The Durkin Company: Three New England Businessmen Take a Huge Risk That Pays Off
Many businesspeople will agree it is necessary to take risks from time to time to run a successful, growing company. There is a famous quote attributed to businessman Frederick Wilcox that says, “Progress always involves risks. You cannot steal second base and keep your foot on first.”
Three New England businesspeople may have taken risk-taking to another level when they took ownership of a jan/san distributorship in 2020 — as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country vigorously.
“We bought the company during the early part of the pandemic,” said The Durkin Company Executive Vice President of Sales Zach Trearchis, during a recent interview with Maintenance Sales News Magazine.
Trearchis co-owns the company, located in Billerica, MA, with President Joe Durkin and Executive Vice President of Operations Jack Reynolds.
“We all have families to look out for and there was no playbook for the extraordinary challenges presented by the pandemic,” Trearchis said. “We were managing the safety of our families and our employees, while, at the same time, trying to support the needs of the industry that the pandemic presented.”
The Durkin Company is a family-owned business that has provided janitorial and safety products to the New England area since 2003.
“Before we took ownership, Jack (Reynolds) and I had been minority owners for 17 years,” Joe Durkin said. “After joining the company in 2007, Zach (Trearchis) quickly became one of our top salespeople. It made financial sense to bring him on as a co-owner.”
So, in the end, was starting a new business venture during a world-wide pandemic reckless, or was it a good move?
“We have talked about that a lot,” Trearchis said. “It was good for us. We never missed a day. As an essential business, we stayed open the whole time. Like a lot of distributors, we pivoted toward selling personal protective equipment (PPE), masks, disinfectants, sanitizers, etc. We grew about 30 percent during the early part of COVID, and the growth really helped the company.”
About seven years ago, The Durkin Company started Division 10 Specialties that supports about 35 construction company clients with such items as restroom partitions, lockers, wall protection and fire extinguisher cabinets, among others.
“It started as a niche portion of the business since we’ve always been a Bobrick distributor for partitions and restroom accessories, but has really taken off under Zach’s leadership.” Durkin said.
As it turned out, the Division 10 work never slowed down even as the pandemic restrictions continued to expand, and many schools closed, and businesses adopted the work-from-home model. Division 10 now accounts for over $1 million in sales for the company.
Indeed, The Durkin Company made a concentrated effort to become a resource for its clients. It sourced products to help customers keep their businesses safe and running.
“We are fortunate to have a great staff. Everybody stepped up,” Trearchis said. “It was a tribute to the way a small business works. Many larger businesses seemed to fumble, and communication was not there, whereas small businesses, like The Durkin Company, benefitted.”
As for keeping The Durkin Company’s staff safe and healthy during the pandemic, many of the typical protocols were put in place.
“We took into consideration everyone’s opinion,” Trearchis said. “We had masks and practiced social distancing. If they wanted, people were allowed to work from home. We also followed CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines.”
The company also ramped up its daily cleaning efforts. Restrooms were cleaned every day and touchpoints, such as doorknobs, etc., were disinfected daily, Durkin said.
“As the pandemic progressed, CDC rules were constantly changing,” Reynolds said. “We paid a consulting firm to collaborate with us on human resources and guide us through all the regulations. That helped us tremendously.”
While COVID is still here, much of the country is trying to return to “normal,” while relaxing the protocols put in place during the first two years of the pandemic.
“We now have no mandates in place,” Trearchis said. “Individuals can choose what they feel keeps them safe.”
RESOURCES OF A NATIONAL COMPANY — QUALITY OF A SMALL BUSINESS
The foundation of how the company sets itself apart from the competition can be summed up by the following statement found on its website: “The Durkin Company has the resources of a national company, while having the quality of a small business.”
Under that banner, the company differentiates itself in other important ways, including its ability to establish long-term relationships with clients.
“We make it a practice of not going out there and just peddling products. We are more invested in acting as consultants and problem-solvers for clients,” Trearchis said. “We listen to find out what their issues are and what they are having problems with, and then we find solutions.
“We have noticed many or our competitors are merging, being bought out, and becoming bigger and bigger. As a result, communication breaks down, and it takes longer for things to happen. In contrast, we can ship quickly and work with our clients to meet their needs. We are not just focused on selling what we have in the warehouse.”
