Distributor Profile: Small But Sturdy — Ohio's MHS Industrial Supply

A dozen employees strong, family-run MHS Industrial Supply continues to grow while pushing its local capabilities in northern-central Ohio.

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When asked if conversations at home naturally drift toward work-related topics, the family foursome of Phil, Ann, Brad and Ashley Downs at MHS Industrial Supply couldn’t help but laugh in affirmation. Comprising one-third of the MHS workforce, it’s expected that thoughts are usually on company matters even while away from its sole facility in Mansfield, OH. According to the group, it’s always been that way.

“When we were growing up, a lot of times at the dinner table, they would be talking about work. We just kind of got used to it,” Brad says about his parents Phil and Ann, who are president and owner of the north-central Ohio full-line industrial distributor, respectively. “It was part of life. We thought that’s how everyone’s dinner table was.”

The family’s history with the company goes back nearly to its beginning in 1940. Ann’s father, Joseph Miller, was hired in 1945 and served as owner and president from 1974 until 1983, turning the business over to his son-in-law and daughter. Phil and Ann Downs have been with MHS a combined 79 years, with Phil joining in 1975 and Ann three years later. Phil became president in 1983, the same year Ann became CEO. Brad, who helps lead sales and marketing efforts, came on in 2012 as the family’s third generation at MHS and Ashley — Phil and Ann's daughter-in-law — came on full-time in 2011 to lead its e-commerce. Beyond that, Phil and Ann’s other son, Jeff, and daughter, Christina, both serve as board directors for MHS.

“I have to give them props,” Ashley says of her in-laws. “Talk does tend to flow towards work because that’s what’s on everyone’s mind, but they do a great job separating family life from business.”

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The Small & Local Advantage

The staff at MHS know their resources don’t compare with that of their big box competitors. Seven companies that made Industrial Distribution’s 2015 Big 50 List are headquartered in Ohio, each raking in at least $143 million in fiscal 2015. The Downs say having so many large distributors nearby makes it more difficult for MHS to call on higher purchasing agents and decision-makers. But with the help of InCom Distributor Supply — the industrial/commercial division of hardware cooperative Do it Best Corp. — MHS remains confident it can compete well alongside the big guys.

“With our InCom connection, we have the same vendors and same competitive pricing,” Phil says. “We can go out in the marketplace and fight on an equal basis with them.”

The Do it Best co-op gives MHS access to hundreds of thousands of products beyond just the estimated 5,500 SKU it has in Mansfield. The company has increased monthly sales by more than 150 percent since joining Do it Best in 1996.

“I don’t think it would be possible for any small, local distributor like us to operate on their own without the help of a buying group or co-op,” Brad adds. “We didn’t have the buying power and relationships with the vendors without a co-op. We really need to take advantage of those relationships.”

Being small also means being nimble, and the Downs say that having local decision-making and being able to get answers to customers quickly is an advantage. In most cases, MHS outside sales reps don’t even have to call the office to make a decision since they have the flexibility to make it on their own. In an emergency, customers in Mansfield can get a MHS product in 10 minutes.

“A lot of customers don’t have time to do a lot of looking for products,” Phil says. “They say, ‘I need this, find it for me, get me three of them.’ And that’s something I think we do very well.”

The tenure of sales staff at MHS is another one of its advantages, as the group has more than 90 years in combined experience. Many salespeople at large distributors are forced to shift accounts as sales teams constantly grow or shrink, whereas customers can expect long relationships with MHS sales members.

“When I first went out on the road 12 years ago I think the No. 1 question customers would ask me was, ‘So are you going to be another one of those salespeople whose here for 6 to 12 months and gone and replaced?’ Ann says before continuing with a laugh. “I’d say, ‘Sorry, but you’re going to have to put up with me for a lot longer than that because I have a vested interest.’

“It means a lot to people to know they have someone who’s dependable.”

