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Power Tool Trio

In the industrial tool- supply business, it’s not common to have a woman in charge of a company. At General Industrial Tool & Supply there are three. A trio of sisters – Kathleen Durbin, Karen Boyle and Joan Hoppock – run the Burbank company. Oh, and their 92-year-old mother, Mary Swain, helps out around the office. The management team isn’t a coincidence, of course. The firm was founded by the late father of the trio and Swain’s husband some 60 years ago. And recently it’s been growing as it serves municipal and public agency customers. “We have never taken our eye off the ball in trends in the market,” said Happock, who serves as vice president of sales and is the youngest of the sisters but wouldn’t disclose her age. Still, it’s an old-school business. The company has 47 employees working from offices in a brick building constructed in 1941 as an egg processing plant and an adjacent warehouse dating from the late 1930s on the Burbank-Los Angeles border. It boasts low turnover, with mulitiple employees past their 20-year anniversaries with the company. But it has managed very respectable recent growth. General Industrial was No. 48 on the Business Journal’s list of fastest growing private companies with a 16 percent growth rate from 2011 to 2013, when revenue came in at $15.4 million. The company’s online catalogue is nearly 1,300 pages and carries 10,000 different products – from hammers, screwdrivers and drill bits to personal-protection equipment such as gloves and goggle and precision-measuring equipment. Cutting tools alone take up nearly 200 pages. Prices range from less than $1 for brushes to cutting tools costing more than $200. General Industrial taps some 150 companies, with 30 of those described as core suppliers, for its products. Except for the occasional drill bit from Germany or some items from Japan, 90 percent is U.S. made, said Boyle, the company president and second-oldest of the three sisters. Rounding out the trio is Durbin, the eldest, who serves as chief executive. All three graduated from UCLA where Durbin played basketball and befriended the school’s legendary men’s basketball coach John Wooden when working out on the track. Durbin was the last of the sisters to join the family business. She came on board in the mid-1980s following the death of her father. “We were typical young women with a business that had no women in it,” Durbin said. Not a lot has changed in the 30 years since. Thomas Gale, president of Industrial Market Information, a Lafayette, Colo. analytics firm serving the industrial and construction markets, called the company’s leadership a anomaly, though the industry is becoming more diverse. “California and other states will lead that effort,” Gale said. “They (General Industrial) are on the leading edge and it is starting to show.” Established reputation The U.S. market for industrial tools totals about $120 billion annually, according to Industrial Market Information. In a market of that size, a company with $15 million sales tends to get lost among large competitors such as McMaster-Carr, in Santa Fe Springs, and W.W. Grainger Inc., in Chicago, that have a national reach. But the sisters are more than content to keep their footprint in Southern California where business steadily comes their way. “When customers ask, ‘Why should I trust you?’ the answer is, ‘We’re here,’” Hoppock said. “We need customers that are going to be successful here and we need to support them in that effort.” Cla-Val, a Costa Mesa maker of automatic control valves for refineries, power plants, airports and high-rise towers, has been buying hardware, safety products and abrasives from General Industrial for more than 20 years. “We are in Orange County and if we need something they will deliver it the same day to bring it to us,” said Jaymie Romero, a buyer at Cla-Val. The sisters find customers following a strategy established by their father, who sought out growing markets. From a storefront on Sherman Way in North Hollywood, Charles Swain provided tools for the region’s burgeoning home construction industry. Later, the company transitioned to serving aerospace. At one time, defense and NASA contractor Rockwell International was a main contract. Now, it’s municipal clients that are driving sales growth. Between 30 percent and 40 percent of sales are to cities, school districts, water districts and similar customers. General Industrial is a vendor to the maintenance shop at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “They (municipalities have) a long-term interest to lower costs,” Happock said. ”We feel we have the knowledge about how to do that.” Romero from Cla-Val said General Industrial is competitively priced, but Boyle admits to having lost business to suppliers that undercut it. But she maintains those customers often return because they know General Industrial only sells top-quality tools. “If they can keep one cutting tool running longer they get a lot more production and less down time,” she said. “And that is a huge savings.”

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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