Winnelson is a familiar name in and around our community. Located at 2230 Benton Rd (Route 37) in Mt Vernon, it is easily identifiable by the large blue- shoed dairy cow out front. Some may not recognize that they are actually a nationwide supplier and wholesaler of all things plumbing related. They partner with local contractors and plumbers to provide materials, parts, tools, and fixtures provided either in their spacious storefront, or delivered directly to the job site. They are quick to add that they are also open to the public, and often sell to homeowners looking to perform a repair, need a power tool, or need help designing their dream bathroom for the upcoming remodel.
Not only do they provide great service to their customers, they provide amazing job opportunities for their employees. Their in-house promotion model boasts the tagline “Driver to Owner,” meaning you might start as a delivery driver but could work your way all the way to president of your local branch.
That is Derek Kniffen’s story precisely. He is the president of the Mt Vernon Winnelson, but his story actually started in 2007 when he started as a delivery driver at the age of 22. He enjoyed his job, delivering materials to job sites and developing relationships with local contractors. He was impressed with how busy the company was, and how far they traveled to service their customers. He also noted how well the company took care of their customers. They would go out of their way to make sure their contractors were successful and looked good to their clients.
It only took a year and half before he was promoted to an inside warehouse position. He checked in materials, unloaded semi-trucks, and put freight away helping to keep the warehouse neat and organized. By this time, Derek was convinced that this was the right company to work for, and determined to climb the ladder as quickly as he could.
Another year later and he was promoted once again, this time to Front Counter Sales. He was a natural salesman, and had already developed many of these relationships from when he was a delivery driver. His customers liked him because he knew exactly what he had in his warehouse, where it was located, and could provide exactly what they needed quickly and with a smile. Almost a year after starting at the front counter sales position, he was once again promoted to Outside Sales.
In this new position, he traveled Southern Illinois five days a week, visiting job sites, meeting with contractors and customers, and solving problems for them. He loved being able to meet needs or deadlines that the customer was stressing out about.
“We viewed ourselves as partners. We worked side by side with our customers to meet their needs. If they had a problem, we treated it as if it was our problem as well” says Derek.
“I really enjoyed being the go-to guy. If any of my contractors had an issue, I was on their speed dial. They trusted me to provide a solution. I loved that part of the job.”
Derek was so good at his job that he caught the attention of his boss, Mike Anderson. Mike noticed Derek’s hard work, as well as how well his customers responded to him. He had risen quickly in the company, was well liked, and Mike saw leadership potential in him.
In 2019, they started a series of talks about Derek possibly taking over the business in the future.
“I was looking for someone who was aggressive, absorbs knowledge, and had a strong desire to be a business owner” says Mike. “The truth is, Derek was not the only person I had tried to train to take over when I retired. None of the others made it all the way through the steps for various reasons. Derek had everything I was looking for, so I started him on his journey of leadership training.”
Before any actual changes could be made, Derek would have to pass Winnelson’s Management Development Training Program, or MDTP. A notoriously difficult program, many of the participants never actually graduate from it or achieve their goal of ownership. It was a very rigorous journey, but after 6 months, Derek graduated the program.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life, but I’m so thankful that Mike had the faith in me to try” Derek recalled.
For the next two years Mike invested in Derek, teaching him all aspects of being a President. Derek had literally worked in every position the company had to offer, and therefore understood the needs and concerns from his entire team. “I’m grateful for the perspective I had, having worked in so many positions I felt better suited to make decisions that benefited everyone involved.”
In 2021, Mike Anderson retired, and Derek Kniffen stepped into the role of President. His journey from delivery driver to president was complete, exactly as the Winnelson model touted.
Derek says, “anyone in leadership, ownership, or senior management understands that our position is stressful, and every decision carries great weight. We are tasked with the growth of the company, as well as growing our team’s opportunities. I want what is best for my customers, my team members, and my company. Balancing all three is difficult, but I enjoy the challenge. I still get to interact with customers, and occasionally still get to help them find the right tool or fixture. I still serve my customers, it’s just in a different capacity.”
While Winnelson is familiar to those in the plumbing world, there may be some that are unfamiliar with the services they offer. They are open to the public Monday-Friday 8am to 4:30pm. Mt Vernon Winnelson is one of the largest Milwaukee tool dealers in our area. They offer all ranges of tools, storage boxes, and even clothing in the Milwaukee brand.
They offer all kinds of materials, fittings, and parts for plumbing needs. “If water touches it, we probably sell it” jokes Derek. This includes specialty plumbing tools, and hard to find parts that the big box stores don’t carry.
“Some people are surprised to learn we have a full showroom of baths, showers, toilets, sinks, and fixtures. We can help with your complete remodel or update to your bathroom. Many customers come in to talk with Sarah to get ideas to give to their contractor. She can help plan your project, give suggestions about what materials to use, and help find the perfect fit to your measurements.”
Sarah Clark is the showroom specialist, assisting homeowners and contractors in selecting shower slabs, fixtures, and even colors to best coordinate with each other. Contractors will regularly just call her with measurements and say “build me a bathroom!”
When asked what sets their business apart from other national chains, Derek says:
– High quality products: “We purchase only top of the line, high quality fixtures and materials. Big box stores often have low quality fixtures with plastic parts that only last a few years. Our fixtures will last a lifetime.”
– Knowledgeable staff: “Our sales staff have over 100 years of plumbing knowledge in this building. We know what you need, and can get it for you so you don’t make three trips to repair your leaky faucet.”
– Locally owned and operated: “Money that is spent here stays right in our community. We are from here, went to school here, and our families will be raised here. We believe in supporting local small business.”
– Personal attention: “Our salesman and designers do this for a living. Every single day we pay attention to each customer and their needs. We don’t have a electrical section, flooring section, and lumberyard. All we do is plumbing and design aspects of your kitchen, bath, or new construction project. We are niched, and therefore extremely good at what we do.”
Derek married his wife Kristi in 2010, while he was working outside sales for the company. They have three children, McKinley, Emersyn, Drake who keep them very busy participating in softball, basketball, dance, gymnastics, and cheerleading. When he’s not working, Derek says that the only real hobby he enjoys is deer hunting season.
“I’m thankful that I find a lot of satisfaction in my job. I enjoy working, and am thankful for the opportunities that working here provides for my family,” he states.
If you see Derek or his team at Winnelson, thank them for being a valuable part of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, and refer a friend to their beautiful showroom for the plumbing or fixture needs!
Story brought to you by: the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce Small Business Council