At 50, Tri State Supply Co. energizes for the future

Posted March 24, 2013

Rick Shrum

The warehouse on West Chestnut Street is bar-code organized and neatly appointed, with energy-efficient lighting. And, at 18,000 square feet, it once was spacious as well.

Not anymore.

“We’re looking for another warehouse with 20,000 square feet,” said Jeff Van Zandt, vice president of operations at Tri State Supply Co. Inc., which is exploring sites for a second warehouse that would serve as a central distribution center.

This isn’t a surprise. Tri State – distributor of electrical and automation products to indutrial clients – is experiencing golden times in its golden year. Like all 50-year-olds, it has had to adapt to changes, mostly in economic and business climates. But it has handled the shifts well, making this Washington institution a viable entity still.

“We’ve been profitable every year, even during recessions. That’s really because our customer base is industrial,” said Jim Van Zandt, Jeff’s father and company president and chief executive officer.

Today “our forte is industrial automation. That’s probably what we’re all about,” Jim said.

Tri State, an independent company, provides products and services that intend to streamline work and improve productivity for customers. It lives up to its name by distributing to industrial companies in parts of three states: Western Pennsylvania, Northern West Virginia and Eastern Ohio.

Jim Van Zandt, 71, helped start Tri State as a family business in 1963, just after graduating from Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove. He grew up in that part of the state, in Pottstown, but had ties to Washington, where Tri State was located.

“We started with a small office with trailers up (West) Chestnut,” he said.

In its formative years, Tri State was an electrical wholesale firm that also sold pipe valve fittings, roofing products, and plumbing, heating and air conditioning supplies. Then in 1977, the company enhanced its visibility and viability when it became an authorized distributor of Allen-Bradley and Rockwell Automation products, primarily industrial controls.

It is a prestigious designation that Tri State has kept. Only 47 distributors in the United States have it, including five in Pennsylvania.

On its website,, Rockwell describes itself as “the world’s largest company dedicated to industrial automation.”


The decline of heavy industry in Southwestern Pennsylvania was a challenge Tri State confronted in the 1980s, and fended off.

“Washington had all these glass plants and steel that closed,” Jim Van Zandt said. “We had to expand our territory to pick up business.”

That expansion, 20 years later, would include a once-unforeseen element: Marcellus Shale. Tri State, like the county in which it is headquartered, has adapted to and benefited from oil and gas development.

“We’re still industrial, but two or three years ago we started to put more emphasis on this,” Jim said. “We saw growth coming to Washington County in gas and oil.”

“We said it was going to boom,” said Jeff, also of Peters Township.

“It’s the largest cash cow we have in Washington County now,” his father added.

The Van Zandts are enthusiastic about another potential shale-related development, though it may take years to unfold. Shell Oil is considering sites in Pennsylvania to build a petrochemical plant, and the favored spot appears to be near Monaca in Beaver County.

“If the cracker plant goes through, that would be big for us,” Jim said. “We could do the maintenance parts for the cracker plant every day.”

His company has four other stores that distribute products, including one in New Brighton, Beaver County. The others are in Waynesburg, Butler and Wheeling, W.Va.

Tri State employs about 70, a number of whom have 20-plus years of service.

The Van Zandts are appreciative of all 70.

“We’re really proud of the people we have on board,” Jeff said. “All functions of our operation. We have some of the best people in the industry.

“We are only as good as the people who work for us.”

As good as gold during Tri-State’s golden anniversary.

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