General Distributing Company: Three Generations Prove That Obsession Is The Key

15a_gdclogoWelding and industrial, medical and specialty gases distributor General Distributing Company of Great Falls, Montana has evolved since it incorporated in 1948. A “can do spirit” reflected by three generations all named Glenn Bliss have guided the company’s growth. Each of the three generations has exhibited an obsessive commitment to the company’s employees and to its customers.

Shortly after the company’s inception, Glenn Earl Bliss joined General Distributing Company, then a distributor of batteries and tires, as an employee. Located in space of less than 1,500 square feet, Glenn Earl purchased the company in 1957 and immediately added welding equipment and supplies to the company’s product offering.

General Distributing Company
  • President: Glenn W. Bliss
  • Headquarters: Great Falls, Montana
  • Founded: 1948
  • 2001 Sales: $7.3 million
  • Branches: 5
  • Total # Employees: 44
  • Website:

Montana, The Treasure State
To gain a true picture of the success General Distributing Company enjoys, one must consider the geographical territory served. Montana, the fourth largest state in the United States, has a population of only 900,000, largely supported by an agricultural-based economy. Consider the fact that General Distributing Company’s ten outside salespeople drive nearly a half-million miles annually to serve their customers. In a more urban location, a distributor of gases and welding products may make 75-80 deliveries, all within a 15-20 mile radius. People come to Montana because of the big open spaces and the big sky. They are not necessarily seeking urban sprawl and a skyline dotted with smokestacks.

Strategic Locations Support Stable Growth
By the time Glenn Earl’s son, Glenn F. Bliss joined the company in 1971, welding supplies and equipment had grown to be an important niche market. The company’s total sales were a respectable $200,000 annually. Fortunately, Glenn F. Bliss had acquired previous knowledge and experience working in the industry in eastern Washington.

To simplify the logistics of transporting gases from a Linde fill plant located in Butte, Montana (150 miles south of the company headquarters), General Distributing opened a branch next door to Linde’s plant in 1971. To accommodate future growth and an expanded line of welding products, supplies and gases, the company also moved its headquarters to a 3,000 square foot facility, doubling its space. As the company grew, it made sense to add additional branches, locating product and personnel closer to its growing roster of customers. By the mid 1980s, the company had added a branch store in Bozeman, Montana and a fourth location in Helena, Montana.


General Distributing Company headquarters in Great Falls, Montana.

In 1981, General Distributing Company added medical gases to its product offering and moved the company’s headquarters to its current 20,000 square foot location on four acres. An additional 2,000 square foot facility is dedicated to performing warranty repair and service work on all welding and plasma equipment. A more recently opened Billings, Montana branch has helped General Distributing dominate the state of Montana.

According to Glenn W. Bliss (G.W.), appointed president by General Distributing Company’s board of directors in 1999, the company’s growth has been consistent. In 1996, company sales were slightly less than $5 million. 2002 sales are projected to top out at approximately $7.5 million. G.W. says, “I am most proud of the fact that our earnings have averaged double-digit growth since 1996. Neither the State of Montana nor my company experienced the great economic boon of 1997-1999. By the same token we have not been as severely impacted by the economic downturn of 2000-2001. The economy in Montana typically grows at the rate of 1 to 1-1/2 % annually, regardless of what the rest of the country does.”

Diversification: A Key to Success
General Distributing Company’s business is evenly split between gases and welding equipment. The company caters to a mix of industry, agriculture and the medical community which includes many of Montana’s key hospitals. Many laboratories, universities and industrial customers rely on the company’s bulk tanks for the storage of liquid nitrogen and oxygen. A significant part of the company’s growth has been in the area of cryogenics and the sale, installation and service of manifold systems.

Additionally, General Distributing became the first company in the state to own a dedicated beverage CO2 truck over ten years ago. One employee is assigned to the filling and servicing of bulk beverage systems for customers, which include bars, casinos, convenience stores, and some of Montana’s breweries.

Like many small companies, General Distributing prides itself on its ability to be flexible, adjusting to the needs of its customers, responding quickly and efficiently. G.W. Bliss cites the example of the customer who called at 4:00 on a Friday afternoon needing nitrogen on site—that evening. Responding quickly, a nitrogen tanker was loaded and General Distributing’s plant manager and branch manager were on the customer’s site a few hours later, finally leaving the site at 7:30 the next morning.

