Longtime Kennewick company begins transition to third generation
A third generation is poised to take over KIE Supply Corp., the iconic 67-year-old Kennewick business.
KIE, established in 1955 by Augustan Kittson Sr., is a longtime supplier of irrigation, plumbing, electrical, lighting, appliance and bathroom fixtures for contractors and DIYers through stores in Kennewick, Hermiston, Sunnyside and elsewhere.
Its gleaming fixtures sparkle on East Columbia Drive, near the cable bridge.
KIE is currently helmed by Augustan “Gus” Kittson Jr., 66. He launched a three-year transition plan to turn it over to daughter, Amelia Kittson, 27, earlier this year by promoting her to vice president.
Named the Most Likely to Succeed when he graduated from Kennewick High School in 1973, Gus said he never doubted he’d make a career in the family business. Amelia, who graduated from Southridge High School, said she felt the same pull.
She decided to follow in her father’s footsteps while working there during her sophomore year at Washington State University.
“That summer I was working in the warehouse supporting the over 100 other people we employ here and it was hot and I was soaked through with sweat and I thought, ‘I love this.’ And it dawned on me that this is where I wanted to be,” she said.
The moment of hard work reminded her of a photo of her father and his father working in the KIE warehouse.
In it, Augustan stands in the foreground while Gus mops the linoleum floor behind him. Gus said he literally grew up in the business. There are old family photos of him in his bassinet in the office.
The Kittsons celebrated their 200th year in the Pacific Northwest in 2018. Ancestor Bill Kittson came in 1818 to work for a forerunner of the Hudson’s Bay Company. They have moved around, but always called this home.
“Generations come and go. We’ve done well,” Gus said.
Always chasing opportunity
Augustan began the business as Kennewick Industrial and Electrical Supply Co., bringing his experience as a military electrician to the booming post-war era. He’d served in the Army Corps of Electricians during World War II, tasked with overseeing the electricians working on the new Hanford facilities.
After he completed his service, he found a lucrative opportunity in buying Army surplus electrical components at auction.
“The boxes had all this weird code printed on them that only electricians in the Army could decipher,” Amelia said. “He scored killer deals and sold the parts at a profit while still passing on discounted prices to his customers.”
As time went on and the business grew, Augustan and his team recognized opportunities to expand beyond electrical supplies and begin catering to homeowners. In the late 1970s, Hermiston Electric and Plumbing opened across the Columbia River in Oregon, originally as a standalone corporation.
Next came the Walla Walla location in 1991, followed by another in La Grande, Oregon, in 1999.
In the early 2000s, the company’s name was formally changed to KIE Supply Corporation, and the Hermiston location came under the KIE umbrella.
KIE’s Sunnyside location opened in 2008 and this past year saw the opening of its sixth location, in Caldwell, Idaho.
Though all locations carry a large inventory of components, along with some appliances and fixtures (more available by order), the Kennewick showrooms remain the largest.
Despite the economic downturn of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent supply chain disruptions, Amelia said, “interestingly enough, we’ve seen massive growth, which is reflective of this community as a whole. The building and construction industries have gone through the roof and we’ve seen that reflected in our business.”
KIE has semitruck loads of product tied up in the backlog but it is in better shape than its chain store competition because it stocks a lot of products.
Chain retailers rely on centralized warehousing to ship out expanded product offerings not stocked in store.
“It’s more expensive to have high inventory, but it translates to convenience for customers. It’s part of our value proposition,” she said, adding it enabled KIE to supply customer needs during turbulent times.
Another advantage is the longevity of KIE employees.
“That’s our niche in the market … it comes down to our product knowledge because we have people who have been here for 15, 20, 30 and 40-plus years,” she said.
She said it is common for customers to come in with a sketch of an unusual or antiquated setup seeking obscure parts or a second opinion on how to go about fixing it.
KIE is proud of the community of contractors, repair professionals and DIY folks they’ve attracted over the years who are willing to help one another out.
The next generation
Amelia was promoted to vice president after completing her MBA through the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Business Grainger Center’s Supply Chain Management program.
She was the recipient of a rare fellowship, including full-ride scholarship, from The Grainger Foundation to attend. She worked remotely for KIE during the two years she was away, attending school full time and juggling 300-level teaching responsibilities.
This year is her 10th with the company.
“Grad school … was important to me as a woman in a vastly male-dominated industry and it lent some credentials. It was a wonderful program and I learned so many things. It was a really specialized experience,” she said.
Now back home at KIE’s corporate offices in Kennewick, she is working closely alongside Gus on a succession plan for when he is ready to step down.
“It’s pretty much what I do, what keeps me busy, keeps me up at night … I see so much potential,” Amelia said.
“I think part of it is continuing to expand as we go and continuing to bring our customer service to more areas. Part of it for me is, whatever we do, continuing to live by what my grandfather started; we’re going to take care of our people and make sure they know that we care.”
Amid the labor shortage, KIE is hiring for numerous positions, including entry-level jobs in counter sales, warehousing, and delivery driving.
Benefits include paid time off; sick leave; full medical, dental, vision and life insurance; 100% 401(k) matching for first 3%, 50% for the next 3%; retention bonuses; an employee discount; and small personal loans for employees.
“These are all things we can do as a small, private business that we couldn’t do if we were big,” Amelia said.
KIE Supply Corporation: 113 E. Columbia Drive, Kennewick, 509-582-5156, 1-800-544-5156; kiesupply.com; Website lists locations for stores in Sunnyside, Walla Walla, Hermiston and La Grande, Oregon, and Caldwell, Idaho.