Lighting On Tap

Whether customers come in to replace a soap dispenser or to completely renovate a master bath, they’re treated as if they are the most important people to have ever walked through PDI’s doors.

Imagine packing a bathing suit when shopping for a clawfoot tub, jetted whirlpool, steam shower, body spray, or shower head — then being served a meal afterwards — all as part of a complimentary private appointment with no minimum order or strings attached. That’s just the sort of convenience and personal attention that Plumbing Distributors Inc. (PDI) is known for offering its customers.

Providing an incredible shopping experience is the bedrock on which PDI was founded in the early 1970s, when the late Glad Mealor and a business partner established PDI in Lawrenceville, Ga., and hired two more employees — including Glad’s son Sid — to help. The counter/supply business grew slowly but steadily out of its approximately 20,000-sq.-ft. space (the showroom was roughly 5,000 square feet). When you’re too new to have access to major brands, becoming an overnight success just isn’t possible.

“Since he didn’t have big names to attract customers [in the early days], Glad knew he needed to offer more than just product,” explains W. Coley Herrin, PDI’s President/CEO. That “something more” was supreme service.

“Even today, customers can buy these – or similar – products anywhere. How we differentiate ourselves is by offering a great experience,” Herrin notes. If a person walks in with a problem that PDI’s associates are able to solve – yet it doesn’t lead to a sale – that interaction is still a success because the customer came through PDI’s doors with a challenge and left satisfied. History has shown that they will most likely return at a later date – and become loyal to PDI – because of that initial contact.

“We believe in letting our customers see and experience a product before they buy it, such as the tubs and showers as well as the mirror TVs. We want them to fully understand the product,” comments Fielding Alderman, General Manager of PDI. For that reason, the company invested in building a working shower experience, where the plumbing is connected so customers can see how a variety of sprays, jets, and showerheads work in real life. 

Company Culture

Although Herrin has honed his career in the plumbing business – working for Spurlin Industries and Apex Supply before joining PDI in 1999 – industry experience is not mandatory. “We interview and hire based on our core values, which are Accountability, Commitment, Flexibility, Integrity, Loyalty, and Teamwork.” Herrin states. “We tell every new employee at orientation that we’ve hired them because we believe they possess those core values. These are attributes you can’t teach someone; for everything else, there’s training.”

“We hold new employee orientation in groups approximately every quarter, where we tell them the history of the company as well as our expectations,” Alderman says. “We also tell them we’re excited that they have something [i.e. an asset] to add to the PDI family. Above all, ‘family’ is important to us.”

That family atmosphere is also taken literally; one of the 256 employees – spanning 8 showrooms throughout Georgia and one in Nashville – has been with the company for 42 years and many others have spouses, siblings, and nieces/nephews at PDI. In fact, Lyn Wright, chairman of the board, grew up working at her father’s business after school and later joining full-time after graduating from University of Georgia with a degree in Marketing. 

PDI also recruits at the college level – participating in Career Day events at local universities – and regularly hosts an intern program. Part of the company culture is that everyone experiences what the other departments are doing. “We want everyone to spend some time in every area of the company, so they can see how their job affects others,” Herrin states. “They come out with a different view of the department or job than they had when they came in. It helps us all work together as a team.”

Another unique aspect is the executive team’s willingness to help an employee reach whatever goal he/she might have in mind. “You may come into PDI as a member of the Accounting team, but if your desire is to be in Sales, we’re going to help you get there,” Herrin says.

Alderman agrees, adding, “If you have an idea for an opportunity [that you want to try], we will do whatever we can to help.”

One thing you won’t find employees doing is measuring themselves against the competition. “We just focus on being the best we can,” Herrin comments. “We don’t worry about things we can’t control. All we can do is take care of each customer the best we can. We grew through the Recession and came out the other side of it by doing just that.”

Lighting Gathers Steam

While plumbing comprises the lion’s share of the core business, the lighting category has been steadily increasingly. Each showroom has a designated lighting section, however, those galleries are becoming more decorative. For the grand opening of the lighting gallery at the headquarters location in Lawrenceville last month, decorative accessories and vignettes played a large part in the presentation, which is headed by Krista Swiss, Merchandising Manager/Showrooms. “I wanted the lighting gallery to have a very clean, open look,” she states. To that end, she eschewed the ubiquitous ceiling clouds and instead wired flush-mounts and other decorative fixtures directly to the ceiling. Fixtures are grouped by finishes within each product category, and great attention is placed on giving the customer’s eye plenty of room to “rest” and take it all in without glare or clutter.

The lighting selection for each PDI showroom is tailored to the clientele it serves. Lawrenceville is seen as more Transitional, while the downtown Atlanta location skews more high-end, the McDonough store is more rural, and the Nashville showroom has a vibe all its own. It is Swiss’ job to keep the merchandising consistent throughout each branch location, while still holding true to the overall integrity of the corporation.

“Our biggest concern is our distribution and getting the products to our customers quickly. We’ve never looked at private labeling or importing; that’s our vendors’ job. We know our role,” Herrin says. “We take our partnerships very seriously,” Alderman adds.

“It’s not my decision what goes on our store shelves; it’s our customers’ decision,” Herrin remarks. “We want them to be able to visualize the space in their homes,” Alderman comments. “We’d like to be our customers’ end stop.”

Part of that approach is to spend time with each customer, assessing his/her needs. PDI’s Corporate Showroom Trainer Tiffany Barker explains, “When someone comes in to replace a toilet, we ask who it will be used by – perhaps a small child who is being potty-trained, or maybe for an aging in place situation for an In Law Suite – and we talk about their lifestyle. We don’t just think about their immediate need, but take into account future needs down the road.”

“We want our customers’ experience to be so great that when their neighbors ask where they got their beautiful bathroom/kitchen fixtures or that they love their powder room, the neighbor will say, “If you want the best experience, you need to go to PDI,” Alderman says.

Barker explains, “Remodeling is stressful enough on homeowners. We want to make the selection process easy.” Alderman adds, “And we want to make it fun.”

“We want to treat every customer as if they are spending their life’s savings on their dream home, and we want to dream with them and show them what’s possible,” Herrin points out. “We want them to walk out of here seeing something they’ve never known even existed.”

Fortunately one of the reasons PDI can effectively show incredibly innovative products is because of the vendor relationships they’ve maintained. For example, PDI is a Kohler Signature Showroom and offers access to product lines and styles that aren’t widely available at the average home center or plumbing store.

Everyone Is Welcome

While you don’t have to be a builder, interior designer, or kitchen and bath specialist to shop at PDI, all of those professions are welcome. The company is a member of the local chapters of NKBA, Forte, NAHB, NARI, Atlanta Apartment Association, ASA, SWA, PMA, PHCC, and ASID. The training room – which can easily seat 100 people – is open for meetings and CEU-accredited seminars for these communities.

Training its own employees as well as related professions is especially important these days as smart technology invades nearly every category of home design. In fact, when the Recession hit, then-chairman Sid was adamant that two departments of the company would not be touched in fiscal trimming: Training and Marketing.

Just as product technology has evolved over the years, so have the marketing initiatives. “We don’t do billboards or ads on the radio, but you can find us almost anywhere else digitally now, such as blogs and social media,” says Meredith Fingarson, head of Marketing & PR for PDI.

“Our goal for 2017 has been that everyone on staff receives 40 hours of training this year,” Herrin comments. Part of that training includes programs offered by the American Lighting Association. “We believe in investing in our employees and we’ve seen a good response to it. There are more products, competition, and technology in the industry than ever before, and our employees want to learn all they can,” Herrin affirms. 

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