ACT I: Involved from the beginning.

Question: How many computer scientists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Answer: None. That’s a hardware issue.

Everybody’s heard various takes on the lightbulb joke. Most variations are funny. But when it comes to real life scenarios, it’s no laughing matter. Like after a natural disaster, when power has been disrupted. That’s when it becomes personal. Restoring power is essential to restoring some sense of normalcy.

Following hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, fires, earthquakes or even manmade calamities, the people of Graybar are often at the forefront of responding quickly to help the communities they serve, providing not only the necessary products but also their time and talent. One of the most recent examples is the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. Even with torrential rains and devastating winds, Graybar facilities were open and ready to help as soon as staff could safely make it into work.

No brag, just fact.

Companies often tout the fact that they’re plugged into their communities. But when you’re in the electrical distribution business, you’re literally plugged in to every customer. We’re connected in many ways, and have been since the start.

With the end of the Civil War in 1865, connectivity exploded. The more industrialized North accelerated the transition from a farm-based economy to manufacturing, including textile and iron production. The war had also stimulated the growth of railroads and the widespread use of telegraph lines. After the war, those same lines made civilian communication easier, allowing news to be spread as fast as the wires could carry it.

We want in.

Elisha Gray and Enos Barton wanted to be part of the action of a growing nation. The newly formed Gray & Barton specialized in making telegraph instruments, burglar alarms and other electrical devices when it opened its doors. It didn’t take long for the company to get up close and personal with the new community where it relocated in late 1869. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 ravaged the city, destroying the central division headquarters of Gray & Barton’s biggest customer, Western Union, and most of its telegraph lines.

The fire stopped two blocks short of Gray & Barton’s shop. Marshaling its resources, employees worked overtime in the ensuing months to help rebuild Western Union’s Chicago infrastructure (and manufacture fire alarms for other customers).

Nearly 100,000 Chicagoans were left homeless by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Western Union, then one of America’s largest companies, was impressed—so much so that a year later it acquired a one-third interest in Gray & Barton and made the company its primary supplier of telegraph equipment. Gray & Barton eventually became part of the Western Union family, renamed Western Electric.

ACT II: Growing pains and opportunities

With the advent of the electric light and the telephone, the greatest technological advancements in the latter part of the 19th century, Western was in the middle of connecting people and places with the new modern miracles. American Bell awarded Western Electric an exclusive contract to manufacture its telephones in the United States.

Talk about connections. That set the stage for the electric revolution to come.

Only 8 percent of American homes were wired for electricity in 1902, but that figure rose to 24 percent in 1917 and up to 68 percent in 1929. (The Rural Electrification Administration in the ’30s and Rural Electrification Bill in the ’40s would spread the power even farther and wider than ever before.)

Western Electric helped fuel the demand for all things electric by introducing its own washing machine and vacuum cleaner in 1915, with other appliances to follow. During the 1920s, with a huge advertising expenditure and great publicity, the Graybar name became known far and wide in households across the country.

Western Electric produced pamphlets like this one to educate farmers on the advantages of electrification.

The advent of mass communications

Radio kicked off the advent of mass media and instant connectivity. Between 1923 and 1930, 60 percent of American families purchased radios, and families gathered around their receivers for nighttime entertainment. The new employee-owned Graybar helped not only by selling its own radios but also providing some of that entertainment. The Graybar Hour, featuring a bickering couple, was one of the first radio situation comedies.

Graybar advertisement in The Saturday Evening Post, November 17, 1928.

Despite setbacks during the Great Depression, Graybar’s connection with the country at large was never more apparent than during World War II. Nearly 600 employees served in the armed forces. The annual report for 1941 indicated that Graybar business activities were “almost entirely devoted to furnishing material and equipment either directly or indirectly for the government to use in its war effort.”

After the war, the company took full advantage of its connections with people by distributing one of the first transistor radios: the Crosley “book radio” in 1954. A user could appear to be reading a book while actually listening to music.

Graybar became the largest and most successful appliance distributors in the country. Wholesaling refrigerators, washing machines, TV sets, air conditioners, electric fry pans, waffle irons and numerous other consumer products, the business was booming.

As the Cold War heated up, Graybar designed and marketed civil defense siren systems to warn of potential nuclear attacks. Those products also helped connect people in times of turbulent weather as well, since the warning devices could alert everyone to the possibility of a tornado or other natural disaster.

And, of course, there was the telephone business. After World War II, fewer than half of U.S. households had a telephone. By 1970, that figure rose to 87 percent.

A new base to launch new frontiers

Long based in New York City, Graybar made a bold move in 1982 when company president James Hoagland announced a relocation of corporate offices to St. Louis. The city was situated in the middle of the country with a great quality of life, and a lower cost of doing business. That was a boon not only for employees who were fed up with New York’s cost of living but also for customers.

President Jim Hoagland, second from left, stands in front of the headquarters building in Clayton, Missouri, in 1982.

Graybar also began opening up regional zone warehouses. By 1987, the combination of warehouses and branches had cemented quick connections to customers, with 98 percent of them able to get the products they needed within 48 hours. In the year 2000, turnaround time had shrunk to 24 hours for most orders.

