Small Business, Big Impact
Brown Builders Supply Co.’s behind-the-scenes role helps transform New York City
For decades, Brown Builders Supply Co. has provided materials and support to builders and contractors transforming New York City. Over the years, the Long Island-based company had a hand in significant NYC projects such as Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, Manhattan’s original World Trade Center complex as well as the newer One World Trade Center, and the Second Avenue Subway, which in 2017 became the first major expansion of the city’s underground transit system in more than 50 years. It regularly supplies products to companies that are simultaneously constructing a half dozen buildings—everything from low-income housing and large, privately held superstructures to government and municipal sites, including projects for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and New York City’s School Construction Authority.
The wholesale distributor carries thousands of items—company President Larry Tell estimates more than 8,000—that builders and contractors need to complete their work throughout New York’s five boroughs and beyond. Brown Builders Supply works with general, concrete, masonry and site contractors.
According to Tell, the company serves a broader range of professionals than most suppliers. It is a specialty house that stocks hard-to-track-down items as well as common, frequently used products. “We carry things that people have been trying to find for months,” Tell says, “and then they call us, find it and continue to come back again and again. I just don’t think anyone else does what we do.”
While the company has made a big impression on contractors and the building industry, it is, in reality, a small operation with fewer than a dozen people who keep it running.
“People have a huge image of Brown and who we are, but we aren’t nearly as big as they think,” Tell says. “We are just a small business that does a lot with what we have.”
What the family-owned-and-operated company does have in great supply is longevity and institutional knowledge. Its greatest assets are its employees, all of whom have been with Brown for at least 25 years.
“We’ve been together a long time,” Tell says. “There aren’t that many companies that can say the same thing.” These lengthy employee tenures mean customers never have to worry about working with a Brown representative who isn’t well-versed on the supplier’s inventory.
“When a customer calls looking for materials, he is speaking to an owner or someone who’s been in the business for [decades]—not just a salesperson,” Tell says.
The staff of 10 considers itself family. These individuals have worked together for decades, providing not only materials but also an extraordinary level of customer service to hundreds of contractors. Tell, who has been with Brown Builders Supply for a quarter of a century, prides himself on fostering the familial atmosphere and camaraderie. “The employees stay so long because there is nowhere else they can go to get this sense of family,” he says.
Mitch Zaretsky, purchasing manager, is one of those longtime employees. The 30-year employee trained Tell and is his “right-hand man.”
“I trust him implicitly,” Tell says. “He’s been with me through thick and thin.”
The employees are loyal to Brown Builders Supply and so are its customers, says Tell, noting that some have been buying from the company since it first opened for business more than eight decades ago.
Tell says many of those longtime customers are from other family-owned businesses. “Small, family-owned businesses support other small, family-owned businesses,” he says.
“I’ve helped some old-timers who come in here asking not about my father-in-law, but his father-in-law,” he adds. “When you’ve been doing business with someone for 60 years, why would you go somewhere else?”
Decades of Service
Builders have been relying on this business since it opened in 1932. One of the area’s oldest suppliers, it was founded as “Brown Brick” on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn. In 1965, it changed its name and address when it moved to New Hyde Park, where it continues to operate. Even today, Brown Builders Supply uses warehouses it has owned since 1965. It was making deliveries from Brooklyn to Staten Island before the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge was even constructed.
Over the years, the business has been transferred from father to sons and sons-in-law. In 2006, Tell became the fourth-generation family member to own and operate Brown Builders Supply. Since then, he’s been clocking 12-hour days to meet the standard of excellence in materials and customer service set by his predecessors.
What Comes Next?
Manning the phones. Invoicing. There’s no part of the business that Tell isn’t involved in.
“It’s a small business, and every day I’m involved in all aspects,” he says.
That includes planning for the future. While Tell and his wife don’t know yet if any or all of their three sons will join the family business, he continues to work on growing it. He is expanding the company’s website and is considering creating an e-commerce app that would allow contractors to use their phones to order supplies.
Though he works from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday, Tell also makes it a top priority to spend time with his family and to celebrate the life of his late sister through philanthropy. After a decadelong battle, Fredrika Berliner, 62, died of Alzheimer’s disease this past summer. In her honor, Tell has been working with the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, a group dedicated to accelerating the discovery of a drug that will prevent and treat the memory-destroying disease.
This commitment to helping researchers attain a formidable goal seems like a good fit for someone like Tell—the leader of a small business that has been a major contributor to the ever-changing skyline and landscape of one of the world’s largest and most recognizable cities.