‘I’m lucky that I have a really good team’

By Mike Lewis
Michael Weiss is president of Weiss Bros. near Hagerstown. The family-owned business is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year.

Weiss Bros. near Hagerstown marks its 80th anniversary. President Michael Weiss talks about the past, present and future.

By MIKE LEWIS
mlewis@crossroadsbizjournal.com

A list labeled “2018 goals” hangs in Michael Weiss’s office, with entries that range from “new website” to “run a marathon.”

Weiss smiled when he talked about it, describing himself as a “check-the-box kind of guy.”

“If it’s on the list, it’ll get done. It drives me crazy sometimes,” he said.

For the past several years, Weiss, 41, has been getting things done for Weiss Bros. near Hagerstown, Md. He’s president of the family business, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. And his lists have included ways to continue adapting that business as its customers and the marketplace have changed.

Weiss traces the company’s roots to his grandparents, Rae and Norman Weiss. Among other things, they sold shoe products to shoe repair businesses.

“We were selling to a lot of corner stores when there were corner stores,” he said.

As that business faded, Weiss Bros. shifted to selling janitorial supplies. Michael’s father, Richard, and his father’s cousin, Bernard, came into the business.

Michael Weiss, who grew up in Washington County and graduated from Towson University, came into the business in 2008. He’s had to cope with challenges of industry consolidation and online competition.

At one point, he said, there were 24,000 independent distributors like Wiess Bros. in the country.

“Now there’s 4,100,” he said.

So Weiss Bros. has shifted again. The company still sells janitorial supplies, chemicals and a diverse array of related items. But it also focuses on training, showing companies how to save time and money.

Weiss and his wife, Jennifer, have two children, Charlotte, 6, and Graham, 3.

As for that marathon, he’s training to run his first on Nov. 10 in Richmond, Va.

Weiss recently answered questions from Crossroads Business Journal about his business, his philosophy and his ambitions.

To put the obvious question first, how has the company managed to last 80 years?

Weiss Bros. has always focused on employing local people and treating them like family. We have very loyal, dedicated, hardworking employees who have worked here for many years. Out of our 47 employees, 21 have been here over 10 years, nine over 20 years and four over 30. We consider everyone who works at Weiss Bros. family.

We are also focused on our clients and their agendas, not ours. We are not “box movers,” like a lot of our competitors. We visit our clients in person, ask questions, learn what challenges, struggles and goals they have and try to provide solutions. You get a partner who is involved in your business, not just a website to place an order and a box that arrives at the door.

What philosophies or strategies have remained consistent since Weiss Bros. was founded?

Treating our employees like family and being a partner to our clients. We are flexible and encourage our employees to find a good work/life balance. Many of our employees are involved in the community, coaching and mentoring youth or volunteering in a variety of different ways. We give them the freedom to do that, as we know it’s important to them.

We have always been very responsive and in-tune with our clients. They appreciate the fact that we are their friends, neighbors and partners. We are able to be flexible because of our size and because management is very involved in the business.

What are some of the biggest changes you have seen?

The biggest change in the last 15 years has been the advent of e-commerce. There was a time when you could only get many of the products we provide from local companies like Weiss Bros. Now everything is available by going online and clicking a button. In the end it is making us better as we leverage technology with tools such as online ordering, product bar coding, social media and so on.

What have been some of the most challenging times during that history, and how did the business rise to meet them?

In order to meet the challenges of an ever-evolving business environment, Weiss Bros. has had to change its product offerings many times to adapt to a changing client base and the changing channels of distribution. In 1938 Weiss Bros. sold paper products and sundries primarily to corner stores and small grocery stores, and shoemaker supplies to shoe repair shops. As these clients faded away, Weiss Bros. shifted our primary focus to food service disposables and janitorial supplies. Through the years, we have added industrial packaging, safety supplies, janitorial equipment and laundry supplies.

Weiss Bros. was started by Rae and Norman Weiss in 1938 as a branch of a family business located in Norristown, Pa. In 1942 Norman went off to war and his wife, Rae, was left alone to run the business. She successfully ran the business during World War II until Norman returned in 1946. Many of our early competitors have come and gone, but Weiss Bros. has continued to be successful and grow due to our ability to evaluate the future needs of our clients and continually evolve to be able to service those needs.

What do you wish more people understood about your business?

I don’t think many people understand how diverse our offering is. We were always looked at as a paper company and mainly handling janitorial supplies. Today we provide clients laundry chemicals, packaging supplies like stretch wrap and tapes, safety supplies, and more. We have a service department that repairs equipment and we do a lot of in-person training classes on topics such as how to disinfect and sanitize, how to clean a restroom, linen management (laundry) and so on. Many clients purchase food service disposables like napkins, cups and cutlery. We are a distributor of a lot of different things, which I’m sure will continue to change.

The other thing I would say is that we focus on helping our clients understand total cost in use versus product price. For example, a case of product that costs $30 may cost less in the long run than a case that costs $20 if it saves time or uses less product to complete the same job.

What do you think the next five to 10 years will bring for your company and for the region?

We believe there will be continued steady growth in our region with continued consolidation in our industry. That, coupled with millennials holding the majority of positions in the work force, will continue to make e-commerce and other technology very important to us, while not losing focus on the client.

A few years ago we rebranded and our tagline became “Focused on You.” For our clients, it’s about their agenda, not ours. One area our clients have asked us to focus on is training. In the custodial world, 80 percent of a facility’s cost is labor, not products. We have created a training program that includes print materials, online videos and in-person training classes. The program is designed to help our clients complete their tasks in a better, safer and more efficient way. Ultimately this will create more significant savings than being focused on product alone. In the end, I believe we will become more of a service-based company that also provides products.

A lot of people talk about striking a work/life balance. How do you juggle your various responsibilities?

It’s challenging, that’s for sure. Between Weiss Bros., having a young family and volunteering locally, it often feels like there isn’t enough time in the day. I’m lucky that I have a really good team. I trust them and let them do their job. I really appreciate their hard work, loyalty to the company and assistance continuing to grow the company.

Personally, outside of work, what are your ambitions and aspirations?

I really like helping others and helping the local community grow. I’m in the Greater Hagerstown Committee and on the Wind Down Friday Committee. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunities I’ve had and I feel a need to give back.