When Ken Livingston, owner of Johnstone Supply of Central New York, opened his shop 21 years ago, he faced quite a learning curve.
"During one of my first transactions, a guy came through the door, put this part on the counter and said, 'I need one of these. Do you have it?'" Livingston recalled. "I said, 'Yes. What is it?'"
Livingston had a background in just about everything other than the heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration business that Johnstone Supply Inc. was known for.
He had worked for JPMorgan Chase & Co., was a director for Preferred Care and MVP Health Care and spent time at Eastman Kodak Co. After years of being an employee, he reached a turning point.
"I didn't necessarily want to keep helping other people make money," he said. "I wanted to make money for myself, and I wanted to wake up every morning and know I had control."
Livingston looked into various business opportunities, from manufacturing to printing. His dad happened to have a friend who moved to Texas and found success opening four Johnstone Supply stores.
The Portland-based company at the time had more than 100 member stores nationwide under a company management structure. Livingston flew to Texas to look at the operation.
"It was very impressive," he said. "He opened up his books to us and showed that you could make a lot of money with it. I realized I could do this too."
Livingston came back to Rochester and opened up his first location in a 6,000-square-foot facility near the Greater Rochester International Airport. The business now is in a 20,000-square-foot facility on Halstead Street.
In 2002, Livingston opened a location in Syracuse. Between both stores, he now has 18 employees.
While 80 percent of business for most Johnstone stores around the country comes from the residential market, Livingston said 50 percent of his business is commercial and industrial.
"We've been playing in other market segments, which has allowed us to offset the downturn in residential business," he said.
Livingston said his business experienced its biggest growth from 2008 to 2010 and is in the top 15 percent to 20 percent among more than 350 Johnstone stores nationwide in terms of size and sales.
He has become known for his holiday celebrations and open houses in support of his customers and suppliers. Things were augmented last year as the Rochester location celebrated its 20th anniversary.
"It was a chance for me to reflect on the fact that there are not a lot of things that I've done in my life for 20 years," he said. "I had a diverse career before Johnstone, which has helped me thrive here."
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