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Seattle company fills niche in Northwest

May 6, 2020 Viega
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Distributors like The Part Works are the vital link between manufacturers and contractors. They provide not only tools, parts and material, but solid advice backed by years of experience. We’re thankful they see the value in Viega and we salute them for the important work they do. This is the first in an occasional series of profiles of distributors playing an important role in the industry. Concurrently, this article kicks off a series saluting women in the plumbing and HVAC trades, from manufacturing to turning wrenches in the field.

Katie Parris got started early in the plumbing parts business.

“My elementary school breaks were spent building drinking fountain repair kits and flush valve repair kits,” said Parris, who owns The Part Works, a wholesale plumbing specialties distributorship in Seattle.

She was learning the family business from her parents, Rick and Sandy Johnson, who started The Part Works 40 years ago in their garage. After gaining leadership and marketing skills externally, Katie joined the leadership team of her parent’s company in 2006. Katie always intended to take over the business eventually, but had to take the reins quickly when her father died in 2012, and the company was in danger of closing or being sold.

“Dad and I were a great team,” she said. “We really enjoyed working and strategizing together and it took a while for me to rediscover my passion for the business after he died.”

When she did, she wasted no time modernizing the company. Since becoming owner, Parris has revamped the company software and added e-commerce capabilities. The result has been a 200% increase in business with no additional personnel.

It’s the only plumbing specialties distributor in the Northwest, Parris said. The sales team serves Washington and Oregon in-person, and Idaho and Alaska by phone. They sell internationally through The Part Work’s e-commerce site.

Most of its work is in facility maintenance and repair, particularly with hospitals, schools and government buildings. Much of the business is managing on-site parts inventories for facilities managers. The Part Works stocks 9,000 SKUs and has 250,000 items in its catalog.

It also offers advice, which can be more valuable than parts. A lot of its valves, pumps and fittings go into older buildings with outdated systems unfamiliar to younger plumbers and facility managers. The veteran staff at The Part Works knows what’s needed and how to make new components work with older systems, Parris said. Staff also contribute to resource guides on the company’s blog, helping procurement and engineering teams maintain their facilities to a high standard.

“We’re great at identifying mystery parts,” she said. “We help them figure out what is needed and how to fix what they’ve got.”

The company also advises on code requirements across different industries and types of usage and trains facility managers. “Our value really lies in our expertise,” Parris said.  

As one of the few women owners of specialty plumbing parts distributorships, Parris has endured her share of sexism. At tradeshows, men tend to look past her to her male colleagues.

“Invariably, we sit down with vendors and they talk only to our product manager. Sometimes, they don’t even acknowledge that I’m there,” she said. “When he tells them I make the decisions, they kind of jump and it’s always awkward.”

Customers who come to the counter in Seattle sometimes ask to see man instead. However, she’s learned to use the sexism to her advantage.  

“Being underestimated can be a benefit. I think sometimes it helps me at the negotiating table,” she said.

Nearly half of The Part Works’ 27 employees are women, something Parris said she didn’t do intentionally, but attributes to a hiring process free of bias.    

At age 41, Parris is not complacent with what she’s accomplished. She plans to open a second location in Portland, Ore., by the end of the year and keep growing from there.

“I have a lot of fun in this business. I think there is a lot of potential in our particular area of expertise,” she said.

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