Speak up — Even in a room of people that are the “experts,” your voice has merit. I was always the youngest and least “experienced” in the room, but I kept expressing my ideas and thoughts even if nobody wanted to listen!
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeremy Smith.
Over the course of 20 years, Jeremy Smith has helped take the reins of Central Arizona Supply, Arizona’s largest family-owned and -operated plumbing supply and appliance company headquartered in Mesa, Ariz., and continued to foster his family business’s stellar reputation as the Southwest’s trusted leader for plumbing, appliances, lighting and decorative hardware with 11 Arizona locations and one in Las Vegas.
After growing up stocking shelves at Central Arizona Supply with his siblings, Jeremy learned the business from the ground up. His eye for design, cultivated from his time living in Los Angeles during college and his worldly travels, inspired a desire to elevate the company’s extensive lineup of specialty parts, products and fixtures with more innovative, unique and forward-thinking offerings from lesser-known, national and international specialty brands.
Today, he, along with his brother Brandon and sister Andrea, are the next generation of Smiths that are expanding Central Arizona Supply’s 50-year legacy of being the go-to source for interior designers, plumbers, contractors, builders and homeowners with the support of 150 employees.
In a rare move for an independent business, Jeremy spearheaded the company’s expansion into appliances in 2019, signing deals with major brands ranging from global giants such as Sub-Zero, Wolf, Cove, Monogram and GE’s Café Series to boutique, high-quality names and collections like BlueStar, Bertazzoni and Smeg. The new division’s diverse selections added a level of prestige to the company’s thoughtfully-curated showrooms and further solidified its reputation as an expert and leading supplier for residential and commercial projects alike.
At the core of his business ethos, Jeremy looks to honor the collective dream of the Smith brothers who founded the company five decades ago with the vision of being a pillar of the community through sincere and personalized service.
In his personal time, Jeremy enjoys spending time with his husband Luis, hiking with their dogs Sophia and Dorothy, exploring the outdoors, traveling abroad and cultivating his at-home orchard of citrus and persimmon trees.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I grew up working in my family’s small business, just like my brother and sister. We knew if you wanted to see my dad or uncles, you had to go to work and stock shelves or clean or do any number of random tasks they could think up for us.
I didn’t expect to be in the family business because plumbing supplies were not my jam. But, after I had gone to college and moved to Los Angeles, my brother asked me to come and be a part of the business and so I thought I would try it. We had a small showroom division of the company and so I gravitated toward that, and my family allowed me to make that my own over the years.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
When I started in the business officially, I just dove in asking way too many questions and talking to every person I met that ran, owned or worked in a decorative plumbing showroom. They were all much older than me and were mostly pioneers in the field because decorative plumbing only became a “thing” in the late 1970s.
What I didn’t find was another generation behind these original pioneers. So, I joined a couple of boards in our industry and helped to start a decorative plumbing buying group with companies across the U.S. I now work with a number of manufacturers in my field, consulting on product or how to enhance relationships with companies like mine. I am also really well-networked in my field and am constantly communicating with other owners like me on our businesses to keep pushing forward.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Early on, I was obsessed with impressing my friends who I thought were doing very cool, fun, fashionable things while I was working in a plumbing company. I decided I needed to do something to communicate that we had arrived in the decorative plumbing business beyond the pipe, valves and parts we had always been known for, something that would make my friends think that what I was doing was cool. That is where I came up with the idea of a Faucet Fashion Show! The show featured models carrying faucets like they were handbags and pushing toilets down this incredible runway, with 500 people gawking on either side. I had all of my friends help me, some dressing the models or doing their makeup, some helping me MC or writing invitations. It was so much fun and incredibly epic. Especially in an industry that so many people wouldn’t align with the fashion industry!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I have always been a part of the school of “faking it until you make it.” Especially when I am selling, I figure I can always find the answer at some point and in the meantime just try to get people to like my vibe or energy, and the product will then sell itself. Well, that is just not true when you are talking to plumbers about valving in the wall and you just keep saying yes, but ultimately you have no idea whether what they are asking you will actually work.
So, there I am just babbling away to a customer, giving them some crazy answer about how to plumb their shower when I didn’t totally know. After a little while, the woman I was talking to called me out and said, “You have no idea what you are talking about do you?” I was mortified and had to admit that I had no idea, but she was amazing and we opened the catalog together and walked our way through it, made a phone call and got the answer she needed.
