By Joyce Carroll
Special to Delaware Business Times
A good shower experience tops the list of amenities travelers appreciate while away from home. Hotel guests at some of the world’s top chains enjoy that experience thanks to a New Castle company with a history that dates back to the 19th century.
With a solid foothold in the hospitality and healthcare industries, the seventh-generation Speakman Company is seeking a broader audience, and, for the first time in its 146-year history, it has turned to someone outside the family to lead the way.
CEO Rob Cook, on-board since 2010, is on a mission to expand visibility and distribution of Speakman’s showerheads and faucets. The company’s foray into the residential market is aggressively under way, with an overhaul to its website ready to launch in May.
Cook took the reins from family member Rod Ward, who now serves as chairman of Speakman’s board of directors and is also the CEO at Corporation Service Company in Wilmington. The two met while Cook was a facilitator at Vistage, an international peer-to-peer coaching organization for CEOs.
“I got to know Rob well, and when it came time to look for a new leader, Rob’s skills, particularly his experience in a prior business, fit well with skills Speakman needed,” Ward said, adding, “It was a natural evolution of the company. Very few family businesses make it past the third generation. Those that do have put in structures (such that) a professional manager can step in and take a role.”
Cook admits to a steep learning curve. It took his first two years with Speakman to learn its extensive product line and grasp the intricacies of the research and development and the manufacturing sides of the business. He has done well. Revenues have doubled over the past five years, with 2014 recorded as the best year ever in Speakman history.
Providing high quality showerheads and faucets in the commercial marketplace is more about functionality. But Cook knew the consumer marketplace would demand more. His first task involved introducing lines that spoke to both functionality and form. Designers, some in-house, others hired as independent contractors, added to what is now a robust line of commercial and residential water systems. The current catalog includes 750 SKUs (stock keeping units).
“I felt like Speakman had done a lot of really good things with product integrity … but it had underleveraged its brand. We had to take (our product) to the consumer to be really successful. The only way they knew Speakman was by seeing the showerhead in a Marriott or a Westin,” Cook said, adding, “We embarked on an aggressive new product initiative. Ninety percent of the products in our catalog didn’t exist three years ago.”
Cook’s next task involved getting the word out. A strong Internet presence, coupled with key relationships with some of the country’s largest retailers, should help build name recognition in a consumer marketplace where players like Kohler and Moen once dominated.
“In May, we’ll launch a new website. It will be a fully functional product site and a directed consumer site,” he said, adding that everything from content to graphics and video will be updated. Cook said Speakman will also utilize social media to reach a broader demographic.
Citing studies involving companies with strong brand identities, Cook said success was more readily achieved via a multipronged, omni-channel approach. As such, consumers will be able to purchase Speakman fixtures through do-it-yourself centers like Home Depot, online superstores like Amazon, and directly from the corporate site.
“Wherever people buy, we want to be there,” he said.
Although Speakman’s New Castle headquarters includes 60,000 square feet of warehouse space — more than ample room required to meet additional consumer fulfillment needs — the company has geographic expansion plans as well. Cook said a second facility on the West Coast is in the works.
A changing climate
As the company ventures into new sales territories and marketing strategies, Cook said Speakman is also committed to its R&D and manufacturing divisions by providing options that meet the environmental concerns of its customers.
While luxury hotels once boasted showers with multiple showerheads to optimize the sensory experience, today the hospitality industry is more aware of water conservation efforts. Consumers wishing to reduce their carbon footprint are also more aware. Still, Cook said, there’s a fine balance between creating a low-flow showerhead that meets conservation mandates and one that doesn’t water down the experience.
“When it comes to fluid dynamics, we’re experts. We know how to make a little bit of water feel like a lot,” he said.
The question then becomes how low can you go? Cook said hospitality executives quickly learned that installing lower-flow showers simply meant that guests took longer showers. “When it comes to the shower, the consumer doesn’t want less water,” he said, even if ideologically they see the bigger picture.
Governmental conservation mandates have resulted in unintended consequences. “When New York City mandated low-flow, sales of regular showerheads in New Jersey skyrocketed,” he said.
While showerheads prior to 1992 dispersed water at rates as high as 5.5 gallons per minute (gpm), today federal government mandates require that flow rates for new showerheads not exceed 2.5 gpm. And, with the hospitality industry aiming for a 20 percent reduction in water usage by 2020, consumers will have to adapt, at least when away from home. As an EPA WaterSense partner, Speakman manufactures low-flow showerheads ranging from 2.0 gpm down to 1.5 gpm.
A look back
Founded by brothers Allen and Joseph Speakman in 1869 in Wilmington, the Speakman Company had its start as a plumbing supply business. The company patented its first mixing faucet in 1906. Innovations in faucet and shower development continued through the next two decades, with Speakman’s popular Anystream showerhead hitting the market in 1927. According to corporate history, the Anystream showerhead was perhaps the company’s most important development and is a product that continues to be emulated in the industry. Although Speakman built its reputation as a commercial provider of faucets and shower components, the company is also an industry leader in the manufacturing of emergency eyewash equipment. Today the Speakman name is known within colleges and hospitals as well as within major hotel chains, including Hyatt, Hilton, Sheraton, and Marriott.
As the retail side of Speakman picks up pace, Cook said the company would continue to remain true to its longtime customers and its roots. “We’re still very committed to our traditional channels of wholesale distribution,” he said, adding, “There’s no way we’re walking away from our big commercial customers.”
Said Ward: “Here’s a company with a wonderful history and heritage dating back to the 1800s. We understand about being lasting. With strong leaders like Rob Cook, we’re respecting history and our past, but are very interested in looking forward.” ♦