willing to listen and learn and have goals to advance in their working career.

When you put a company full of people with those qualities together and they operate as a team serving customer with high quality products, it’s a winning combination. Kevin stresses that all of the employees working as one team - a fine, tweaked system as he puts it - takes communication, continuing education, meetings, etc. Those are priorities for him because the team is the most important thing that has made Sioux Falls Winair successful, Kevin emphasized.

There’s another thing that helps. When someone comes to work for Sioux Falls Winair, in essence it becomes their company. Kevin tells them to apply a test to their work. “Typically what I tell new people is that from this day forward in any decision they make to pretend it’s their company and that they are the president. If the choice is good for everyone in the company, then do it,” Kevin said.

It’s a test that’s working well at Sioux Falls Winair as the company continues to be successful in a highly competitive market area.

An industry veteran becomes part of WinWholesale and seizes the opportunities

In 1971 singer Judy Collins recorded a song called “Both Sides Now.” While it not may be the stuff of ‘70s song lyrics, Colin Davis, manager of Noland Company’s West Palm Beach, Fla., company, has had the chance to look closely at both sides of the business at WinWholesale. That is, the side with a traditional corporate compensation model, such as Noland, and with one built on the WinWholesale entrepreneurial approach. And, he has an opinion about what he thinks works for businesses and the people who work in them.

When WinWholesale acquired Noland Company in 2005, it welcomed a long-time leader in the wholesaling business in the Southeast operating on a traditional corporate model: a headquarters with top-down decision making, salaried and hourly employees and local branches.

That contrasted with WinWholesale’s model of local company ownership, local decision making, compensation based on company performance (in addition to some salaried and hourly employees), all backed by support services from a central office/headquarters.

As a wholesaling industry veteran for almost 20 years (11 at Noland Company), Colin has accumulated a considerable background to be able to compare the models.

Colin built his wholesaling experience

“Noland hired me in 1997, but prior to that I had several years of experience in the industry at Ferguson Enterprises and Hajoca Corporation – both in Richmond, Va.,” Colin said.

Colin honed his skills at Ferguson and Hajoca making deliveries, working inside sales , systems administration and as assistant manager in addition to other positions. He then joined Noland’s Richmond location as a commercial sales specialist. There he did job quotes and organized the department before becoming Richmond’s operations manager.

“The move to Noland Company was a career move. There was more opportunity for advancement by going to different locations in Noland,” Colin explained. Continuing to work his way up, in 2000 Colin became manager of the Winston-Salem, N.C., location until 2002 when he moved to West Palm Beach, Fla., to be the company manager there.

WinWholesale offers increased opportunity

Then along came WinWholesale in 2005 with an offer Noland Company couldn’t refuse. “Although there was some concern about change, there was some excitement about increased opportunity,” Colin explained about the acquisition. “WinWholesale wasn’t in the Florida market in a large way at that time, but it was a significant industry player.”

In fact, one of the reasons WinWholesale acquired Noland was to have a bigger presence in the Southeast market by acquiring more than 100 Noland branches (as they were called then) in 13 states.

It didn’t take long before Colin began to see how the way Noland (as well as other wholesalers) and WinWholesale were different, and to wonder if the acquisition and blending the company cultures and people was going to work out.

“The biggest difference is the autonomy the managers have in WinWholesale companies. There is much more opportunity to operate your business they way you see fit. It’s your business to run, within certain guidelines, but without having to go up the ladder for approval.”

Colin said he also sees that autonomy as good for the business. “You have more of a personal stake in the outcome of your location. What you do, the changes you make and the decisions you make at the local market level have an impact on your business,” he said.

What’s the “Spirit of Opportunity”?

Opportunity. It’s a word that Colin frequently uses in describing the business. The word goes to the very heart and soul of WinWholesale. So much so that the company’s motto is “The Spirit of Opportunity”, and it’s on the back of employee business cards. It refers to the entrepreneurial spirit of the company and its employees, and the opportunity to do well professionally and personally through investing in a local company. It also refers to working hard and smartly in that company to serve customers by meeting their needs.

“The Spirit of Opportunity is the chance to earn an income based on the effort you put forth and the results you achieve,” Colin said.

WinWholesale has pushed more decision making down to the local company level in Noland. In addition, a compensation system for Noland locations in now in place that is similar in many ways to the rest of the organization.

As Colin explained it, “Now that profit sharing has been allocated to each Noland location, there’s a greater emphasis on individual locations and the results that your team puts together. They benefit from that effort.”

Advancement is available to anyone

On a personal level, Colin believes that the opportunity to advance is available to anyone willing to make certain sacrifices. It’s all about putting out the effort individually and as a team, he said.

“I think being a team player is really important. We need people who are ambitious, who can multi-task, and probably as important as anything – someone who understands that their value to the company is in their ability to do whatever the company needs to be successful,” Colin said.

To a finer point, Colin went on to say, “We’re going to look at the person who can get into the delivery truck, jump on the sales counter, receive inventory, do a sales quote – all those things. Those skills translate into future managers – people who are looking for that Spirit of Opportunity and to advance in a career as managers and local company presidents.”

