Brame Celebrates 100 Years Of Helping Customers Prosper

By Harrell Kerkhoff, Maintenance Sales News Editor

Brame is a leading independent distributor of jan/san and other supplies and is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2024. Company officials include, left to right, Kristie Collins, Mike Holland, Bart Cash, and Mercer Stanfield. The company includes six distribution centers. Its central location is in Durham, NC. (Photo courtesy of Brame)

Service, knowledge, dedication, and trust have served Brame well as a leading independent distributor of jan/san and other supplies over the past 100 years. It’s an achievement that will be celebrated throughout 2024, the company’s centennial.

“It’s an exciting time for us with everything we have planned,” Brame President & CEO Mercer Stanfield said. “The company is now in its fourth generation of family ownership and includes six distribution centers serving three states (North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia). It’s been quite a good story.”

The company was founded in January 1924 in Durham, NC, by R.L. Brame. It was a one-employee, one-room operation that involved a used truck and the selling of a sweeping compound, which Mr. Brame made himself. The story goes he called his business Brame Specialty Company because, first, it included his name; and second, he wasn’t sure what other products the company would eventually offer to meet future customer needs.

Through hard work, the addition of dedicated employees and loyal customers, the company began to grow. Eventually, its product line grew as well.

In 1930, R.L. Brame had an office and warehouse built. At that point, the company consisted of a bookkeeper, two salesmen, two warehousemen/drivers and Mr. Brame. The organization was developing into a promising business when, in 1933, fire destroyed the building. Soon, the company took up temporary space in different parts of Durham to store inventory and continue its operation. When J.B. Brame, son of the founder, returned from World War II and joined the company he designed a modern fireproof building. Around that time, the company was incorporated.

J.B. Brame succeeded his father as company president in 1965. R.L. Brame, meanwhile, continued to sell and deliver merchandise until his death in 1968.

Jim Brame Jr., who succeeded his father J.B. Brame as president in 1984, joined the firm in 1959 and was followed by brothers Bob Brame in 1964 and Randy Brame in 1971. Together the three sons, like their father and grandfather before them, and aided by a team of dedicated employees, were able to sustain the company’s growth.

Along with its central location in Durham, Brame Specialty Company expanded to different parts of North Carolina and Virginia. The expansion included new operations in Rocky Mount, NC, in 1947; Wilmington, NC, in 1977; Charlotte, NC, in 1985; Roanoke, VA, in 1991; and Richmond, VA, in 2013. In 1989, a retail store named Not Just Paper was opened in downtown Durham to provide service to walk-in customers, and included school and office supplies. Meanwhile, a new 80,000-square-foot facility in Durham was completed in 1991, and has since been renovated and continues operating today as one of six distribution points for Brame.

In 2012, the company transitioned into its fourth generation of family leadership as Mercer Stanfield, son-in-law of Jim Brame Jr., took the helm as President and COO. In the following years, Brame underwent a rebranding intended to modernize the company’s logo and add a tagline. The decision was also made to drop the “Specialty Company” part of its name and simply be known as “Brame.” A new logo and tagline were unveiled in 2017.

Today, Brame is a full line distributor and solutions provider of facility maintenance supplies and equipment, laundry supplies and accessories, and industrial packaging. The main goal is to assist customers in improving the appearance, health, and efficiency of their away-from-home facilities.

“We also have a strong focus on what we call ‘interiors,’ which involves our furniture sales, design, and install group,” Stanfield said. “Overall, our verticals include education, health care, building service, contractors, food processing, and municipalities.”

After 100 years of operation, the question that begs to be asked is: What does it take for a company to survive and thrive after 10 decades, through all the ups and downs of business, industry trends, and changes in customer needs and desires? Stanfield shared some thoughts.

“When it comes to our company’s history, I feel there are a few essential attributes that have allowed Brame to succeed. No 1, it takes wonderful and dedicated people who have been part of our company over its many years. These people have pulled in the same direction, shared key company core values, held each other accountable, cared about each other, and have looked after each other. It’s also important to learn from past mistakes, and we all make mistakes,” Stanfield said.  “No. 2, there has been a long culture in place at Brame that focuses on putting customers first. We all know that without customers, this company does not exist. No. 3, we have benefited from the longevity of many wonderful supplier partnerships. That has provided great consistency in the products that we offer customers. And No. 4, good communication around succession planning has taken place over the years. It’s important that different generations of a family company properly communicate and be on the same page. That also includes properly communicating with employees, customers and suppliers that have helped build such a solid company and future. Those are key reasons why Brame is now celebrating 100 years.”

Brame representatives will recognize the company’s century of achievements in a variety of ways throughout 2024. That includes a centennial video, a special gathering in late spring, and smaller celebrations involving various markets.