A look inside the showroom area of MHS Industrial's Mansfield, OH facility. (ID photo)A look inside the showroom area of MHS Industrial's Mansfield, OH facility. (ID photo) At more than double the size of MHS' old downtown location, the company has plenty of room to grow in its north Mansfield location that it opened in April 2015. (ID photo)At more than double the size of MHS' old downtown location, the company has plenty of room to grow in its north Mansfield location that it opened in April 2015. (ID photo) Id 19156 Img 9689 Id 19161 Milwaukee Id 19166 Img 9687 Id 19171 Shelves

The Big Move

When a family-owned company decides to relocate within a small city after 74 years, it’s a big deal. For MHS, it happened out of necessity after the company had outgrown its downtown location it called home since 1940. Part of it was also out of fear of its freight elevator breaking down after a previous recent oil leak took more than six months to repair. With a lot of inventory on its second, third and fourth levels, and stairs as the only alternative option to reach it, it was Brad who initially suggested finding a new building. That eventually led MHS to its current 40,000 square foot facility in the industrial park on the north end of Mansfield, which is about midway between Columbus and Cleveland. It held its grand opening in April 2015, a few months before the company celebrated its 75-year anniversary that August.

At more than double the space of the old location, the new site leaves MHS with more than enough room to continue growing and places it back in the heart of Mansfield’s manufacturing hub, which moved north away from downtown over the years. Phil says counter traffic has doubled since the move.

Having all inventory now on a single floor has made moving product around easier and more efficient than before. The company has already expanded its showroom since moving in, and the extra space has allowed MHS to add customer warehousing as a new service.

“If there’s a product a customer can buy a truckload of and get better pricing, we can warehouse it here for them and they can just pick it up as needed,” Ann says.

Having abundant floor space has allowed MHS to host its annual Customer Appreciation Day inside the facility — something it couldn’t do downtown. Its 15th event is coming up this July 21st. The company expects to host as many as 150 customers, who get a free lunch and a chance to gain face-to-face time with MHS staff and 15 manufacturers.

Along with the increased logistics capabilities, the Downs say the new facility has done wonders to help MHS’ overall perception to its customers. Brad adds with a laugh. “People still walk in and say, ‘Wow. This is a really nice building.”

Many Hats

Individual employees at larger companies typically have individual roles. A CFO is a CFO and a salesperson is a salesperson. But with a headcount of only 12, many of MHS’ employees — the Downs included — have to take on multiple roles. Along with the title of owner and vice president, Ann Downs is an outside sales rep. Phil handles treasurer duties in addition to being president.

“It’s challenging at times when you’re trying to wear handle a lot of different hats,” Ann Downs says. “But our team does everyone does a great job of it and is willing to do whatever is needed to make us successful.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody here say, ‘That’s not my job,’” Phil adds. “It just doesn’t happen.”

The family says if anything, the opposite happens where an employee ends up doing someone else’s job a little differently. But overall, everyone keeps the same ‘pitching in’ mindset.

The average tenure among MHS’ dozen employees is 15 years. Within the next decade, almost half of them will be eligible for retirement. Brad says succession planning has become a priority for the company to ensure that future turnover will go smoothly.

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Services & Online

Along with selling products across featured categories of abrasives, cutting tools, hardware, paint and supplies, power and hand tools and safety products, MHS offers free and same-day delivery, tool repair, sling inspections and vendor support. Beyond that, MHS has an impressive online element. Its website offers fully-functioning e-commerce, something that isn’t so common among distributors of their stature. Its website was just an informational page before Ashley joined and brought the company fully online with e-commerce in March of 2012.

“It was a way to expand the business outside of Mansfield. It’s a way to get our fingers in business outside of where our sales reps can reach here locally,” Ashley says.

She adds that through the co-op, the company’s e-commerce site lists about 100,000 products as of early June. Its online presence has helped MHS grow its reach, with customers now in 46 states and three countries. While e-commerce represents only 2 to 2.5 percent of MHS’ total sales, it’s helped draw more eyes to the company.

“I think it’s good for our local customers for basic exposure,” Ashley says. “They may not be using that channel to buy, but with a few clicks they can see, ‘oh, they don’t sell just gloves.’”

Exposure

MHS may be just a single-location, 12-employee distributor in northern Ohio, but its efforts certainly haven’t gone unnoticed. In recent years, the company has received awards on the local and national levels. In December 2015, MHS received the Richland Area Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business of the Year award for businesses with 14 employees or less. This past February, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce named MHS a winner of its annual DREAM BIG Blue Ribbon Small Business Award, given to 100 companies nationwide for success and contributions to America’s growth and vitality. Do it Best also recently chose MHS as one of its six customers to highlight in its 2016 annual report.

“The first 75 years we might get an award here or there, mostly purchasing related,” Brad says. “This past year, with the grand opening, the rewards and recognition, our local newspaper and media, it’s been surreal.”

This story originally appeared in Industrial Distribution's July/August print edition. Click here to view the full digital edition.

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