Robert Saunders Hughes' Early Days
Robert Saunders Hughes founded his eponymous company in Glendale, California in 1954. A true visionary and an exceptional leader, Robert led his company to success by following his philosophy of always putting integrity and the organization's people first.
Learn more about Robert Saunders Hughes' early days and how his leadership paved the way for us to celebrate 70 years in business.Read Our Founder's Story
Robert Saunders Hughes, often referred to by colleagues as Bob Hughes, began his professional career as an engineer. Robert was working at Colgate-Palmolive when he met MIT-graduate, Ledyard (Ledge) Hale. The two hit it off and became friends.
Soon after, Bob realized there existed a need to improve access to supplies by keeping those supplies stocked locally. He had a vision to start his own company. But not just any company – one rooted in a philosophy that prioritized integrity and treating employees like family. He had a vision for a decentralized organization where people could tap into their entrepreneurial drive and figure out the best way to do their jobs and accomplish their goals.
In 1954, he founded Robert Saunders Hughes with the partnership of Ledge Hale in a little hole-in-the-wall office on Victory Blvd. In Glendale, California. They started as manufacturer and stocking representatives, eventually becoming an independent distributor. The company's early lines were primarily plastics – a far departure from where R.S. Hughes has evolved to today.
Like every new company, there were bumps in the road, especially in the 1960s. Bob, however, was a phenomenal salesman, and his personal sales kept the company afloat. It was in the 1970s when growth began to accelerate. After much pursuit, and R.S. Hughes showing early success with aerosol sales, 3M gave R.S. Hughes their entire business. Soon after, other top brands like Loctite, Devcon, GE and Brady Corporation joined as valued supplier partners.
Colleagues and employees of Bob Hughes remember him as a bright, articulate and assertive leader. A great mentor to many, Bob encouraged and challenged his employees in the best ways. He was well known for what employees called a “Hughes Lunch” or a lecture, where he would spend one-on-one time with team members and, in some cases, talk to them about certain necessary truths and principles.
He had a unique ability to motivate and lead people while preserving their ego and self-esteem. No one was beneath him, and he treated everyone in his company, no matter their position, the same way. Bob instilled high expectations in his teams, wanting them to do things right and to do the right things; “Give and you shall receive” was his motto. An entrepreneurial spirit within the company flourished thanks to Bob. He encouraged action and making your role your own. Employees' concerns and feedback were always a priority, and Bob made a point of asking people at all levels of his company for their feedback about ideas and decisions.
As the decades passed, and R.S. Hughes continued to grow in its success, Bob never strayed from his founding philosophy – always making decisions that were aligned with the best interests of his employees, whom he considered the company's most valuable asset. To this day, R.S. Hughes is an employee-owned company. We know Bob would be proud that we have reached this incredible 70-year milestone.
Robert Saunders Hughes Founds His Eponymous Company
In 1954, Robert Saunders Hughes founds his eponymous company in Los Angeles, Calif. Warehouses open in several other west coast cities, including Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Diego, Oakland and Seattle.
Robert Saunders Hughes Launches the Saunders Division
R.S. Hughes Opens Phoenix and Salt Lake City Divisions
R.S. Hughes Becomes an Employee-Owned Company
Robert Saunders Hughes believed that employee owners are driven to add value by providing excellent customer experiences. The company's employee stock ownership program (ESOP) was one of the first of its kind.
R.S. Hughes' “March to the Atlantic”
R.S. Hughes opens new divisions in the following cities: Dallas, Houston, Austin, El Paso, Fort Worth, Portland, Orlando, Tampa, Ft. Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Denver, Riverside, Carson and Sacramento.
Saunders Branches Into Converting Services
Saunders begins providing several converting services such as die-cutting, laminating, slitting, packaging and assembly.
R.S. Hughes Significantly Grows Its Footprint in 13 New Cities
R.S. Hughes opens new divisions across the United States, as well as in Mexico: Raleigh, Saunders East, Chicago, Tucson, Albuquerque, Miami, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, McAllen and Tijuana.
Transition From Manual To Computerized Inventory
Year-end inventory shortens from 30 days to five days. Customers' questions are now quickly answered thanks to the live inventory system – a significant accomplishment for the company.
R.S. Hughes Open Divisions in 15 New Cities
R.S. Hughes opened new divisions across the United States, as well as in Mexico: Minneapolis, Baltimore, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Birmingham, Boston, Columbia, Long Island, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Mexicali, Juarez, Reynosa, Monterrey and Chihuahua City.
