Crain's Cleveland Business News "Upscale Plumbing"
Posted by Daniel Edelman on
By: John Booth
Alan Edelman is one heck of a storyteller.
Of course, it helps that he’s got one heck of a story.
“I was 14 years old when the Soviet Union occupied our town (in Poland),” he recounted in an accent still prominent after almost six decades in America. “My father was arrested right away because he was a capitalist.”
And the tale only grows more riveting: Five years in Siberia; the loss of three-quarters of his immediate family; a penniless December 1947 emigration to New York with his mother and brother. And in 1953, the basement beginnings of Edelman Plumbing Supply Inc. in Cleveland.
More than a half-century later, Alan still comes to work every day at the company’s Bedford Heights showroom. His son Sheldon runs the business and is currently rushing around preparing for an upcoming open house at Edelman Plumbing’s Westlake showroom, while grandson David has stepped in to take charge of the company’s technology needs.
“My office is in the middle,” Alan explained. “One side is his office” — he indicates David — “And on the other side is my son’s. I’m very proud.”
The fountain of business
Alan, 82, started the company with a $5,000 loan.
“I bought $5,000 worth of faucets, and I started a business from my basement,” he said. “I loaded up my car with faucets and went out from hardware store to hardware store (selling them).”
“I’m very mechanically inclined,” Alan responded. “I could fix anything. It’s how I survived in Siberia: I fixed tractors.” (Another great story: He only learned to operate and fix farm machinery after lying to his Soviet captors to make himself seem useful. His tractor knowledge came entirely on the fly.)
A picture of Alan standing in the doorway of that basement shop shows the same ever-present grin he displays today, even if the once-dark hair has gone white.
A throne for a king
Edelman Plumbing opened its first showroom on Ridge Road in 1960 with three bathroom displays alongside the parts counter.
Today, the company’s two, 20,000-square-foot showrooms are seemingly endless arrays of bathroom and kitchen fixtures. There are more than 150 upscale lines on display, ranging from the ornate to the sleek to the jaw-dropping.
Well, if you ever wanted to spend $14,000 on a toilet that emulates an antique French throne, you could do it here.
“We thought we’d never sell one of these,” David admitted. “But someone came in and said, ‘I don’t know anything yet about the rest of my house, but I want two of these for my master bathroom.’”
On the modern side are $10,000 toilets with automatic lids and adjustable temperature seats. It even makes the company founder chuckle.
“When I first saw this,” Alan said, pointing to an $1,800 toilet paper holder, “I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
Pointing to a display of gleaming sink basins that would look at home in an art gallery, he added, “We’ve had people who came in and buy one of these bowls not for the lavatory, but for the living room.”
Start with the best
It wasn’t always this way.
Sheldon admits it took him a long time to understand that upscale plumbing supplies would be an ideal niche for Edelman to fill. Evolution only came after customers and designers began sharing tales of what they’d seen in Chicago or New York. Why, Sheldon wondered, should people have to head out of Cleveland to find what they want?
“That’s when I decided, conceptually, that you start with the best, and you work your way down,” he said. “Most customers buy in a (price) range — a fairly narrow range — but you need to challenge people. They need to be able to walk into one place and know, ‘I don’t have to go anywhere else, because I’ve seen it all.’”
Sheldon estimates there are probably only 50 showrooms throughout the country that rival his family’s offerings.
He says he knew even before leaving for college that he would follow in his father’s footsteps.
“I knew I always wanted to be in business,” Sheldon recalled. “My grandfather said to me, ‘You’ve already got a good one: You don’t have to start another one.’ I took that advice to heart.”
‘Oh my gosh’
Edelman’s growth has been helped by the popularity of home décor and remodeling shows like those on Home and Garden Television.
“The home shows have definitely opened up people’s minds to the more stylized look,” David said. “People might have been intimidated years ago about getting something that wasn’t like everything else they saw around them.”
It quickly becomes clear that Alan, Sheldon and David each bring a unique vision and approach to the company.
“We all come with a perspective,” Sheldon said. “My dad comes from a perspective of frugality and survivorship. He’s the (American) dream story. And I think he allowed me to grow the business with the times, and the times were in sync with what I was doing. My son comes, and he’s the technology generation, and he looks to technology for solutions.”
Looking over the showroom floor, Alan still marvels at his family’s accomplishment.
“When I started the business, there was only one faucet for the sink, one faucet for the bathtub, one faucet for the lavatory,” he said. “Every day, when I look at (the showroom), I say, ‘Oh my gosh.’”