By Lisa Readie Mayer
Benjamin Franklin once said, “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” Business author Alan Deutschman put it more bluntly: “Change or Die.”
A willingness to change has kept Cunningham Gas Products alive and thriving for 70 years, and through four generations. It has been the driving philosophy behind the company’s evolution from a one-man plumbing outfit to a multifaceted hearth, barbecue, and outdoor-living empire with two retail locations, a wholesale distribution business across four states, manufacturing operations for two brands, and an online order-fulfillment business serving retailers throughout the U.S.
|Ralph Cunningham, who founded Cunningham Plumbing Company.|
This story of adaptation traces back to 1949, when newly-licensed plumber Ralph Cunningham established the Cunningham Plumbing Company. Guided by three principles – work hard, be honest, and treat others how you expect to be treated – he served the Houston area during the tough economic recovery after the Great Depression.
Ralph’s business grew and successfully provided for his and wife Annie’s seven children, until tragically, at the age of 40, he came home from work one night, ate dinner, went to bed, and never woke up. With six siblings and his mother to feed, Ralph’s son Roy dropped out of high school and took over the business, helped by brothers Joe, Lynn, and Fred while he was in the Navy. After his service, Roy took on a second job at the Houston Fire Department, while he and his wife Regenia kept the plumbing business going on the side out of their garage.
|Joe Cunningham, who helped found Cunningham Gas Products.|
In 1968, the couple saw an opportunity to expand their business by partnering with the local gas company as a water-heater installing contractor, earning $35 for each installation. Likewise, when the utility began promoting gaslights and grills to homebuilders, Cunningham Plumbing broadened its business focus, earning $7 per 35-ft. gas-line and light-post installation, and $12 per gas-grill post-mount installation.
The business soon outgrew the Cunningham’s garage, and in the early 70s they bought land at 18700 Carrot Street in Spring, Texas, and built their first warehouse-office-showroom with a 15 x 20-ft. retail sales floor.
Another momentous business shift occurred when the Dallas-based manufacturer of Falcon Grills called looking for a wholesale distributor in the Houston area. With two kids and a $35-a-month mortgage payment, Regenia balked at purchasing the 40 gas grills required to become a distributor. But Roy convinced her it was a smart risk, and their distribution business, Cunningham Gas Products, was born.
The fledgling wholesaler expanded its dealer base throughout South Texas, as well as its retail and wholesale product offerings, adding gas grills and gaslights from pioneering brands Arkla and Charmglow, and then replacement parts, grills, and lights from Modern Home Products (MHP); it’s relationship with MHP continues to this day.
The company began distributing RH Peterson Company’s Real Fyre Gas Logs in 1980, after the forward-thinking Roy again prevailed when Regenia protested purchasing the minimum-required 100 log sets. Today, the company also retails and distributes Fire Magic, American Outdoor Grill, ICON Kamados, Cajun Grill, Louisiana Grills, and other brands.
In 1976, at the age of 18, Roy and Regenia’s son Jeff became the third-generation Cunningham to join the family business. Jeff spent 15-plus years learning the ropes as an installer, warehouse worker, and salesman calling on wholesale customers, all the while attending college at night to earn a business degree. Today, he’s company president.
Moving Out of the Comfort Zone
Jeff pushed his dad to implement even more changes to keep the business fresh and relevant. Some moves – such as when the company first computerized operations in 1990, and opened a second retail location in Houston’s Woodlands community in 1997 – were embraced readily. Others – such as when Jeff proposed they accept credit-card payments – not so much. (Roy ultimately acquiesced when Jeff proved, with a Burger King receipt, that even fast-food joints were accepting plastic.)
At a time when many businesses resisted technology and feared the Internet as the enemy, the company was an early adopter. By 1996, the retailer-wholesaler had launched its first website, cunninghamgasproducts.com (later changed to cunninghamliving.com), becoming one of the first in the hearth and barbecue industries to do so, according to Jeff.
He admits this initial foray had more to do with practicality than a desire to be cutting-edge. “The primary reason we created a website was to find a less-expensive alternative to the $30,000 a year we were spending on Yellow Pages ads,” he recalls. “The Internet was just starting to grow in those days, and a website was an inexpensive way to promote our company and help customers find our retail location.”
The company’s next steps into the World Wide Web were more strategic. It launched an online wholesale catalog for its dealers, as well as several boutique websites selling products direct-to-consumers online. According to Jeff, this diversification into online sales has been an important factor in the company’s growth. It also led to the development of another significant business area: order fulfillment for other retailers and website companies selling hearth and barbecue products online.
“I noticed businesses struggling with online order fulfillment,” he says. “So, I thought, ‘Hey, we are distributors with a warehouse full of inventory, and we are used to shipping product out the same day. We can become a drop-shipper for other dealers, offering economies of scale and savings on freight.’” Cunningham Gas Products fulfills 90% of orders the same day and ships anywhere in the 48 contiguous states, according to Jeff.
