A unique twist on the manufacturer-distributor relationship
The story of Tyler Supply Company can be summed up in one word: relationships. Relationships between the principals, relationships with customers, relationships with the community and relationships with suppliers all play a role in the day-to-day operations at Tyler Supply.
In the 1940s, cousins James Tyler and John Kollig were discharged from the military and took jobs at Borroughs Corporation under the leadership of founder Walter Borroughs. Following Walter’s death, Borroughs Corporation was sold to American Metal Products. Kollig and Tyler chose that moment to pursue their dream of opening their own business. The two men established Metal Product Sales in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and began selling industrial shelving, cutting tools, nuts and bolts, measuring equipment, and other industrial supplies. By the early 1960s, Tyler bought out his cousin and changed the company name to Tyler Supply Company.
Tyler ran a successful business, focusing primarily on material handling storage equipment along with mill supply equipment—things like grinding wheels, fasteners and cutting tools. The company also developed its industrial shelving units, representing the hometown Borroughs product throughout the western Michigan region. In the late 1970s, James convinced his son, Tim, to move back from Colorado and work at the family business. He was joined a few weeks later by longtime friend Ron Paska, whose father worked at the business next door and dropped by to see if any jobs were open for his son. Ron Paska began working at Tyler Supply as a warehouse worker and installer.
Twenty-six years later, Tyler and Paska are still working together and, more importantly, are still friends. Some things are different, of course. The Tyler family now owns both Borroughs Corporation and Tyler Supply Company, giving Tim Tyler a distinctive role as both a manufacturer and a distributor. Tyler serves as president of Borroughs, and he entrusts Paska to run operations at Tyler Supply.
Transforming the Product Line
During their tenures, the whole face of business at Tyler Supply has changed. “We got out of the mill supply business to concentrate solely on being a material handling wholesaler,” explains Tyler. “Tyler Supply doesn’t do anything with fork trucks. We strictly distribute storage and handling equipment.”
It was a strategic decision that has worked out quite well. Tyler says, “We just wanted to get away from the cutting tool business because it became such a specialized thing, a commodity business with no real chance for any kind of added value. Plus, there was a lot of competition gunning for the same piece of the pie. There were just too many people already involved, and we didn’t see where there was any money in it.” Also around that time, cut-rate catalogs started promoting similar lines, making it difficult to compete.
The company decided to focus on storage and handling equipment because it seemed to mesh best with the company’s capabilities at the time. “We didn’t have the infrastructure or the will to get involved in lift trucks because it’s so structured. It’s fairly capital-intensive to develop the service department and the people involved.”
Tyler Supply instead focuses on its premier storage product lines to keep itself separated from the competition. “When we make a sales call, people understand that we’re focused on our end of it and we’re not trying to be the end-all of every product line, which I think is extremely difficult to be,” Paska says.
It all fits with the company’s overarching strategy, which is summed up by Tyler. “We always adapt to the times, but we don’t change our core values. We continue to do what we know how to do best, which is service the customer. The economy may be down now, but it always comes back. Our customers need to know that we’re still hanging in there with them.” As the national and international economies have struggled in recent years, the company’s customer base has been forced to evolve as well. “We’ve seen the demise of a lot of major manufacturing facilities that once had a large presence in the community,” adds Paska. “We’ve had to reinvent ourselves many times as our customer base has changed.”
Relationships with Customers
Among the remaining customers are pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, several Tier 1 automotive suppliers, a host of furniture companies and Western Michigan University. “We still have a pretty incredible, strong, diverse manufacturing and service base around this part of the state that helps us prosper,” Tyler says.
Kalamazoo is a heavily industrialized area with a population of around 180,000 people. “When Ron and I were growing up here, it was even smaller than that,” Tyler recalls. “We’ve been knocking on doors here for so long that we know seemingly everybody, which is not a bad thing. We’ve developed a lot of relationships here, certainly.” That local flavor is one reason that Tyler Supply has survived intense competition throughout the company’s history. “We had no less than four real strong competitors here in western Michigan, and we’re the last one left,” Tyler proudly proclaims.
Paska offers another reason for the company’s prosperity. “We’ve tried to partner ourselves with the best type of product in our segment. If it doesn’t perform up to our expectations, we don’t use it anymore.” Paska believes this method helps make Tyler Supply a strong advocate for the consumer, as does his penchant for making the buyers comfortable. “Whenever we get involved in a project, I always tell the person I will make them look good to their boss. That’s important because these guys are putting their necks on the line, and they need to have confidence in their decisions.”
The importance of developing customer relationships has been ingrained in company culture since the early years. “Tim and I spent a long time witnessing how his dad did business, and we were fortunate to learn those things from him as we grew in the company,” Paska says. One of James Tyler’s favorite sayings for employees was, “You’ve only got one job here, and that’s to do a good enough job that we get invited back.” That has been the single guiding philosophy driving the company for many years.
“Although Mr. Tyler was a very structured individual from his days in the Marine Corps, he was a fun-loving person at the same time. He took a lot of joy out of the personal relationships of business,” says Paska, who believes that this is a lost art in business. “Many people nowadays look at it as work and miss out on a tremendous amount of joy that they can take out of a professionally built relationship.”
