Russell Duncan founded the company in 1936, and the Duncan family still owns it. When Fine joined the company in 1974 to help with Duncan Supply's books, the company was comprised of its Indianapolis headquarters and branches in Champaign, IL, and Muncie, IN.

There's nothing fancy about what makes Duncan Supply Company, Inc., work, says Rick Fine, president of the 70-year-old company based in Indianapolis. Success in the business is a matter of going to work every day and taking care of their customers. This plain-spoken, no-nonsense way of doing business may seem decidedly old school to some, but contractors and businesses throughout central Indiana and Illinois wouldn't want it any other way.

These contractors count on the technical and institutional knowledge of Duncan Supply's 100 employees to provide them with products and expertise to complete their HVAC and refrigeration jobs. While the company's seemingly old-school values continue to guide the company today, Fine's team of employees ensures the company maintains a competitive edge in a competitive market.

“Everyone decided that this was a good business to be in, for some reason,” Fine says. “There are so many distributors now in the HVAC market that have a line of equipment, but there aren't many that do refrigeration like we do.” Its refrigeration and industrial HVAC products and services make up a majority of the company's work, and Duncan Supply counts school systems, hospitals and major corporations as well as contractors among its customers.

Russell Duncan founded the company in 1936, and the Duncan family still owns it. When Fine joined the company in 1974 to help with Duncan Supply's books, the company was comprised of its Indianapolis headquarters and branches in Champaign, IL, and Muncie, IN.

Since then, the company has added five branches in Indiana to protect its business from the growing competition of larger distributors and national chains. This has been especially important for Duncan's refrigeration business. “If we didn't expand, the encroachment of the competition was really going to eat us up,” Fine says.

Fine relies on his employees to make sure that Duncan Supply continues to stand out from the competition. With in-house engineering as well as services such as design and build, system sizing and layout, and AutoCad capability, the company has developed a well-earned reputation as a supply house that's more than just a supply house.

The technical expertise of Duncan Supply employees to perform these services sets the company apart. They have worked consistently during the years to build and maintain this expertise within the company. “There's very little turnover at our counters and in our warehouse,” he says. “Over time, we've developed a pretty good core group of people throughout our eight stores that have become teams.”

Whether it's the guys in the warehouse, behind the counter or on the roads, longevity leads to expertise in certain products and segments. Fine says Duncan Supply won't assign an employee to become an expert in a particular area; the employees do it on their own. “Especially at the counters, the guys will take a particular interest in different product segments, whether it's motors or compressors or ice machines,” he says. “That person then becomes the go-to guy in that niche. When we see somebody excel, then we try to get them to learn even more about that.” This leads to a domino effect. Motivated employees create other motivated employees — everyone wants to be known as the “go-to guy” for something. “I think that our counters are known for being more technically adept,” Fine says.

Continual training is an essential part of working for Duncan Supply. You can count on NATE-certified training every other week at one of the branches, and Counter Days are important ways to educate employees and contractors. Not only do the counter- people get the technical training, but they develop relationships with the manufacturers' reps and the contractors. Having such a relationship pays off when issues or questions arise.

When a team is working well, Fine knows the best thing to do is stay out of the way and let the employees do their jobs. He says the department heads and managers take care of the day-to-day business. With seven branches and a headquarters that also houses the eighth store, Fine cannot be everywhere at once. He says he tries to get to the branches as often as he can and enjoys the interaction with the counter- people and the customers. He'll even pitch in when the counter gets busy, especially in the summer when the Indianapolis counter is “like the Board of Trade,” he says.

“I can't micromanage from here,” he says, referring to his office in Indianapolis. “My whole job is to augment what everyone else is doing. I'm their slave, and hopefully they're telling me what they need, and I'm communicating information back that helps them.” His role, he says, is to take care of the small stuff. “When you take care of the details, you mitigate the bigger problems. And when they do arise, they're easier to take care of,” he says, paraphrasing an old adage he learned from Ken Duncan, who was active with the company for about 50 years.

Duncan Supply has no formal customer service training program. Instead, the company relies on its employees and the managers to ensure that customers receive fair treatment and handle orders correctly. Fine also keeps a watchful eye and a close ear on things. “That's one of those details,” he says. “My door is always open. If I hear something I don't particularly like, we'll try to correct it and take care of it.”