Welding and Gases: It’s in the Blood
To successfully pass the reins of management to a second generation is no small feat. For a third generation to successfully manage a family-owned company is an even bigger achievement. The third generation business owner must mirror the previous generations’ work ethic and business sense, and most challenging of all, he is charged with growing an already successful company.

Like many others, G.W. worked for the family business as a youngster. He painted and filled cylinders, loaded and unloaded trucks, made deliveries and performed hard manual labor. Attending college on an academic and athletic scholarship, G.W. graduated in 1991from Carroll College in Helena, Montana with two degrees: business and economics. For the next four years, he worked in Seattle, gaining valuable business experience at a regional bank.

His dad, then 48 years old, invited him to return to the company as vice president of operations. G.W. admits, “I grew up in the business, but I had no knowledge of sales or the business side of the industry. My dad made it clear that I would not be collecting a paycheck just because of my last name. Instead, he hand-wrote a job description on a piece of paper, folded it, and told me to grow the business, learn it, and work on a couple of key accounts.”


(Front Row, l-r) President Glenn W. Bliss, Store Manager Eric Bliss, Compliance Officer Tavi Townsend, Plant Manager Ron Fillmore, Office Manager Cindy Wojciechowski, Warehouse Manager Craig Rogers

G.W. approached his job description methodically. Traveling to each branch, he says, “I spent one or two days with each of the company’s 30 employees. I focused on understanding each employee’s job. I knew that if I was going to coach, lead or manage employees, I needed to understand what they did for a living. As a small company, each employee’s job was and remains critical to the company’s success. Every employee has an impact on our success, whether the person is a cylinder filler or an accounts receivable person or an inside salesperson. To gain a better understanding of our products, I met with each of our key suppliers. I also spent time with our customers, the people who pay our bills.”

As the current president of General Distributing Company, G.W. makes it clear that he is not a clone of his father or his grandfather. He explains, “My grandfather’s business philosophy was very simple. He was dedicated to his customers and to his employees. Long-retired employees will stop in and tell me stories about my grandfather’s generosity. One of our customers has told me that he continues to do business with us today, 40 years later, partly because when he was 18 years old my grandfather extended him credit on a handshake. My father’s greatest talent was firmly rooted in his industry knowledge and in his ability to relate to our customers. Customers routinely ask about him, on an almost daily basis.”

G.W. explains, “They were both great leaders, but I did not join the company to be just like them. I’ve explained to veteran employees (some of whom have worked for this company almost as long as I have been on the face of the earth), that whatever you expected out of my dad, don’t necessarily expect me to do the same thing. I don’t necessarily believe in change for change’s sake, but I do believe in thinking about the process of meeting a specific objective and creating improvements when there is an opportunity for one.”

Still, the legacy developed by his father and grandfather is one that can keep any third generation owner awake at night. “I think about what I can do to help make this a better place tomorrow. That concerns me. I always want to be better tomorrow than I was yesterday. I want next year to be better than last year. That’s a lot of pressure.”

Fortunately, G.W. doesn’t stand alone. He expects his employees to actively participate in creating change when it’s needed. “I expect employees to contribute three or four new ideas each year, in order to enhance company operations.” He is also hopeful for the future contributions of another sibling. Of G.W.’s three brothers, one other has joined the family business. Eric Bliss, 28, currently the branch manager of the Great Falls store, has begun placing his stamp on the company’s operations. During his three-year tenure, he has streamlined the company’s purchasing department and is directing the company’s technology effort. Says G.W., “When I joined the company in 1995, we did not own a single personal computer. Eric has been responsible for not only acquiring the necessary hardware and software, but also networking each branch. He has also played a major role in developing and overseeing our Internet presence.”15d_employees2

The Customer Is at the Center of Everything We Do
Considering the fact that the total population in Montana is smaller than in some cities, every single customer counts. General Distributing Company remains focused, concentrating its efforts on maintaining close ties with each prospective and existing customer. Says G.W., “We cherish the customers we already have. We concentrate on providing each customer with more of the products and services they need. That’s the only way we can continue to grow. When visiting a customer, our salespeople have their eyes open and offer the customer our expertise, not just in gases but in abrasives, safety products, maintenance and repair products. It’s not just a matter of offering to sell a widget for five cents less.”

