In 1879 Thomas Edison created the light bulb, as we know it today. However, when he did, there was really no electrical industry. So, Thomas had a bulb but how was he going to use it? Long story short, he created and eventually founded his own distribution company, Edison Electric, which is known by most of us today as General Electric.Forty-seven years later, in 1926, electricity was still one of the hottest technologies of the day, and while its use was prevalent in big cities, finding it in the rural South was still quite a rarity. In these early days of the electrical age, the young company that went by its founder’s name, Stuart C. Irby, had a vision – to help build the infrastructure that would bring electricity to everyone in the Southern states.
Today, the Stuart C. Irby Company is the largest player in its predominantly southern territory (and the 16th largest in the U.S.), which includes 34 branches in nine states. Based in Jackson, Miss., the entire Irby territory encompasses the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. A utility branch is located in Syracuse, NY. Overall the company employs 650 people. Annual sales are around $340 million.
What’s Irby’s latest vision? To change the role of the electrical distributor from that of a bid-based provider of electrical products to that of a high-value partner, providing total electrical solutions. “Irby’s an old pro with a new vision of the future. We’re a proven company, yet progressive,” says Mike Wigton, Irby’s chief operating officer. “We are a provider of electrical solutions and we are an energetic business partner. An Irby relationship is all about giving customers the greatest long-term value. We focus on providing the lowest overall cost of doing business, not just the lowest price on a particular product. Clearly, a high-value relationship with Irby will save you more than low-bid relationships with multiple vendors.”
Irby Times Three
Mike Wigton is relatively new as COO at Irby, but he’s been associated with the company for nearly two decades. He is creating a senior management team specifically focused on the three different divisions of Irby: utility, industrial and commercial. “The businesses are different enough and vary substantially by market segment. By identifying management teams over each segment, it allows us to get closer to the customer. We want to be specialists, not generalists,” says Wigton.
Every day, countless families and business people depend on products for the electricity that fuels their lives. Irby’s utility division supplies more than 450 electric utilities throughout the South and Northeast. Combined, these companies service more than 28 percent of all meters in the United States. Irby serves three types of utilities: investor-owned, municipally owned and rural electric co-ops. “The primary thing we do to succeed as a utility distributor is be there with immediate services no matter what,” says Wigton. “Even in extreme cases, like the Florida hurricanes of 2004, we were there for our customers as soon as we possibly could be. Storm recovery is one of the things we do best. With a 24-hour Emergency Response Program in place, our main objective is always to get the power back on.”
Irby is also there for today’s business clients with industrial-strength expertise for the ever-changing industrial environment. Irby carries leading-edge products from the most respected names in industrial automation and backs those products with 35 technical specialists who can translate the products into solutions that can boost productivity for companies.
Whether it’s inventory management or guidance on improving manufacturing processes Irby has the products and support structure to minimize waste and maximize efficiency. Irby can also dramatically streamline operations by providing a comprehensive set of supply-side solutions. Through services like inventory management and technical training, Irby helps companies reduce downtime, enhance safety, improve processes and lower your overall supply chain cost.
“Today’s industrial environment is all about doing more with less. Companies like GM aren’t building a 50-acre plant to build engines anymore. They’re refurbishing plants, supplying them with state-of-the-art automation equipment to help them run their facilities and save money. And we have to be there if a breakdown occurs. It’s all about service. They can’t wait for a problem to be solved. The minute they’re down they start losing money,” says Wigton.
In Irby’s commercial world, every morning brings a new set of challenges: schedules to meet, technical problems to solve and tight budgets to make it all the more difficult. Irby offers a full range of products, supplies, services and solutions for all types of commercial applications. The company’s 500,000-item inventory includes an impressive array of industry-leading brands for all types of commercial operations including: AC/DC drives, transformers, lamps, motor controls, starters, ballasts, heating, ventilation and relay equipment, lighting, distribution equipment, boxes and enclosures, programmable controls, conduit, signaling devices, conduit fittings, connectors, tools, wire, cord and cable and fuses. The division is supported by a 24 hour emergency hotline, same, next day, on site delivery, and e-business solutions.
Irby’s new Web-based storefront, Irby Online, is one of its latest ventures and customers seem to be catching on. By logging in at www.irby.com, they can order products, perform transactions, cross reference parts numbers with their own, do advanced searches for products, view previous orders and much more. “Just about everything we offer is available through Irby Online,” says President (and third generation Irby) Stuart M. Irby. “We have over 1.3 million SKUs available so customers should be able to find exactly what they’re looking for.”
The site also allows customers to customize account information, view bids, print hard copies of invoices, review shipping information and even get proof of delivery by seeing who signed for their package upon delivery. Available 24/7, customers can call Irby’s main office and be using Irby Online in minutes with just a password.
“A couple of things I like about the site are the fact that the Quickpad details a customer’s order history so they don’t have to always look up the item over and over again. It’s like a build in order pad,” says Irby. “It also has a lot of links to manufacturers’ Web sites. Customers can get immediate information and product specifications and data right rather than having to go to the manufacturers’ separate Web address and go digging for it. “There is also a special help guide available if customers have questions.
Operating for a little over a year, Irby Online is still in its infancy but doing well with 10,000 log-ins and over a million in sales. “It’s a good start, but we look for the online service to grow exponentially over the next few years now that customers are more savvy and trusting of computer ordering,” says Irby.
Besides the first-rate services and impeccable line of products, you’ll also find genuineness at Irby – a true Southern gentleman kind of service style handed down over four generations of Irby ownership. “There is a unique environment here. I don’t mean to sound cliché or trite but this is truly a family-oriented company,” says Wigton. “I don’t know of any company in this industry that has had such continual family ownership and interest in the business as long as Irby has. The people are driven to succeed because of the relationship they have with the company, and that company has with its customers. That sense of ethic seems to flow through the entire process. It’s really very inspiring to watch.”
Irby has also found that its customers value the Irby name and philosophy. In a recent survey customers appreciated the fact that company employees arrived in Irby trucks wearing Irby shirts. It seemed to give them a sense of spreading the Irby presence and philosophy forth. “The bottom line is, if we take care of a customer, they’re going to tell someone else about it. It’s a simple principle but it’s foolproof,” says Wigton. “And after 80 years in business you stick with what works.” And the next 80 years look promising.
The company hired Chicago-based Lake Pointe Partners, LLC, to assist with implementing and improving sales, financial management, and operational plans. “We worked with them for several months and they helped us improve pricing, sales compensation, and inventory strategies, says Stuart Irby. “It helped to get us back on record growth on a month-to-month basis and significantly improve bottom line profitability.” “We are very pleased with the results and Irby is now positioned to aggressively pursue new opportunities in the marketplace,” says Stuart Irby.
With the traditional roles of the supply chain being blurred with each passing decade, Irby isn’t a company to rest on its laurels. “We’re having to be more efficient. It’s about having the right attitude. The attitude that we have to provide a solution for our customers, not just sell a product,” says Irby. “You’re only as good as your relationships and the things that got us to where we are today echo what we live by and will continue to strive for. We’ll constantly be asked to prove ourselves. But we’re up to the challenge.”