Closer Partnership With 3M
Our terms with 3M increase, resulting in nearly $1 million in additional purchase discounts.
Collaboration with 3M on the launch of their new customer portal site, InfoCenter (known today as bCom.)
Company-Wide Launch of Intranet and PDAs
In 2002, a company intranet site is launched that hosts important forms, procedures, reports and other company documents.
We deploy Handspring Visor Pro Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) to our outside sales team.
From Static to Dynamic, Interactive Website
Website redesign from a static one-page form to a dynamic, interactive site. Our annual web sales goal increases to $1 million.
Dipping Our Toes in the Digital Marketing Waters
The company's first-ever Google Ad Words campaign launches but is unsustainable. That is, until the formation of the company's dedicated marketing team years later.
First-Ever Proprietary CRM Tool
Our proprietary CRM tool, named Contact Management Program, launches. It begins as an access form that is then transformed into a website.
Creation of National Accounts Division
Our National Accounts Program launches in 2007 to allow for a more focused approach to customer relations. A dedicated team is appointed to provide next-level care and consideration to our customers.
First Annual Safety Catalog Publishes
Our first-ever annual Safety Catalog publishes in 2008. English and Spanish editions are developed to accommodate our entire North American market.
Thousands of customers are reached and safety category sales significantly grow. In 2009, one year later, we reach a milestone of $14 million in safety sales.
ERP System Upgraded To Handle Demand
With sales growing significantly year over year, our Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system upgrades from P21 to Infor's SX Enterprise. By the end of the year, we capture $180 million in annual sales.
R.S. Hughes Continues To Expand in 7 New Cities
R.S. Hughes opens new divisions across the United States, as well as in Mexico: Tulsa, Grand Rapids, Nogales, Hermosillo, Queretaro, Chihuahua and Toluca.
Significant Expansion of Our Safety Product Lines
$300M Sales Milestone
For the first time, our company crosses the $300 million milestone in calendar year sales.
$400M Sales Milestone
Our company reaches another major calendar year sales milestone – $400 million!
$500M Sales Milestone
We continue to hit new calendar year sales milestones. By the end of 2022, we capture over $500 million in sales.
Cloud ERP System Upgrade
We upgrade our ERP system to one that is cloud-based in order to handle ever-increasing demand and grow our capabilities.
Relationships, Mentorship and Service at the Highest Level
National Accounts Business Manager, 13 years
Relationships, Mentorship and Next-Level Service
Contributed by Alessio Cavazos, National Accounts Business Manager, 13 years
I joined the company in February 2010 as an inside sales representative, having just graduated from university. My branch was new, and the phones weren't ringing, so I started Googling and cold calling customers. One day, my operations manager asked me to go out into the field and I ended up never returning to the office because I enjoyed it so much. I feel a part of my branch, like it's my company because I grew it to where it is today.
There are so many stories and memorable experiences from the past 13 years. But my favorite interactions have probably been with my mentor, Carolyn Wilkinson. Although retired, she is still my mentor and my friend.
I recall visiting a customer with Carolyn and learning so much by watching how she conducted herself. She listened to the customer, always taking notes on her iPad. Her priority was learning how to help them. Whatever they needed, we accommodated by being open and flexible. We figured out how to make whatever the customer needed happen.
R.S. Hughes is truly different from other distributors. We always put our customers first. And they know that our service is next level. It's evident in the way we handle ourselves and the fact that we're always there to help them.
A great example of this in practice is with one of my customers, a global golf equipment manufacturer based out of Southern California. We were about seven years into our partnership when I received a call at 3:00 a.m. one Friday morning. On the phone was my contact, the engineering manager, panicked that his team ran out of material and realized they didn't have any saved. If they didn't get the material in two hours, they would be forced to shut down their line.
I started making phone calls. Our operations manager answered her phone, and she was able to get me the office keys so I could go in and get the material my manufacturing customer needed. I even enlisted my dad to help, so we both went to get the material and drove it straight over to the customer.
The engineering manager is still at the company and remembers this story.
It all started with Carolyn and the example she set of always figuring out how to fulfill customers' needs.
I'm happy here and plan to retire from R.S. Hughes. Seeing so many people in the company who have worked here for decades and are now retiring is inspiring – I want to be like them!