One of the strategies that Fine successfully employs is a monthly internal newsletter. It's nothing flashy, but it's a newsletter that comes from the president and that carries some weight. In each issue, Fine explains how the company did the previous month and describes any product changes or other information that will better help the employees do their jobs. While taking the time to communicate is often difficult, he acknowledges, it's essential to let employees know that they're part of a team and show the good things that are taking place.

Getting the information on what's happening in the field is the job of Duncan Supply's outside sales team of 14 people. They act as the eyes and ears of the company, working with contractors and HVAC and refrigeration customers, all the while feeding that information back to the branches.

Because HVAC contractors are different from refrigeration and industrial contractors, Duncan Supply divides these two businesses. Randy Roberson is the sales and product manager on the HVAC side, while Dick McClure is the sales manager on the refrigeration and industrial side. Each team has its own strategies for going into these markets. “I trust them to do what it takes and communicate back to me to redirect the ship when necessary,” Fine says.

Each branch, like each market, is different and has developed its own personality and its specialties over time, Fine says. The people who manage and operate the store ultimately “create” the branch culture. After all, Fine says, before the company could open a branch, it had to find the people to run them, and those people are what drive the business in the particular markets. “The people have to come first, and then you can build the store around that and what they know about the market,” he says.

Technical expertise and experience, however, also have their costs. Duncan Supply's employee costs to net income are probably higher than its competitors, and the company does not have the reputation as the cheapest supply house in the area, Fine says, although the company does remain competitive on the commodity items. At a time when contractors are much more price- conscious and customer loyalty is waning, that can be an issue.

But contractors also understand that few wholesalers offer them everything they need to do a job correctly — from the technical expertise to more than 16,000 items in stock and OEM replacement parts. Duncan Supply maintains relationships with more than 200 vendors, and Fine says the company is continually looking at ways to keep costs down. Duncan Supply is a member of the Key Wholesale Buying Group, which he says helps independent wholesalers like Duncan with vendor programs as well as with communication among the companies.

The company also is more involved with e-commerce than ever before. On its website (www.duncansupply.com), contractors can log on to the secure access portion to purchase and track their online orders, access real-time pricing and inventory status, and review their account history. Old-fashioned values, after all, mean doing right by the customer. Today, customers increasingly demand 24/7 access, and Duncan is giving them what they want.

Being a medium-sized HVAC distributor is becoming more of a rarity. “It's a challenge for the smaller wholesalers to eke out the margins that are necessary to survive,” Fine says. “Consolidation among the bigger distributors remains an issue for the smaller ones.” The company's involvement with the buying group and its membership in HARDI help Duncan Supply feel not so alone. Fine, who serves as secretary-treasurer of the HARDI Great Lakes region and a director on the national board, says HARDI “is a wealth of information and knowledge” that has helped him, his employees and the company.

Loyalty to its employees is something that is still very much part of the Duncan Supply creed. “What we try to not lose focus of here is something that the Duncan family instilled in me, and to be as fair as possible and take care of the employees even in years that are marginal, Fine says. “Never lay anybody off and always try to give a pay increase.” In turn, he adds, the employees are expected to come to work every day and do their jobs. It's a simple proposition that has worked well for 70 years.

Duncan Supply Company, Inc., at a Glance

President & CEO Rick Fine
Vice President Tim Hunter
Sales Directors Dick McClure and Randy Roberson
Headquarters Indianapolis, IN
Operations/Branches 7 stores in Indiana, 1 in Illinois
Employees 100
Major Product Lines York, Emerson Climate, Sporlan, Scotsman, Everpure, Bohn, Russell, Honeywell, Hart & Cooley, Southwark
Annual Sales $30M

BEST PRACTICE

Definition and Example: Refrigeration system design, layout and troubleshooting. Produce warehouse systems to low-temperature process refrigeration, which we can design per need.

Significance: Contractors have access to complete system needs from load calculations and design to delivery of all required mechanical aspects.

Benefits: Troubleshooting of existing systems can lead to new, replacement or redesign and upgrade.

People Involved: All store personnel can direct the customer to someone capable of solving their individual need.

Cost: No additional cost for troubleshooting or design if we provide product desired.

Contact: Any store counter person or salesperson. For more information, contact Rick Fine at 317/634-1335 or rickfine@duncansupply.com.

Michael Maynard is a business writer in Providence, RI, who writes about HVAC, construction and architecture. Contact him at michael. maynard@lycos.com.