To better serve its vast territory, General Distributing has explored the use of the Internet. The company hopes to make greater use of the Internet as an enhancement to the existing business model of face-to-face contact with customers. A survey of customers indicated that many customers frown upon the loss of face-to-face contact with the salesperson who calls on them every Monday at 2:00 p.m., and has been doing so for the past 15 years. With training, employees will learn to use the Internet to enhance their relationships. While salespeople will never be replaced and face-to-face contact with the customer will continue, technology can in fact bring General Distributing closer to its growing base of customers.

General Distributing Company’s mission is to be the best welding supply distributor in the markets they serve, as determined by their customers. In order to consistently be the best, G.W. believes that it is necessary to communicate constantly with the company’s customers. The company is in the process of establishing a customer council in order to elicit formal feedback regarding the company’s products and services. “The customer is at the center of everything we do,” says G.W. When talking about his customers, he relies on powerful words, peppering his conversation with words like obsessive and passionate. He says, “By using words like passionate and obsessive, we accurately reflect the importance we place on our customer.”

Still, according to G.W., words are only as good as the paper they are printed on. You must practice what you preach. “I think it is absolutely critical that our employees understand and are acutely aware of who their boss is. It’s not me. I am the company’s president, but everybody at this company works for our customers. They are the ones who sign our paychecks every other Friday. And our customers can hire and fire us, at will.”

Customer satisfaction is reflected by General Distributing Company’s growth and retention of quality, qualified employees. The company currently employs 44 individuals, all passionate about earning their customer’s business. G.W. says, “I’ve never had to fire a salesperson or accept a salesperson’s resignation.” While less than 0.5% of employees leave the company annually (other than through retirement), the company has added 13 individuals during the past year. In other words, the company has expanded its workforce by 33% during the past year.

Customer Feedback
How do you communicate with hundreds of customers spanning a region, measuring several thousand square miles? One tool utilized by General Distributing is a professionally crafted survey. Says G.W., “Our purpose was to not only determine what we were doing right, but also to determine what other products and services we could offer our customers. We learned that our customers’ needs have changed during the past ten years. Customers want us to provide them with solutions. Our customers expect us to understand their business and their customers. We must help them to be more efficient, effective, productive and profitable. We need to resolve the issues that keep our customers awake at night.” Again, like the Internet, the written survey will never replace the more informal surveys that take place each week as General Distributing personnel dialog with the company’s customers.

General Distributing Company employees receive an average of 32-56 hours of training annually. Employees receive training that is focused on serving both external and internal customers. The company is currently developing a strategic planning process, establishing 2003 targets. One such target is a minimum of 40 hours spent training annually. G.W. says, “Training is not an expense. It’s an investment.” G.W., together with a human resources manager, is responsible for the company’s training efforts. G.W. continues, “Prior to attending a training school, each employee provides me with a list of his or her goals and objectives. Upon returning from the class, he or she will provide a report detailing a list of what was accomplished, what they learned, and their plans for implementation of what they learned. The report is then signed by the employee. We then discuss these implementation goals during an annual review or on a more informal basis.”

The Future
The third generation of General Distributing Company’s management loves what they are doing. G.W says, “My grandfather and father provided an incredible legacy. As a third generation owner, I must prove to them that they left their legacy in good hands. A lot is expected, and there is no such thing as a free lunch. We have been presented with an unbelievable opportunity. I think this industry is a phenomenal industry and I love the people I work with.”

As a motivator and as a coach, Glenn W. Bliss is a consistent performer. He’s also slightly boastful when he describes his employees. They are the chief contributors to his company’s success. His mission, begun just six years ago to discover what each employee did for a living in order to be a better coach, leader and motivator, is on track. Together, the third generation, along with a group of dedicated achievers, is proving, indeed, that the legacy of this welding and industrial, medical and specialty gases distribution company is in good hands.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association