Spokane Journal of Business

M&L Supply: a local fixture through the years

Plumbing, heating supplier moves into third generation as Spokane-based wholesaler

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When Dave Maxwell left his home in Butte, Mont., to come to Spokane in 1961, it was to manage a branch of M&L Supply Co., a family-owned plumbing and heating supplies distributor that his father, Thomas, had established with a partner in Butte eight years earlier.

Forty years later, Butte is the branch and Spokane is the companys long-established headquarters.

I bought out the business from my dad when he retired in 1970, says Maxwell, the companys president and owner. We had about seven employees in Spokane and 15 in Butte at that time.

Shortly after buying the business, Maxwell relocated its headquarters to Spokane. It was only the first of many changes. In the ensuing 30 years, the regional economy and those who supplied it would become progressively less industrially based, mergers and acquisitions would alter the nature of M&L Supplys competition, and the pace of construction on the projects it supplied would increase significantly.

The economic downturn in the mining and smelting industry, once a prime market for suppliers of pipefitting materials, would have its greatest impact on the companys Butte operations.

The evolution in the marketplace, from heavy industry to tourism and high tech, has been a change, Maxwell says. And like all businesses, weve seen a tremendous increase in the speed of the work. We build things a lot quicker. Construction now is fast track. Buildings that once took a year and a half to construct are now built in less than a year.

The most pronounced change, Maxwell says, has been in the nature of his competition.

When I first came to Spokane in 1961, we had seven competitors locally, he says. Through mergers and acquisitions, that number is now down to four, and we are the only locally owned distributor of the types of products we carry. Our competition is nationally or internationally owned. In terms of volume, Maxwell ranks his company about the third largest locally.

Through the years, M&L Supply has kept its focus on Eastern Washington, North Idaho, and Western Montana, and on supplying plumbing and heating contractors on a wholesale basis.

We basically cover the area from the Tri-Cities, through Spokane into North Idaho, and as far east as Bozeman, says Maxwell. We provide the full range of plumbing, heating, and industrial products. Our business is inventoryall the pipe fittings, faucets and plumbing fixtures, valves, boilers, and water heaters. We purchase from manufacturers all around the country.

Maxwells son, Mark, joined the family business in 1983, as did his son, Bill, in 1990. By 1995, the company had grown to 29 employees here, while its Butte branch had ebbed to a staff of six. A strong Spokane-area economy during the preceding few years had spurred its growth here and required it to move out of the 17,000-square-foot building it had bought in East Spokane back in 1976. The company built a new, 42,800-square-foot office-warehouse facility just a block to the east at 4114 E. Ferry. After the move, a few additions to the work force brought M&L to the employment level it maintains today, 31 in Spokane and seven in Butte.

While Maxwell says close to 60 percent of M&L Supplys business is centered around the work of contractors based in Spokane, the Coeur d Alene area also provides a strong market. The companys Butte branch continues to contribute to the success of the business, and much of the economic downturn southwestern Montana has experienced seems to have passed, he says.

He adds that the Inland Northwest region is a funny trading area that often seems to move in the opposite direction of the national economy.

Over-the-counter sales to contractors remain a significant part of M&L Supplys business.

A lot of our sales are direct, what we refer to as will call, Maxwell says, but we will also deliver. We operate four trucks out of Spokane and two out of the Butte office.

We do a lot of bid-specification work, Maxwell adds. We review contract bid specifications and provide the contractor with a quote on the materials to be included in his bid.

M&L provided materials for a major part of the work on such recent projects as River Park Square, the Spokane Valley Mall, and Lewis & Clark High School.

Were strong on commercial and industrial, and do only a limited amount of residential business, Maxwell says. We also do business with some general contractors, state agencies, schools, and Kaiser, both directly and indirectly.

Last year, the company had sales of about $10 million, a figure that has grown moderately, but reliably over the past five years. Despite what Maxwell describes as a slow first quarter in commercial construction this year, hes optimistic about 2001.

Weve seen a lot more commercial bids for the second half of this year, he says.

As the company moves toward its third generation as a family-owned business, it has the appearance of an operation thats easily inclined to be as optimistic about the next few decades as it might be about the next six months.

Were locally owned and operated, and we intend to stay that way, Maxwell says, sounding like the head of a company that itself could be described as a local plumbing and heating fixture.

  • Rob Strenge

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