Jack Martin wasn’t born yet when his dad, Willis Martin, started a wholesale plumbing supply business in Hutchinson with two partners in 1949.
The company went through several iterations over the decades, including expansions, shifts in focus, and store closures. Then, in 1970, Willis purchased the supply business from his partners, Howard Bentley and Henry Howe, who were more interested in manufacturing and split off, Jack Martin said.
Jack grew up sweeping the floors and emptying the trash at the company, then at 315 W. Third, but it wasn’t his plan to go into plumbing supply.
Jack did help out as his dad’s company part-time, starting while he was still in college, after his father had a stroke.
But after graduating from Wichita State University with a business management degree in 1974, the younger Martin started his own company in Hutchinson, Motor Sports Specialties, in a field that did interest him, automotive accessories.
In 1982, Jack and his wife, Lora, who Jack met at Hutchinson High and married after college, both started working there full-time,
It turned out to be a good fit. In 1985, Martin bought the company from his father and sold his own business to Dennis Woolsey, who still operates it.
Under his leadership, Western Supply is 20 times larger today than when he joined it, Martin said, employing 34 people at four locations.
Besides his wife, who is HR director, both of Martins’ sons now work there – Doug, director of IT since 1990, and Scott, who joined in 1997 and is the Hutchinson location manager.
A fourth generation, Martin’s granddaughter, Harley, sometimes helps out in the office.
The management team also includes LeAnn Knight, Operations Director, employed since 1985; and Candace Winkel, Credit and Marketing Manager, employed since 1997.
The focus of the company – this month’s Hutchinson / Reno County Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Month – is still wholesale trade, today selling plumbing, heating and air conditioning, and irrigation supplies to contractors.
Their customers include commercial builders, government agencies such as schools and municipalities, and industrial accounts.
Their sale territory is primarily central and western Kansas, though they go a little into Nebraska and Oklahoma, Martin said.
“Our trucks run approximately 15,000 miles per month supplying our stores and delivering to our customers,” Martin said.
They don’t sell directly to homeowners, though they have showrooms in Hutchinson and Hays where someone building a home, for example, can pick out hardware for the contractor to use.
The Hutchinson location also has a metal fabrication shop, a unique offering among suppliers.
Part of their growth has been through acquisition.
In 1989, Western Supply purchased the Hays location of The Lee Company and moved it to a larger facility five years later. In 1995 Western Supply returned to Dodge City and in 2000 moved to its larger Trail Street location.
The company growth continued when Western Supply acquired then 106-year-old Colladay Hardware Company in 2002, which operates as a division selling hardware and industrial supplies.
In 2008 Western Supply bought Allied Wholesale in Great Bend and integrated the two Great Bend operations into its current Ninth Street location.
Their business is fairly diversified among plumbing, HVAC and hardware or industrial supplies.
Among its biggest challenges, Martin said, are keeping up with ever-changing trends, competing with two national chains with locations in the area who have the advantage of volume, and the internet.
“I think taking better care of our customers, better service and quick response to local trends,” is how they compete, Martin said, noting most of their business is from repeat customers, though “there’s always guys retiring and new guys starting out.”
“I’ve had some customers for 35 years,” he said. “Some are just plumbers doing small repairs, changing out water heaters or faucets. Some are new home construction, some commercial construction. We supply one-man shops to probably 20-person businesses.”
They’ve also added the ability to order online for trade customers, to compete with national and international internet sales.