Allegheny Supply: Providing Customers With Essential Products, Services & Knowledge For 5-Plus Decades
By Harrell Kerkhoff, Maintenance Sales News Magazine Editor
The “secret” to succeeding in business sometimes gets lost in today’s fast-paced work environment and the seemingly over-abundance of communication tools. For a successful jan/san distributorship, however, nothing quite works as well as “old-fashioned” customer service. Officials at Allegheny Supply, located in Duncansville, PA, have relied on this “secret” for 52 years — with no plans of changing.
“We view our sales staff more as consultants than salespeople. The main objective is to help our customers. We stress to the members of our staff to avoid selling something that they would not use themselves, or don’t believe would help our customers,” Allegheny Supply President John Weakland said. “Today’s customers can purchase various cleaning supplies from a variety of places. Although we do focus on offering premium products, our service and training capabilities remain key to keeping customers satisfied and coming back.
“It’s also important to understand, we are not out there selling something cheap, just to get our foot in the door. We want to offer something that lasts. One of my father’s (company founder, the late Faber C. Weakland) philosophies in business was, ‘The products we sell have to make our customers happy in order for both the customers, and our company, to be successful.’ It’s also important to go the extra mile, once a customer purchases that product. As sales consultants, we make sure the products and services we provide, as a distributorship, are meeting the needs of our customers.”
That includes always being available, even after 5 p.m., which is accomplished at Allegheny Supply with the help of a 24/7 answering service as well as online chat capabilities. If a customer calls with a question or problem, the answering service will contact an on-call Allegheny Supply representative. That person will then reach out to the customer.
“It can involve a customer who needs a product or piece of equipment fixed in an emergency situation,” Weakland said. “We work with many customers who are responsible for cleaning facilities at night. Sometimes things happen after 5 p.m., and such customers can get into a bind.
“Providing ‘service after the sale’ goes a long way to helping customers with the various issues they are tackling. We also do not have a problem with switching out a product to something different if a customer has an issue. It’s all about taking care of the people who rely on us, as a distributor.”
Allegheny Supply carries a complete line of janitorial, food service, warewash, laundry, paper, safety, facilities & grounds and packaging products and related equipment.
“Basically, we have anything imaginable for the cleaning world. We are also a direct supplier for seven equipment manufacturers, and have available a full service warewash and laundry service team. That includes providing sanitation programs for commercial kitchens and laundries,” Weakland said. “Our customer base range involves universities and schools, hospitality, health care, the industrial market and churches. Nobody is too small or too large.”
The distributorship also operates an authorized warranty repair shop for six major equipment brands, while Weakland added the company’s service techs can fix approximately 90 percent of the equipment found in the marketplace that is not under warranty. Equipment repair involves both floor machines and commercial dish machines.
“We try to fix most equipment onsite, especially the larger items. For the smaller equipment, such as vacuums and self-contained extractors, we will normally bring those back to our facility. We have three in-house equipment personnel and six service techs in the field,” Weakland said. “We also have six service vans on the road that are fully stocked, with our service techs working on such items as floor care equipment, dish machines and laundry equipment.”
There are currently 32 employees at Allegheny Supply, which includes salespeople, office and warehouse personnel, drivers, service technicians, customer service representatives, purchasing personnel and a recent hire who oversees the company’s social media platform.
“We try to treat everybody like family. Many of our employees have been with us for 10 to 15 years,” Weakland said. “We have even had employees leave, only to come back, finding the grass was not greener someplace else. That is fine. We don’t hold people back for trying to better themselves.”
When looking for new employees, officials at Allegheny Supply use the services of a hiring agency to find the best candidates — especially challenging during today’s overall shortage of workers.
“I would not necessarily say we are having trouble finding people to employ, but at the same time, it’s not the easiest thing to do,” Weakland said.
A Nice Place To Call Home
Although a small town itself with a population of approximately 1,250 residents, Duncansville is located within the Altoona, PA, metropolitan statistical area, which is home to an estimated 122,800 people. Allegheny Supply’s service region primarily includes all of Pennsylvania as well as western Ohio and northern Maryland. The company’s warewash and commercial laundry services extend to many other states, primarily along the Eastern Seaboard.
