Editor’s Note: Virginia Abrasives is tucked away on a service road that overlooks Interstate 95 in Petersburg, Va. The 65,000-sq.-ft. facility is overshadowed by larger nearby industrial and pharmaceutical companies. “Because we are a relatively small company and don’t sell to the general public, people around here don’t really know who we are or what we do,” says Spencer Perkins, president, Virginia Abrasives.
The company, however, is well-known in the rental industry as a key supplier of coated abrasives — better known as sandpaper — as well as bonded abrasives, diamond abrasives and floor maintenance pads. Virginia Abrasives has manufactured, converted and shipped sandpaper from its factory in Petersburg since 1972. In 2005, the company opened its distribution facility in Simi Valley, Calif., to provide better service to its West Coast customer base.
In Petersburg, the company makes somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 million linear yards of sandpaper every year, enough to cover 500 football fields. They initially make a variety of “jumbos” — giant rolls of sandpaper — in different grits and then convert them into thousands of different sized rolls, belts, sheets and discs to be used for specific applications on different machines.
“When I first interviewed with the company, before even hearing much about the entry-level management job, I was sold on the fact that they actually manufactured a product that I thought was kind of cool,” Perkins says. Starting as a management trainee in 1988, he spent time working and learning each step of the process to manufacture and convert sandpaper. He then became a company salesperson, market manager, sales manager, vice president of sales, general manager and eventually president in 2007. He’s been with the company for 21 years.
“The company has grown consistently, there have been different opportunities and it’s been fun,” he says. “We have raw materials, people and energy that come in here every day and those three things interact to produce the various sandpaper products we make.”
Perkins recently spoke with RENTAL MANAGEMENT about the abrasives business and his company’s relationship with the rental industry. An edited excerpt of that conversation follows:
RM: Your literature lists the rental and professional flooring markets as your key targets. Why is the rental industry an important market for Virginia Abrasives?
Spencer Perkins: The company was founded in 1971 and really struggled to find its niche in the coated abrasives — synonymous with sandpaper — industry. There were a lot of competitors worldwide. Our parent company is in the garnet mining business and the initial vision of the company was that they would forward integrate and produce the “world’s best” sandpaper using garnet abrasive as the mineral. A lot of people think that getting into the sandpaper-making business is pretty straight-forward, but there is chemistry and web-handling science. There is a lot of technical skill that goes into producing quality sandpaper. The company spent its first few years just getting its feet underneath it, getting settled, and getting manufacturing and conversion up and running. The first market Virginia Abrasives pursued was the government contract bid business, with 9-in.-by-11-in. sanding sheets made of garnet. In 1978, the company decided to change course. We started conducting marketing research and identified the rental equipment market as an opportunity. It started at the grassroots level targeting independents initially here in Virginia and expanded out geographically by going to some of the local rental association meetings and saying, “Here’s who we are and here are our capabilities. What kind of abrasives do you buy? What’s wrong with what and how you buy?” The answers to such questions convinced us that a service-oriented company with a solid product offering could succeed selling to the rental industry. The company put together a product offering consisting of smaller packaging, lower minimum order requirements, competitive pricing and fast shipping. Almost immediately, this gained acceptance at the rental store level. From a product standpoint since then, we have expanded from sandpaper into bonded abrasives, diamond abrasives and pads for polishing floors. We’ve really tried to create “one-stop shop” for any kind of floor-care accessory or abrasive item a rental company might buy.
RM: You talk about targeting independents, but they now have a lot of competition from national companies and hardware stores. Has that changed your business?
Perkins: The rental industry is no different than any other industry that’s evolved and we’ve had to evolve with the industry as the independents have been acquired by the consolidators. The key thing is that we remember where we came from. Yes, we have programs for the nationals and regionals, but our core rental equipment dealer program today remains focused on the independents. You can call our 800 number and one of our customer service reps picks up the phone within a couple of rings and they can help you. They understand who you are and what you buy. They will guide you through whatever you may want to order. You can order one box or 50 boxes. We’ll give you a competitive price and we will ship it out that day.
RM: What makes Virginia Abrasives different from other suppliers of coated abrasives?
Perkins: If you look at the products we offer, there’s nothing fundamentally different or unique about any of those products compared to products that most of our competitors offer the rental industry. The big differentiator for us is the service aspect. We get it. We’re real people with real products, real service and real delivery. The differentiator on the product side is the breadth of offering. We have a lot of competitors that may offer this product or that product, but today, we only have one or two competitors that offer the same assortment.
RM: What applications are these different products used for?
Perkins: Most of the sandpaper products are related to wood floor sanding. A rental store will have different types of wood floor sanding equipment — a drum or belt sander, an edger sander, a buffer and an orbital disc sander — and we have all of the sandpaper products that fit those kinds of machines. Diamond and bonded abrasives are mainly cutting wheels and discs that fit hand-held high-speed cut-off saws, walk-behind road construction saws and right-angle grinders. Those are the main pieces of equipment these abrasives fit on and are used for cutting and grinding concrete, asphalt and metal. Non-woven abrasives are mainly floor maintenance pads that fit on floor buffing machines to maintain tile floors. They can do anything from stripping and cleaning tile floors up to polishing them with some kind of wax or protective coating.
RM: We’re in the middle of an unprecedented down economy. Has the economy impacted your business?
Perkins: Absolutely, but perhaps not to the same extent that the equipment manufacturers and other suppliers to the rental industry have experienced. I think by the nature of our product — as a consumable type of product — we’ve probably fared a little bit better. Also, our product is bought and resold. We ship orders the same day we get them, so rental store customers don’t have to carry that much inventory. We have the inventory here. A rental store owner, when times are tight, might make a decision not to purchase new capital equipment, but they have to have our product if customers are coming in the door to buy it.
RM: What are your hopes for the future?
Perkins: As we look to the future, we have several new product segments we’re thinking about adding. We ask, “What other products and services can we provide to rental store owners to help them improve their sales and profitability?” We look for where there are accessory type products we could carry to be able offer more value to the store. This is part of an ongoing process. We looked at diamonds for several years before we decided to get into diamond abrasives, because we wanted to be sure we provided real value to our rental store customers, in both the product and the service required to properly sell such products. We think long and hard about it because it’s easy for that new product line to become a distraction because all of your effort goes behind that new product line with the risk of leaving your legacy items, like floor sanding paper you started with the late 1970s, somewhat vulnerable to competition. That’s the challenge when you look at creating something different. There’s not much opportunity to take and create “new and improved” sandpaper. You can’t re-innovate and make the latest greatest sandpaper and charge more for it because the rental guy and his customer aren’t interested. They just want a product that works at a fair price. You can, however, be very innovative in the service and total value proposition that you offer to the customer, and we focus on that every day.