Cover Story: The Heart of Texas: Fort Worth Bolt & Tool

Fort Worth Bolt & Tool  adds e-commerce to  customer relationships

By Tom Hammel

Photos: Gary Logan

Maybe it’s because Texas is so large that people here are so emotionally invested in their towns and teams — belonging grounds them and gives them roots in the immense expanses. That sense of belonging is a wonderful thing — unless you are a newcomer trying to open shop.

“Dallas and Fort Worth used to be two different types of towns, and to an extent still are today,” observes Terry Earle, chief operating officer of Fort Worth Bolt & Tool, and STAFDA’s incoming 2016  president. “When you owned a business in one town, it was hard to do business in the other.”  

“As important as technologies are to these new non-face-to-face business relationships, this is still a relationship business.”  
 — Terry Earle, COO/sales manager

Fort Worth Bolt & Tool’s owners, the Russell family, solved this problem by giving each new branch a different name. Denton Tool & Fastener serves Denton, Texas, and Commercial Tool & Fastener (presumably because the name “Dallas Tool” was taken at the time) serves the Dallas area.

Business cards and the corporate website list them all together, but each branch operates under its own identity in its “home town.”

Today, the distinction between Dallas and Fort Worth is blurring as new subdivisions, business parks and schools consume the open spaces between, but community-based names like Fort Worth Bolt & Tool and Denton Tool satisfy the “home team” requirements of contractors who like their suppliers local.

A name like Denton Tool also sets that branch apart from larger “Brand X” national competitors who may move into town to test the waters.

What’s in a Sign?
“Our now-deceased owner, Jim Russell, who bought the company in 1976, had a real belief in Fort Worth and in being part of this community,” Earle observes. “He lived here, raised his family here and grew his  business here. The sign in front of this building is the same one our company has used since 1949.”

Ironically, although the iconic porcelain sign has survived more than 65 scorching Texas summers, it almost fell prey to a building code.  When the company moved to its current location three years ago, it found that signage codes had changed.

“When we moved the business, we brought the sign over here, but the new city code says that a sign cannot hang more than three feet off any building. We went through several levels of city inspectors for permission but struck out until we reached two senior code department officials. “‘I know that sign!’ they both said. ‘That sign is a landmark.’ They made an exception to the code for our sign and there it hangs today, right outside.”

Fusing Old and New
As much as that sign over the door is an icon of old-time value and stability, Earle also knows that if you aren’t moving forward, you are falling behind. Today more than ever, efficient, agile business systems are critical to competitive viability.

After using its system for more than a decade, Fort Worth Bolt and Tool decided to invest in one with more desirable functionalities. Last fall, after researching the field and seeking advice from other distributors, the company chose Epicor Prophet 21. A well-known P-21 user helped clinch the decision.

“I talked to Mark Beerman quite a bit about it,” Earle explains. “He is president of Beerman Precision in New Orleans and was STAFDA president in 2000. He has been on the Prophet 21 advisory board and worked with them to design some functions for distributors.”

After Fort Worth Bolt & Tool went live with the system in October 2014, Beerman visited the company and spent a few days working with different departments. Earle credits Beerman with helping Fort Worth employees accelerate their skill and comfort levels and reduce some of the inevitable resistance, which they in turn used to allay customer concerns as well.

“People don’t like change,” Earle states. “Employees will say, ‘I liked it the way it was.’ And when you’re making a conversion this large, there are a lot of adjustments to make.”

Trying Times
The early days of such transitions are trying times. A manager must keep his employees from revolting during the initial transition all while keeping the bigger picture in mind — the larger challenges the new system must prepare his people to meet.  

One fundamental change that is impacting the distribution channel is the mobile revolution in information access and ordering capability — and its accompanying acceleration of the order and delivery cycle. By making it easier to price-shop, the Internet is also commoditizing more product categories.

Virtual Competitors
The online “experience” is also removing the human service component from many transactions and, as Amazon begins offering same-day delivery in certain markets, delivery expectations are raised for all players. Service-oriented businesses are being threatened by the addictive ease of anonymous purchasing.

“These fundamental changes are very important,” Earle observes. “We upgraded our system to Prophet 21 for that reason. We’re upgrading our website and investing in other new technologies to meet these challenges. But the other side of this is that every day, we need to be able to answer that phone, meet those customers at the counter and advise them, treat them properly, make them feel good about buying from us and give them the support that they’re not going to get online.”

“I learned very early in this business that customer service is extremely important. I watch that part of our business very carefully because I believe our most important differentiator is the service that we bring to our customer.”

In a strategic balancing act between known and unknown adversaries, Earle and Fort Worth Bolt & Tool is also focusing on its “blocking and tackling,” the fundamentals of building and nurturing relationships and ensuring speedy, accurate deliveries — while simultaneously investing in systems to enable its salespeople to connect with and serve less relationship-based customers on their own, admittedly, hands-off terms.

“The amount of information we process each day has increased dramatically while customer contact has decreased. buyers today are under immense pressure and must budget their time carefully.”
— Buddy White,
outside sales

A Name Without a Face
“For every customer with whom my salesperson has that face to face relationship, there’s probably a person or agent behind him who just wants to do it all online: ‘I don’t want to talk to you about the Dallas Cowboys; just let me place my order and get it to me,’ is what we hear,” Earle says.

