A Brief History of Etna
Three months before the stock market crash in 1929 that would soon tumble the United States into the Great Depression, Dave Potgeter (Grandpa Dave) purchased a small coal company in southeast Grand Rapids called Warm Friend. He delivered coal, coke and wood to homes and businesses, many of them greenhouses. Grandpa Dave possessed legendary strength and a great work ethic. In his prime he could fill a cast iron tub with 300 pounds of coal, back up to it, balance it on his back, and walk it up a stairway. He worked 52 weeks a year. "There was no such thing as vacation," his son Larry later said. "That was a dirty word."
By the mid-1940s, Grandpa Dave brought his sons Roger and Larry into the business. He taught the young men always to be honest and to take care of the customer. Roger and Larry became partners and as World War II ended and returning GIs wanted new homes with gas furnaces, the coal business took a dive. The Potgeters knew they had to diversify, and decided on the plumbing business.
They learned the trade from Master Plumbers, and through hard work and business savvy Warm Friend Plumbing eventually employed 55 plumbers and helpers. Always looking for fresh opportunities to expand, Grandpa Dave, Roger and Larry purchased a company that sold furnaces in 1965. They named it Etna Supply Co.
It began with one employee, Leon Maack, in a small building next to Warm Friend on South Division. Sales grew 33% in the first three years and in 1972 Roger and Larry found a larger location for Etna at 530 32 nd St. SE. The next year Roger and Larry sold Warm Friend Plumbing to Bob and Ed Koster to allow them to focus on a growing Etna.
Over time Etna acquired lines such as American Standard, Ford Brass and Delta Faucets that customers wanted. But it wasn't easy. "We learned our lessons the hard way," said Roger. "We scratched our way to the top." In 1981 the building across the street at 529 32 nd St. was purchased and remodeled to house over 17 employees and a growing inventory.
Etna’s first building that today houses the M&E Manufacturing division
Roger Potgeter in his office in the 70’s
Etna remained a family business. Roger's son, R. David, who had worked at Warm Friend since the early '60s and had become a licensed plumber in 1969, joined Etna as a salesman in 1975. In 1968 R. David and Russ Visner met for the first time when Warm Friend Plumbing hired Russ and they worked together for the summer on the East Lake apartment project. Larry's sons Mark and David L. began to work at the counter and in warehouse as teens in the mid-'70s and eventually Mark got into the underground sales and David L. the plumbing sales.
Looking for leadership in the economically challenging '80s, Roger and Larry brought R. David and Russ into Etna as partners. R. David developed the sales-driven philosophy of Etna that still thrives today. Russ guided the company financially, and also brought Etna into the computer age. "Computerization completely changed the business dynamic," said Russ. "We saw that the way companies do business was changing and we invested in computers." This was the beginning of the organizational structure that stands today and has allowed Etna to expand and grow.
The past 20 years have shown aggressive growth for Etna, as 13 branches opened throughout Michigan, northern Ohio and northern Indiana. Value-added service companies started, such as M&E and ICE. Roger and Larry retired from the business in 2004 and Mark and David L. became partners, signifying Etna's commitment to the future. R. David's son, Ben, is a fourth-generation Potgeter with Etna, working as a plumbing salesman and Angela Visner, Russ' daughter, is Etna's Human Resources manager.
Etna's core strength today is the quality and dedication of its associates. In 77 years, Grandpa Dave's humble one-man company has grown to a team of over 300 people who maintain the highest reputation for customer service and competitive pricing.