When the hardware distributor B.E. Atlas was founded in 1963, Chicago, Illinois was known as a hardware hub. In the decades following, the City of Big Shoulders has diversified its economy around transportation, manufacturing, and printing, but B.E. Atlas has only shown steady growth, outlasting its competition.
Today, the family business is run by its second generation of ownership, who are continuing the legacy of always trying to go above and beyond to offer something different to their customer. For example, originally a cash-and-carry wholesaler to co-op hardware stores, B.E. Atlas changed its business model 10 years ago in 2008, and now not only sells to stores but also directly to small business contractors, most of whom operate locally within the Chicago area. Moreover, B.E. Atlas was also quick to adapt to computerization, and launched its online store 20 years ago, in 1998.
“As a smaller distributor, we have to go a little further with our customers, we have to work a little harder, and typically we do. Our relationship with our customer base is strong, which is obviously important. Our customers know that we are fair with them,” President Jeff Kovarsky tells us. Whereas larger places with which contractors do business often have more rigid rules, as a small distributor, B.E. Atlas is able to be more flexible with its customers.
“The owners are here and we can make those decisions, whereas some of the big guys have locations across the country and probably can’t bend the rules so often. If a customer is a little short or needs some help on something, whether it is a price or being able to pay for it in a week rather than today, we roll with the punches,” says Kovarsky.
Contractors and dealers who do business with B.E. Atlas can walk in and expect to find a business that resembles Home Depot, without the drywall or lumber. They then get a cart, peruse, and get checked out as they would at a large box store. Years ago, Kovarsky says that B.E. Atlas truly was cash and carry in that the customers wrote a check and took their supplies back to their store. “Today, it’s a little different. Most people pay with cash, check or credit card; however, terms can be arranged in some situations.”
Over half of B.E. Atlas’ business comes from plumbing contractors, who, as Kovarsky points out, appreciate the local distributor’s preparedness for the weather-related challenges that the city of Chicago brings.
“I can’t tell you how many times over the years a dealer would walk in here and through a snowstorm and say, ‘I can’t believe you still have stuff for the cold weather.’ It’s because when you are a local guy, you look out the window more and see what is going on. Some of the national companies tend to run out of stock more often because they also have to worry about California or Florida, and they don’t focus on one place as we do. We have to do a better job for those people who are local than some of the national companies have the capacity to do.”
B.E. Atlas also offers products for other types of contractors such as electrical, paint sundries, locks and JanSan products, but those markets have not taken off the way that plumbing has, leading the ownership to believe that there must have been a void in plumbing that B.E. Atlas needed to fill. Because of this, B.E. Atlas has not yet felt the need to expand its already large facility, though the family-owned company continues to look to opportunities for growth and to service ever more contractors.
One of the unique ways that B.E. Atlas promotes its business is through its own tradeshows, which are organized three times a year and each last for three days. During this time, customers are able to save 10 percent on everything. There are items around at front checkout area as well with anywhere from 15 to 25 percent off, depending on what kind of extra discount B.E. Atlas can get from the original manufacturer. Of course, beyond the stock, the tradeshows also have other (more delectable) items available, such as hot dogs and ice cream. B.E. Atlas has been hosting these local tradeshows for about 15 to 20 years or so.
“We’ve been doing these shows for a long time,” says Kovarsky. “It used to be dealers and hardware stores we were doing it with, and now we are still doing it with hardware stores, but really the majority of customers are contractors.”
Besides, large hardware co-operatives like Ace Hardware, Do It Best, and True Value aren’t where contractors do most of their shopping. “The decision to go with contractors was based on the fact that we believed – and most of our customers would agree – that the typical contractor doesn’t go to a co-op hardware store to buy most of their goods. They are going to go to a big box store or a plumbing or electrical supply store, but typically not to a retail hardware store to buy the majority of their stuff. So we felt it would have the least impact on our current customers,” Kovarsky explains.
Last year, B.E. Atlas grew by 10 percent. What the numbers will be this year is difficult to predict, since December is such a critical month for the Windy City business, depending on the severity of the weather.
B.E. Atlas currently employs 30 people, most of who have been with the 55-year-old company for a long time due to its flexible and trusting approach toward its customers as well as its staff.
“We pay competitively, and very frankly, if we’ve been accused of anything, it’s been being too easy-going. Within reason, if an employee doesn’t take advantage – we all have a personal life and things happen – we roll with the punches. Someone can’t have a problem every day, but from time to time, we give to employees in other ways like extra time off for personal reasons if they need it. We tend to look the other way more than some other employers might and that keeps employees here. We try to fair about things, as long as they are fair with us, and we don’t hold their feet to the fire.”
B.E. Atlas’ future plans are to continue to grow and serve more contractors, both within plumbing and beyond. Eventually though, Kovarsky divulges that the growing, second-generation business that acquired Ashland Wholesale in 1975, may at one point itself become available for acquisition.