Merchant spotlight: Brent Fox, ABC Supply

In 1982, the year ABC Supply was founded, Brent Fox was a teenager, riding his dirt bike around the country roads outside of Janesville, Wis. He would soon go to work for the family’s business, now the largest wholesale distributor of roofing materials in the United States, but not before a brief encounter with a deputy sheriff, one that led to a love of flying and a job overseeing two corporate jets and four pilots.

Fox started working for his stepfather, ABC Supply founder and CEO Ken Hendricks, right after high school. “I was one of those guys up there on the roof, nailing shingles,” Fox recalled. He officially went on the company payroll in 1983 as a fleet manager, shuttling forklifts and trucks between stores. A series of promotions took him through outside sales and store management until he landed in the purchasing department in 1993.

Fast forward 14 years, to April 2007, and Fox is named vp-merchandising and purchasing. The 42-year-old executive has learned a lot about exterior building products, and so has ABC Supply. The Beloit, Wis., company now has 265 branches in 43 states, with $2.85 billion in sales in 2006. It occupies the fifth spot on HCN’s Pro Dealer Top 350 list.

ABC Supply divides its products into three categories, each with its own manager: steep-slope roofing, low-slope roofing and siding. Decking and tools will soon roll up together into one category, and ABC is putting a greater emphasis on growing its windows business, according to Fox.

“It fits into our category, and we think we can do it better,” he observed.

It’s no accident that Fox’s title puts merchandising before purchasing; he stresses that distribution—i.e. service—trumps everything in his business. “It’s all about having the right product for the right customer for the right place at the right price,” he said, the words rolling out in succession.

Precise execution is a skill Fox developed in aviation, which he took up at age 15. That deputy sheriff encounter involved a small technicality—Fox was riding his dirt bike without a license—that resulted in a hold on his driver’s permit. Undeterred, Fox began taking flying lessons.

“My family owned a little twin engine plane, but nobody knew how to fly it,” Fox recalled. After getting his pilot’s license, Fox began buying and selling his own small aircraft.

One of seven siblings—five of whom hold executive positions at the company—Fox was the logical choice to run the aviation division, which ABC Supply established in 2002, shortly after 9/11. He now oversees two corporate jets and is rated as a captain on both planes, although the company employs four full-time pilots to pick up customers or shuttle executives to meetings, business reviews and scouting missions.

“We conduct a lot of business meetings on the planes,” Fox said. “They’re like flying conference rooms.”

In addition to reading airplane manuals in his spare time, Fox has been active in local politics, running for city council in Janesville (he lost by 300 votes) and serving a term on the board of zoning appeals. “I would encourage everybody to do that,” he said. “I learned a lot.” Fox also raises money for Wisconsin Aviation Academy, an organization that gives flying and life skills lessons to underprivileged kids in the Beloit area.

Engaged to be married this fall, Fox has a 14-year-old son and a Chocolate Labrador named Charlie Brown. Although he leads a busy life, sometimes he admits to stopping by the airport on his way home and taking off for parts unknown. “I don’t need a destination,” he explained. “I just like to fly.”