Tom Roberts is the third president of cfm Distributors, which was founded in 1969 by Roberts' father, Amos, and his business partner, Bruce Huffman. Roberts and Huffman were manufacturers' sales reps, and they were approached with the idea to open a wholesale distribution business in Kansas City, MO. "They thought it was a good idea," Roberts recalls, and it certainly was. In their first year in business with one supplier, revenues were $486,000. The business grew from there.
Tom Roberts joined the business in 1981 after three years of working for York's engineered machinery division selling large commercial HVACR equipment. By then, cfm Distributors had become a York distributor. "It all kind of fit together," says Roberts, so he moved from Atlanta back to Kansas City to join his father and Huffman. With the country in a recession, 1981 was not a very good year for business — or for consumers, for that matter. But economic difficulties also proved to be something of a revelation for the company. "In those tough economic times, we, in turn, were struggling and had to do something," Roberts recalls. Amos Roberts and Huffman called their employees together and said they would vote on whether to take a 10 percent cut in pay or reduce the work force by 10 percent. The employees voted to cut their pay. By the end of the year, business had improved, and the company repaid them.
Planning for the change to employee ownership began in 1998 and took effect in 2001. Employees own 39 percent of the company, while Roberts owns the remaining 61 percent. While employees had always felt a responsibility to the company and to one another, becoming an employee-owned company has "crystallized" the culture of cfm Distributors, making what they do even more relevant, Roberts says. "It's given people a reason to fill in for the person who is sick or who has a family emergency."
The company has maintained such a flat structure even through its expansion to new markets in the late 1990s and 2000. Upon Amos Roberts' retirement in 1993, Huffman and the younger Roberts convened a strategic planning session that led them to conclude that they needed to be more than a local player. From 1997 through 2000, cfm Distributors opened one new store a year. In addition to the original Kansas City store (cfm Distributors does not call them branches), there are stores in Lenexa and Wichita, KS, Springfield, MO, Omaha, NE, and Des Moines, IA.
- from HARDI HVACR DIstribution Business August 2008