A Good Place To Live And Work

Shown, left to right, are J.B. Brame and R.L. Brame. (Photo courtesy of Brame)

The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill region of North Carolina is often referred to as the Research Triangle due to the locality of three major research universities in the area — Duke University, the University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State University — as well as being a hub for technology and biotech companies. According to Stanfield, the area is a very good place to live and conduct business. The same is true, he added, for the entire Brame service region.

“We cover all of North Carolina as well as most of Virginia and South Carolina with the help of properly placed distribution centers. Having multiple faculties helps us better serve our regional customers,” Stanfield said. “Brame is fortunate in that our business in conducted in a high-growth part of the country, in three states that are business friendly. It’s an area that has outperformed the general U.S. economy over the past several years, and it’s projected to do the same for the foreseeable future. It helps that we are also in a part of the country that continues to attract new residents.

“Our Durham headquarters was recently fully renovated. It’s very state-of-the-art. Within our six locations we stock approximately 7,000 products and have access to more than 50,000 items for immediate delivery.”

He described business as currently being “very good” at Brame, noting the company experienced another revenue record in 2023.

“We have been fortunate to experience greater than average growth. It certainly helps that our entire region is business-friendly, with many customers who value ‘service’ and ‘expertise,’” Stanfield said. “It’s important that we, at Brame, continue to focus on our proven processes, the relationships that have been built, and the differentiators that set us apart. A major objective is to always focus on the needs and goals of our customers, allowing them to become more successful.”

It’s also important at Brame to expand the company’s business segments. For example, while Brame has sold furniture for decades, predominately to the K-12 education market, a real emphasis has been made in recent years to grow the product category. That has included the addition of new vendor partners as well as providing inhouse office design and furniture installation services.

“Customers are now able to look to Brame for all their furniture needs. They can trust their furniture orders will be delivered on a Brame truck, driven by a Brame driver, and assembled and installed by Brame employees,” Stanfield said. “Our Durham facility features a furniture showroom for customers who are interested in the different products that we can design and sell. Members of our design team can also visit a customer’s space and develop a layout that works best for their needs.”

Whether it’s office furniture, floor care items, restroom supplies or other products available at Brame, Stanfield and his team stress the importance of quality customer service.

“The expectations of our customers continue to evolve, which I believe has helped our company to also evolve and change for the better. For example, we have improved our inventory analytics and fill rates to meet evolving customer needs. We are proud that Brame is continuously aligning its business for the benefit of our customers. Changing customer expectations have helped us become a better distributor,” Stanfield said. “It’s also important that our customers feel they can communicate with us in person, while at the same time, take advantage of the technology we have in place. Such technology allows them to look over our inventory, place orders and/or pay a bill online — at any time of the day or night.”

Another key part of customer service these days is being able to provide sustainable/environmentally friendly products and systems. It’s an area of business that Stanfield said is very well received within a good portion of the company’s customer base.

“It was a focus that was lost to a certain degree during the COVID pandemic when people were just trying to get anything they could to help their companies survive. The good news is, a strong focus toward sustainability and environmentally friendly products and systems has returned for many people,” Stanfield said. “Brame strives to provide sustainable solutions for customers as well as increase its own sustainability role as a business.”

Ongoing customer training is also vital. Such training by Brame representatives is conducted both inhouse and onsite, and involves such topics as proper cleaning methods, OSHA compliance, and HAZMAT (hazardous materials) procedures.

“Staff turnover continues to be a big issue for our customers. It’s therefore essential that we remain a high-touch company, one that can meet the different training and compliance demands placed by our customer base,” Stanfield said. “Brame also conducts an annual event for our customers that includes different suppliers showcasing their new products. We provide additional training opportunities at the event as well, which has become very popular.”

Helping customers also comes in other forms at Brame, namely servicing equipment and operating its own fleet of delivery vehicles.

“We continue making the necessary investments regarding our service department, which involves servicing and repairing floor, laundry, warewash, and packaging equipment. We stand behind the products we sell with a team of knowledgeable and factory-trained service technicians. We also service equipment that we didn’t sell,” Stanfield said. “We currently have a great team of nine technicians.”

Employing quality delivery drivers is also critical to Brame’s success. Those essential workers operate the company’s 25 delivery trucks and six cargo vans, with most orders delivered the next day. The distributorship maintains over 200,000 square feet of warehouse space.

“Our ERP system is fully integrated. All inventory that comes in and goes out is scanned, enabling us to have a very small error rate of less than .5 of 1 percent,” Stanfield said.

Brame currently has approximately 160 employees, with its sales force consisting of mostly outside direct sellers.

“We have been hiring some inside account managers as well to provide added customer support and work on lead generation,” Stanfield said. “Finding the right people to hire can be challenging. We hire based on our core values, so each hire must be the right fit.”

