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Judges' Choice: United Supply Group of Companies

“Tough times don’t last, tough teams do.”

United Supply Inc. has been Ross Wood-ward’s life work.

A great deal of thought and strategy has been put into this company since their 1945 inception right up to current plans for succession.

Change has always been a constant says the owner who began with the company as general manager before taking ownership in 1989.

“If the company is not in a constant state of flux, it is going backward,” says Woodward.

“This is a wholly-owned family company, and in some cases our competitors are international corporations. In order to play in the same arena, we have to move quicker. That necessitates change,” he said.

Last week’s rules and philosophies usually do not apply to tomorrow’s challenges, he said, and in some cases opportunities come but once in a lifetime.

When Jack Helpert sold the automotive and industrial supplier in 1972 to Woodstock-based Belgium Standard, Woodward was hired almost 10 years later to lead the company through tough financial times. In 1989, he had a chance to purchase the company, bringing it back under local ownership.

Today United Supply Inc. boasts 100 employees with five new divisions to their business and plans for further expansion at their Riverside Dr. location from 26,000 to 76,000-square feet.

Under the United Supply Inc. umbrella lies United Industrial that focuses on mining, construction and forestry supplies, Swish Maintenance, a sanitation operation carrying a range of janitorial and environmental responsible products and The Bucket Shop that has an inventory of teeth, edges and buckets for heavy equipment. Steeltec is also an offshoot of The Bucket Shop that provides field crews, millwrights, welders and pipe specialists to the mining and forest industries. United Equipment Rentals specializes in heavy equipment rentals and United Lubricants is a distributor of Esso products.

“We are not distracted by the overbearing and ever present cyclical events of a natural resource based community,” states Woodward.

Their motto is “tough times don’t last, tough teams do.”

Woodward has kept the company in family hands with his daughter, Sharon Michaud, as general manager of United Supply and son, Paul Woodward, general manager of The Bucket Shop and the Steeltec division.

If change is the company’s second name, then innovation is the next.

The Bucket Shop has invented a fall arrest system for transport truck drivers. The large metal bar structure gives drivers something to attach a harness system to, so they won’t fall when tying down their load.

Woodward says he’s also extremely proud of United Supply’s Total Operational Purchasing System (TOPS), which was launched in 1992. This system is designed to save their customers money by consolidating all of their products from United Supply.

TOPS helps customers to reduce paperwork and stop ordering too much or too little of any one product, while at the same time offering competitive pricing on top-quality products.

Woodward says he met some resistance from the industry at first because he brought in TOPS at a time when the idea was unheard of, but managers gradually came to see the advantages.

In fact, TOPS helped the company survive when many manufacturers attempted to eliminate distributors like United Supply and sell directly to end-users.

It’s important to treat employees fairly he says. He said he’d never ask them to do anything he wouldn’t do himself and the result is a tremendously low turnover rate.

The success of United Supply is one of Northern Ontario’s best kept secrets, since it represents a myriad of “untold efforts in time and dedication from a group of people that followed their direction to a “T” and who took complete ownership in the new business models undaunted in their loyalty to follow new thinking,” Ross Woodward states.

Yet, as high achievers they all too often have their eye on the next goal, minimizing their awards and milestones. To stop may mean victory could slip through their fingers and if they dwell too long in the past, the future may elude them.

“If disaster is not at our door right now experience has taught me that it’s just down the street looking for our address,” Ross Woodward states.

Between the mid 90s and the year 2000 the company accepted 12 awards relating to the company’s overall performance.