How DuPage’s Kuhlman Brothers Found Friendship, and Commiseration, at BrandSource’s Young Professionals Meetings

Say you need a PVC trap, a vent reducer, a dryer cord or a washer hose. Who ya gonna call?

Well, if you’re a BrandSource member anywhere in the U.S. and Canada, chances are you’ll be contacting the folks at DuPage Industries, the 62-year-old appliance installation parts supplier.

Now run by third-generation owners and BrandSource Young Professionals Peter “Max” Kuhlman, Jr. and his brother Sam, the company was founded in the Chicago bedroom community of Melrose Park, Ill., which the family helped settle in the 1860s. Taking their name from local DuPage County, their grandfather and his dad created a two-page parts catalog and were off and running.

Over the ensuing decades the two-page sheet evolved into a 42-page digital directory of installation parts, and the company relocated to the nearby town of Wood Dale. But besides providing thousands of critical and arcane widgets for installers across the country, what really set DuPage apart were two unique factors: in-house tooling to manufacture its own gas connectors, and the patented Max Adapter. As Sam explained, the three-way adapter, invented by their dad Peter and named after Max, allows for the quick connection of an extra water line beneath the sink without installing a completely new water line or even shutting off the main water supply.

While the company no longer makes its own gas connectors, the Max Adapter remains a solid seller in the DuPage assortment, and father Peter – who possesses a Genius IQ – is still the indispensable king of inventory management.

“We don’t use any forecasting software,” Max noted. “After more than 30 years in the business, Dad just knows where all the items are in the warehouse, how many we have of each, and how many we need to order. Plus, he’ll have a funny story behind each one. It’s organized chaos, but he is the business.”

In contrast, the brothers fully expect to employ software assistance when those tasks eventually fall to them. “We didn’t inherit Dad’s smarts,” Sam laughed.

What they did inherit, however, is an appreciation for the company’s multi-generational heritage, which is something they share with their family-owned retail partners. “We have customers who knew us when Mom was pregnant with us,” Max said. “Our relationships go back generations.”

To better connect with their customer contemporaries, the brothers joined BrandSource’s twentysomething Young Professionals organization, where they formed friendships, share best practices, and discovered that the trials of running a family operation, while unique in business, are not exclusive to DuPage.

“At my first couple of Young Professionals meetings it was like, ‘Wow, our family setting is not unique; these are the things I struggle with,’” Max said. “Issues that come up in a family business can be very daunting.”

“We share real-world questions and problems,” added Sam, who joined DuPage following a post-college stint at Hertz. Unlike the “cold and impersonal” corporate environment at the car rental company, he found working with other family businesses, and getting to know their next-gen owners through Young Professionals, very gratifying. “It’s nice to know we’re helping our customers,” he said. “If they do good, we do good. But it transcends the transactional; we help with other problems by bringing solutions and offering alternatives.”

The approach has proved rewarding both socially and financially, as DuPage’s business is up 11 percent year to date. Still, it hasn’t been without its challenges: like many companies, the Kuhlmans are contending with the impact of import tariffs. “A lot of our products, including gas lines, venting and rubber hoses, are made in America,” Max said, “but others, like brass fittings and stainless steel, are imported, and we’re dealing with some pretty hefty tariffs.”

Loath to raising prices, the brothers have been pushing increases out as far as possible and are “holding out as long as we can,” Sam said. The company has also been forging new connections with a variety of vendors to help mitigate the higher costs. DuPage is also working with its vendors to help keep costs down on LTL (less than truckload) shipments amid carrier increases of 5 percent a year, although it was forced to raise its free-shipping order minimum from $100 to $150.

But despite the vicissitudes of the business environment, the brothers believe their customers are in good hands with BrandSource. “The care that goes back to the member base is rare,” Max observed, citing a host of modest-sized dealers whose businesses “just exploded” after joining the buying group.

DuPage itself has been an AVB partner for some 30 years. “We work with different groups and associations, but we have a very special buying program with BrandSource, and haven’t had a longer relationship with anyone else,” he added.

When they’re not tending to the needs of America’s home appliance installers, the brothers are busy raising what they hope will be the fourth generation of DuPage managers. Each have three children at home (Sam and his wife are expecting a fourth), and while they want them to follow their dreams and find their own happiness, “We hope they want to be a part of the business,” Max said. “We love the legacy and hope it continues.”