Commonwealth Supply Company

Former roadie brings experience and wisdom to GAWDA’s Board of Directors.

Bob Ames didn’t set out for a career in welding and industrial, medical and specialty gases. It all happened by accident. He originally set out to be an accountant. Now, 33 years later, Ames is a seasoned industry veteran. “I’ve just been a hard-working independent businessman all my life,” he says. From increasing his customer base as a manufacturer’s rep to expanding the company of which he is now part owner and executive vice president, Ames makes things happen. “It’s about having the right attitude,” he explains. “You’ve got to have the right attitude no matter what you do, and if you have that, you can build anything.”

COMPANY SNAPSHOT
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Year Founded: 1962

Headquarters: York, Pennsylvania

President: Mary Shanaman

Branches: Hanover, Pennsylvania

Employees: 23

Web Site: www.commonwealthsupply.com

Opportunity Knocks
When Clare Reinecke formed York, Pennsylvania-based Commonwealth Supply Company in 1982, he hoped to create a welding distribution business, but because of the number of existing distributors in York, wasn’t sure it would work. His great vision and background directed him instead into the welding and gas manufacturing business. When Air Products & Chemicals and Hobart Welding Products closed stores in the area, Reinecke made arrangements with the two to continue to serve the York area through his company. These manufacturers were the company’s two primary lines for the first four years. With limited offerings and six employees, Reinecke explored new ways to grow his business. He also wanted a succession plan.

At an American Welding Society meeting, Reinecke approached Bob Ames, a salesman for welding electrodes and wire manufacturer Teledyne McKay. “He asked me to visit his company,” Ames says. “I assumed he wanted to pick up the line I was selling.” Little did Ames know he would receive the opportunity of a lifetime. Following a tour of Commonwealth Supply Company a week later, Ames told Reinecke he was impressed with his company. That was when Reinecke hit Ames “with a ton of bricks.” Says Ames, “Clare asked me to take Commonwealth Supply Company to its next dimension and eventually partner with his daughter, Mary Shanaman.” It didn’t take long for Ames to decide to take the risk and cross over from the manufacturer’s to the distributor’s side. A contractual agreement was finalized within six months.

President Shanaman and Executive Vice President Ames became strong business partners. Shanaman handles the administrative side of the business, while Ames handles operations and sales. Almost ten years ago, the two purchased the company from Reinecke. “Ours is a great partnership,” Ames says. “We’re not only partners, we’re also great friends. We understand each other’s roles and communicate daily.” Both are involved in the industry in a variety of ways, including serving on the Airgas Distributor Advisory Council. This past fall, Ames joined GAWDA’s 2004-2005 Board of Directors as First Vice President.

Growing Strong
Over the past 18 years, Commonwealth Supply Company has experienced significant growth. The company carries several equipment, safety, welding rod and wire lines, and manufactures its own oxygen, argon, nitrogen, propane hpg and the max line of mixed welding gases. The 17,000 square-foot facility houses a state-of-the-art demo room where welders can try before they buy, and a 1,000 square-foot showroom, the largest in the area. With a fleet of seven trucks, the company’s goal is to deliver within 24 hours.

Twenty-three employees in the York and Hanover, Pennsylvania, locations serve more than 1,500 customers in south central Pennsylvania and beyond. The company’s long-term employees are experienced, knowledgeable and regularly trained on customer service. They don’t hesitate to go the extra mile. Each of the four hands-on salespeople is a welder who can show customers how to use a product. “Our people know our customers have choices, and we never take that for granted. We thank our customers for every order,” says Ames. “Our customers stay with us, and we gain new customers weekly, because of our superior service level and knowledge.”

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Commonwealth Supply Company headquarters in York, Pennsylvania. Customers can try before they buy in the retail showroom, also known as “Welders Market.”

Ames also contributes the company’s growth to his own past experiences. When he joined Teledyne McKay, he sold to distributors in four states. Within four years, his area was expanded to13 states. “As a manufacturer’s rep, I traveled all over the country and worked with a number of distributors,” he says. “The knowledge I obtained from those distributors enabled me to know how I wanted to go to market with products and what kinds of services we needed to develop as a strong, independent distributorship.”

