Leadership in the Professional Market

Shepley Wood Product Aims for “Spark in the Eye” Customer Service
Christina Lewellen
October 1, 2008
FEATURE ARTICLE | Strategies & Practices

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Tony Shepley believes that in any retail transaction—at the bank, the grocery store, the coffee shop—you know within a matter of seconds how the transaction will go just based on the employee’s eye contact. “I want to look in someone’s eyes and see the spark and see that they’re willing to exceed my expectations,” he says.

This few-seconds rule certainly applies to Shepley himself, who is quick to display his enthusiasm for his business and his willingness to go above-and-beyond for customer service. But in 30 years in business, he has also built a team of about 160 employees who share his drive for “spark in the eye” customer service. This level of passion and involvement with professionals’ needs is what keeps Hyannis, Mass.-based Shepley Wood Products constantly evolving and looking for the next way it can add value to its offerings. Its most recent evolution includes becoming a solid resource for those interested in the green building movement. While other building product distributors are pooh-poohing green methods as a passing fad, Shepley and his team have jumped in head first to become an invaluable resource to its builders and contractors.

Tony Shepley (center) and his showroom managers, Barry Sturges and Bill Holzman (left/right), believe in staying ahead of the curve on trends, codes and education to be a valued resource for its builders.

“They are very progressive and believe in continuous education,” says Lance Chevalier, a service manager for Andersen Corp., one of the primary window brands Shepley Wood Products carries. “Tony Shepley truly believes satisfied customers are the key to building a business. He realizes this is done by hiring the best people and training them well.”

In addition to having several LEED accredited building professionals and NAHB certified green professionals on staff, Shepley Wood Products also works with a model of “vertical product specialists,” sales and service staff who are exclusively dedicated to one line of windows.

“We’re very focused and very high service,” Shepley says. “We like to specialize, which gives us a high level of professionalism and expertise. We want people to come away from an experience with our company saying that even though they bought an Andersen or Marvin window, it wouldn’t have been the same window if they had bought it from someone else.”

“They just have a professional way of doing business and they believe in investing in service,” says Lance Chevalier, the company’s Andersen rep. “They believe the very high cost of doing that is small in terms of what you get back. It’s the key to longevity for them.”

Shepley began his company 30 years ago this past summer. He began with a partner when he was 25 years old. “We had no money, no experience and not much of a plan,” he explains. “We’ve survived 30 whole years, which has been interesting. We’ve been through a few ups and downs, but when you’re starting from scratch you get to invent your approach.”

Today, Shepley Wood Products has 160 employee and about $80 million in annual sales. The company carries a host of building products and serves builders and professionals on Cape Cod and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Despite the size to which his company has grown, Shepley never lost touch of his willingness to work hard and his desire to keep learning. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years but I still come in everyday and learn stuff that amazes me,” he says. “I still have as much fun doing this today as I did when I was 25.”

The company is well-rounded, too. It is the largest contributor to the Cape & Islands United Way and annually hosts a charity golf tournament to support local organizations. The company humbly acknowledges that it supports dozens of area charities and initiatives. Shepley, who remains an integral part of daily activities with the company, also serves on a host of boards and committees, representing both community and industry organizations.

Fairly quickly, Shepley realized that specialization would be the key to the type of service he wanted to bring to builders in his area. So for starters, he named the company Shepley Wood Products, rather than a name that included the word lumberyard, to communicate that he intended to differentiate himself from other building product providers. “I looked at everyone in our business and how they sold millwork and it was fascinating,” he recalls. “A builder would come in and look at eight brands of windows and the one they didn’t object to is the one you sold them. They ended up with the door or window of least resistance.”

The old way of business called for “operating out of catalogs or using dusty desktop samples that you pulled out of the corner,” so Shepley decided to bail on six out of the eight brands window brands his company sold and focus on only two—Andersen and Marvin. In time, the company built separate showrooms for each brand and staffed those showrooms with employees dedicated exclusively to that brand. This, he says, is what being a “vertical product specialist” is about. “If you go to the doc, you don’t want a general opinion—‘you might die and you might not,’” Shepley says. “You want a specialist. If I went out today to buy a computer, I have plenty of practice at buying things but that doesn’t make me a computer purchaser. I need someone to say, ‘What are you really going to do with this?’ and consult me through the process. Now that’s how I’m going to get what I need.”