Fort Worth Bolt & Tool salesman Buddy White knows the feeling well. With more than two decades of experience selling to and serving Fort Worth Bolt & Tool customers, he faces the challenge of the no-relationship-needed customer every day. An old-school salesman wouldn’t recognize today’s industry, he says.

“The pace of this industry has increased so dramatically it is incredible,” White says. “When I started in sales, salesmen would go sit in a guy’s office, have a cup of coffee and chew the fat for 30 minutes, then go to the next place and do it over again. The amount of information we process each day has increased
dramatically while customer contact has decreased. Buyers today are under immense pressure and must budget their time carefully.”

In industrial plants, White has shifted his focus to the plant floor, supervising VMI programs and working with supervisors.

“Today I spend a lot more time out in the plant dealing with supervisors on different lines than I do with buyers. I meet with buyers on strategic pricing issues and new products, but I do most of my work in the plant.”

The Human Element
Through it all, White and his fellow salespeople continue to work on building relationships. The battle for the hearts and minds of customers is more critical today than ever as independent distributors are pressured by big boxes on one side and national distributors on the other.

“The national MRO firms have had the same impact on us on the industrial side that the big boxes had on the contractor side,” White observes. “The buying and selling power, marketing campaigns, e-commerce tools and people that they can
assemble are a real challenge for us. In the end, though, I believe we can provide the best overall value to the customer. I love to watch a little bird picking on a big bird while he is poking along through the air. The little bird wins with speed and agility. Many of us here have been working together for a long time. We understand how to work as a team and that makes us efficient.”

Receiving manager Darla Mulden has been with the company for over 20 years and personifies the kind of dedicated long-term professionals who serve Fort Worth Bolt & Tool’s customers.  

Now, independents are being challenged on a third front, the Internet. How do you demonstrate your value to a customer who has never spoken to you and doesn’t care if he ever does? Where is the magic bullet to pierce the armor of anonymity?

“The younger generation of buyers is just different,” White observes. “For example, instead of calling you for a quote, they might send you a text with a product they found online and ask how your price compares. They have done research, and they don’t need you to drop a brochure on their desk. I look for opportunities to serve buyers and solve problems for them. That seems to be where the lasting relationships begin. You develop a mutual appreciation and respect for each other.”

The Service Model
Fort Worth Bolt & Tool services include VMI, kitting and even importing products for specific customers. Ironically, The Home Depot is the end-user for one of Fort Worth Bolt & Tool’s imported products, a wheeled assembly for sliding merchandiser racks in Home Depot garden departments.

Fort Worth Bolt & Tool also imports custom hardware products for some customers, also door handles and hinge components, along with other assembly parts for a major refrigeration manufacturer that serves the restaurant industry.  

The Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex is home to authorized repair centers for most major brands, so Fort Worth Bolt & Tool does not need to offer tool repair. But it does offer customers the rental option via a subsidiary company, FWB Rentals, which has branches in Fort Worth, Carrollton and Austin.  

“FWB Rentals works mostly the electrical/mechanical sides of the business,” Earle explains. We don’t rent sky tracks and telehandlers; we basically concentrate on Greenlee, Burndy, Ridgid and Sumner products for our electrical mechanical contractor customers. That’s our forte and we do well within that area.”

Earle estimates that industrial customers make up 65 percent of Fort Worth branch customers. This percentage flips in Dallas, where upwards of 70 percent of the branch business is in construction products. The Denton store is evenly split between the two groups. While sales percentages by branch differ, the line card is basically the same.

"The key is hiring good people. really interview and make sure you hire good, qualified, goal-oriented people who want to grow with the company.”
 — Kenny Woodward, operations manager

Kenny Woodward, operations manager, oversees all three branches, runs the warehouses and supervises the company’s warehouse staff of 20 people, 15 of whom work here in the Fort Worth main branch, which does roughly 80 percent of the ordering for the company.  

“Our branch managers can buy their own product if they need it, but the majority of it does come out of Fort Worth,” Woodward explains. “Some product goes directly to the branches, but the majority comes into Fort Worth and then gets sent out on transfers. We go to both branches pretty much daily.”

What the Customer Wants . . .
As the demands of Fort Worth Bolt & Tool’s main industrial and construction customers have quickened, Woodward and his team keep apace.

“As Terry mentioned, we’re more industrial over here in Fort Worth, so next-day delivery has always been pretty much the standard for us,” Woodward says. “Over in Dallas, because they’re more construction oriented, probably 60 percent of their deliveries are same-day. The construction industry requires that — they need their stuff and they need it now.”

When asked if Austin might be in line for a future branch, especially since FWB Rentals is already established there, Earle smiles.

“Perhaps,” he says diplomatically, “but right now we are concentrating on the fundamentals; getting everything operating smoothly in our existing branches with Prophet 21 and our Internet enhancements. Then we will start looking at other areas for growth.”

