Norco Inc.

norco picNorco follows an operating philosophy that upholds high-quality customer service and highly-motivated employees.

By Tim O’Connor

Larger companies often inquire about buying Norco Inc. But the family owned welding, safety, janitorial, medical equipment and gas supplier believes it can better operate as an independent business with a focus on its customers and employees.

Owner Jim Kissler has long thought about how he could better establish the company’s value and set it up to grow as a very long term independent organization. In 2015, he took that step by shifting one-third of Norco ownership to the employees.  “The reaction from employees has been  extremely positive. It’s a very big bonus program with a fantastic long term component,” Executive Vice President Robert Mohr Gerry says.

Because every worker now has a direct stake in the company’s success, Gerry says Norco is well positioned for secure longevity. Since the change, employees take a more active role in the business, pushing each other not to waste time or materials because they’re all part-owners now. “There’s no negative in it,” Gerry explains. “It’s a nice long-term incentive program that makes working at Norco even better, especially for those who intend to be with Norco well into the future.”

Top Supplier

Norco has long been known as a leading industrial supplier. The company was founded in 1948 as the welding supply division of Nordling Auto Parts Co. and was sold to Larry Kissler, Jim Kissler’s father, in 1968. From the beginning, Larry Kissler believed in hiring stronger, faster and smarter employees who were rewarded with a profit-sharing plan and other incentives to increase productivity.norco box

Today, the company is on its way to becoming a half-billion-dollar business. Norco operates 65 facilities in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Nevada, Washington, Utah and Wyoming. Some are retail distribution locations while others have gas manufacturing capabilities, depending on the market. Beyond its physical locations, Norco distributes products to a total of nine states through resellers, and utilizes a distributor network to fulfill orders for specialty gases from its Norlab division throughout the rest of the United States and Canada. 

In addition to the welding supplies Norco made its name with, the company provides medical gases and equipment, safety products and janitorial supplies. Its lineup of home medical equipment includes respiratory aids, a full line medical catalog and home accessibility products. Norco’s products come from Hypertherm, Miller, Lenox, 3M, PFERD Abrasives and other well-established industrial as well as medical suppliers.

Key growth areas for the company are its industrial and medical gases, which are produced in Norco’s own air separation plants, distilled and then broken down into components. Norco operates several large-scale cylinder production facilities in the Northwest and manufactures compressed gases in all seven states where it has locations. “We’re one of the only privately held, completely vertically integrated gas companies in the USA,” Gerry claims.

Delivery is one of the most challenging aspects of being a gas supplier. Gas is cooled to 300F below zero, where it becomes liquefied and suitable for transportation. Norco must maintain that low temperature during transportation as even slight increases in heat will create some evaporation and loss of product. It’s a fight against nature and science for Norco to distribute its gas products across its seven-state market. “Every moment that our fleet of bulk product is on the road you’re losing money,” Gerry says.

To lessen that loss, Norco must strike a balance between maintaining an inventory of gases and not overproducing the product, only to watch it evaporate away. The company plans ahead for distribution and forecasts demand to ensure it has precisely the right amount of inventory. “It’s a very tenuous process and a balance of maximizing the opportunity,” Gerry explains.

Norco also works to minimize the distance its trucks must travel by adjusting its distribution based on customer demand and market shifts. “We, on a regular cadence, take a refreshed look at our distribution patterns and work to optimize them,” Gerry adds.

The company is also constantly improving its locations. In the past five years, Norco has refreshed more than a dozen branches and launched another half-dozen brand new locations.

Service Focused

Norco follows a core set of operating philosophies derived from its founder and explained in detail in the book “Kissler’s Keys,” which was published in the early 1980s. The book outlines the tenets of the company and its belief in striving for simplicity and that people are the key to its success. Gerry says the 32-page book is given to every employee and helps ingrain in them a sense of value for customer service over profits. “For us, we figure if the customer is not around there’s no profits to be had. The customer is No. 1 at Norco,” he adds.

In addition to its core philosophies, Gerry believes Norco’s quality employees help set it apart from the competition. During a recent staff event, the company calculated that the average tenure of its outside salespeople is 19.8 years, and other employee groups show similar longevity. Those numbers represent a mix of veterans who have been with Norco for decades and newer employees like Marketing Manager Joanna Dickey, who are still early in their careers with the company. “It’s admirable that Norco keeps good people around and those people want to stay at Norco,” Dickey says. “As an employee at Norco you feel that employees are appreciated. Everybody is important no matter their job.”

Norco takes care to treat all employees as valued members of the team. Monthly newsletters congratulate workers on their successes and many positions have performance pay incentives. “There is a general recognition that the employee makes everything go around and we should all reward and recognize that,” Gerry says.

To create a team atmosphere, the company looks for people who are like-minded and discourages the kind of fractures and infighting that can occur when there are conflicting core principles. “There is a real trust relationship from employee to employee here,” Gerry says.

The employee ownership model feeds into Norco’s customer service and team-based approaches. Workers are given much autonomy to complete their jobs and have the authority to make changes when necessary. “You give people a little bit of freedom – that builds confidence,” Gerry says. “Over time they become the next generation of leaders.”

Community Minded

Many of Norco’s branches are located in towns with 20,000 or fewer people. The company is often one of the steady employers in its areas and local customers who buy from Norco know the money they spend will go back into their communities.

Norco builds on that reputation as a community-oriented business by supporting dozens of local programs. Norco management and staff members encourage welding and medical education and training through leadership roles on education advisory boards for colleges and trade schools. The company also provides financial contributions, equipment and facility sponsorship to many educational facilities in need across the seven states in which Norco operates. High school and college training programs and community education efforts that Norco is involved with include SkillsUSA, Future Farmers of America, Big Bend Community College STEM in Moses Lake, Wash., the career and technical education program at Weber School District in Ogden, Utah and the Boise State University School of Nursing in Boise, Idaho.

Many of those programs and other community organizations are supported through Norco’s charitable arm, the Kissler Family Foundation. Gerry describes community giving as an integral part of the business, and one that needs employee support to thrive. “If you don’t believe in that mission you’re probably not in the right company,” he says.

The Norco community will continue to grow in coming years. The company is planning several new branch openings for 2017 and will continue to explore new markets and geographies where it makes sense to grow, Gerry adds.

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