Where Babies Come From
"It used to be a storage room that attracted junk," Dennis told me. "Many years ago we nicknamed it “The Dungeon” because our salesmen would go pull a faucet off the shelf, disassemble a part that a customer needed in a hurry, and then store the remains of the faucet in The Dungeon. After awhile, we locked it up and forgot about it.
"Lou Bell, who's been running our warehouse for two years longer than forever, used to get called up to the counter by the customers who thought of Lou as their dealer. One of these guys would have some strange gizmo he needed right away, and Lou would disappear into The Dungeon for a few minutes, and then surface, holding up the golden egg.
"One time, we decided to have a garage sale because The Dungeon was so full of mismatched parts that it was getting difficult even to move around down there. Lou filled three 55-gallon drums with tiny faucet parts (the larger parts went to the recycler). A contractor walked in not long afterwards and made an offer for the faucet bones in all three of those barrels. He now has a lifetime supply of who-knows-what.
I've known Dennis for years, and I've driven with him up and over and around the beautiful Rockies, visiting contractors as they built hydronic works of art for people with too much money. Dennis watches what these craftsmen do and he appreciates them, and he lets them know that he does in wonderful ways. You can't put a price on this stuff. He notices details on every job, and he smiles. He points things out to me while the contractor is right there and I ask questions, and I learn, and I'm better for that. I'm better for knowing Dennis Bellanti, and for knowing the contractors he cares so much for.
So many of these Rocky Mountain jobs have pre-piped mechanicals, what I call a Boiler Room in a Box. A contractor will get a clean sheet of plywood, or diamond plate, or stainless steel, and he'll mount all the piping, circulators, valves and controls on the board, and mostly the contractor will do this work in his shop. Then he'll hump the big, heavy board to the jobsite and mount it proudly on a boiler-room wall. It's tough work.
And this is where Dennis Bellanti's brilliant plan for the Dungeon came from. He started to wonder what a contractor's life would be like if that guy didn't have to build those boards on the jobsite. Contractors in the mountain communities tend to reduce the size of their shop and warehouse because the rents have skyrocketed. Most contractors build their systems on the jobsite, where they're usually working in a cold, dark basement to get the heat on for the other trades.
Dennis told me that he's been on some jobs where the outdoor temperatures are in the teens, but the basement is below zero degrees because the cold air settles there during the night. "It's a miserable place to work," he says.
"And they waste a lot of time each day, unloading tools and materials, and then packing it all back up again in the late afternoon, only to have to repeat the routine the next day. Inevitably, they will need that one copper fitting that’s not in the truck and that kills productivity while they run out to get it."
He said that the noise, mess and distraction of other trades would drive him nuts. I think it would drive me nuts, too. How can you possibly focus on what you're doing and get it right the first time?
But what if that guy could build those boards at Ferguson's place, where everything he might need to get the job done would be just a few steps away?
In other words, what if the old Dungeon became the place where babies come from?
Dennis and his team went to work cleaning out the old Dungeon. It took time because they did it all themselves, but when they were done, they had turned that nasty place into the new "You-Build-It-Here Ferguson Customer Fab Shop."
I just call it the Baby Factory.
Here's how it works. First, if a contractor asks, the Ferguson guys will do a complete design package for him. This includes a detailed heat-loss report, a piping schematic (with everything properly sized), a custom wiring diagram, and all the product literature, packaged in a presentation binder for the contractor's customer. Ferguson also provides a detailed material bid list, with duplicate copies for the files.
In talking with Dennis about his idea, he said, "We have 12 guys who do nothing but hydronic support, design, and sales, and in that order. We have a great mixture of older veterans and eager young bucks. I can’t tell you how much I look forward to coming to work each day, just to spend time with these people. They are the best."
These are the guys who do the design. I've met them and spent time with them, and they are as sharp as they come.
When a contractor is ready to pipe, all he has to do is call Ferguson to reserve a workstation. The place is clean, spacious, well lit and fully equipped with fittings and hardware. There are Rigid copper-fitting machines that cut, ream and clean pipes and fittings. There's an abrasive chop saw, an acetylene torch rig, a grinder, drill, chain vice, pipe wrenches, work benches, fabrication stations so a person can work standing up. Imagine that! There's a zone-label maker, and lots of hand tools. Oh, and they have boards available – your choice of plywood, white melamine, polished diamond plate, and stainless steel. It's all in one place.
Contractors sometimes ask me what value a wholesaler adds nowadays. Times have changed, they say. Design help is available on the Internet. Wholesalers might not have what a guy needs. What good are they anymore? Where's the value?
Ferguson's Nursery is my new answer.
How does a wholesaler add value? They do something that's brilliant, something like this. They have a warehouse filled with what you use, and that eliminates trips from your shop to the supply house (Heck, you're at the supply house!)
You pay for only what you need. You're working in a space designed for this sort of assembly, so you save time, and even more important, wear and tear on your body.
You can pressure-test your new baby for leaks (saves on diapers once you get to the job), and you can test and program all the controls right there where the lighting is good and there's room to maneuver. That sure beats trying to do the same work on the jobsite, where the working conditions can't possibly be so sweet.
If there's a problem with anything, be it piping, wiring or programming, those 12 Ferguson Wetheads are over there in the next room. You're never alone. And when you're done making your baby, the Fergonites will shrink-wrap and carefully package your work of art and deliver it to the jobsite. They'll also deliver your boiler and your indirect tank. And all for free.
Dennis told me that they take photos of each "baby" that leaves the shop, along with its proud parent. They've stared a Wall of Fame with these photos. And that's the thing about Dennis; he thinks of stuff like that, little things that make a guy feel proud.
"We took what we once called The Dungeon, polished it up and turned it into a customer-service tool," Dennis says. "That’s why I like working with my guys. They see possibilities where others can’t."
And did you notice how he gives credit to others; to the people he works with, and to his customers – always to his customers.
So how's it working so far? One contractor said, "For a small, four-zone system, I saved over a day's labor cost by working here." And another said, "I laid in bed last night, thinking about how I can do my next one even better and faster."
And I say that when grown men lay in bed at night, thinking about where babies come from, the hydronics industry is in very good shape indeed.