Stuart C. Irby Company
Stuart C. Irby Company
Sales: $340 million (2002 est.)
NAIC: 423610 Electrical Apparatus and Equipment, Wiring Supplies, and Related Equipment Merchant Wholesalers
Stuart C. Irby Company, headquartered in Jackson, Mississippi, is a private, family-owned distributor of electrical equipment and parts. It maintains a $50 million inventory from which, through over 40 branches in nine states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas—it distributes about 45,000 different electrical products to an array of customers, though its principal sales are made to electrical utility companies, industries, and contractor-builders, both residential and commercial. From its inventory, the company sells a wide variety of products, ranging from utility wiring systems, meters, and transformers to ceiling fans, table lamps, and door chimes. The company is currently headed by Stuart M. Irby, grandson of its founder.
Electrifying Mississippi: 1926–45
The company that bears its founder’s name, Stuart Chalmers Irby, started out in Jackson, Mississippi, both as a wholesale distributor of electrical supplies and a contractor. Irby had been and continued to be an ardent advocate of using electricity to provide much needed energy for the rural South, something he had envisioned for years, even before he was in a position to help make it happen. Although he had 11 years experience building power lines and selling natural gas and electricity, it was not until 1919 that he entered the joint electrical contracting and wholesaling businesses. At first he had a partner but in 1926 decided to make his way as a sole owner, creating the Stuart C. Irby Company. According to the company’s profile on its Web site, “It was the right place, the right time, and the right products and services.”
Initially, construction was the primary business of the company. Its focus was on the erection of power lines for new rural and municipal electric utilities, first in Mississippi, then throughout the Southeast. Founder Irby brought considerable experience to that task. Among other things, he had helped put up Mississippi’s first rural power line, an 11-mile, 22 kV transmission line built in 1917. Largely as a result of his experience and his industry connections, Irby managed to land one power line construction contract after another for his company.
There was, of course, a great need for both urban and rural electrical power in Mississippi. When Irby went into business, most southern rural areas and even many towns and lacked electricity. Almost all rural areas also lacked public water, waste disposal, and telephone services. Typically, farm houses, with no indoor plumbing, had to rely on water wells, hand operated pumps, and outhouses to meet the daily needs of the typical family. With respect to those amenities, little had changed from 100 years earlier.
The acute need hardly abated when the Great Depression hit the nation. By 1932, only 10 percent of the nation’s farms had electricity, and though in some states farmers fared better, those in the South most certainly did not. In 1935, for example, less than 1 percent of Mississippi’s rural farms and homes had electricity, and, thanks to the economic hard times, prospects were poor for a quick solution.
The main problem was that erecting poles and stringing lines in rural areas, given the distances separating potential consumers, was simply too costly, and commercial utilities were not in a position to risk the expense involved in providing rural residents with electricity. Also, until the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was established in 1933, there was virtually no inexpensive source of electrical power in the region. However, in 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Rural Electrification Act (REA) into law, making affordable loans available to private, public, and cooperative utilities which could tap into the TVA power grid at a reasonable cost. The REA had an immediate impact on the Stuart C. Irby Company, particularly as it spurred the growth of rural cooperatives. By the end of 1936, almost 100 cooperatives in 26 states had taken REA loans from the federal government. For the next several years, banner years for rural electrification, Irby would erect more REA power lines than any other company in the United States. Although curtailed somewhat throughout World War II, rural electrification continued to be a major priority in the nation’s infrastructure plans, and business boomed for Irby and similar companies when the war ended.
Postwar Boom: 1946–54
To achieve more efficient and manageable operations, in 1946, at the start of the post-war boom, Irby turned its wholesale distribution and construction businesses into separate, discreet entities. Both the newly chartered Irby Construction Company and Stuart C. Irby Company were headed by founder Stuart Chalmers Irby and would remain private, family businesses for the next 50-odd years.
Irby Construction prospered over those five decades, partly as the result of extending its business overseas, first undertaken in 1965. Under family ownership, the company built power lines in 42 states and finished 12 major projects abroad. Eventually, it became part of the utility and telecommunications giant, Quanta Service, Inc., formed in 1997. Under Quanta, the managerial reins passed to others outside the Irby family.
Meanwhile, Stuart C. Irby Company, with its focus narrowed to the distribution of electrical products, grew steadily throughout the Southeast. The company also maintained a close relationship with Irby Construction, which shared not only key personnel but, under a rental agreement, the same work space.
A Growing Network of Branch Distributors: 1955–83
In 1955, Stuart C. Irby, Jr., the founder’s son, assumed the posts of president and CEO of both Stuart C. Irby, Company and Irby Construction. He was well groomed for the task, having grown up with the family business. He had also earned a degree in business administration from Louisiana State University and, in 1953–54, pursued further study at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland.
According to his son, Stuart M. Irby, quoted in Jackson’s Clarion Ledger, Stuart C. Irby, Jr.’s “baby” was Irby Construction, but under his watch Stuart C. Irby, Company also greatly expanded. It was during his tenure as both president and chairman that the company developed a network of branch distributorships, numbering 38 by the time he retired. The building of the network first started in Mississippi, with branches opening in Pascagoula in 1962, Tupelo in 1964, Vicksburg in 1967, and Hattiesburg in 1970. Next, the company moved into Louisiana, with branches numbers six and seven opening, respectively, in Monroe and Shreveport, both in 1973.
In 1976, the company opened a branch in Mobile, its eighth, moving into Alabama for the first time. A fairly typical example of the company’s branches, by the century’s end the Mobile branch would grow into a large operation, employing over 30 workers to manage its 37,000 square feet of warehouse space, sales counters, and demonstration and training facilities. It would maintain an inventory of 11,000 items selected from preferred industry vendors and valued at $1.5 million. That inventory would also be larger than that of any competitor along the Gulf Coast.