“One major advantage to our location is its proximity to a great network of highways, and we are within 120 miles of five major cities. That includes Pittsburgh, PA,” Weakland said. “We service all of those areas, involving many customers such as hospitals and universities. They are within a short drive. It’s a good population base.”
Allegheny Supply employs five drivers to help transport the company’s products to various customers. The importance of the job is not lost on Weakland and other company officials.
“We stress to drivers, it can take a year to gain an account, and then lose that account with one bad delivery. Our drivers often have more face-to-face time with customers than our salespeople. Therefore, it’s important our drivers are respectful and courteous, which they are, as we have great drivers,” Weakland said. “They see a lot of what goes on and provide a great service. Sometimes it involves delivering products to hard-to-reach places, such as basements.”
Although deliveries are scheduled on a weekly basis, he added exceptions are made for emergencies.
One area that company officials are hoping to improve on involves Allegheny Supply’s current facility in Duncansville. A lack of space and amenities is causing issues.
“We were looking into expanding the facility several years ago and then COVID hit, causing us to delay that decision. We are now thinking about expansion again,” Weakland said.
Part of the problem with space within the company’s warehouse is that due to the pandemic, the ordering of substitutions has often led to an influx in inventory.
“Keeping track of that inventory has been a full-time job,” Weakland said. “We perform weekly cycle counts and rely on our computer system, but the entire process has been tougher since the start of the pandemic. It’s especially important to keep track of substitutes.”
Start Small, Think Big
Like many family businesses, the origins of Allegheny Supply started on a small scale. In 1971, Faber Weakland purchased a healthcare cleaning supply franchise known as Airkem Altoona. Although Faber was the only employee selling Airkem products, the business grew, and he eventually moved it from his home garage to a closed barbershop located on the east end of Altoona. Soon, a part-time bookkeeper was hired.
Shortly thereafter, Faber’s brother-in-law, Andrew T. Carney, was discharged from the U.S. Army and came home to work on his master’s degree while attending night school at St. Francis College, located in nearby Loretto, PA. At that time, Carney was also hired as a sales rep during the day. The business steadily grew, necessitating the hiring of a second part-time bookkeeper.
After receiving his master’s degree, Carney joined the company as a partner. Soon, Airkem Altoona was changed to Allegheny Supply, warehouse and office space were purchased, a delivery person was hired, and a program was set into motion to put the company on the map as a reliable jan/san house.
In 1978, to help support the supply business, a cleaning maintenance and snowplow business was started, and the distributorship joined ISSA. In the fall of 1980, ISSA published an article about Allegheny Supply becoming one of the first jan/san distributors to provide commercial warewash and laundry products, along with related routine and emergency services needed by such customers.
By 1989, John Weakland, Faber’s son, graduated from East Carolina University and joined the Allegheny staff as a sales rep, while simultaneously earning his master’s degree from St. Francis University. Meanwhile, Allegheny Supply was quickly being recognized by other suppliers. New lines were added, including away-from-home paper products. The company outgrew the original facility and moved to a larger rented space in an old farmer’s market building, in downtown Altoona. In the meantime, another salesperson, along with two full-time office workers, were hired. The company soon also outgrew the Altoona facility, and a 10,000-square-foot building was purchased in Duncansville. A third salesperson and a second delivery truck were added.
Eventually, Allegheny Supply was also successful in obtaining a purchase agreement contract to supply kitchen sanitation products for facilities in Pennsylvania, including state hospitals and prisons. In the spring of 1998, an additional 5,000 square feet were added to the existing warehouse.
In 2005, after graduation from the University of Pittsburgh, Andy’s son, Michael Carney, joined the staff as a sales rep.
“Allegheny Supply has grown over the years into a hardworking, family-oriented small business that pays particular attention to servicing loyal customers. The company has also invested in a state-of-the-art computer system, consisting of links to suppliers and website ordering,” John Weakland said. “We always like to thank our dedicated employees, as well as current and future customers, because without them our business would not exist.”
As just about any company owner can attest, no matter the industry, it has not been ‘business as usual’ since the emergence of, and fallout from, the COVID pandemic. Although day-to-day life is generally getting back to a more normal rate, challenges still abound when running a business and taking care of customers. Such challenges include supply chain disruptions and higher prices for just about everything, due to inflation.