He noted it can take a long time to properly learn about the cleaning industry, including all the different products and systems available to customers.

“We stock approximately 7,000 items. That can be daunting. We feel it takes 18 to 24 months to get most new hires properly trained,” Stanfield said. “The main objective is to be customer focused and come to work with a positive attitude. We are professional and dedicated in how we work with each other and with our customers. We also have a culture of safety in place, with our employees looking out for each other. Such values are true throughout the organization, whether an employee is answering the phone, making a delivery, working on equipment, or calling on customers.

“We don’t outsource any part of our company. Every ‘touch’ is by a Brame person. That includes delivery, service and/or install of any product. There is no third-party involved. We also don’t have call centers, but rather answer the phones ourselves. It helps that everybody at Brame is on the same page when taking care of customers and providing best-in-class service.”

Along with hiring quality employees, one of the key reasons Brame is celebrating its 100th anniversary involves its ongoing working relationship with valued suppliers. Many of those relationships have spanned 60 years or longer.

“We look for supplier partners who are willing to commit and invest in a shared growth plan. We feel there is great momentum and opportunity in helping our customers grow their businesses, and we want to share that momentum and opportunity with our supplier partners,” Stanfield said. “We are also intensely loyal to our suppliers, and know that as a distributor, we can’t do it alone. We need the help of those suppliers.”

Keeping up with technology is also vital.

“For example, we are implementing AI tools, such as those that involve ‘demand planning,’ to help us remain relevant in the industry,” Stanfield said.

Optimism In A Pandemic-Changed World

Whether or not the world (including business) will ever truly resemble life prior to March 2020 is yet unknown. However, one thing is clear; the importance of the cleaning industry is now very well understood by many. A greater importance has been placed on cleaner and safer away-from-home facilities. The pandemic proved that schools, offices, entertainment venues, and a wide variety of other facilities can totally shut down due to an outbreak. Therefore, the need for proper cleaning supplies, training, expertise, and guidance has never been more important.

Such attributes are the specialty of Brame and many other leading distributors across the country and world. The pandemic changed how society now views cleaning, the importance of hygiene, and the value of working with good distributors. Stanfield reflected on the COVID pandemic experience, how Brame representatives responded, and lessons that have been learned.

“It was a really difficult time, of which no one was truly prepared for at the onset. Our industry quickly became a focal point. People were scared and unsure of their future. The industry had to step up and perform, helping to put people at ease,” Stanfield said. “We sent most of our employees home at the start of the pandemic. Our initial memo stated it would be for a week. That turned out to be over a year for many.

“While we (at Brame) weren’t fully prepared for a pandemic, we were prepared for business interruption. We had the tools and technology in place, plus the people willing to work through the hardships. Most of our company employees went home and worked effectively during a really difficult time and didn’t miss a beat. That was due, in part, to our strong IT group. We still have some employees who work from home. I think the pandemic experience showed that it is possible to work outside of an office setting and still be successful.”

He added: “The entire cleaning supply industry was placed in the spotlight, and I think did extremely well — helping people navigate a scary time. It was accomplished through education, guidance, and expertise. That is what makes many of the companies in this industry so great.”

As a new year begins, Stanfield is optimistic not only about the various business segments that Brame is involved with, but the future of Brame itself as the company enters its 100th year.

“I have an optimistic outlook. We have executed well with our strategic plan, our differentiators are well defined, and our proven processes are just that — proven. As long as we continue to attract great employees, and work with customers who want a company like Brame to help them make a true difference in their own businesses, then our future will be strong,” Stanfield said. “Brame will continue to change, adapt, and diversify. You can’t become complacent.”

Stanfield’s own industry knowledge, largely gained after working in various Brame departments, has provided him with a unique insight. He came to the distributorship in 1996, after working several years for a building supply manufacturer, and started at Brame’s distribution center in Wilmington.

“Our current COO Bart Cash hired me in a sales capacity role. I knew very little about our company at the time, but I learned the trade and how to sell,” Stanfield said. “I have been fortunate over the years to have worked at three Brame locations — Wilmington, Charlotte, and Durham — serving in a variety of capacities. That has all proven to be very beneficial.”

Stanfield has also been active in several industry associations. That includes serving two terms on the ISSA Board of Directors.

“That type of participation provides many opportunities to become more involved, give back, and to be a voice for other independents. It’s also a great way to network and meet incredibly good and talented people,” he said. “It’s an honor to participate in such a way and a lot of fun.”

A strong proponent of the cleaning distribution industry, Stanfield said he highly recommends such work for members of younger generations.

“It’s the type of career where you can make a big difference in people’s lives and their health,” he said. “It’s also a good way to work with a diverse group of people and companies, helping customers reach their goals. You can become part of something that is much bigger than yourself.”

Visit bramespecialty.com.

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