As a construction subcontractor, getting on a jobsite on time with the right crew on schedule is critical. But if, when you get there, you do not have the right tools, fasteners, and personal protective equipment (PPE) to do the jobs safely, efficiently, and productively, you are as some wise man said, “In deep mud.” That wasn’t exactly the phrase he used, but you get the idea.
Having the right supplier who knows what you need and who can deliver the power tools, fasteners, safety equipment, and personal protection to the right jobsite at the scheduled time is like having a best friend on a hunting trip. You can trust them. That best friend can anticipate how you think, where you might shoot, and how you will act and react in situations where the safety of another person could be at risk. You know that they know their stuff and will not make a stupid move that will endanger the hunt or you.
I recently sat down with Bobby Williams, President of United Tool and Fastener (UTF), to better understand the operations, business philosophy, and overall values for the company that operates in Houston, College Station and San Antonio, but who can deliver the right tools and fasteners to his customer’s jobsite anywhere they are needed. I discovered a number of characteristics that make United Tool and Fastener the supplier of choice with commercial and industrial customers around the region.
Let me share Bobby Williams’ story about how UTF came to be and how he operates it today with his partner, Steve Blackwell. Like many independent company owners, circumstance and “good luck” brought them to this point.
Bobby grew up in Houston, went to community college and then graduated with a degree in economics and business management from Houston Baptist University. That tells me a few things. One, he has the drive to finish. Two, he has a strong personal set of values, or he likely would not have gone to HBU. Three, he has the background needed to run a business.
Perhaps as important as the above might be, he played sports, football and baseball. He was a catcher on the baseball team and caught for a first round draft pick. The catcher, for those of you who are not fans, runs the game on the field. The catcher signals the pitcher what to pitch, signals the infielders when he is about to throw to one of the bases and generally is, as the lovely Barbara Bush once said, the general of the field. Those baseball skills have come in handy as I witnessed first-hand during our interview time together.
After college, Bobby became a drywaller. He learned valuable lessons in the field and went to work for a company called Texas Tool & Fastener (TTF) in the late 70s, just in time to experience the mid-80s slump. When TTF declared bankruptcy in the mid-80s, Bobby and five of his co-workers decided that they weren’t ready to quit selling tools. They didn’t want to let down the customers they had worked so hard to develop and supply, so they managed to capture the assets, most importantly the customers, of TTF. Together, they struck out on their own to start the company that is now known as United Tool and Fastener.
They have been in business as a trusted supplier and advisor to their manufacturers and to their construction and maintenance customers since 1987. Over the years, Bobby Williams and Steve Blackwell emerged as the two owners of this business that has become so critical to the production and safety of the construction industry.
There are a number of things that distinguish this operation from the competition. First, Bobby’s handshake is his bond. Second, UTF maintains a large inventory that gives them the ability to provide tools at a moment’s notice. It also allows them to stock customized PPE for their customers in anticipation of future need.
Third, it didn’t take me long to truly understand that the entire team knows what they are selling, how it works, how to fix or replace it if it breaks, where to get it, and when they can deliver it to your jobsite.
Recently, I attended their “one-day sale” in Houston, a circus atmosphere designed to give their customers lunch, a time to meet the manufacturer's reps, time to look at new tools that will hit the market soon, and the opportunity to buy and order tools and supplies. I talked to three or four of the UTF team in the showroom that is open to the public, and they expertly educated me on the forthcoming changes in the safety requirements of “drop protection” and tethering to avoid injury from craft workers dropping tools or fasteners.
The team also talked with me about “fall protection” and the equipment available to meet the new Silica dust rules and regulations. Bobby told me that members of the UTF team teach the OSHA 10-hour and OSHA 30-hour training onsite to their customers, an added value that helps prevent jobsite injuries.
During our interview, I asked Bobby about how he works with the manufacturers and customers on new and needed tools and equipment. We discussed how his customers’ workers identify new tools that they might need as well as those tools that need updating. He explained that UTF represents major brands like DeWalt, Milwaukee, Werner, and PIP (Protective Industrial Projects), whose engineering teams are constantly developing newer, faster, stronger, and better tools for the construction craft professionals in the field for the next three, five, or ten years.
He explained that because of the strong UTF personal and buying relationships with those manufacturers, they are contacted to try prototypical, sometimes 3D-printed, tools and to have his trusted customers field test those tools as a way to determine which tools those manufacturers might put into production for the future.
As we were tying up loose ends in the interview, I asked Bobby to tell me how UTF, an independent supplier, is different from the “big guys” in the industry. He gave me a list that I think he follows every day and that his team follows as well. His list includes:
- Integrity - personal and company-wide
- Strong team with strong relationships with customers and manufacturers that have been developed over the years
- Local inventory with company owned trucks and the ability to respond promptly to deliver equipment and supplies where and when they are needed
- Repeat customers who trust UTF to perform
- Quality of service and product
- Competitive pricing
- Consistency of service to the broad range of customers
- Problem-solving team ready to help their customers
- Knowledge of the market, of the products they sell and of the construction industry
- Ahead of the curve with advanced knowledge and insights on current and upcoming developments in safety, equipment, and regulations
It was almost noon when I got into my car with lots of new info flying in my head around like the forklifts and flat-bed trucks being loaded in the warehouse and the pickups driving up to the showroom. United Tool and Fastener was doing exactly what they said. They are “tooling up” their customers so that they will be ready for the afternoon and for tomorrow on the jobsite.