Over the next 20 years, Irby would continue to open branches in new market areas. The next state it entered was Tennessee, where, in 1977, it opened a branch in Jackson. Then, in the early 1980s, after opening another Mississippi branch in McComb, the company expanded into Florida, opening its first branch there in Pensacola in 1982.
Continued Expansion under Stuart M. Irby: 1984–2003
In 1984, Stuart C. Irby, Jr. passed operational control of the business on to his eldest son, Stuart M. Irby, who became president and CEO. In that year, the company entered Oklahoma and Arkansas for the first time, with branches in, respectively, Tulsa and Little Rock. For the next few years, although vigorously expanding, the company opened new branches only in states where it was already established, including, in 1988, Nashville and Johnson City (a utility branch) in Tennessee; Muskogee, Oklahoma in 1988; Ridgeland, Mississippi in 1988; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1991; and Ponca City and Enid, Oklahoma in 1995.
In 1995, the company also expanded into Texas for the first time when it opened a branch in Corpus Christi. Then, for the next three years, it moderated its growth somewhat, although it did start up branch operations in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, and Decatur, Alabama in 1996, and Baton Rogue, Louisiana in 1997.
Vision: To meet or exceed the expectations of our customers with quality products and quality service. To work in partnership with our suppliers in aggressively and effectively reaching our target markets. To provide our employees opportunities for personal growth, recognition and reward, and empowerment in the continuous improvement process. To provide our shareholders with a fair return on their investment through consistent growth and increasing market share, constant improvement in resource management, and an ongoing commitment to the continuous improvement process. To be responsible and involved citizens of our communities, both corporately and personally, utilizing our time and resources.
Soon thereafter, following a brief lull in 1998, the company began another very aggressive period of expansion. In 1999, it purchased seven All-Phase Electric Co. branch outlets. Located in Dothan, Monroeville, and Selma, Alabama; Panama City, Florida; and Greenville, Johnson City, and Kingsport, Tennessee, these branches supported Allen-Bradly’s line of products, which were also supported by Irby’s existing branches. Additionally, in 1999, the company acquired Divesco Inc., of Hot Springs, Arkansas, giving it three more branches, located in Hot Springs; Texarkana, Texas; and Idabel, Oklahoma. Finally, it also bought J.C. McCormic, Inc. of Wildwood, Florida, a distributorship which in 1998 had sales over $23 million. Irby released no information about the terms of any of these acquisitions, but they represented accelerated growth, adding nine new branches to the company’s roll. Irby had all of them in operation by 2000.
The company made another major acquisition in 2001 when its affiliate subsidiary, Irby Utility Supply LLC, purchased the assets of what was formerly Cummins Utility Supply. A federal bankruptcy court in Texas authorized the sale on November 28, and it was completed shortly thereafter. Irby elected to keep open and run Cummins’ locations in Huntsville, Alabama; Fort Worth, Austin, and Tyler, Texas; and Syracuse, New York. These greatly expanded Irby’s presence in Texas and gave it a foothold in the Northeast for the first time in its history. The company also acquired the fixed assets and inventory of other Cummins widespread locations, including sites in Las Vegas, Nevada, Phoenix, Arizona, and Indio, California.
Given the company’s history, it is no surprise that providing utility companies with equipment and parts has remained a big part of Irby’s business. In 2002, the company’s utility sector supplied 418 electric utilities with equipment. Those companies were then servicing over 12.5 million electric meters, or about 10 percent of all meters in the United States. Such data suggest that a significant part of Irby’s business has a solid foundation, guaranteeing it financial stability through even bad recessions. The company has become a big kid on the block, and its expansion through acquisitions at the start of the new century suggests it will likely become bigger yet.
The company also has a rock-ribbed base, a three-generation heritage of being owned and led by one of Mississippi’s most respected families. As philanthropists, the Ibrys have played a vital role in the support of various civic and charitable activities, most notably in education, the arts, and human services. An example is Belhaven College in Jackson, which, in recognition of the family’s financial underwriting and encouragement, named one of its main classroom buildings the Irby Complex. Notably, after his death on February 21, 2003, the Mississippi Senate adopted a resolution commending Stuart C. Irby’s life and achievements, both as a business and a civic leader. That acknowledgment speaks volumes about the established place of the Stuart C. Irby Company and its future prospects.
Irby Utility Supply LLC.
Anixter International Inc.; Consolidated Electrical Distributors Inc.; Graybar Electric Company, Inc; WESCO International, Inc.; W.W. Grainger, Inc.
- Company is founded by Stuart C. Irby.
- Irby Construction Company is created as a separate corporate entity.
- Stuart C. Irby, Jr. becomes president of both Stuart C. Irby Co. and Irby Construction Company.
- Founder Stuart C. Irby dies.
- Stuart M. Irby becomes CEO and president.
- The company acquires seven All-Phase Electric outlets, Divesco Inc., and J.C. McCormic, Inc.
- Irby Utility Supply LLC, a Stuart C. Irby Co. affiliate, acquires the assets of Cummins Utility Supply.
- Stuart C. Irby, Jr. dies.
Brinson, Carroll, The Stuart C. Irby Story, Jackson, Miss.: Oakdale Press, 1980.
Floyd, Nell Luter, “Irby Remembered for His Generosity,” Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Miss.), February 22, 2003, p. A14.
Funk, Dale, “Irby Utility Supply Acquires Assets of Cummins Utility,” Electrical Wholesaling, January 1, 2002.
Northway, Wally, “Irby a Power in Utilities,” Mississippi Business Journal, February 22, 1999, p. A14.
Schoenberger, Robert, “Irby Co. on Acquisition Path Again,” Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Miss.), March 9, 1999, p. C1.
—John W. Fiero