Still another differentiator is the commitment of salespeople, which includes ownership, to be in the field interacting with customers.
“Jack has 35-plus years industry experience in procurement, inventory management and product knowledge. He is a wealth of information and provides support for Joe and I while we are on the road meeting with clients” Trearchis said. “Joe and I are in the field with our clients every day, being there to solve problems in person, conduct product demos, hang dispensers, whatever it takes to meet customers’ needs.”
Communication and being honest are important components in establishing relationships with customers. If an order is delayed because of supply chain issues, for example, giving the customer the unwelcome news is as important as the good news.
“If the lead time for an order is six weeks, we will be honest and up front and tell the customer the truth,” Durkin said. “If the situation changes, we will communicate that, too.”
“Being transparent develops trust with customers,” Reynolds said. “We are a resource for our clients. Supply chain disruptions are a huge issue. Joe and Zach, and the rest of our sales team, are constantly asked, ‘I can’t get this item for 12 to 14 weeks, can you get it sooner?’ Our access to products in different market segments is unbelievable. We can source products and be competitive with our largest competitors. We are a tremendous resource for our customer base.
“To make up for the lack of consumable products following the wave of PPE, sanitizer, and disinfectant surge, we needed to broaden our scope of supplies. We looked to our customers to see what else we could help them with, and what were their challenges.
“A major advantage of being a small business is that we can pivot quickly as opposed to the larger companies that we compete against. We do not have red tape or multiple levels of management to go through to solve problems.
“At the very beginning of the pandemic, certain brands of wipes were like gold and extremely rare to come by. They were immediately on allocation and set aside for hospitals, home consumers and first responders. The jan/san distribution companies were an extremely low priority.”
As a result, the Durkin Company produced a solution for customers to wipe down surfaces.
“We ended up manufacturing dry wipe buckets in our own warehouse,” Reynolds said.” We utilized our relationships with vendors to buy small plastic buckets with lids and grommets to feed the wipes and an excellent quality wiper.
“Our customers could add whatever disinfectant they wanted or had access to. It was a crazy time, but we provided a much-needed product to our customer base for disinfection purposes during a global pandemic.
“When we were approached by a major university to help supply air filters, we were able to, not only source them overseas, but also deliver them within a couple of weeks. We were able to compete with Amazon on pricing and made hand-deliveries to several locations to save our customers from having to distribute them internally.”
In addition, The Durkin Company was approached by a property management company that manages an 80-acre property with 14 buildings. The company that owns the property often conducts tours and wanted a brand specific vehicle to show the buildings in all kinds of weather.
“They were looking for a tour/golf cart, but the lead time for a cart, at the time, was a year or longer,” Reynolds said. “Zach researched companies that sold the carts, made countless calls, and eventually found a used unit that was able to be modified for their exact needs.
“Once the machine was ready for pick up, we brought it to one of our customers that specializes in signage, customer workwear and vehicle wrapping, and had the cart wrapped with the property management company’s logo.”
“We have a maintenance department, so we are also able to maintain custom-made golf carts,” Trearchis said. “In October, we received two more requests for golf carts. One was from a large electronics manufacturing company with 4,000 employees that needs to be able to transport electronics around the site quickly and safely.
“Orders like these are so satisfying because it is obviously not in our core competency as a janitorial supplier. To bring that level of service to our end-users, and especially have them appreciate our efforts, is what solidifies our relationships and truly creates a partnership between our businesses.
“Market consolidation and acquisitions are magnifying the need for small, nimble independent distributors like The Durkin Company, whose employees actually pick up the phone and communicate with customers.”
There are also the value-added services The Durkin Company offers that trump the large online retailers, such as its maintenance department.
“Let us say, you buy something online and something goes wrong, then where do you go? You end up feeling stranded,” Trearchis said. “We are a local business. We cannot let people down because word of mouth travels fast. It is personal for us, and we need to make sure we take care of everybody, because that is how we grow our business.
“We are not putting up billboards or having commercials made. We are growing by word of mouth from our sales reps and our customers.”
It is also important to The Durkin Company’s ownership to give back to the community that provides the business the ability to grow and prosper.