Generations of 3M Partnership and Prosperity
Key Account Director, 3M, 22 years
Generations of 3M Partnership and Prosperity
Contributed by Lance Wahlert, Key Account Director, 3M, 22 years
I first encountered R.S. Hughes when I was about 11 years old. My dad was a legacy 3Mer and the area sales manager for industrial tape in southern California. He took me to the annual Christmas party at the Vista Division, where I met Carolyn Wilkinson and Chuck Schweikart for the first time. At that party, I recognized how the company didn't feel like a business, but more like a family running a business together. It's a memory that sticks with me because I had a great afternoon meeting several different R.S. Hughes folks and legendary 3Mers like Victor Esquer and Paul Moriarty who helped develop (with Carolyn) much of the golf business that R.S. Hughes and 3M have presently.
Fourteen years after that company party, I was working as a territory sales representative in Los Angeles for 3M's Industrial Tape and Specialties Division (ITSD.) And yes, I only sold single side tape in that role – I guess tape was in my blood.
I was working with the Anaheim, Calif. division and Frank Parente was a great contact for me to understand my territory. Anyone who worked with Frank knew that he understood everything about every customer – no hyperbole. The man was a lock box, especially when it came to the Aerospace industry. I loved working with him throughout my career. He was always a hard worker and someone you could ask a question and receive a straightforward answer. And that answer was usually correct and the right path forward for the end-user/R.S. Hughes/3M. We all miss Frank.
Fast forward another decade, I was working for 3M's Personal Safety Division with the responsibility of growing the safety business with R.S. Hughes. It was an amazing experience working next to Brian Yetter from 3M, Joe Vargas, Marc Eddings and George Mallinckrodt. We were able to drive a significant amount of safety business with key accounts and leverage the divisions to grow the safety business to double digits for several years. I learned so much from Brian Yetter from a key account management perspective, and I know everyone from R.S. Hughes feels the same way. Brian is greatly missed.
The last few years haven't been without their challenges, though – COVID-19, business changes and significant losses.
Pete Biocini was a legend and helped build R.S. Hughes to what it is today. The coast to coast dedicated to him was astonishing in so many ways. It was truly a reflection of the man and how he touched everyone. I will remember Pete for the rest of my life.
I also lost my dad, Len Wahlert, in 2021. He was also a legend in his own right, and I miss him every day. Pete and my dad worked together with Bob McCollum to foster the growth of 3M and R.S. Hughes' relationship. That was awesome to witness as I grew with 3M Company.
Presently, I am the key account director for 3M working with R.S. Hughes. I am so honored to be in this role, and I still have a passion for what the R.S. Hughes and 3M relationship brings to the industrial marketplace in the U.S. and Mexico. Working with Bill, Mike, Marc, John, Jon, Alan and the rest of the R.S. Hughes/Saunders team is a wonderful experience. I would not want to be connected to any other relationship in the business.
We have grown together in so many product lines over the last 70 years. R.S. Hughes started with 3M aerosols and now the company sells over 20 product divisions from 3M. This is an amazing milestone for R.S. Hughes, but there is so much more we can do together. I know we will be celebrating this relationship at the 100-year anniversary in 2054.
3M has exciting new products and programs coming in 2024. I look forward to another amazing year with my R.S. Hughes colleagues!
Persistence and the R.S. Hughes Spirit
National Accounts Business Manager, 7 years
Persistence and the R.S. Hughes Spirit
Contributed by Sara Caiozzo, National Accounts Business Manager, 7 years
My favorite customer story is from 2016 – my first year in the field with R.S. Hughes. I had my eye on a small welding and manufacturing company in San Diego, Calif. They worked out of a small building in a sketchy neighborhood on a dirt road. Despite appearances, I tried cold calling them a few times, but my outreach didn't lead anywhere.
One day, I was working with Anthony Tomich, our safety specialist at the time, and happened to mention the company to him. We decided to drive over to their building for one final attempt. Once there, the receptionist said we needed to call for an appointment, so we walked out. On our way back to our car, Anthony suggested I call them. I thought, I'm not going call her she just told us to leave. But he was persistent, stating that she wouldn't know it was me and that we weren't leaving until I called.
The same receptionist answered, and I asked to speak to the safety manager. Shockingly, she transferred me. David Lerma came out to the parking lot, and we ended up hitting it off. He gave us a tour of the building and told us who to talk to in purchasing. I then set up a meeting with the purchasing manager for the following week.
