People

At 88, State’s Weisberg still focuses on what counts

By Joe
Salimando

This is
a companion article to a profile of 88-year-old Art Weisberg, owner of State
Electric Supply in Huntington, W.Va. that appeared in the June issue of
tED magazine.

Shortly
after Weisberg landed a job with an electrical contractor in West Virginia, while
still getting ready to leave his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., he got a phone call
that seemed to peel back his dreams. “Your kind is not wanted here,” he heard.

Weisberg
did not listen. He drove to West Virginia anyway, took the job, went to work,
learned the electrical business, and soon after started his own company, State
Electric Supply. Today, state has 40 branches and 700 employees. Weisberg has
sold off ownership in the company to Clarence Martin, CEO/CFO, and John Spoor, president
and COO, but he remains as mentor and counsel.

What
does an 88-year-old do every day at company headquarters? “I’m the gatekeeper,”
he answered. “I spot-check pricing on the purchase orders we send out. But, to
tell the truth, I really enjoy talking to and seeing the people in our
business, and motivating them. I let them know, ‘I appreciate what you are
doing. You’re part of my team.’ Most people are very loyal to me. I’m very
proud of that, very proud.”

Helping people grow

While
the Weisberg family’s philanthropy is approaching legendary status in West
Virginia and elsewhere, Art said one key for the company has been growing from
within. “A guy gets a job in our warehouse. If he’s sharp, if he has some
ability, he gets a chance to learn. We have our own school. You can learn the
basics of electricity, you can learn selling. Suddenly, what you have is not a
warehouse person—you have someone who has become a professional. We gave him
the opportunity to learn and grow, but he made the most of it. I guess that’s
why many are loyal to our family and company.”

Distribution philosophy

At least
two concepts behind State Electric Supply’s approach over six decades might
differentiate Weisberg’s ideas from those of other distributors.

1. “I
was never afraid of inventory,” he claimed. The idea at State, he said, is to
have whatever it is that the customer might want on hand. “We don’t like to
tell our customers that a given item is backordered, and it will take some
amount of time to get it.”

2.
State’s approach to wire and cable, as a product segment, might be a bit
unusual. The company’s early years included buying high-voltage cable in bulk
and selling small lots of it to area distributors. Even today, Weisberg’s
inventory concept extends to wire and cable.

Perhaps
it would be bad if you had too much copper in your blood, but there’s
definitely heavy red metal content in the Weisberg family. Joan and Art have
five children; four of which work in their manufacturing company, Service Wire,
including Art’s oldest son Louis Weisberg, who has been president since 1989.

A promising future

Urge Weisberg
to talk about the past, and he can regale you with tales. He remembers working on
“hot” wires, a pretty good way to get a free trip to an emergency room. Even
more dramatic, in his telling, was the day Union Carbide, after a good deal of
negotiation, gave State a $3 million contract.

“We’ve
always tried to run the business to the highest of standards,” he said, “and I
don’t want that to change. I’ve tried to make sure State Electric had sharp
managers, and that we stayed on top of the changes in our industry,” Weisberg
said.

“I had
some relatives who ran an electronics company, and it was not doing too well,”
Weisberg added. “We took it over in the mid-1990s. They were always talking
about the cable. We focused on the cable, and that took us into the
voice-and-data business. That’s still a pretty significant part of our
company.”

Future
concerns for State, he said, will at least in part mirror what’s happening now
at State Electric Supply, Art said. “We ship a lot of wire. Maybe it’s 20% of
our business. I know some say it’s hard to make money on wire, but you have to
know how to handle it. I’m happy to say that we do!”

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