The emphasis is on customer service

Market changes – up or down – drive the business. In good markets and bad, the goal is to separate the Noland business from competitors through superior customer service and high quality products. For example, some competitors cut back on service when markets drop, but Colin said it’s important to fill every order and back order. That’s part of customer service.

“In the past, Noland was more price driven. Now there’s more emphasis on customer service,” he said, and believes in the long run good customer service will make the company more money.

Colin: We operate in a more entrepreneurial way now

And in the long run, how does Colin feel about the acquisition of Noland by WinWholesale?

He admits that at first he was skeptical it would work out because of the different ways of doing business between the two companies. But after more than three years, “The skepticism is almost all gone,” Colin said. “I think it’s all been worthwhile. There probably will always be differences in the way the two companies operate, but we operate in a more entrepreneurial way now, and I’ve tried to take advantage of the opportunities.”

What advice does Colin have for someone thinking about joining a WinWholesale company? “You’re going to work longer hours, possibly relocate and make a few sacrifices, but if you’re interested in advancing your career and having financial stability, joining WinWholesale is absolutely worth it. There are very good opportunities with this company,” he said.

For Gary Reese, “opportunity” is not just a word

Gary Reese, president of Lincoln Winlectric Company (Nebraska), “wore the tools”, as they say in the trade, for several years as an electrician and electrical contractor. Then one day he had a change of heart that led to a change in direction. The WinWholesale entrepreneurial Spirit of Opportunity was calling him, and he didn’t even realize it at the time.

“When I was an electrician, the guy from the supply house would take me out for coffee or lunch, take my order, then get in his climate controlled car and take off. I said to myself, ‘That looks like a job I’d really like to have.’”

Success bred success

After that self revelation in Fort Collins, Colo., in 1984, Gary began calling every supply house in town looking for a job. He got to Nelectric in the Yellow Pages, the precursor to Winlectric, and through persistence landed a job in outside sales. That began a path that would lead Gary to great success in the WinWholesale organization as president of his own company, Lincoln Winlectric, and in helping to start seven other Win companies and investing in them.

He actually helped start Lincoln Winlectric in 1985 after leaving Fort Collins. Then the president of Winlectric Inc., as WinWholesale was organized at the time, asked Gary to go to Bowling Green, Ky., to help a Winlectric company in the fall of 1986. “I knew the only way I was ever going to get my own company was to do that sort of thing and work my way up the ladder, so going to Bowling Green was a stepping stone for me,” Gary explained.

Not long after arriving in Bowling Green, he left for Yuma Ariz., to be a manager at the Winlectric there – but again just for a few months before he returned to Lincoln Winlectric in 1987 to help the struggling company. Gary was proving his worth as a person who could help companies become more successful.

Opportunity is not just a word

The difference when he went to Lincoln Winlectric this time, however, was that he bought the current president’s stock in the company. In the three years since opening the Yellow Pages in Fort Collins to find an electrical wholesaling job, The Spirit of Opportunity had become firmly planted in Gary, and he was the president of his own electrical wholesaling company.

“The word opportunity means that a warehouse person, a college graduate or even a competitor can go to work for WinWholesale and make it as grand as they want,” Gary said. “The opportunity is absolutely endless. To start a supply company with the amount of money a company president has to put in is pretty remarkable. The opportunity is there for anyone who wants to take advantage of it"

Local company; local decision making

Gary always wanted to have a successful business some day and said the WinWholesale model helped make it possible. With that model, he has ownership and makes the decisions for his company based on local market conditions and has the use of central support services such as accounting and vehicle fleet services. “WinWholesale is the only company that I know of where I can have a small business with all the backing of a big business,” Gary said.

Not everyone wants to own their own business and be a company president. For those people, local Win companies also offer opportunities. According to Gary, the type of person who does well at WinWholesale is a person who wants to invest in themselves in terms of hard work and be successful in a local company. “Every president has great people who work for them,” Gary said. “But for people who want ownership, the Spirit of Opportunity works. All the tools are here to make it happen.”

If the right person came to Gary and said they wanted to start their own Win company, Gary’s response would be simple: “Let’s put a plan together and see where it takes us.”

Gary wouldn’t trade his WinWholesale experience

Nevertheless, a successful company requires long hours and building and maintaining customer relationships. That includes helping customers (and employees) accomplish their dreams as they run their own businesses.

Gary said Lincoln Winlectric tries to provide as much information as possible about the business – and advice. Which, says Gary, happens quite often since he’s been in the business a long time and has become a trusted supplier and friend to his customers.

“I can give that advice because I’ve already made the mistakes. It’s a great satisfaction to me to be able to help others,” Gary said. “We treat apprentice electricians at our counter as though they’re going to become a big company some day. When they do go on their own, we’re usually the first wholesaler they come to because we developed a relationship with them when they came in to buy their first set of tools.”

Day to day now, Gary spends less time selling products like he used to and devoting most of his time to managing the company – keeping up with technology and growing Lincoln Winlectric at a healthy pace.

“It’s always been fun, but now it’s more of an easy fun,” Gary said as he summed up his WinWholesale experience to date. “I wouldn’t trade the work of loading trucks, building racks and the rest of it for the world, but being president is even more fun.”