Seaford's Penco Corporation celebrates 60th anniversary

By Lynn R. Parks

In the more than 30 years that they have been with the company that their fathers founded, Kent Peterson and George Sapna have not seen an economic downturn as deep or severe as the one the nation is experiencing now. But they believe that the economy has turned a corner. And they agree that their company, the Seaford-based Penco Corporation, is stronger than ever. "In the past 18 months, we have done a top-to-bottom restructuring, and we are more focused," said Peterson, executive vice president. "We are more efficient, we are more productive. And we will be more successful." That restructuring included the loss of 20 employees, through attrition and through layoffs. "Layoffs are always a terrible thing to have to do," said Peterson. "But we had to keep the ship sailing. We still have 70 employees here who are dependent on us being healthy." This summer, Penco, a warehousing and plumbing and heating supply distribution company, will celebrate 60 years in business. Peterson and Sapna are looking forward to the future – to building more branches on Delmarva or beyond, perhaps, or even branching out from plumbing and heating supplies to other types of distribution. "Our sales are growing," said Sapna, company president. "People are starting new projects and there are some housing developments in the works." They are joined in that optimism by their sons. Scott Sapna, 30, joined the business seven years ago and Jeff Peterson, 28, joined the business five years ago. Scott is vice president of sales and Jeff is vice president of finances. "In 2005 and 2006 we couldn't hire people fast enough and all we did was react to situations," said Scott. "Today's business is a lot different and we have had to become proactive. We have done a good job of making the company stronger." Jeff added that enduring the economic downturn was a good learning experience. "When Scott and I first came here, this business was easy," he said. "In a way, I'm glad [the downturn] happened, so that we could learn from it." "It was great for them to see the down side and learn why a business can't live on the edge," added Kent.

Decades of growth Penco, originally called Peninsula Plumbing Supply, was founded on Aug. 3, 1949, by Oscar Peterson Jr. and George Sapna Sr. The two entrepreneurs were working for Seaford Plumbing Supply and when the contract they had with the owner was not honored, they decided to strike out on their own. They opened their own supply company at 613 Water St., Seaford, just down the street from that of their former employer. "My dad would stand out in the street and when plumbers came by on their way to Seaford Plumbing, he would flag them down and give them coffee, anything to get them to come in and buy," George Jr. said.

By 1955, the company had grown to the point that it needed more space. Sapna and Peterson bought the former Delaware Hosiery Mill at 200 N. Delaware Ave. in Seaford and the company moved in in January 1956. The first branch store was opened in Salisbury, Md., in 1964. In 1965, Sapna and Peterson entered into an agreement with the DuPont Co. to provide warehouse space, trucking and handling services for the Seaford nylon plant. The company opened a 123,000-square foot warehouse on Stein Highway west of Seaford in April 1967. Today, Penco has nearly 600,000 square feet of warehouse space on Stein Highway, which it leases out to half a dozen customers. In 1985, the company, by then the Penco Corporation, moved its headquarters and plumbing and heating supply warehouse from Delaware Avenue to Stein Highway, next to the leased public warehouses. The 103,000-square foot warehouse that is there today serves as Penco's central delivery and distribution center for its five branches in Newark, Rehoboth Beach, Camden, Easton, Md., and Salisbury, Md. In 2007, Penco opened Elegant Designs, a luxury kitchen and bathroom showroom next to the plumbing supply facility on Stein Highway in Seaford. While the showroom opened just at the start of the economic downturn, George said, its business is slowly picking up. "The showroom has enabled us to expand our customer base," added Kent. "It used to be that the plumber bought everything. But now, we are dealing with plumbers as well as builders, architects, engineers, renovators and even consumers."

From one generation to the next All four principals of the Penco Corporation, father and son Sapna, father and son Peterson, are confident in the future of the company that has been handed down to them. And they are happy to be working there, something all four of them started when they were teenagers. "Kent and I worked summers and after school, starting when we were 14," George said. "And Jeff and Scott had the same experience, sweeping the floors and washing the windows." "I have always loved coming in here to work, learning the business and getting to know the workers," said Jeff. And it might be that Penco is headed for a fourth generation working there. Scott and Jeff have two children each; Jeff's son, Evan, 4, is already saying that when he grows up, he wants to work where his dad works. "I never pressed Jeff to work here," said Kent. "Forcing your children to come into business with you can be a disaster. But I think that kids know if their parents like what they are doing and that that enthusiasm is contagious. Our sons just absorbed our love for this place by osmosis."

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