A company that has ‘grown into itself’
Planning for success in a changing world littered with corporate casualties
Ideal Supply has come a long way since its humble beginnings in the 1920s.
It has reinvented itself many times over, consistently predicting opportunities for growth, yet always remaining true to its traditional values.
Founded by Franklin Zurbrigg and George McDonald, the company began in 1926 as the Ideal Manufacturing Company, a maker of bread-moulding machines. (One of the co-founders came from a family of bakers but his allergy to wheat prompted the new invention.) Over the ensuing 40 years and with the help of several business partners, the company grew and proved itself adept at changing with the times.
It assembled and distributed console radios, later branching into hardware, automotive parts, paint, appliances and even toys, all sold from its headquarters in the former Grand Central Hotel in downtown Listowel, Ontario, about two hours west of Toronto.
In 1946 Earl Forrest joined the business. He bought the shares of deceased co-founder George McDonald (no relation to the current owners) and became partners with Franklin Zurbrigg. Mr. Forrest immediately began to grow the business, taking what was essentially a hardware store and transforming it into the professional sales organization it is today. He created a top-notch sales team which actively pursued business opportunities and he eventually opened branch stores in Wingham and Mt. Forest. In 1958 his son-in-law, John H. MacDonald, joined him in the business and 10 years later bought the company. By that time his son-in-law had worked in just about every facet of the business.
Equipped with experience, enthusiasm, driving ambition and a way with people, John MacDonald moved swiftly to define the company’s next big transition. His strategy included moving away from hardware and appliances, growing the automotive side of the business and aggressively expanding into electrical supplies geared to contractors – all while staying focused on the small to medium-sized markets. He also began the shift away from retail sales towards wholesale. It was a brilliant strategic move – and one that would set the company up for a cascading set of opportunities in the future.
By the 1970s Ideal Supply had developed a successful Automotive Division, as well as an Electrical Division. Machine Shops located in some of the branches were busy rebuilding engines and repairing radiators. The Automotive Division sales force was calling on garages, dealerships, body shops and construction fleets, while the Electrical Division sales staff targeted electrical contractors and local public utilities. Meanwhile, John MacDonald also discovered that a sizable portion of business was coming from local industries, so an Industrial Division was formed to capitalize on that market segment.
Today, Ideal Supply is an award-winning, third-generation, family-run business. It has grown to become one of the largest privately-owned wholesale distributors of automotive, electrical, and industrial products and services in the country. It has 30 branch locations in Southwestern Ontario, 450 employees and a 75,000-square-foot head office distribution centre, still in its hometown of Listowel. It became ISO 9001:2008 Certified in 1996 and for seven consecutive years has earned the highly-coveted designation as one of ‘Canada’s Best Managed Companies’. Its award-winning machine shops and strategic partnerships with more than 1,500 suppliers have positioned the company to provide the kinds of products, services and training programs its 10,000-plus customers depend on.
Forming strategic alliances with two powerful organizations proved to be significant turning points along the way. In 1996, Ideal Supply joined forces with UAP/NAPA, now called NAPA Auto Parts. As both the leading and the largest aftermarket parts company in North America, NAPA enabled Ideal to offer its installer, fleet and body shop customers the best replacement parts and shop supplies available, as well as access to its exceptional marketing programs. As for the electrical and industrial sides of the business, Ideal joined Affiliated Distributors (AD) in 1992, the biggest network of independent distributors in North America. This gave Ideal Supply and its customers access to AD’s immense buying power, as well as opportunities to share business ideas with the best distributors on the continent.
John MacDonald demonstrated exceptional skills as a leader and manager. He believed that by working with people you could achieve anything. He knew that by helping his customers and suppliers succeed, the company would also grow and prosper. Employees at every level were encouraged to provide the very best in customer service as a way of differentiating Ideal Supply in a highly competitive marketplace.
John MacDonald enjoyed seeing hard-working, enthusiastic employees assume additional responsibilities and some of them evolved into skilled sales professionals and branch managers. At the same time, executives were continually encouraged to plan for growth so when the opportunities came the company was prepared. Throughout its history, Ideal Supply fostered a strong ‘promote from within’ culture, which has encouraged employees to stay with the company and develop their careers.
In the early 1980s, Ideal Supply officially became a third-generation, family-run business. John MacDonald’s two sons and his daughter all assumed full-time positions with the company. Each of them had learned the business by working in different departments at various locations over the years. This front-line experience helped them to understand the needs of both customers and suppliers.
Today, Tim MacDonald is President & CEO. John Jr. is Vice-President of Sales & Marketing and their sister, Joan Waechter, is Vice-President Human Resources. As partners in business they work with a professional management team to lead the company. As siblings they support each other in the day-to-day business decisions and the future direction of Ideal Supply, confidently defying the dismal statistics associated with third-generation family-run businesses.
John MacDonald Sr. is now retired from Ideal Supply but his legacy of customer service and community service continues.
“As a company based in smaller and medium-sized communities in Ontario, we’ve been able to grow and evolve into a large player while staying true to our small-town values,” says Tim. “We’ve had many opportunities to move into cities but we know our business culture is best suited to these small and medium-sized communities. I’m very proud of our values, but I’m also proud of the fact that since 1926 we’ve been able to grow our business and attract great employees and customers – all while remaining independent in an environment where our competitors are consolidating."
Throughout the years, Ideal Supply has consistently kept its focus on people, keenly aware that its success also hinged on its relationships – with customers, suppliers and employees. “After all,” acknowledged John MacDonald back in 1983, “when it’s all said and done it’s really a people business we’re in.”
That sentiment is still echoed today. “Our mantra has always been that if we help our customers succeed today, they’ll call us again tomorrow,” says Tim. “We’ve worked hard to earn their loyalty.”
Over the years, Ideal Supply has also seen the mutual benefits of cultivating a skilled and devoted workforce – employees who are friendly and hard working, who enjoy helping people and have a desire to advance within the company. Some employees have stayed 30 or 40 years and in some cases several generations of the same family have worked for Ideal. “We’ve been known to attract some of the best people in the industry and have them stay for their entire careers,” says Tim. “For us that’s a differentiator and it’s one of the keys to our success.”
Ideal Supply also has a proud history of civic involvement, through its financial contributions to community initiatives, as well as through its associates who are active in local service clubs, volunteer firefighting, recreation, churches and various community fundraising initiatives. The company has also directly contributed to hospitals, not-for-profit organizations, the arts, the environment, education and sports organizations.
Together, three generations of MacDonalds have built a highly successful business in a constantly changing world littered with corporate casualties. They enjoy the benefits of being a privately-owned business and they’ve done it as a family.
“Good communication is critical in any business or any family,” says Tim, “but when you mix family and business, communication doubles or triples in importance. We have to be professional when wearing our ‘business hats,’ but we remain compassionate and supportive when wearing our ‘sibling hats’.
Tim, John and Joan are proud of their company history and the legacy of their grandfather and father.
“They built a forward-looking company that stayed true to its traditional values throughout periods of growth and change,” says Tim. “They created a business that could really grow into itself and that’s exactly what we’ve done.”