Wherever we have customers, we have responsibilities

Employees own the company and have a big say in how they want their company to help support worthy causes, big and small. “We’re a local business, so most of our community engagement takes place at a local level,” said Beverly Propst, senior vice president of human resources.

Employees have a long track record of supporting their communities through volunteer service, charitable giving and caring for each other in times of hardship.  In 2011, Graybar created Graybar CARES (Community, Awareness, Responsibility, Education and Service) as platform for employees, customers and suppliers to work together and give back to our communities.

There are countless examples of Graybar CARES in action, including back-to-school supply drives, Habitat for Humanity, youth centers, cancer research, family services, new bikes and helmets for kids, food drives, giving blood, supplemental education programs, United Way, and countless others. Graybar employees go out and do what needs to be done. Being recognized for it is secondary. Being connected and helpful is reason number one.

The bigger picture

That’s not to say we shy away from the big stuff, especially major disasters. In 2017, Hurricane Maria was the most powerful storm to hit Puerto Rico since 1932. Employees were determined to keep serving customers despite needing help themselves—many were still without power. Thanks to their dedication, Graybar Puerto Rico reopened within eight days of the hurricane. Simultaneously, the Tampa district chartered a plane to deliver pallets of water, generators, tarps, food and hygiene products.

Employees show their support after Hurricane Maria.

The Army Corps of Engineers ended its work before the island’s electric grid was fully restored, but Graybar persisted.

And under the heading “one good turn deserves another,” Graybar locations quickly reopened after Hurricane Irma hit Florida, with crews dispatched to help with cleanup and provide gas and water. Employees in the Chicago district sent 1,400 cases of bottled water and adopted a Graybar family in need. Many other offices held fundraisers and sent supplies and gift cards to victims of not only Irma but also Harvey in Texas, Sandy in New York and New Jersey, Florence in the Carolinas, Katrina in 2005, and other devastating storms.

Numerous employees also donate to the Graybar Family Foundation to assist with recovery requests. The mission of the foundation is to provide financial help to employees dealing with unexpected hardships such as health issues, unexpected deaths of family members, and natural disasters. No two requests are ever the same.

Graybar employees in locations all over the system have found creative ways to raise money for people in need through the Graybar Family Foundation. Jeans Day is popular (employees can wear their favorite denim as long as they make a donation for the privilege), as well as the tried-and-true bake sales and flat-out cash donations.

ACT III: It’s all been a prelude to now

We’ve always been committed to doing good. But can we be better? Of course. How do you top all that’s been done so far to connect with communities? You step up your game even more. You take a long hard look at past problems and make sure you’re prepared for the next one. Graybar’s expertise lies in its people and its products. Both must be ready to go immediately when the need arises.

When Hurricanes Florence and Michael battered the Southeast, Graybar understood the challenges well. Greg Hochheiser, district vice president in Dallas, dealt with the fallout of Harvey in 2017 firsthand and knew what to expect and how to prepare. “Start early, make sure that you have a contact number for each employee, and create emergency plans that begin with employee safety,” he said. He recommended conducting a daily meeting with all managers before and after the storm to assess employee safety, facility status, and general conditions in the area (especially since news reports may not give the full situation).

Hochheiser also said it’s important to work with others in the community to help address shortages of key products by bringing in additional inventory. Distributors such as Graybar have fleets of trucks and a solid knowledge of logistics because they make deliveries in the community every day. “Distributors are perfectly poised to help navigate challenges during disasters,” Hochheiser said.

Celebrating with new initiatives

Giving back is embedded in Graybar’s DNA, and it’s an important part of our future, as well. As part of our 150th anniversary, a new matching program for employee charitable donations was introduced, with a goal of reaching $1.5 million in charitable giving in 2019. In addition, to celebrate 90 years of employee ownership, Graybar pledged to donate 90,000 hours of volunteer service. Graybar employees already give generously to help their communities, and this year, the company has even provided employees with a paid workday to volunteer. 

One of the most important ways we’ll be giving back to our communities is through our two-tiered approach to sustainability. Senior leaders from various departments on the Sustainability Committee will evaluate ideas, set overall policy and direct the deployment of sustainable initiatives companywide.

Graybar’s Green Team includes a cross-section of employees from various departments and disciplines. Their goal is to conduct research, develop sustainable recommendations, share those ideas with the Sustainability Committee, and then take an active part in implementing the programs.

Within the company, we have improved energy efficiency by retrofitting district and branch facilities with more energy-efficient lighting, decreased waste by incorporating a single-stream recycling program, and integrated green practices in new company-owned locations. Our internal initiatives help us provide valuable insights for customers on how to reduce costs and increase long-term sustainability.

We are firm believers in the idea that businesses thrive in vibrant and healthy communities. That’s why we strive to do our part to strengthen our neighborhoods with meaningful charitable contributions and volunteerism. Our philanthropic efforts align with the interests of our employees, customers and suppliers, as well as the needs of the people near our districts and branches. As owners of our company, we’re proud of what we give back. And in 2019, we just might be a little more vocal about it. For 150 years, Graybar has played a vital role in building the infrastructure of a country. Back in the 1920s, every household in America knew who we were. Today—for all the right reasons—we want that to be the case once again.