As kids, Don Plunkett and his brother Jeff spent summers working in the family's Arkansas-based business. Plunkett Distributing Inc. was established in 1948 by their grandfather, who in time handed the reins over to their father. And when he retired, the siblings assumed command. A natural progression, perhaps--although Don insists it was never a foregone conclusion that one of the brothers, or both, would continue the tradition. The two were never pressured to make a career in building products; but when they independently arrived at that decision, their father thoroughly groomed them for success.
"Both of us learned the business from the ground up," Don remembers. "Dad started us at the bottom--doing everything from pulling and taking orders to driving trucks to sweeping floors." Don and Jeff are now vice president and CFO, respectively, of Plunkett Distributing; but the grown-up versions of those boys who manned the phones over the summers still find themselves performing some of the same duties that they did back then. While they certainly don't shirk the executive responsibilities that now fill their plates, they cheerfully suggest a more fitting, unofficial title for either of them is “Whatever Has To Be Done That Day.” That's part of the hands-on nature of being an owner of a family business versus an employee, the brothers acknowledge; but it isn't a complaint--it's simply how they get the job done and take care of the customer.
Another way that Fort Smith-based Plunkett Distributing meets customers' needs, Don points out, is by offering a product mix that covers, well, just about everything. Rattling off some of the options--sandpaper and screws; drawer slides and hinges; plywood, particle board, and hardwood lumber; convenience items--he notes that the firm also has its own milling facility as well as equipment to produce its own custom hardwood molding. It even recently invested in another manufacturing process that supports the onsite manufacture of high-pressure laminated panels. "A lot of our competitors just do hardware or just do lumber or just do panels," he says, emphasizing that customers in Arkansas as well as in Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and Missouri can get everything they need under one roof with Plunkett Distributing.
While that alone separates the distributor from the field, Don gives the sales team much of the credit for helping the company to stand out. "We have sought out those salespeople that have the same beliefs that we do on building relationships with customers and winning business on service, not just price," he remarks. "We try to be more service-driven than just cost-driven." The sales contingent is also an integral factor in the relationship with manufacturers, Don continues, adding that a high level of interaction is welcomed and valued. At Plunkett Distributing, he says, "we try to invite an open relationship and have our suppliers be involved in our business, because you can definitely see an increase when they are working with our sales team."
The firm's vendor relationships currently are in great shape, Don and Jeff agree; but through their fairly new affiliation with NBMDA, they appreciate the collaborative environment the association fosters. Fresh from their second-ever visit to the group's popular annual conference, held this month in Chicago, they relished the event's networking potential. "It gives us the opportunity to have conversations with potential suppliers, people that may be interested in us or we may be interested in them," Don says. "And then with peers, you can have some discussions about practices that they're doing that maybe we're not and develop relationships with people that are in the same line of work." Jeff especially enjoys what he describes as a homey atmosphere and relaxed, down-to-earth setting that isn't found at other industry events of this kind.
Putting heads together with like-minded companies and executives, meanwhile, could help produce possible solutions for some of the challenges that distributors face in the current operating environment--one of which, according to Jeff, is imports. "In our industry, there are a lot of products that are getting knocked off by overseas products" that can be had for a lesser price, he says. It's frustrating, he adds, when so much work is put into getting materials specified only to lose out on a job at the fabricator level because of a cheaper product. "That's the hardest thing: to keep things--from the specifier level all the way down to the end product--the way you'd really like it to flow, the way you'd really like your products to be put in there," Jeff laments. Other challenges he cites include taking care to partner with customers that can pay, that can finance, and that can efficiently run their business; as well as bringing new product to the consumer base. Plunkett Distributing tries to chip away at the educational barrier of new products by getting the word out to end-users at home builder expos and other events. "You can kind of stir up some new interest in products and ideas that maybe [the public] don't get just because they're not going out and pursuing that," Jeff says. "But then they look at it and say 'whoa, that's what I'm looking for, that's really cool, that's what I want.'"
Pounding the pavement, so to speak, at home builder shows is just one example of the hands-on, old-school dynamic that has kept Plunkett going for nearly 70 years. Since their entry-level days at the company, Jeff and Don have watched the company grow from 15-18 employees to nearly 75 now; and the company's second location, in Little Rock, opened in 2005 under their direction. But the brothers are the first to admit that the firm has lagged somewhat in the areas of marketing and technology, although it hasn't hurt it so far. "I guess it's because we've been fortunate that 'boots on the street' and trucks on the road delivering our products have got us where we are," Don concedes. But change is on the horizon. The distribution outfit has been exploring a transition to a paperless environment, and that could happen in the not-too-distant future.
Other modernization efforts are likely to follow. Whatever else lies ahead for Plunkett Distributing, Jeff and Don are sure to make it happen together. Even with Jeff primarily in the Little Rock office and Don holding down the Fort Smith location, the two are in constant communication and even find a way to spend their down time together. With an unshakable bond and fierce commitment to their family's legacy in the building materials distribution channel, they are ever optimistic about the company's, and their own, future. “We look forward to going to work every day; we both love it” Jeff states. “I think if you're going to be good at your job, you have to be passionate about it.”
Less certain is the overall outlook for the industry following a divisive presidential race. It seems the entire country was holding its collective breath during this election cycle, and the distribution channel was no exception. Now that it's finally over, Jeff points out, the new administration's policies will help dictate the industry's mood for the next four years. "Ultimately, our business and our market is centered around the building industry," he explains. "A lot of that stems from what's going on with the economy. If the economy is great, then people are building new schools; they're building new hospitals and new houses. But when it's bad and you're scared about what's going to happen in the world, you tend to hold on to your money a lot more and you don't do anything."