The timing of it all turned out to be more than ideal. The company was just awarded a new contract and they were looking for new vendors as they grew. I got a parts list from the purchasing manager, quoted everything and set up a follow-up meeting for that next week where I would present to the buyers.
As our buyer meeting was ending, one of the owners and the CFO stormed in and started screaming at me and his team about being busy and shorthanded and how they were wasting time. We were told to leave, and I happily obliged, noting that we would schedule another time that works better. I was almost to my car when the owner came running out towards me. He apologized and admitted that he was completely out of line back in the office. His team explained to him that we had a lot of value to share, including cost savings, and that they wanted to work with us.
The next day, I got my first order from our new customer. And the orders just kept coming in. I teamed up with Kurtis Lakhani, our San Diego operations manager, to ensure the orders kept moving out the door. Soon, the orders grew from cases to pallets, and we knew this partnership was going to be huge.
When I first prospected them, the company was newer, with only 50 employees. Today, they've grown to 1,000 employees in San Diego, Washington and Virginia. And that dirt road? It's now paved and leads to their huge new facility. Today, they are one of the largest navy ship repair welding contractors in San Diego. And they are still an excellent customer – one of my favorites – and now one of my national accounts.
I love telling this story and I especially enjoy sharing it with new sales representatives I've trained over the years. I think it's a great example of 1. Persistence being key, 2. How you never know the growth trajectory of a company, so don't judge based on superficial factors and 3. How pushing past adversity can open the door to opportunities.
Many people would have been scared to return to the company after getting yelled at. It's all what you make of the situation. Timing and a little bit of luck can take you far.
Saving the (Labor) Day
Contributed by Brad Pressler, National Accounts Business Manager, 9 years
On September 3, 2009, a medical device company headquartered in northern Indiana, had an explosion in their main production plant where they manufacture knee implants. Three people were injured, and a large portion of their plant was shut down for an investigation.
We provided them with their cleaning product at the time, which was FDA approved to use in the manufacturing area of their medical devices. Under normal circumstances, we sold them a couple of cases of that cleaner a month. However, after the explosion, they needed large quantities, and they needed them fast.
The call came in late on Friday, September 4, the day before Labor Day weekend. Their request was for 1,500 cans of cleaning product by Tuesday at 6 a.m. Since alternative cleaners were not permitted, this was the only product they could use. To make matters more difficult, this particular cleaner was from a buyout supplier. I contacted the supplier, but they only had a couple of cases they could provide.
So, I started Googling other approved distributors and found one that was in the area that R.S. Hughes had previously partnered with. Unfortunately, it was past 5 p.m. and no one was answering the phones. I started working their phone system and found the name of the president of the company, so I looked him up on LinkedIn. As it turned out, we had mutual acquaintances in the industrial distribution market, so I called one of my acquaintances and got the president's mobile number.
It was now Saturday, September 4. I called the president, catching him as he was headed to the golf course. After explaining the urgency of the situation, he promised to check his computer once he was back home in the afternoon to see if they had stock. A few hours later, he called back with great news – they had 200 cans, and we were welcome to take them all.
While at his warehouse the next day, he realized a full skid of cleaner had come in on Friday but had not yet been received into the computer. It was ours, too, if we wanted it. Of course, we did! The only problem now was space. I came back on Sunday with my wife's SUV and our enclosed motorcycle trailer to load up the 1,700 cans. My buyer at the medical device company was thrilled that the product would be there Tuesday at 6 a.m., as he requested.
He informed me that the insurance company was going to have an EHS person there to ensure they were satisfied with the safety procedures in place to prevent a repeat accident once production resumed. Upon learning this, I asked for the contact information of the engineer who was heading up the project to fix the issue. When I got him on the phone, I told him that I was bringing the cleaner on Tuesday and thought I had a viable solution for their issue. If interested, I could bring our specialist with me to provide a demo unit. He gave a resounding yes! It turns out, he had no idea where to start on the problem and I had just provided a solution.
I spoke to my specialist, and we agreed that our solution was indeed a fit for the company's application. And with the demo unit, they could prove it to the insurance agent. As a result, they got approval to resume production as soon as they were operationally ready.
The sale of the cans of cleaner and the monitoring systems was great, but it's estimated that we saved them millions by avoiding a week of production downtime.