Fort Worth Bolt & Tool at a Glance

Founded: 1949
Ownership: Privately held
Headquarters:  Fort Worth, TX
Branches: Dallas (Commercial Tool & Fastener), Denton (Denton Tool & Fastener) and Fort Worth, TX
Facility: Fort Worth branch: 42,000 square feet total, including 30,000-square-foot warehouse and 2,200-square-foot showroom, on 2 acres of land
Employees: 60 total, including 7 outside sales, 9 inside sales and 7 counter sales
Subsidiaries: FWB Rentals, with branches in Fort Worth, Carrollton and Austin, TX.
Markets: Industrial/MRO and construction, mechanical and electrical, utilities, oil and gas, facilities, safety, city and municipal, drywall, roofing and metal fabrication
Advertisers in this Issue: Channellock, Coleman Cable/Southwire, DeWalt, Intertape Polymer Group,   Makita, PIP Protective Industrial Products, Powers Fasteners, Reed, RIDGID, Simpson Strong-Tie, Stanley, Surface Shields, Union Tools

Line Card: 3M, Champion Cutting Tool, Channellock, Coleman Cable/Southwire, Cooper Tools, DeWalt, Energizer, Ergodyne, Generac, Greenlee, Gregory, Grey Pneumatic, Guardian Fall Protection, Intertape Polymer Group, Irwin, ITW Buildex/Ramset/Red Head, Jackson Safety, Klein Tools, Knaack, Krylon, LiftAll, Lenox, Loctite, Louisville Ladder, Makita, MasterLock, MCR Safety, Metabo, Metacaulk, Mill-Rose, Milwaukee Tool, Norton Abrasives, PHS Industries, PIP, Powers Fasteners, Radians, Rectorseal, Red Devil, Reed, Relton, Ridgid, Rubbermaid, Simpson Strong-Tie, Stanley Proto, STI Firestop, Sumner, Surface Shields, Union Tools, Wesanco, Wheeler Rex, Wright Tool
Affiliations: STAFDA, Evergreen Marketing Group

. . . And What the Customer Needs
This focus on fundamentals and strong relationships applies to vendors too.

“This company has been built around that loyalty, that home town feeling,” Earle continues. “Fort Worth Bolt and Tool, Commercial Tool and Denton Tool are very well known. Mr. Russell built this company on those standards and they permeate our relationships with our customers, employees and manufacturers. Our customers have been buying their preferred brands products from us for decades; they know they can trust us and our manufacturers to deliver quality products — and quality service when they need it.”

Fort Worth Bolt & Tool’s emphasis on enduring relationships covers the entire company from its management and office to its sales people, delivery drivers and the warehouse staff.

“From the warehouse perspective, the key is hiring good people,” Woodward adds. “Really interview and make sure you hire good, qualified, goal-oriented people who want to grow with the company. Many workers just want to come in and get a paycheck, so if you can find people who care about what they do and want to grow, then you can be confident that will do a better job of pulling and keeping the place clean and respecting their work environment.”

“Personally, I am focusing not so much on ‘going back to the basics’ as I am on ‘building on the basics,’’ Earle emphasizes. “As important as technologies are to these new non-face-to-face business relationships, this is still a relationship business.

"Yes, we need to have the technologies in place to serve those customers who don’t require a personal relationship right now but we will still work to develop our relationship-based service capabilities for when the time comes that they need that relationship. I hope I don’t see that go away in my lifetime.”

“I believe there’s still a need for us to put people out there who have knowledge, experience and passion for this industry and who can bring that to the customer,” Earle concludes. CS

Terry Earle, 2016 STAFDA President

Like every distributor before him who has become STAFDA president, Terry Earle is excited by the opportunities for learning that the position will bring, but he also has his personal platforms for his presidency. One of these is focusing attention on the industry’s need to attract and retain new generations of professionals.

“I look at our industry and the talk I hear within STAFDA and Evergreen about the importance of bringing youth into this business and I believe we have a real struggle ahead of us,” Earle states. “How how do attract young professionals and make them passionate about careers in distribution?”

“I believe we have to continue to focus on the fundamentals of teaching, training and instilling in them the importance of relationships. As employers it is up to us to provide them with a environment that they want to work and grow in. What I see is that they want those things — they want to teach, help and grow.”

Earle also wants to work with STAFDA members on strategies to meet the ongoing challenges of industry consolidation and competition from ever larger competitors.  

“We see distributors and suppliers acquiring more companies all the time and increasing the pressures on small independents,” Earle says. “Will this entire industry end up with 10 big manufacturers and 10 big distributors? I sincerely hope not. Here at Fort Worth Bolt & Tool, we have three locations, and we are continually asking ourselves, ‘How many more of these larger companies will keep coming into areas like ours? How do we stay viable?’”

“I think a lot of distributors like us feel that one way to combat that is to continue to grow into new markets and services. So we invest in new technologies, improve our business and ERP systems, build our websites and e-commerce capabilities, open new branches and work to attract the next generation of professionals. I believe combinations of those tools will help us continue to enhance our value to our existing customers, attract new ones and prepare us to meet the next challenges, whatever forms they may take.”  CS