A chance encounter with one of his professors launched Phil Leak on an almost five-decade career in the automotive equipment distributor business. Leak is president of Phil Leak Co., in Norwalk, Ohio, a business he has built into a sizable distributorship.
"It was just a lucky accident," Leak said. "I went to school at Bowling Green University and bumped into my old marketing professor one day on campus and told him I was looking for a job. He was doing some consulting work with ARO and said they were looking for an apprentice."
After getting his start with ARO [now Ingersoll Rand] in Bryan, Ohio, in 1955 in customer service and sales, Leak learned the automotive aftermarket industry and honed his skills as a salesman.
It was a desire for more independence that led Leak into distributing. With the guidance of Bill Moore at ARO, Leak went to work for Jack Webb, ARO's manufacturer's representative for Ohio in 1957. When Webb retired, Leak took over the territory and became ARO's youngest division manager.
After five years as a "catalog carrier," Leak noticed that many distributors he sold through didn't want to stock parts or service equipment. Working out of the back of his station wagon, he began carrying some of the smaller, more routine service parts on his visits to area businesses … and began thinking seriously about changing his business to a distributorship.
"I was already doing the work anyway," Leak said. 'The distributors would find a customer and I sell them equipment and take care of them afterwards, but the companies I represented were already starting to have what they now call master distributors. I decided to change."
The first years were tough. Leak operated the business from his kitchen table with only a few customers and good cooperation from ARO at first, but Leak managed to add to his product line and gain trust from his customers. This started Leak on a path of gradual, measured growth that he partially credits for his longevity and success in the business.
A big part of Leak’s business now is lift equipment, but early on it was automotive rustproofing. ARO already manufactured pumps to apply rustproofing material, so it was a natural progression for Leak to stock and promote pumps and accessories.
By 1962, Leak moved his business into a rented facility. Three years later he built a new building at the company's present location in Norwalk, where it has required three separate additions to keep up with business.
Along with even growth, Leak credits faith and family with his success. In addition to his son, Mike, who was his first employee in 1966, Leak also hired both of his daughters, a grandson, granddaughter, and a grandson-in-law. With three generations and a staff of long-timers, Phil Leak Co. is truly a family operation.
"I love it," Leak said. "We now have 20 employees, and many of them have been with me for a long time, so they're like family too." Salespeople even carry photo albums to sales calls that introduce customers to the people that will be answering their calls, as well as see the operation is not just “a guy in a garage” somewhere.
With his longtime knowledgeable staff, Leak said companies simply need to give him “a good product at a good price with good service — and we’ll sell it.” The Leak Co.’s biggest challenge comes when his biggest suppliers are bought out, sometimes leading to a breakdown in the personal relationships. But through his employees’ industry knowledge, they are able to overcome many of these problems. The company has even managed to expand beyond Ohio into Michigan, Indiana and Pennsylvania.
"We have a number of clients we've done business with — and are still doing business with — over the past 40, almost 50 years," Leak said. "We listen to our customers, find out what their needs are and try to provide equipment that will best suit their needs.”
To keep up with new needs, Leak said, “I read trade publications … and try to evaluate my suppliers’ new products, like Ingersoll Rand’s new Nitrogen Tire Filling System.”
Leak's ability to establish lasting business partnerships and repeat customers stems from his commitment to honesty. By recommending the right equipment and being available to service it, Phil Leak Co. garners a high degree of customer loyalty.
"Anything made by people and used by people will need to be serviced at some point and we have an excellent field service department," Leak said. "We take our service to them."
So what does the future hold for Phil Leak Co.? With the economic boom in the DIY market automotive equipment distributors may find a new aftermarket customer in car hobbyists.
'The market's a little slow right now but we're always looking for something new — new places to sell and new products to sell," Leak said.
Zach Keller of Two Rivers Marketing contributed to this report.