This approach is particularly useful for the geographic market in which Shepley Wood Products operates. As his company grew, Shepley says he realized that serving a coastal region requires a particular involvement with the building code process and a dedication to staying apprised of changes. “There are a whole slew of new building code requirements which we constantly advise people on,” he explains. “So what this involves is the proper specifications, the proper follow-through, after-sales service and installation instructions, which we provide even on the job site.” Knowing a product line inside and out allows “vertical product specialists” to marry their knowledge of the codes with the best product for a particular application.

Shepley's Vertical Product Specialists are experts in one of the company's two flagship product lines, Marvin or Andersen, and can assist builders' customers with in-depth product knowledge.

Each of the two showrooms has a manager—Bill Holzman oversees the Andersen showroom and Barry Sturges runs the Marvin showroom. The two window brands complement each other so well that competition between the showrooms is a non-issue. “They’ve learned that they can’t force somebody into their brand,” Shepley explains. “We can tell from a 100 paces whether a customer is an Andersen customer or a Marvin customer. These guys are cool enough that they can say, ‘You know what, I’m going to walk you over here to our other showroom.’”

Helping this model is the fact that nobody at Shepley works for commission. “We do have a system that rewards people for exceeding their goals,” Shepley says. “Yes, there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but there’s not a mercenary battle of, ‘I’ve got to make this sale.’”

Having a reward system that mirrors the vertical product specialist approach is important to the business’s long-term success, Shepley contends. “We try to compensate people so they have the time to do it right,” he says. “Not everything you do turns into a sale today, but you might plant a seed that turns into an incredible tree a year from now.”

Andersen’s Chevalier believes Tony and his ideas inspire the employees and keep customers coming back to the business. “They are very loyal to him,” he notes. “They recognize he has a great business model. He thinks outside the box and thinks in the mindset of his customers. Because of that, he has a very loyal customer base.”

Thirty years in business might lull some companies into operating status quo, but that’s not the tune to which Shepley Wood Products marches. The green building movement is the perfect example of how the dealer is not content to be sitting on the sidelines, or even be a fast follower, when it comes to emerging, potentially significant trends. “I think we’re all wired to be the people we are,” Shepley says. “We’re fortunate to have a lot of people here at this company who are wired to push the envelope a bit. I know a lot of people in the business who are actually annoyed by the green building movement because of the questions they’re getting from their customers. They’re waiting for it to blow over.”

Waiting for it to blow over was not in Shepley Wood Products’ DNA. The company has put more than 80 employees through the green dealer certification program offered by LBM Journal, a building products trade publication. This process sparked some employees’ interest to go one more step toward green by pursuing LEED accreditation and green professional certification from the National Association of Home Builders. “I might be over the top about quality and doing the right thing, but I’m not a lunatic tree hugger,” Shepley explains. “But you know what? Our green efforts are just practice for doing the right thing. We have a client who’s so into green—together, we can take our good ideas and run with it.”

The company has even turned the green mirror on itself, looking for more environmentally-friendly ways to handle its processes, packaging and waste, Shepley says.

Being a leader in emerging trends allows Shepley Wood Products to constantly outdo itself in terms of being an essential resource for its builders. “We’re not afraid to be wrong,” he says. “If we are, we’ll just put it in reverse and try another direction.”

Shepley’s fiery drive and “spark in the eye” is reflected in the entire Shepley Wood Products team, from the showroom managers to the service technicians to the customer service reps. Making this pursuit of improvement and customer service a cultural norm seems to have attracted similarly-minded employees as the team has grown. The result is that Shepley sees today the manifestation of his initial game plan from 30 years ago—build a company that changes the way building products are sold.

“The best compliment we get from time to time is when our customers say to us, ‘You’ve changed my expectations.’ That’s huge,” he says.

What’s next for Shepley Wood Products? Basically, whatever its customers say is next. The company will maintain its above-and-beyond mentality to be ready to serve its customers in ways that they haven’t in the past.

“We’re not done changing by any means,” Shepley says. “I see this as a completely evolutionary process.”

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Contact Christina Lewellen, senior editor, at clewellen@glass.org.