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Company prizes its ability to adapt to the times

Peerless Inc. has been in business for nearly a century.

That fact alone says a lot about the Buffalo-based, family-owned company's ability to adapt to the times and remain relevant to customers.

But Peerless' president and employees say the company has also endured by taking risks when necessary, and by focusing on hiring the right people as much as changing the way it sells to customers.

Peerless provides industrial component solutions to a range of customers, supplying them with services and products such as valves, process hose assemblies, and instrumentation.

David McKendry, the fourth-generation president, said Peerless works closely with its customers to identify their needs and how to meet them.

"It's all there to help support our customer get more done with less," McKendry said.

McKendry's great-grandfather, John, started Peerless in 1914. The business has changed locations over the years but has always remained in the city of Buffalo; it now operates on Perry Street, next to the First Niagara Center.

Peerless started out as essentially an industrial hardware store, selling items such as gloves, wheelbarrows and shovels. Later, the lineup changed to include products that were used in the production process, such as conveyors.

By the late 1970s, Peerless was focusing on markets like chemical plants. "That's when the business started changing its complexion from being more of a catalog-oriented distributor to more of a value-added service provider, working with higher-end customers locally," McKendry said.

Orders from customers of those kinds were plentiful but faded as some prominent manufacturers went away. "What was left behind was a lot of knowledge of the process," McKendry said.

More recently, Peerless chose the energy and fresh-water markets as two industries to target, based on their growth potential.

"The idea that we could grow by selling specifically to the same customer base and the same products [as before] was just not even feasible," McKendry said. "No matter how good we got at it, it wasn't going to change."

Peerless also refined its approach to sales. Rather than just being known for selling certain brands of products, Peerless wanted to build up its identity as a solution provider, and began working with a larger pool of manufacturers to expand its product offerings, said Kevin Renaud, business development manager.

That shift came with risks.

"I think each generation that's been involved in running the company reached the point where you were almost forced to throw caution to the wind," McKendry said. "There was absolutely risk, but there was risk of doing nothing, which was biggest of all. So for us, we would rather have been in control of taking the chance that some of our manufacturers didn't like what we were doing. But at the same time, if we waited around, the likelihood is they would take the same action that they would anyway."

The new way of selling also required Peerless' customers to be receptive to a deeper level of collaboration with a supplier than usual. "It takes a lot of credibility for customers to allow that to happen, and for us to respond," McKendry said.

Peerless also became more selective about the customers it pursued for business, concentrating on customers that could most benefit from Peerless' approach.

"We spend a lot of time focusing on marketing on a one-to-one basis with our customers," McKendry said. "We're not in the mode of mass marketing and trying to grow rapidly by pulling up market share. We really want to develop this organization."

Peerless has nearly 30 employees and is hiring to fill a few positions. Robert "Rocky" Kelly, the sales manager, says employees do not necessarily have to come from the industrial world to fit.

"We knew that we had enough going on internally that we could teach people the business and give them the understanding and the product knowledge that they needed to be able to succeed," he said.

Krista L. Weiderpass, the marketing coordinator, did not have an industrial background when she was hired last summer.

"It's challenging in a good way for me," she said. "I never would have expected to enter my first real job and feel like my opinion is actually valued and I'm actually making a difference within the company and in my communications with the customers, and I'm working in the field that I graduated in, which is amazing."

Dan Morgan, an application engineer, was hired in summer 2010 and was impressed with the impact he could have at a small company. "From month one, I was thrust in the middle of important projects, not only for us but for our customers."

The new employees' fresh ideas and enthusiasm benefit Peerless, McKendry said. "We're not just sending them off on their own when they show up. There is a lot of support and guidance that's given on a day-to-day basis."

The company holds monthly "town meetings" with employees to ask them what is on their minds, Kelly said. "We've gotten into some great dialogue because of that."

McKendry, who became president in early 2008, says he does not take for granted his position at Peerless or the company's long track record.

"I started in the warehouse with people who were from the First Ward of Buffalo, and they didn't have any problem telling me what they thought," he said. "And that's when I learned the impact of being a business first and a family second was really important."

McKendry said he also believes Peerless' hometown offers an edge.

"One point I always make about Buffalo is, because of the economy, because of the challenges, because of the nature of doing business, it forces you to probably be better than your peers elsewhere," he said. "So when you are able to actually get out of Buffalo and work with customers in other areas, you are oftentimes better than what they're used to. It forces you to learn to be really good at something just to get by."

McKendry said he likes Peerless' growth prospects, though he is cautious about the company expanding too rapidly. "We're a 100-year-old company and we're managing growth. That's a good problem for us.

email: mglynn@buffnews.com