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The Capital Way of Distribution

By Graeme Golucki | December 1, 2014 << Back to Articles

Tom Hanna founded Capital Sanitary Supply Co., Inc. in 1939, selling janitorial supplies, such as mops and buckets, detergent, hand soap, and wax, throughout the Des Moines, IA metro area. His first employee was Leyland Brown, who ended up purchasing the company from Hanna in 1966.

Current Capital Sanitary Supply CEO Doug Ireland joined the company in 1961 as an assistant comptroller. But in 1968, his position unexpectedly changed.

“A couple years after Brown purchased the company, he had a heart attack at a manufacturer’s plant, and I went into sales,” Ireland explains. “I remember at the time saying to my boss, ‘Someone’s got to sell something or else we won’t be open.’”

Ireland transitioned from the world of accounting to sales quickly and successfully. “By 1970, I had become sales manager,” he says. “And in 1976, when Brown was looking to retire, I purchased the company.”

It was under Ireland that Capital Sanitary Supply began expanding.

“We opened our first satellite office soon after I purchased the company,” he says. “Now we have three separate satellite offices, distributing janitorial supplies throughout the state of Iowa.”

Rain, Rain, Go Away
It wasn’t all sunshine for Capital Sanitary Supply though. Sometimes a little rain falls, and in 1993 it stormed. “In 1993, the city of Des Moines was hit with a particularly brutal flood,” Ireland recollects. “Our office was totally wiped out. But that didn’t stop us. We moved out of our building to an off-site location for 75 days and continued to do business. We never really missed a beat. Our people all pitched together, and our trucks went out the very next day.”

ISSA on the Lookout
Capital Sanitary Supply joined ISSA in 1944, and according to the firm’s CEO, it’s been a fruitful relationship ever since.

“The thing about ISSA is that the association has always kept us apprise of the changes in the industry—whether it is manufacturing and distribution news or new products,” says Ireland. “Regulations are a big thing, too, and ISSA keeps us up to date. ISSA looks out for its members by watching out for the kind of things that we don’t have the time to worry about and research on our own. ISSA helps us in a great way by keeping our company current and legal while upholding the best practices for business.”

As a distributor, Capital Sanitary Supply makes a point to travel to the annual ISSA/INTERCLEAN® trade show.

“I’ve gone to the show most of the years I’ve been in business,” Ireland says. “Our company is always represented there; we’ve never not sent someone to the show.

“For distributors, it is important to go to the show every year no matter what because you can sit down and talk to people that count. You can get more things done in a five minute face-to-face conversation on the ISSA/INTERCLEAN show floor than the same amount of days over the telephone.”

Not only does the trade show offer valuable face time, but it also helps Capital Sanitary stay on top of new products and current trends.

“As distributors, we need to stay abreast of what is being introduced so we can stay cutting edge,” says Ireland. “If you don’t go to ISSA/INTERCLEAN every year, you might not know about the new products for another six to eight months.”

Computing Profits
As someone who has been in the jansan distribution business over the course of six decades, Ireland has seen his fair share of change.

“The biggest change is obviously the rise of computers and the Internet,” he says. “I think we invested in our first computer in the early 70s and have benefited from them ever since. The impact on our sales staff has been unmeasurable. Now our sales team does not have to come into the office every day; it can all be done electronically. This creates more time and opportunities. Our staff can now do more business—and do it better—thanks to technology.”

Personal Personnel
While keeping up with technology has kept Capital Sanitary Supply competitive through the years, in the end it comes down to the people behind those computers, tablets, and smart phones.

“I think the success or failure of a business depends on how well you make your personnel decisions” says Ireland. “We’ve been fortunate to have three branches and the right person to run each of them. Staff is key to any business’ success. When you’ve got the right people who will do what they know needs to be done without being told, life gets a whole lot simpler.”

Finding the right people though is sometimes a challenge. But over the years, Ireland has learned how to find, and more importantly keep, employees.

“We look for good communication skills,” Ireland says. “Our sales people have to be able to communicate well with customers and have knowledge of our products and how they are used. And we always treat our sales people fair. There’s nothing hidden here. Our staff knows the costs on everything that we do. There’s a level of trust between sales and our management team that may not be there with other companies. Our distributors always have to be offering ways to help our customers save money and do their jobs better. No matter how things change, being a successful jansan supply distributor is—and always will be—a people business.”

Plans for Success
During recent years, the number of distributors has seen a decline, with mergers and consolidations. But Capital Sanitary Supply has a plan to succeed well into the future. Scott Ireland, president of Capital Sanitary Supply, thinks collaboration with other distributors is critical.

“I think our partnership with the [distribution buying group] Network Services Co. is going to be key to our growth and success in the future,” he says. “For a local distributor, it gives us a chance to compete on a national level with other local distributors across the country. It gives us access to customers local, national, and worldwide. It has opened up new avenues. When you look around the country, business used to be more localized. Now you have to find a way to be nationwide, and Network Services gives us that opportunity.”

According to Doug Ireland, again, having the right people is key. “The number of distributors is dwindling every year with people selling or going out of business” he says. “But we think we are and will remain a strong player. If you don’t put money back or hire the right people or pay them the right fee, you won’t last long. Make sure you pay your people a fair salary and commissions, and they’ll stay loyal and reward you in the long run.”

Under the leadership of the Ireland family, it looks as if Capital Sanitary Supply is poised to be a strong player in the janitorial supply distribution market for many more decades to come.

Graeme Golucki is ISSA's Web Content Manager and can be reached at; phone, 800-225-4772 (North America) and 847-982-0800. 

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