Fourth-generation company creates a passion for plumbing

Mesa, AZ — For some homeowners, plumbing can be seen as an afterthought, as a purely functional tool for delivering water to brush teeth and wash hands.

But to Jeremy Smith, showroom director, Central Arizona Supply, plumbing is much more than that. In fact, he’s even coined a new term – waterware – to give reverence to the prominence he hopes others will also give it.

“‘Plumbing’ doesn’t describe what we do,” he says. “We do something much more special than that.”

Adapt to change

It is passion such as this that keeps the fourth-generation family plumbing wholesale company thriving… recently opening its seventh showroom, a 10,000-sq.-ft. space in Phoenix. The site showcases waterware, hardware and lighting products that range from a $50 faucet to a $5,000 toilet.

Over the course of its 44-year history, the Mesa, AZ-based business has readily adapted to change. In the 1980s, Smith’s father and uncles made the commitment to invest in inventory, offering a breadth of products in much more than basic white and chrome. “They weren’t interested in being the typical wholesaler,” he says. “They have always carried a lot of products in a lot of different finishes, even when the economy has been slow.”

This extensive supply of products is housed in an 80,000-sq.-ft. distribution center in Mesa. “The amount of diverse, in-stock products we carry helps set us apart from a lot of other showroom businesses,” he says. “It gives us a great base, and we’re able to pull and sell products when people need them quickly.”

More recently, the company made another adjustment, one that helped it thrive during the most recent recession.

“Our showroom business was so focused on new construction for so long,” he says, adding that, before the economic downturn, about 90 percent of business at the Scottsdale location was related to new construction. “People would drop off plans with a budget and request a great design. Spec homes sold quickly. Our salespeople had huge leeway. But there wasn’t great collaboration. No one thought they’d be in their homes for very long so they weren’t making design choices for their style. They just didn’t think about it.

“Now there is much more remodeling,” he continues. “People are staying in their homes longer and they want something that they think is beautiful. Our salespeople had to completely change how they did business. Over the last few years, kitchen and bath designers have been brought back into the design process. But for the previous couple of years, people were skimping. That meant our salespeople had to also be designers. They stepped up. That helped us be successful when the economy was rough.”

The company was well positioned for such a transition, given the fact that the bulk of its showroom staff is educated in kitchen and bath design or has a design background. And, while some companies opted to become one-stop shopping venues, Central Arizona Supply stuck to what it does best. “We expanded into new categories where we could, and where it was logical,” he says. “Be we also engaged more in our [core] products to make sure we were the best at what we did, that we were showing the latest products.”

During the slowdown, the company also placed more emphasis on education, bringing in company representatives to provide specific training. They also started to focus more on partnerships with other local family businesses in the design industry, including vendors for appliances, tile, even fencing. “We partnered with everyone,” he says. “Before [the recession], everyone lived in their own world; everyone was so busy. But when the economy slowed down, we would go to their events and they would come to ours. Part of the education was going out and being part of the community, becoming more engaged. Ultimately it has been a good thing.”

More than selecting a faucet

Visitors to each of the company’s seven showrooms will find similarities, and differences.

Similarly, all of the showrooms feature moveable product. “Nothing is bolted to the ground,” he says. “It’s all mobile. You can pull any faucet from any wall and pair it with any sink, which is displayed in its own ‘shadow box’.”

However, each showroom is styled according to its representative location. For example, those in northern Arizona have a more rustic feel, since many clients shop for products for their cabins. Conversely, Scottsdale is more contemporary, while the Phoenix location has a natural feel where one display features reclaimed barn wood that Smith had brought in from an old structure in his family’s home state of Illinois.

“It’s something sentimental to me,” he says, recalling stories he shared with his grandmother regarding the treasure hunt. “It really captures what I want design to be. For me, I want elements that remind me of people and experiences I love.”

That design philosophy bodes well with his passion for the business, and his desire to help people do more than just select a faucet. “So many companies are focused on one type of customer, the one that can give them an expensive sale,” he says. “But I like running the gamut of design. It isn’t necessarily all high end anymore. It used to be that if you wanted something beautiful, you had to spend money. As time has gone on, there are so many economical products that have taken design into new directions. It’s about bringing beautiful, interesting products to a wider range of income levels. The way I see it, I want to get more people to care about having beautiful products they interact with every day.”