Johnstone Supply Newport News: “You want it, I’ll get it”

Steve Hamlin

Johnstone Supply Newport News, a top wholesale distributor of HVAC/R in the Peninsula area, goes the extra mile to meet its customers’ unique needs. “I’m a wholesaler of ‘you want it, I’ll get it,’” says Steve Hamlin, owner of the company’s four Virginia locations.

The company’s 450+ locally owned offices throughout the United States span across a six-point distribution network, making more than 75,000 parts and products available through an extensive online catalog. Founded in 1953 by John Shank in Portland, Oregon, Johnstone Supply has quickly grown from one community store to the original Johnstone Supply Catalog to a thriving market leader.

Hamlin’s journey with Johnstone Supply began 28 years ago. He first went to work for the company in 1994 while he was living in Bloomington, Minnesota. After a month at that branch, the owner called him into his office with the company’s sales manager and operations manager.

“I was caught off guard,” says Hamlin. “They told me I was going to be their next outside salesperson. I said ‘I appreciate the opportunity, and thank you for your confidence, but frankly, I don’t even know what’s on page 64 of your [2,000 page] catalog.’ They said, ‘Don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine.’”

With their blessing, Hamlin quickly transformed a sales territory generating about $30,000 a year in sales into a whopping $1.8 million the following year. He remained there for a decade, growing the location’s success “about 10 times over.” His Bloomington location was within the top three of 189 Johnstone Supply locations at the time, and with a son on the way, life was good for him and his budding family. But once again, in the spring of 2004, he was called into the office by his bosses. This time, Hamlin was asked if he was interested in an ownership opportunity in Virginia, with two locations in Newport News and Virginia Beach. 

“At the time I was 41, [and I] decided that this was the time to take my shot,” he says.

Diving into 12- to 14-hour shifts, seven days a week, Hamlin wanted to get to the inner workings of the company and figure out how he could change it for the better. At the time, the two locations had only eight employees.

“I took them to dinner and said, ‘We’re on our way, this is our start.’ I laid out a plan of customer service built on value and respect for our customers and their needs,” he recalls. “We had a sinking ship. First of all, we needed to plug the holes and then we could get underway. Currently, we are full steam ahead. We are still growing, and we have a lot more to do here in Hampton Roads.”

The original Virginia network of Johnstone Supply locations included only Newport News and Virginia Beach at the beginning of Hamlin’s ownership, comprising 4,000- and 6,000-square-foot spaces. Now, Hamlin heads four locations: Newport News, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Williamsburg. With 42 employees across the board, about 10 work in Newport News.

Johnstone Supply enjoys doing business with a wide range of customers and companies, including the apartment industry, military bases and the service industry, as well as working with independent contractors. “Our mission is their success,” Hamlin says of the customer base. “They’re the reason we exist. My team is willing and able to help in any situation, and we do.”

This sense of teamwork, dedication and putting the customer first has been put to the test and proven time and time again, which Hamlin says sets the company apart from competitors. It offers a counter-training program where employees can learn more about the parts being sold, bettering business operations overall.

One job on a Navy vessel entailed replacing an AC condenser unit a week before the crew headed to the Bahamas. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Hamlin quickly located the correct nickel-plated parts. “We had a customer who had an airplane, and he was willing to fly to Michigan to pick up that unit on Saturday so I could get it on that boat Sunday morning before [the vessel] left.” Hamlin hand-delivered it to the boat and met the captain.

This is a busy season for Johnstone Supply — things are beginning to heat up in the HVAC/R industry. When he isn’t working, Hamlin is an avid golfer and an occasional ice fisherman, true to his Minnesota roots. His wife Colleen is active with the Norfolk Garden Club and has won awards for flower arranging and more. “She’s the yin to my yang,” he says. Their son attends George Mason University, and their daughter is a senior at Norfolk Academy. 

Johnstone Supply
Address: 723 Blue Crab Rd., Newport News, VA 23606
Contact: Steve Hamlin, 757-705-6805
Phone: 757-873-0092

About Anna Dorl 24 Articles
Anna Dorl grew up all over the United States as a military brat, and she now calls Virginia home. She is a graduate of Christopher Newport University with a degree in communication studies, with minors in writing and film studies. Since graduation, she’s worked in journalism and education. When she’s not writing, Anna can be found hanging out with her dog, Stella, and watching spooky movies.

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