“I am a salesman trapped in a business owner’s body,” he jokes. “Like my father and grandfather, I’m always turning over rocks, looking for opportunities to increase our business and better serve our customers. Believe me, if I had the foresight, I would have fully embraced the online business earlier. I never imagined it would be as big as it has become.”
Moving into Manufacturing
Another leap of faith was the company’s expansion into manufacturing with the 2001 launch of its Renaissance Cooking Systems (RCS) brand. The line includes a wide variety of value-priced, lifetime-warranted, stainless-steel gas grills, doors, drawers, sinks, refrigerators, and other outdoor kitchen products.
“Our goal in developing this line was to better control our own destiny,” Jeff explains. “When you’re the middle man, you’re at the mercy of manufacturers, with no control over product development or pricing. There is risk in being a manufacturer, of course. We have to order from the factory by the container load – that’s quite a jump from the 40 Falcon grills my dad had to purchase to get into the wholesale business. But, as a distributor, we already had a built-in audience for our new line, and as a retailer, we had a first-hand understanding of the types of products dealers want.”
That insider’s perspective has informed the design of the RCS line and helped the brand gain traction in a crowded marketplace. The products are manufactured in China to Cunningham’s specifications, and feature “the specific bells and whistles dealers are looking for, at reasonable price points,” according to Jeff. Nearly 95% of RCS grills are sold as built-ins.
The company’s manufacturing division diversified again in 2015 with the purchase of Haggard’s Rustic Goods, its long-time supplier of hand-built, rustic coolers, furniture, and decorative items made of repurposed barn wood. Jeff moved Haggard’s production operations and five craftsmen to a new building at the company’s expanding Carrot Street campus.
Jeff’s son, Austin Cunningham, oversees Haggard’s production and product design, and is part of the fourth generation in the family business. Daughter Julee is the company’s graphic artist and social-media maven, while daughter Hannah is taking time off from her administrative role to raise a family.
Jeff’s wife Robben was actually involved with the business before becoming part of the family. The couple met in the ’80s while Robben worked for Entex utility company, a wholesale customer of Cunningham Gas Products. (As Jeff tells it, he defied his dad’s warnings about conflicts of interest and asked Robben on a date.) They married in 1984, and after staying home with their three children, Robben officially joined the family business as vice president in 2005.
Changing Up Marketing and Promotions
“My grandfather and father were always willing to adapt and try new things,” Jeff says. “That’s been important to our success throughout the history of our company, but even more so today. The world is changing at an even faster rate. We’re always trying new ways to market and grow our business, and we share those ideas with our dealers.”
Understanding first-hand that emphasizing outdoor kitchens differentiates retailers and boosts sales, the wholesale team helps design cost-effective, outdoor kitchen showroom displays for its dealers. It also advises how to maximize limited marketing dollars with social-media posts and targeted online ads. In-store cooking classes have been another successful way to generate excitement and attract experience‑seeking customers.
In an effort to grow its RCS brand nationally, the company recently revamped its website, added a dealer-locator tab, stepped up social-media promotions, and launched national Google advertising. An innovative, new, dealer program addresses the growing consumer practice of “showrooming” (researching in-store but ordering online).
“There is no incentive for a consumer to buy from our website because the price is the same as at our brick-and-mortar dealers,” explains Jeff. “But, if they do order an RCS product from our website, we have a pop-up that asks, ‘Did you visit a local dealer?’ If so, we ask for the name of the dealer. We will ship the order, but we credit that dealer with the sale and the profits, and supply the consumer’s name and contact information for their databases. If the online purchaser doesn’t mention a dealer, we still credit the dealer within 15 miles of the purchaser’s address. Even if the dealer did nothing to make the sale, they are credited with the profit they would have earned.”
Jeff says that, when the sales team first introduced the concept, dealers were skeptical. “But now that we’re sending out credits, they’re saying, ‘Wow! It’s real!’ We’ve given away close to $14,000 in credits so far,” he says. “We are the only manufacturer I’m aware of doing this and it has opened doors to new dealers nationally.
“Since the start of our company, we’ve worked hard to take care of our customers,” says Jeff. “It’s about building relationships and treating customers the way we would want to be treated – like family.”
That philosophy also extends to the company’s 35 employees. Jeff and Robben – who have built wells and provided relief services on numerous mission trips to impoverished countries – underwrite any staff members’ first service trip. When one employee was trying to stop smoking, they sprang for a family cruise after he quit for a year. Not surprising then, the average employee tenure is 13 years. The longest-serving employee retired this spring after 43 years.
“Robben and I take seriously the responsibility of carrying on the legacy left by my grandfather and parents,” Jeff says. “We strongly feel God put us in this position to lead our lives as an example, not just for our family, but our employees and customers, too.”
Some things don’t need changing.