I obviously learned that while yes, you can fake it in terms of your personality, you can’t do that in regards to actual facts. I learned to admit when I didn’t know an answer and that it’s always better to say you will find out for the person asking and to do so. People don’t expect you to know everything, but they do expect you to be honest.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?
For me, a Thought Leader is someone that is always pushing for what is next, someone not satisfied with the status quo or the way the industry has always worked. It is about being a futurist and taking time to think about and then create what should be happening and not just what is happening. While a typical leader is someone who is invested in the process that is in front of them, which is needed as well, Thought Leaders need to be thinking about what will be happening years down the line. To me, the influencer is someone who is still more interested in what is happening right in the moment — they are showing you something that is current, but not the next steps.
Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?
In my opinion, it is just more fun to be a Thought Leader! Why do anything unless you can push boundaries and change the course of an industry even in small ways? While it would take less energy to plug away and just keep toiling on my company, it is an incredible feeling when someone I am talking to has implemented something I suggested or inspired in their own business. A lot of it is personal enrichment, but the benefits can go beyond that because you begin to attract others that want to push boundaries, and the dialogue that creates continues to push you to new heights and keep you on your toes. Then, the entire creative process becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where your ideas push others and in return, they communicate their ideas and it pushes you further.
Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?
I have been invited to multiple councils, calls and (pre-COVID) factory or company visits around the world to advise on my ideas for what they should be doing or manufacturing. While it is a lot of work to do these things and it takes time out of my actual business, the connections I’ve made have allowed me to set up a network of individuals I can call on for help big and small.
For example, as a result of my conversations with manufacturers, I have been able to have products in my showrooms before anyone else and to influence products and strategies before they are implemented that ultimately help my customer, which in turn helps my business. Knowing what is happening in your industry before anyone else and being able to shape what is happening puts you at the center of it all and allows you to easily pivot your business to where things are moving next.
Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.
- Ask questions — You can’t become a Thought Leader without listening to the ones that came before you.
- Be accessible — Pick up the phone when someone calls or reply to an email from that random person you may not actually know.
- Go with your instincts — In my industry people are constantly telling me what is hot, what I should support and carry because someone else is. You know your business the best, so if it doesn’t feel right for your company or your market, it isn’t going to be.
- The power of passion — Part of being a Thought Leader is being a cheerleader. If I am excited about something, everyone is hearing about it. When I am talking about my business or industry, you can hear my love of these things.
- Speak up — Even in a room of people that are the “experts,” your voice has merit. I was always the youngest and least “experienced” in the room, but I kept expressing my ideas and thoughts even if nobody wanted to listen!
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.
As a member of the “Beyhive,” I don’t know anyone better than Beyonce! I feel that she has evolved past the music industry itself, where she is doing things completely on her own terms yet is still wildly successful at the same time. I think it is important to think about what your competition is doing, but you don’t have to be defined by it. She is ultimately doing what she thinks and feels is best for herself and her fans, which is how we need to think of our own businesses, doing what is best for us and our clients and not worrying about what others are doing.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
With the volume of articles about this topic in general, I could see how some would consider the term trite! And maybe one day, someone will relabel what this type of leader is, but that doesn’t mean that what they are doing isn’t functionally the same and ultimately compelling. Call it whatever you want, but the idea of encouraging people to push boundaries and think beyond what is currently happening in a space will always be in style.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
When you stay focused on the goal of an idea or project and stop worrying about the issues that may or may not come up while on the road to getting there, that is when you will thrive.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The core of my industry is the job that plumbers and sanitation workers do to keep clean water flowing and properly disposing of waste, a job that has cured more disease than medications. Truly, the most amount of good that we can do is educating and helping people all over the world to properly dispose of waste and to get clean drinking water to impoverished areas. This to me will have the biggest benefit to the largest group of people.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My Uncle Ivan told me to never to make a deal with a full bladder! I am sorry that my reference still has to do with bathrooms! This advice translated to not making decisions by feeling rushed or having a fake sense of a ticking clock. There have been times I have felt rushed into making a decision and I stop myself because I want to make sure the decision is fully thought through. Do what is best for your business and make sure you have a clear head in making those decisions.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Beyonce, of course.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.