Most companies that have survived for more than 80 years look unrecognizable compared to their beginnings. Perhaps no company better represents that massive transformation than Mason City, Iowa’s Huber Supply Company.
Huber Supply Company was formed in 1939, when Elmer Smith’s boat broke down on Lake Erie, stranding him in Port Clinton, Ohio. It was there that Smith met Nelson Schmidt, who worked for his father at a boat repair shop and was able to fix Elmer’s boat over the weekend. Elmer, who was working for Smith Equipment at the time, told Nelson to look him up if he was ever in Minneapolis and needed a job. Nelson came to Minneapolis to take Elmer up on the offer and found a room with George Huber’s grandmother, only a couple of blocks from Smith Equipment.
It was then that George and Nelson hit it off and began to talk about starting their own oxygen-acetylene route in Minnesota. At the same time as Nelson and George were acquiring a truck to start their route, Smith Company had come out with an electric welder. However, Elmer didn’t like the ventilated top of the welder and asked Nelson to make a better one. As Nelson and Elmer finalized the welder, George secured oxygen and acetylene cylinders for the route, and the company began to take shape.
However, tragedy soon struck the fledgling company, as Nelson was tragically killed in a car accident in Watertown, South Dakota.
“After Nelson passed away, my great grandfather continued to grow the business,” says Huber Supply President and fourth-generation leader Rodney Huber. “The company really started with a route and grew from there.”
However, as the company was hitting its stride, George was drafted to fight in World War II and was forced to sell the business. But when he was not medically cleared to serve, George approached the buyer, only to find that the business was no longer for sale.
“So, he looked for the closest Airco distributorships, and the closest one was in Mason City,” says Rodney. “He relaunched the business in 1945 in Mason City.”
As the company continued to grow, Huber’s son, Loren Huber, joined the company.
“My grandpa, Loren, got involved with the company after having worked on his own for a while,” says Rodney. “And then my dad, Doug, followed the same path as my grandpa. And we’ve gone through a couple of buyouts in the last ten years or so, to consolidate the business under my dad. And now, my siblings and I are the fourth generation of the family to work in the business.”
Today, Huber Supply Company has grown to three store locations and 30 employees. It is one of a consortium of independent distributors who are involved in Absolute Air, which Rodney expects to be a huge growth driver for the company going forward.
“In the last ten years our growth has really picked up. Especially as far as adding product offerings,” Rodney says. “When my dad took over the business, he really expanded our bulk offering. We had a lot of growth when he first took over the business and we put a lot of bulk tanks in. So, as a result of that, our repair department grew. Once we moved to our new location about five years ago, we brought hydrotesting in house. That was something myself and my brother spearheaded. And we’ve expanded our Internet site, which launched about ten years ago. That’s really big. Weldingoutfitter.com. It’s about 10% of our business.”
The company also started hauling its own bulk gas about three years ago.
“That has really spurred on some growth in the last three years,” says Rodney. “We put a store in Ames as a result of a major moving out of that market. And we’ve had opportunities to expand into different segments.”
While the company has experienced major growth in the past ten years, Huber expects that growth to kick into overdrive in the next ten.
“We are very excited about our future. I think that we will be double our size in the next five years. And we will have six or more branches. I think this Absolute Air venture is really going to take us to the next level,” he says. “The project was something that we felt we needed to be involved in. If we didn’t do it, we saw down the road that we would maybe get left behind in our marketplace and we wouldn’t be able to compete. So, it became a question of if we would reform how we saw ourselves as a company and maybe drop the bulk side of the business and pursue other avenues. Or, would we really go all in on it? And we decided to take the risk and go all in. And I think, in our marketplace, we have a really good opportunity.”
Absolute Air is expected to come online in the first quarter of 2022 and will give customers an independent gas and cryogenic solution provider. The state-of-the-art Air Separation Plant will assure an ongoing source of supply of Nitrogen, Oxygen and Argon requirements.
In addition to the consortium being key to Huber’s future growth, the group of independent distributors has also been a huge driver in Huber’s recent bulk growth.
“When we decided to start hauling our own bulk gas, we had a period of transition before we got our own trucks, where the Absolute Air companies were helping us haul some of our product,” says Rodney. “We didn’t have anybody lined up at that time and we had to wait for our trucks to come in. Those relationships have been really important.”
Strong Industry Relationships
Those strong relationships have been a hallmark of the company’s history and a big reason for its growth over 80 years. The company is not only an active GAWDA member and a part of Absolute Air, it also is a member of the IWDC.