Even as consolidation changes the face of the industry, Ames predicts Commonwealth Supply Company and other independent distributors will continue to flourish. It goes back to having the right attitude. “Consolidation gives us an opportunity, as it takes one more competitor out of our marketplace, creating golden opportunities for us.” Ames explains that customers who are enticed by promises of better pricing from large national conglomerates typically return to Commonwealth Supply Company, missing that never-taken-for-granted service, expertise and local enterprise an independent distributor brings to the table. “Golden opportunities,” he says again, “and not to be taken lightly.”

Hand-in-Hand
At Commonwealth Supply Company, the partnership extends beyond Ames and Shanaman. The same values are carried into relationships with vendors. “When I worked for Teledyne McKay, I was able to befriend an awful lot of good manufacturer reps ”says Ames, “who offered their lines to Commonwealth Supply Company. My manufacturing friends said they saw a future in the company and would grow with us. These relationships are crucial.”

“We don’t take our customers—or our vendors—for granted,” Ames explains. “We’re very loyal to those vendors who took a chance on us and have enabled us to grow. When they strike up a partnership with Commonwealth Supply, they get a dedicated team and a commitment to offer the best products and services to end-users. We expect our vendors to make money because we want them to stay a valuable supplier for the long-term.”

Ames expects three things from vendors: good product offering, competitive pricing and excellent service.

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Operations Manager Rob Kelley and Bob Ames analyze the purity of a mix using a gas chromatograph.

Solutions Provider
Commonwealth Supply Company hits middle-market base customers. “These customers are interested in more than price. They value the knowledge and service we provide,” says Ames. “If service means nothing to a customer, then that customer may not be right for us. Each salesperson is charged with making a minimum of four new calls every month, looking for new customers Commonwealth Supply Company has not done business with. “Our reputation of service gets us in the door, and our ability to provide service after the sale keeps us there.”

Ames affirms the company provides customers with whatever they need. He cites just one example. “The stores normally don’t open until 7 a.m., but if a customer wants to come in earlier and I’m here, the door is unlocked. We always look for ways to cement better relationships with our customers.” The company has also developed e-mail and fax order forms for customers to ease the business process and reduce errors, and is exploring e-commerce, paying close attention to customers’ needs.

The best part of the business, says Ames, are the customers. He spends time on the road with the company’s sales staff. “I enjoy riding with our salespeople,” says this former roadie. “That time on the road visiting customers is prime for training, monitoring their performance and discussing ways to improve.” Passionate about sales, this time away from the office also fuels his passion. “I love dealing with our customers.”

Sending the Message
Ames is energized as he steps into his new role as GAWDA’s First Vice President. “GAWDA is a great organization. I’m excited to serve on our board and help to make our association stronger,” he says.

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Commonwealth Supply Company President Mary Shanaman and Executive Vice President Bob Ames provide complementary skills that have helped their 23-year-old company achieve significant growth.

Noting tough times in the industry, Ames points to rising costs and consolidation as the reasons many distributors are frustrated and turning to GAWDA for guidance. “We have to get the message to every independent distributor out there that they are not alone.” Ames cites the association’s consultants and webinars as invaluable assets to distributors that keep them abreast of the industry. He wants to continue to grow these types of programs.

Calling on his years as a manufacturer’s rep, Ames acknowledges the fine line distributors walk between the needs of the manufacturer and the needs of the end-user. “We should respect the manufacturers’ need to make money; and they have to respect our customers. A distributor’s job, as middle man, is to assure that both groups achieve the best results, with the distributor making it work.” Ames calls this “a tremendous message” for GAWDA members, and will work hard to grow that level of respect among the membership.

Bob Ames took Commonwealth Supply Company to its next dimension with great success. As he takes his place on GAWDA’s Board of Directors as First Vice President, Ames is determined to help take the association to its next dimension in the next few years. If his 33 years of welding and industrial, medical and specialty gases industry experience are any example, our association is in for a treat.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association