‘When People Call, We Deliver’
Pipelines Inc. keeps the success valve open with an emphasis on customer service
As the saying goes: out of sight, out of mind. That may be truer for pipes than almost anything else. They’re an essential part of the circulatory system for the society we enjoy, but most people never think about them. Until the moment they stop working.
“Our industry is mostly unseen and unthought of, until there’s an emergency,” said the late William “Tag” Lewis, Vice President and Secretary of Pipelines Inc. “People take it all for granted until it quits working. That’s where we come in. We call what we do a pipeline ambulance service. When people call, we deliver.”
Turning the Tap Back On
Tag and his partner Michael Pusateri started Pipelines Inc. in 1991 in the town of East Liverpool, Ohio. Tag’s family had a pipeline business that divested in 1987. After almost five years out of the industry, he was ready to jump back in and put his experience to work once more.
“When we got together and started Pipelines, we operated on the model of selling service,” Tag said. “We sell a lot of commodity items—what set us apart was how we reacted to customers’ needs. If they need it and need it now, that’s when they need it.”
Tag was familiar with how the largest pipeline suppliers in the country do business, and he had a different model in mind. He wanted to remain local and regional, able to respond to customers’ needs with more alacrity than the nationwide suppliers with centralized inventories.
The Right Fit
“Customer service is what sets us apart,” Tag said. “Most competitors are national. They may have a large national inventory, but they take longer to fill a project than we do. Our strengths are based on relationships, service and availability of material. We offer an abundance of pipes, valves, fire hydrants, fittings and anything else our customers need to get the job done. Pipes are a small industry on a national basis, but we do a fair amount of volume within the industry. If you drink water from it or flush something down it, we sell it. We’re available 24 hours a day, whenever our customers need us to be there.”
From the company’s original office and inventory yard in East Liverpool, Pipelines Inc. landed its first two customers, a municipal contract with Center Township in Ohio and S.E.T., Inc., a general contractor and construction company. From those simple beginnings, the business expanded rapidly, mostly through word of mouth.
“We’ve got six locations now in Ohio and Pennsylvania,” Tag said. “We serve contracts along the East Coast, and from West Virginia to Pennsylvania to Kentucky. We maintain stock levels that allow us to deliver today what others might not be able to deliver until next week. We provide counter sales for will-call customers as well as delivery service.”
A Flow of Success
Along the way, the company has grown from one employee to 55, and boasts a fleet of delivery vehicles including 17 24-foot flatbed trucks and 20 pickup trucks. Pipelines Inc. has seen a steady increase in revenue as well, going from $100,000 in the first year to $1 million in the second and $1.7 million in the third. Today, Pipelines Inc. does an annual volume of between $30 million and $40 million.
“As our service has grown, some of our manufacturers and vendors have seen our value,” Tag said. “We’ve added more manufacturers to our line of services and brands. We sell the same things we did when we started, but we’ve expanded the product range. When oil and gas took off in Ohio, a lot of what we sold to contractors was also used by oil and gas guys. Our growth in large part has come through loyalty to customers, and from the loyalty of customers’ employees who’ve gone to a new employer and brought us with them because of the level of service we supply.”
Pipelines Inc. counts oil and gas companies, contractors, municipalities, homebuilders and more among its customers. As Tag said, everything is around infrastructure, with the business percentage broken down as 75 percent contractors, 20 percent municipalities and 5 percent retail.
“Our service sells our customers,” Tag said. “It’s not an industry with a lot of innovation. A pipe today does the same thing as a pipe from 100 years ago. Most of our industry was designed in the 1800s. Of course, there have been improvements in materials and the technology to manufacture materials, but a pipe is still a pipe. What separates us and lets us succeed is the service factor.”
While his decades of experience in the business and the customer-oriented model of Pipelines Inc. have contributed to the organization’s fortunes, he pointed to something else as the key reason for success and the aspect of the business that makes him the most proud.
“It’s our people,” Tag said. “We have guys who’ve been with us for 10, 20 years. As we’ve grown, we’ve very rarely shed employees; we’ve trained and groomed them to move up in the company. We all know the direction we have to go. What sets us apart is we allow some freedom of thought. All our people know the destination. We allow flexibility in employees for how to reach that destination, rather than imposing some strict regimen for doing the work. I can’t say enough about the quality of our employees–they go above and beyond to service the customers.”
Editor’s Note: William “Tag” Lewis, who was interviewed for this story, sadly passed away before it was published. The writers and staff of The Who’s Who extend our thoughts and condolences to Tag’s family, friends and co-workers in their time of grief.