Tyler and Paska were groomed in an era before technology took some of the personality out of sales calls. “We enjoyed getting in our car, driving to the customer—whether they were ten minutes away or two hours away—and presenting our proposal to them face-to-face,” Paska explains. “E-mails, faxes and all the electronic tools are great assets, but you’re shortchanging yourself if you rely on them too much. Simply sitting down with an individual and interacting is often enough to sway them in your favor on a project.”
“We’ve spent our entire professional careers involved in relationship selling, so we don’t do well when we encounter online bidding and auctioning,” Tyler says, while acknowledging the purchasing power of the Internet. “We might be dinosaurs in that respect, but we’re not selling No. 2 pencils. We represent quality products, and our suppliers depend on us to do a good job with them. Relationship selling is how we go to market, demonstrating our past performance and proving to people that we can do a good job.”
Tyler uses a recent customer visit to illustrate the point. A longtime customer is building three brand new facilities, a total of over a million square feet of new plant space. “It’s someone we’ve partnered with for a long time, so he knows our capabilities and our limitations. We’ve talked frankly about the things we can’t do or don’t want to do. But at the same time, we want to be able to provide the best service we can.” The visit concluded with Tyler Supply giving what the two men refer to as “one of the proposals of a lifetime.” It is these types of upfront dealings that keep customers loyal to Tyler Supply.
Relationships with Employees
Tyler Supply employs just 10 people, a close-knit group that operates out of the company’s 20,000-square-foot facility in Kalamazoo. Paska tries to foster a family-type atmosphere where everybody is concerned about each other. “It always has been that way, going back to when Tim’s dad was still active in the company,” Paska says. “Whether you have a problem or something to celebrate, everyone is concerned about it and it is like having an extended family. We try to ensure that everybody has that feeling when they come to work.”
Camaraderie is a key component of the company’s virtually non-existent turnover. “We work very hard at living up to our word,” Tyler explains. “We try to provide everybody, especially the salespeople, with the tools to be successful. We try to find the best people and let them do their thing.”
Integrity is the backbone of Tyler Supply’s existence. Tyler and Paska both point out the importance of personal integrity when making hiring decisions. “The first thing we look for is integrity; that’s a core that can be built upon and everything else comes from that. Product knowledge can be learned, but people either have integrity or they don’t,” Paska explains. He acknowledges that this is a difficult trait for which to test beforehand. “Sometimes you get burned. You ask certain questions, do a background check and feel people out. It’s easy for people to put up fronts initially, and sometimes it takes six to twelve months for somebody’s true colors to shine through.”
Relationships with Suppliers
The Tyler family purchased Borroughs in 1991, and Jim started to step back from Tyler Supply when he began having health problems. Until that point ten years ago, Tim Tyler was working as general manager and president of Tyler Supply. He made the shift to work at Borroughs full time at the urging of the Borroughs board of directors.
It created something of a dilemma for Tim Tyler, since Tyler Supply is a Borroughs distributor. “I’ve worked very hard at not playing favorites and ensuring that Tyler Supply is treated the same way that every other Borroughs distributor is. They’re our customer and we try to do everything we can to help them be successful, because it helps us be successful.”
Paska agrees. “Many other distributorships are exactly the same as Tyler Supply, and you can’t play favorites to Tyler Supply and still do justice to the other ones.” He laughingly shares a story to illustrate the point. “Years ago, before Tim’s family bought Borroughs, Tyler Supply always had a good relationship with Borroughs because we’re local and we knew many of their key personnel. We would give them a gift at Christmastime, and I always laugh about the fact that a $25 bottle of their favorite liquor used to get us more than I can get now that Tim owns the place.”
Tyler makes no secret of his love of the distribution side of material handling. “I grew up in that business from the time I was a kid mowing the lawn. All the people who work at Tyler Supply are very important to me. My true love is to be in the field, on the road, interacting with customers.” He takes the knowledge gained from that background to his work each day as a manufacturer. He knows how difficult—and how rewarding—life can be for distributor salespeople, and he drums that message into the people at Borroughs every single day. “Our distributors are working hard to represent our products, so we’re going to do everything we can to make sure we provide them with absolutely the best product and service possible.” Tyler is grateful for the support he receives in return as well, praising his distributors’ loyalty. He considers many of them more than just business associates. “They’re good friends. After all, I’ve known some of them since I was a little kid.”
Friendships and Business Relationships
The relationships Tyler established as a child have gone a long way in his business career. Look no further than his associate at Tyler Supply. Tyler and Paska have been friends since childhood, and have been working together for the last 26 years. Theirs is a relationship somewhat unique in the business world. “Ron and I have enjoyed a great relationship for a long time, personally and in business, and we also love what we do,” Tyler says. This sentiment is echoed by Paska, who adds, “We have the ability to keep our friendship and professional lives separated. There aren’t too many times that you can work closely in professional life with someone you’ve known your entire life,” Paska says.
But it isn’t only their own friendship that the two cherish. “We know a lot of people in this industry and we know how good they are. It’s always a hurdle to try to be as good as everybody else is out there,” Tyler says. Paska adds, “There are so many great individuals all across the country that you can get to know and truly become friends with in this business.”
Tyler Supply Company is looking forward to many more years of prosperity. As the economy shakes out of its slump, Paska and Tyler have ambitious expectations for Tyler Supply Company in the months ahead. Coupled with its already-proven formula for success, Tyler Supply should be able to excel into the future. The power of successful relationships can go a long way.