“For myself, even though I’ve grown up in the industry and around the company, there’s a lot of stuff that I didn’t know about that we weren’t doing,” Rodney says. “My dad has always pushed the networking side of the business. He’s always thought that it’s a really big part of running a successful business. And it’s really helped us out. We’ve been able to bounce ideas off of people we’ve met and tour several other facilities to get new ideas. It’s been very important.”
Those strong industry relationships extend into its supplier base as well. As a full-service distributor, representing the best products in the industry is very important.
“Lincoln Electric has always been a big partner of ours on the hardgoods side of the industry,” Rodney says. “And for the size company that we are, we rank very highly on their sales list. We just have a very strong relationship with them. We always have.”
Family-Owned and Independent
In addition to its strong industry relationships, the company’s independence and company culture have also been integral to Huber’s success and longevity.
“We hear all the time from customers who found our website about how great it is that we’re family owned,” Rodney says. “In our area, with all of the consolidations, there aren’t a lot of independent options anymore. It gives our customers something different. And our pricing structure is different.
For example, we just picked up a customer because they were under contract with somebody else and they asked us to come in and look at their bulk tank. We said, ‘We can’t do anything with it, but we’ll take a look at it and give you some recommendations and you can try to fix it yourself.’ And so, our tech was able to go over there, look at the tank, diagnose it and they were able to fix it. And the reason why they called us in is because they couldn’t get somebody local with their supplier. So, I think being family owned and local is very important.”
Rodney took over as company president in 2019, after working with the University of Iowa’s Advance Iowa Family Business Forum, to ensure a smooth transition.
“We worked with a group that is helping us with the transition planning. My parents are still involved. And they have handed off a lot of things in the last couple of years to us kids. I would say that we were already transitioning naturally into some of these roles, and then we put our stamp on it and made it more forward facing to the employees,” Rodney says. “It has changed our company structure a little bit. My sister and brother are Vice Presidents of different sides of the business. My brother handles more of the gas operations side of the business and my sister handles more of the internal office and warehouse administrative side. And there are still hiccups that you deal with on a day-to-day basis. But it’s getting better and better as we grow.”
That generational shift is emblematic of what the company is also going through on a macro level.
“There is a culture shift right now, or a generational shift that we have going on in our business. We have a lot of employees who have been here for 30 or 40 years that are starting-to-think about transitioning. And we have some young up-and-comers that are in the business. So, there is going to be that gap to bridge. And we’re working through that. I think we have some really good, young people in our business that are talented and customer oriented,” Rodney says. “Within our company, we promote people that have positive attitudes. And when I say attitude, I mean a willingness to help the customer out. They’re always positive and pulling in the same direction. That’s really important for us. We want to create an environment where everybody likes to work together.”
The final piece of the puzzle for Huber has been its digital strategy. Launched ten years ago, weldingoutfitter.com is its e-commerce platform that today accounts for nearly 10% of the company’s business.
“Early in my career, when I was working on our dock as a cylinder filler, my dad wanted me to transition inside,” Rodney says. “I had some background in website design in high school and college and I always had a little bit of an interest in that. We had a website, and it was really bad. So, I redid that website. And then I said, ‘Why don’t we start selling online?’”
He continues, “So we started small. When it first launched, it was not very successful. We got one or two orders per week. And our first sites were kind of clunky and were not very good. And then we transitioned to another group. And we brought in a consultant on the SEO side of things. And as we grew out of the consultant, we started doing more and more in house. Three years ago, we brought in somebody to do the search engine optimization in house and the online advertising and do a little bit of the management of the site.”
He advises that success did not happen overnight.
“You have to be dedicated to it. You have to have the support personnel; you have to have the customer service and shipping people. It does really become a beast. If you don’t go into it with your eyes wide open and understand that it’s going to require some resources to be thrown at it, then you’re not going to be successful. I think we went through those growing pains, and I’ll be honest, it just continues to grow, and we’ve gotten into a bit of a sweet spot.”
Huber acknowledges that the e-commerce site will continue to grow in importance moving forward.
“The role of the salesperson is changing. It was changing before COVID, but it happened faster as a result of it. I don’t think you’re going to get in the door as easily. I think that’s going to stick around. It can be hard to get inside a factory. They’re locked down like Fort Knox,” he says. “And I know with the next generation of purchasers, they don’t want a face per se, they just want to be able to pick up the phone or send an email or go to a website to find what they need. They don’t want to necessarily find somebody to chit chat with. So, I think we should be conscious of that. Things are going to move more digital.”
Even though the company is more than 80 years old, Huber Supply Company is as young and vibrant as ever. In its fourth generation of leadership, the company is poised to explode in the coming years, as its involvement in Absolute Air begins to bear fruit and its digital platforms continue to gain traction and prominence. With a strong history and cultural base combined with these new age innovations, the sky is the limit.