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Celebrating 40 Years in Business

An Interview with Matt Sutherland

This year, Metro Interior Distributors celebrates its fortieth anniversary. Started by Matt Sutherland in 1984, Metro began as a modest supply company serving the New York City market. Over the last four decades, the firm has grown into one of NYC’s largest building materials distributors, providing materials to clients as far south as Philadelphia and as far north as Maine.

A Family History of Construction

Matt never considered making his way in any other industry. “My family has been here in New York for over 150 years, and for most of that time, we’ve been working on building something somewhere nearby. My great-grandfather came over from Ireland and made and lost a lot of money in New York City construction. Family legend says his friend built the IND back in the day and invited him on the first ride. He also worked on the Brooklyn Bridge. I’ve got lots of these kinds of stories. I’m definitely from a family of New York City contractors.”

Starting Out: 1984

Matt began working construction when he was fifteen. After ten years in construction, he started a building materials supply company. “At 25, I thought I knew everything,” Matt laughs. “I mistakenly thought selling building materials was easier than running a construction company. So, I felt like a genius, finding a way to stay in the business but not work so hard.”

As it turns out, running a building materials supply company was anything but easy. “I put in crazy hours,” Matt notes. “I usually worked 80- to 100-hour weeks to keep things going. But I did like the structure of a building supplies company. If you own a construction business, you’re never sure how much money you’re going to make until the job’s done. You pray material costs don’t go up or schedules don’t get destroyed. I have a lot of respect for contractors and developers, but I got tired of all those variable costs. It was not for me.

“Since I worked on job sites for a decade, it was pretty easy to see the little guys getting the short end of the stick. So, I decided, back in 1984, that I was going to start by focusing on small contractor business. I set out to run a business that helped the little guy control costs and keep on schedule. I wanted to make sure the smaller contractors didn’t get pushed to the back of the line.”

It turns out that dealing with people with integrity worked. Putting the customers’ needs first was good for business. “Contractors figured out that I knew the score and that I was on their side,” Matt notes. “By doing my best to be a decent, honest human being, I got more business. Who knew?!”

Business is Booming

The business started growing. In 1986, Matt purchased his first boom truck. In 1987, he was ready to buy a warehouse and yard. Matt continued to improve the company’s ability to provide consistent, on-time delivery and help smaller contractors succeed.

“Things really changed in 1999,” Matt explains. “By now, there were just too many players in the residential drywall business. While I launched the company by meeting that need in 1984, by 1999, it wasn’t a great strategy anymore. So, I decided to concentrate on materials for commercial interiors.” Metro started to specialize in insulation and acoustical ceilings, along with a long list of other building supplies, and it focused on building more meaningful supplier relationships with commercial contractors and developers.

Matt’s instincts were right. His shift away from residential drywall helped his firm weather the housing crisis of 2008 without a scratch. “At a time when other distributors were struggling, I had plenty of capital, so again, I could expand and grow.

“We had a saying: if you’re drinking the same water as everybody else, sooner or later, you’re going to get sick. By shifting Metro’s focus,” Matt says, “I was able to take care of my customers, vendors, and work associates. We kept expanding, bought more warehouses, and then bought this facility in Hauppauge, Long Island.”

A Changing Industry

Fast forward to 2024. Today, more and more competitors are consolidating. “Consolidating seems like a good strategy on paper,” Matt notes. “But not if it means losing track of your customer. One of the biggest complaints I hear from my customers is that these mega-companies sort of run rampant over the contractor. Often, the salespeople can’t handle complaints effectively, let alone do anything to fix issues.”

While consolidation seemed to be the trend, Matt wasn’t interested. “I know why they consolidate,” Matt says, “It looks like everything will get streamlined and cheaper and more efficient. But unfortunately, none of those benefits improve the customer experience. Remember when I said that construction is hard? Well, if you’re a contractor or developer that needs flexible partners, working with a distributor that has consolidated is going to be a big problem.

“Have you ever had a problem and the person at the other end of the phone said, ‘Sorry, I have to talk to my manager.’ It’s insane! At Metro, every salesman is empowered to make decisions.” Matt adds, “They don’t have to find a manager or get permission to fix an issue. We can do that because I know every salesman. I helped train them! I know my team is smart. They know what to do and how to fix problems. That’s why our customers don’t get the runaround.”

Matt knows that no matter what happens in the industry, two factors will always be critical to his company. “We’ve learned two things throughout the years,” he says, “that have really become the bedrock of our firm. The first one is to deliver on time. It’s not just a slogan to us. Over the years, we have done some crazy things to ensure onetime delivery. After 9.11, getting into the city was pretty tough, so to avoid delays we actually had delivery trucks going into the city the night before and staying in hotels near the site so the delivery would get there one time. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

The second factor is dependable pricing. “When we give someone a price, that’s the price that’s on the invoice,” Matt emphasizes. “We stick to that price, and if that price doesn’t look right to our customers, we’ll make it right. You’ll talk to a real person who works on it quickly and fixes any problems.”

A Few Words of Wisdom

“Time flew,” Matt emphasizes. “I started this business at 25, and then I just worked through every week, week after week. How is it possible that I’ve worked over 2,000 weeks? It went by in a flash, and I’ve loved every minute of it, even when I hated it, you know?”

When asked what advice Matt would give a contractor or developer today, he was able to list his top five tips quickly.

  1. Plan ahead. If you think through every eventuality, it will be harder to surprise you.
  2. Work with people you like. It’s good for your soul and good for business.
  3. Get it in writing. You’ll avoid a lot of heartache.
  4. Find good partners. If you can create a team of employees, suppliers, and consultants who understand and support your company, you’ll grow faster and more profitably.
  5. Don’t forget to laugh. Otherwise, what’s the point?