JC Smith Inc., now celebrating 30 years in business, is not an ordinary construction equipment supplier. For one thing, it is WBE certified in the State of New York, and for another, it “goes whole hog” on customer appreciation days — it grills a whole pig at each store.
John Smith, the founder and retired CEO, whose skills as chef this year were replaced by professional caterers, said JC Smith previously celebrated customer appreciation week, rather than four days, but his staff gained too much weight.
During June and July for a series of four customer appreciation days in all four stores — Syracuse, Rochester, Ithaca and Albany — the menu was the same but the company’s achievements earned while working with its customers were one of a kind.
John and his son Jeffrey “Jeff,” vice president, greeted customers and felt positive about the future of this family-owned business, which is completely dependent on the relationships it has formed with the building trades.
“In 1991, we moved into our 36,000-sq.-ft. facility in Syracuse. We enjoyed a 30 percent increase over the next seven to eight years, and the company is still on a steady growth,” said Jeff.
“We’re about 25 percent rental,” said John, “but we rent to sell in the end. Our customers like to try equipment out, and if it works like we say it will, they will buy it. We are the largest independently-owned construction contractor supply house in upstate New York.”
JC Smith also is recognized for its expertise with lasers, specifically for the surveying trade. So lasers — pipe, site, single/dual, slope interior, and PLS — transits, GPS and total stations, with experienced repair people on the payroll, is another good niche market for the company.
John said the company still sells much of the same supplies it did originally, but on the equipment side of the business. “Everything has changed,” he said. In addition to rentals and sales, JC Smith repairs everything it sells so that its inventory on parts is extensive.
The extensive JC Smith inventory found in all four stores represents hundreds of thousands of items for rent and for sale that range in complexity from a mini-excavator to plastic hard hats and flags for traffic control.
“We want to be known for having all the supplies and all of the equipment that our customers need,” said John.
One customer in particular that relies on JC Smith is Grant Street Construction founded in 1946. One of upstate New York’s biggest contractors, it also is a family-owned business. So Dave Compagni, second-generation owner, clearly sees the virtues in being family-owned.
“The JC Smith people are friendly to work with and they work at keeping your business. Anything we need, they are my first call for rental or sales of small compressors, drills, compactors, boring machines and supplies such as silt bags and other support equipment that we need while drilling pipe for busy municipalities. We use their stores for our projects across the state. It’s a place we go to everyday,” said Compagni.
“Because we’re both family businesses, we know it means seven days a week, not five,” concluded Compagni.
When the Smiths were asked how many family members are employed at JC Smith, it was difficult to answer — they had no idea. It may be their Italian heritage that makes the line between family and company employee blur. All told, the company’s combined forces represent approximately 70 people including an outside sales force of 11. The outside sales force calls on site contractors, bridge and highway contractors, and municipalities, which covers a 90-mi. radius of each location.
According to John, there are 10 family members who are currently employed at the company. John’s wife, Josephine, is president while their sons Jeffrey “Jeff” and Jay are vice president and secretary respectively. Daughter Joanne is director while her husband, Lance, is treasurer and Jeff’s wife, Mary, works in Collections.
A third generation of family members working at the company includes Jay’s son, J.J., who an entry-level driver and Lance and Joanne’s daughters, Christine and Sarah, who are employed as summer help.
In addition, a cousin, Cheri, works in the office. John’s sisters, Elaine, Vivian, and Georgianna also worked for the company. Elaine and Vivian have retired and Georgianna is deceased.
The occasional family get-togethers also are formal business meetings and as events are more theatrical than traditional board meetings, said John. Currently on the agenda is the question of whether the company needs a fifth store and if so, where should it be located.
“We’re Italian. We throw our hands around a lot and argue about things. We speak loud to each other. We are old school,” John explained. “We go with our gut feelings on things. That’s the way we’ve always done it. If it feels right, we do it.”
The Legend Begins
JC Smith’s founder, John Smith, described the path that led him to creating his family-owned and operated business. His driving force has always been his dedication to taking care of his wife and family.
“My first job was with Sears & Roebuck, then Western Electric. At one point I sold brushes door-to-door and discovered that I loved selling. I still do. But my mother and father said I could not be a door-to-door salesman any longer.
“I was making good money for those times — $125 per week plus 10 percent of everybody else’s sales, but my parents got me a job at Mid-State Contractors Equipment in Syracuse. That job actually paid less. After 24 years at Mid-State, I was president of the company but decided it was time to go out on my own.”
Taking a big risk financing a new business, John said he “went on the hook” for approximately $200,000 in loans from the bank. After starting in Syracuse, the company moved three times as it expanded from one floor of a three-story building. The Ithaca store opened in 1995, “because 20 percent of our business came from Ithaca, and the southern tier area,” said John.
In the mid-1990s the Binghamton store was closed but, “Strangely, we did more business in Binghamton after we closed than when we were open there. We found we didn’t need the store there after all,” said John.
In 1997, JC Smith bought an existing business from Lou Alpy in Albany called Northeast Laser Supply. It was a good mix for its expertise in surveying work. Buying a business was much easier than a start up because the owner was ready to sell, and the phones never stopped ringing throughout the transition in ownership, he explained.
The company’s Rochester store was opened in 2000. It had a slow beginning but it is striving to make it as successful as its other locations.
“It is difficult to start a business in a new area but we are committed to our customers in Rochester as we are at our other locations,” said Jeff.
Keeping in Touch
JC Smith keeps in touch with its customers through its monthly newsletter produced by Jeff.
“We have about 6,000 customers on our mailing list. Recently, we sold a three-ton roller that came directly from the newsletter. It was a demo model, and apparently very desirable because it sold immediately,” he said.
Family and Community
The JC Smith family is not only dedicated to each other and their customers they are very active in the Youth Sports Programs in Syracuse. John is the founder of the Eastwood Bears Pop Warner Football Program. He has devoted 45 years to the Eastwood program for boys and girls, which includes cheerleading, girls softball, lacrosse and NFL flag football programs. And, John a young 76 is still coaching.
“He keeps saying each year will be the last but so far it hasn’t happened,” said Jeff.
John’s daughter Joanne, has been involved for more than 20 years with Lance in the Girls Softball Program. Jay runs the spring NFL Flag Football Program and has been treasurer and board member for more than 25 years. Jeff, in his 30th year, is currently president of the Eastwood Bears Youth Program.
Last year, Eastwood Bears had a good year and made it to the Pop Warner Football Super Bowl in Orlando, FL. The Eastwood Bears is an inner-city team and having the opportunity to go to the “Super Bowl” was a chance of a lifetime.
“It was big news in the community. When our long-time customers heard the news, they made donations to the team, without being asked. As a result, we were able to raise $40,000 in three days so the team could go to the Super Bowl. It is something we will never forget,” said Jeff.
“Our roots are here. We are all part of the community and do whatever we can, especially for the youngsters,” said John.