“It is important to Zach, Joe and I to support and give back to our community in many ways,” Reynolds said. “For example, we support the Boys and Girls Club and local schools’ athletic events. Giving back to the people who support us is extremely important.”
THE COMPANY’S GREATEST ASSET
The Durkin Company’s leadership has made a concentrated effort to foster a company culture that allows employees to have a sensible work/life balance, with the opportunity to make a good living.
“Our greatest asset is our employees,” Durkin said. “While we are not the biggest guys out there, we do our best to compensate our people fairly. Flexibility in the workplace is important to us.
“If there is a death in the family, or if there is a baseball game involving their kids — we try to work with employees so they can get to the things that are important to them.
“A new employee program that we rolled out at the beginning of the year is called ‘Open Book.’ The program was developed to both motivate our team to grow the business and run more efficiently.
“However, and perhaps more importantly, we wanted to share in the success of the business with everyone. Obviously, sales growth is easy to measure and gauge, but growth is very rarely a result of one person.
“We want to reward all our team members who help minimize our costs and provide the best customer experience. That includes our warehouse manager planning our runs more efficiently, our customer service team working more accurately, our drivers working safely, our finance group collecting money earlier, and so on. All these factors lead to profitability and that is what we share.
“Based on our customers’ histories, we establish financial goals focused on growing our business, while maintaining or lowering our expenses. Our numbers are posted and sent to everyone in the company daily. It creates a lot of excitement when someone gets a large order, and everyone benefits. It really helps on the mindfulness for the customer, and with the culture in the office.
“Culture is something that we have truly invested a great deal of time in creating and maintaining. Like the show ‘The Office,’ we have a cake for every birthday. We will have several cookouts throughout the year in our parking lot just to change things up.
“As we reinvest in our people, we have also reinvested in our office space. We want our place to be different than other companies, especially other cleaning supply companies. Our conference room has a large shuffleboard table, our showroom has a dartboard, our warehouse has a basketball hoop and, last year, we turned our office into an entertainment space for customers and employees.
“We put a bar in with two types of beers on tap, a few TVs, couches and a relaxed atmosphere. It is a wonderful place to have our weekly meetings for our managers, and an even better spot to bring customers by for a demo or product meeting.”
The Durkin Company has had several events during working hours to show new products or equipment that coincidently fall on Major League Baseball’s opening day, The Masters golf tournament, the “March Madness” collegiate basketball tournament, and several others. The idea is creating something different, working hard and playing hard, Reynolds said.
“The new entertainment space also is a more inviting spot for our employees,” Reynolds said. “We have an open-door policy and want to hear from everyone that works here. We surrounded ourselves with smart people who often come to us with great ideas. Many members of our team have been with us for 10-15 years and we hope that they will finish their careers with the company.
“If we continue to surround ourselves with smart people and our team continues to speak up and are not afraid to throw out their ideas and concerns, we are extremely excited about our future.”
SIGNIFICANT ‘GREEN’ CONTRACT
In the not-so-distant past, as environmentally friendly or “green” products began to gain a toehold in the jan/san channel, there were issues such as the efficacy of the products and high price points. That is no longer the case, as green products work well and are sold at competitive price points to “regular” products.
Today, while the demand for green products varies among customer bases across the country, it is safe to say a large percentage of distributors carry the products and are knowledgeable when it comes to green programs.
As Reynolds alluded to, many times trends of any kind start to take hold on the West and East coasts, and then slowly filter inland. Such was the case of the so-called “green movement.”
“California led the charge for green and Massachusetts followed suit,” Reynolds said. “Environmentally friendly products are accepted here. Furthermore, a significant business opportunity recently arose when The Durkin Company was awarded a green contract for the six New England states, plus New York and Maryland.
“The name of the contract is EPP (Environmentally Preferable Products) program, which involves products that have some type of green certification. As a result, we have mostly green products in our warehouse.”
Indeed, Massachusetts is the lead state for the EPP contract, according to mass.gov.
“I don’t think there is a janitorial company that is not selling green products,” Trearchis said. “We are honest with our clients when discussing green — for example, ‘OK, if this is the product you want to use, let me be clear on its life span or shelf life’ — making sure the customer knows all about what he/she is purchasing.
