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Supplying What the "Big Box" Retailers Can't

by Kathy Serenko

C&L Tool Supply is one of those businesses that was built from the ground up, literally. With an inventory of discontinued Ingersoll Rand tools and a Moon Township two-car garage, co-founders Jerry Lingenfelter and Mark Cooper opened their doors for business in 1989. It didn't take long for the company to outgrow the garage. Within the year, C&L Tool Supply operated a storefront, as well as a flourishing wholesale business that continues to sell products from longstanding tool manufacturers to customers across a range of industries.

C&L Tool logo

In the natural course of business, as national "big box" retailers like Home Depot, Lowes and Walmart moved into the tool supply space, independents like C&L Tool Supply began to feel the pinch. With fewer dollars to market their products and services, these smaller Pittsburgh companies have faced what seems to be an uphill battle. Mark Cooper, who has maintained sole ownership of the company since 2002, is very frank about the challenges that threaten the future of industrial suppliers like C&L Tool Supply.

Mr. Cooper's concern epitomizes the vision and purpose of Buy Pittsburgh First, as well as the overarching mission of SMC Business Councils.

What the Big Retailers Can't Do

Like so many other Pittsburgh-based businesses, C&L Tool Supply's success lies not in the size of its business footprint, but in its commitment to service. One of the company's key differentiators is its ability to deliver products and expertise well beyond that of much larger competitors.

For example, the company has preserved tool schematics that create a unique resource. By identifying original or comparable replacement parts, C&L Tool Supply can often save businesses the cost of purchasing new equipment. "Our guys are troubleshooters," says Mr. Cooper. "They can understand the customer's need, and find a way to fill it." Sometimes, he explains, that solution requires research and the knowledge gained only by years of experience.

In a culture of disposable everything, C&L Tool Supply maintains another competitive edge. The company's in-house repair department helps clients keep expenses under control and tools -- primarily pneumatic tools -- in operation. Free estimates, along with skilled reconditioning and repair, keep customers coming back for more. C&L Tool serves a number of companies in the construction, manufacturing, automotive and oil and gas industries who choose to reduce expenses by having equipment repaired.

To reach its expanding market share, C&L Tool Supply created a comprehensive online search engine, as well as a print catalogue now distributed to thousands of regional, national and international customers. The company also assigns a dedicated salesperson to each customer account. Mr. Cooper notes the importance of that consistency. " People like to know who they're dealing with, and they want to know it's someone who understands their business needs."

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