“The main challenge at the start of the pandemic was getting enough disinfectants, sanitizers and PPE supplies. That has subsided, but we still experience certain supply chain disruptions, involving various types of products,” Weakland said. “The situation is getting better, but still a struggle at times. It’s not one type of product that is always hard to get, but rather varies from day to day.
“We are working with different suppliers to help fill the void as it pertains to hard-to-receive items. The good news is, many of our customers have been very cooperative with accepting substitute products, which we provide if nothing else is available. We try to send substitutes as minimally as possible. Everyone seems to understand today’s supply chain challenges.”
Another challenge is today’s rate of inflation. Prices keep rising, with Weakland adding, “It’s a full-time job just to keep up with all of the price hikes. We work with our suppliers to keep prices in check, while also keeping the lines of communication open with customers. It’s important to let them know what to expect with future price changes.”
Despite such challenges, in many respects, the current business climate has been far less stressful for distributors and other businesses compared to the early days of the pandemic. It’s a time Weakland and his staff remember very well, and not necessarily with fondness.
“Those were hectic times. We were obviously trying to find sanitizers/disinfectants and PPE for our customers. We also had our warewash and laundry programs to service. It was a struggle because some customers would let us into their facilities, and some would not. There were customers who required our employees to show their negative COVID test results before entering a location,” Weakland said. “The hard part was, our customers needed help but we could not always visit. There was also a lot of juggling taking place with suppliers when getting material, as our suppliers were dealing with the same issues as everybody else.”
On the positive side, he added the pandemic brought out the good in a lot of people, including employees at Allegheny Supply.
“Everybody here pitched in with hard work, long hours, dedication, and a passion for the industry,” Weakland explained. “We did have to stagger schedules in our office for a time during the early days of the pandemic, but our warehouse and service personnel were here each day.”
Fortunately, hard times brought about by the early days of the pandemic have passed, hopefully never to return. Despite today’s own set of challenges, Weakland said overall business at his distributorship has been good.
“We have enjoyed growth just about every year for the past 20 years, which has continuously improved our sales,” Weakland said.
He expects such growth to continue despite the challenges and changes not only facing business in general, but in particular, the jan/san industry.
“There are obviously a lot of mergers and acquisitions taking place in our industry, with fewer independent distributors around compared to 10 or so years ago. That is a challenge as larger/consolidated distributors can often deliver products quicker, on a regular basis, than we can. To offset that, we work to provide the type of customer service that is hard for a larger distributorship to accomplish,” Weakland said.
Another challenge found within today’s business climate is keeping up with the many social media platforms now available to customers.
“We continue to educate customers and provide them with premium products and services, which I feel is a good alternative to simply getting online and ordering something fast. However, we do recognize that many customers who purchase products today are younger. They often would rather point-and-click versus having face-to-face conversations,” Weakland said. “We are working on how to better connect with those customers, such as having a larger social media presence. That often involves niche markets, which we are trying to tap into, for future business opportunities.”
One area of business at Allegheny Supply that is not going out of style is a strong focus on customer training. That is especially important for those jan/san end-users who face constant employee turnover within their cleaning staffs.
“That is one of the biggest issues for many of our customers — and it’s ongoing. Therefore, we continue to provide training that includes a wide variety of cleaning products and procedures,” Weakland said. “Our training involves both tradeshows and onsite capabilities. We have even taken buses to supplier locations for two-day training programs. And, we often bring people to our own facility, mostly for equipment training.
“It’s always important that our customers, and their employees, know how to correctly use products and equipment, which goes a long way in improving productivity. Simply put, the more a person knows about a product, the better that product will work.”
Part of today’s training also involves highlighting the benefits of sustainable practices and using products that are considered friendlier toward the environment.
“We work with certain clients, such as university and industrial customers, who are very big on sustainability and ‘green’ products,” Weakland said. “We do try to promote such products and systems.”
As Allegheny Supply enters its 52nd year of service, Weakland remains optimistic about the future of the distributorship.
“I’m confident that there is a lot of growth opportunity ahead within the jan/san and related markets,” he said. “We also remain very involved in the warewash and laundry segments. There is a big learning curve with that type of work, but we feel it’s something Allegheny Supply will be succeeding in for another 52 years.”