“It is about being honest and telling customers what options they have, and the pros and cons of using certain products.”
TRAINING EFFORT INCLUDES TRYING TO GIVE PRISONERS A LEG-UP
The Durkin Company not only has developed its own training program, but it has also helped an important client do the same.
Years ago, The Durkin Company, with the help of its manufacturer’s reps, helped write standardized procedures on the proper use of products for a large defense contractor client, Durkin said. It consisted of step-by-step instructions, standardized products and chemicals, and videos to reinforce each lesson. Also, there was hands-on instruction where each task would be performed by the instructor and everyone taking the class. It has since become part of the defense contractor’s new employee training program, and as a guide to help if anyone needs a refresher.
“We have also developed a training program for non-violent offenders housed in local jails,” Durkin said. “Utilizing a similar training program as mentioned above, one of The Durkin Company’s employees spends four hours a day, teaching inmates, about the jan/san industry. That includes how to run machines, use products, etc. Then, when the prisoners are released, they will have earned certain certifications to help them get a leg-up in the job market.”
“We place some of them in positions in the industry,” Trearchis said. “We have been collaborating with the local sheriff. The program has been successful — it is a remarkable story.”
When it comes to training for clients, Trearchis said it is standard procedure for The Durkin Company reps to train customers’ cleaning crews whenever needed, including on second and third shifts.
It is also a standard practice to educate and train customers when they purchase a new piece of equipment.
“When we deliver a machine, the sales rep and a machine repair technician will go to the customer’s facility to train and educate. Our reps will show the client how to use, repair and clean the equipment. We stand behind what we sell with training,” Reynolds said.
The Durkin Company has a department for equipment repair and preventive maintenance. According to the company, its experts can help diagnose and fix the most complicated machine parts.
“When we get new equipment, we uncrate it and make sure it works. The equipment repair and preventive maintenance department does that with every piece of new equipment we sell,” Trearchis said. “All of our clients use us daily. They will call and say, ‘This machine is not working,’ or ‘The vacuum is too loud,’ or ‘It won’t turn on.’
“We pick up equipment, bring it back to our facility, send the customer a quote, repair it, and then deliver it back to the client. Our guys also make repairs in the field. We not only work on janitorial equipment, but also on lawnmowers and snowblowers.”
DRIVERS DOMINATE ‘EMPLOYEE OF THE YEAR’ AWARDS
Billerica is located about 20 minutes north of Boston. In 2021, the population of the Boston-Cambridge-Newton metropolitan area was about 4.9 million people.
“We are centrally located to our clients. We can turn orders around next day, and sometimes same day if needed,” Reynolds said. “In addition to being 20 minutes north of Boston, we are 20 minutes south of New Hampshire.”
Even given The Durkin Company’s proximity to Boston proper, its business is mostly concentrated on clients in the suburbs.
“We do business in Boston, but much more in the suburbs,” Trearchis explained. “We are geographically positioned to efficiently service these areas, which makes it easier for us to build long-standing relationships.
“We have also noticed many recognizable Fortune 500 companies are moving their headquarters to Massachusetts, and many of them are choosing locations outside of the city.
“Our primary area for deliveries is central and eastern Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire, and a little in Rhode Island.”
Reynolds added, “We also direct ship things around the country.”
The Durkin Company’s facility encompasses 4,000 square feet of office space, in addition to a 23,000-square-foot warehouse.
“We have two 26-foot box trucks, a pickup truck and a van,” Durkin said. “We try to deliver within a day or two. If there is an emergency, we will do our best to get it there to put out the fire.”
The trucks belong to The Durkin Company and drivers are company employees. Nothing is contracted out to other companies.
“Between the machine repair department and the delivery service, the fact that they are all employees, and not third-party or secondary contractors, has made a big difference in controlling the quality of our service,” Trearchis said.
The company’s drivers play a key role, beyond delivering products. Because they interact with customers more than other employees, how they project a positive image in appearance, professionalism, customer service skills and willingness to go the extra mile is critical.
“For years we have given an ‘employee of the year’ award,” Reynolds said. “It can be awarded to an employee in sales, customer service, accounting, it does not matter. Most winners over the years have been drivers, because they represent us so well. It is amazing how our clients get to know them personally and love them. Furthermore, we have had extraordinarily little turnover in that position.
“They get to know our clients. Every delivery is different. Deliveries must go to a certain dock, and once there, products must be unwrapped and put away where the customer desires. Our drivers just know their jobs ‘cold,’ and they are who our clients see more often than anyone else.
“We make sure they are all geared up with whatever coats, hats, and anything they need to make sure they look and feel comfortable and safe.
“When it is 100 degrees in the summer, or bitter cold in winter, they do not complain — they just do the job. We are lucky to have the drivers we have.”
Durkin added drivers totally grasp the concepts of offering high quality customer service.
“Many of our larger customers want products delivered to a specific dock, door or a contact,” Durkin said. “Drivers are equipped with cell phones. They might call a customer and say, ‘I’m at the cafeteria dock right now.’ Some of our clients’ buildings are 1 million square feet. Our drivers make sure the right people receive the deliveries.”
Durkin said drivers practice the “Golden Rule.” They put themselves in the customers’ shoes and anticipate how individual clients like to be serviced, and act accordingly.
“That is a tribute to the attitude and the ‘bedside manner’ our drivers practice,” Trearchis said. “Drivers are so experienced they will catch stuff that our customer service or sales reps miss. We get calls all the time from drivers who say something like, ‘I typically deliver 70 cases here, why did they order just seven this time?’
“They are our eyes and ears out there. They take pride in what they do, so they try to keep tabs on things. It is just part of their nature.”
The Durkin Company often helps clients who request management of inventory.
“We have been involved with inventory management for years,” Trearchis said. “In addition, we have clients who have emergency spill response kits that are staged all over their campuses. Our reps go there and individually check them on a weekly or monthly basis.
“We also use VMI (Vendor Managed Inventory), which is a vendor managed inventory program, where everything is scanned. VMI went from being a specialty type of thing, to where, now, it is much more common. In fact, if you are not taking advantage of VMI, you are going to get left in the dust.”
UNOCCUPIED BUILDINGS A MAJOR CHALLENGE
When watching a TV commercial for a particular drug, the side effects listed often sound worse than the health problem the drug is supposed to be treating.
While The Durkin Company’s employees seem to have come through the worst of the coronavirus pandemic in decent shape, one side effect of COVID has, and continues to be, devastating in a business sense.
As companies have allowed office employees to work from home during COVID, large office buildings, particularly in big metro areas, are still mostly to completely unoccupied.
As Durkin pointed out, a well-known mantra in the jan/san arena is the distribution business is recession proof, as people need toilet paper, even during an economic downturn. That very well might be the case in normal times, but nobody could have anticipated that there would be empty, or nearly empty, skyscraper office and other buildings.
“Business just evaporated because of people not occupying commercial buildings, or schools, or manufacturing plants,” Trearchis said. “That has been our biggest challenge.”
Another major challenge to The Durkin Company’s business had been ongoing supply chain issues.
“All market segments across the country, no matter the type of business, have experienced major supply chain disruptions,” Reynolds said. “Furthermore, I have been in this industry more than 35 years, and I have never seen the price increases manufacturers are putting through. This is a challenge for all our customers, regardless of size. Our customers are looking at 20 to 30 percent increases. What is happening with inflation has not been seen in more than 40 years. It truly is unprecedented.”
Reynolds added it is important to communicate with customers that price hikes have not been instigated by The Durkin Company, but by economic realities beyond the company’s control.
“The three of us (owners) have responded by leaning into being that small local responsive business,” Trearchis said. “There has been a paradigm shift in the industry to local companies that can respond quickly to customers’ needs.
“We survived COVID and came out better on the other side. We did not know what was going to happen. We feel stronger now more than ever that there is a place for small businesses, and that they matter. It is coming from the client side, not from us projecting our own strengths. Customers are the ones telling us why they want to work with a small business.
“As far as the future goes, it has been reaffirmed that we made the right choice buying the company and maintaining a small business relationship model.”
Contact: The Durkin Company,
4 Tower Farm Road, Billerica, MA 01821.
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