The reorganization of the American Supply Association is the first step, not the destination.

Two years ago, the American Supply Association announced in its White Paper its intention to restructure itself. In July, ASA took its first substantial steps in that direction by reducing the number of its regional associations from 13 to six.

After ASA released its reorganization plan in July 1998, we said here that the White Paper makes three key points with which we can agree. The first is that structural flaws exist in the two-tiered system of national and regional associations. The second identifies the lack of national leadership on industry issues that affect wholesalers. The third - and most crucial - is that survival of the wholesale channel is at risk.

ASA's action last month addresses one of its most serious structural flaws. Thirteen regional associations are too many for a national organization whose membership base has shrunk to fewer than 700 companies. Six is a far more workable number, especially for vendors who attend regional trade shows.

The six regionals are significantly different, however, than those envisioned in the original proposal. Rather than being divisions of the national corporation, as proposed, the regionals will remain independent entities. The national office will not have the same degree of control it had hoped to exercise over the newly formulated groups.

The change from the original vision is a compromise, to be sure. But it also reflects certain realities.

First, ASA realized that its members are wary of national control of the regional groups. Some wholesalers believe that the national office would not fully understand the issues in one part of the country or that it would lose regional focus.

Second, the compromise acknowledges that ASA probably could not hire regional executives who would be better qualified than those running the most successful independent regionals today.

What's important now is that ASA not take its eye off the ball. ASA might have effectively reduced the number of its regionals, but more work remains to be done.

A vendor who attended an ASA town hall meeting in 1998 in Atlanta put it this way: "The reorganization of ASA is the first step, not the destination. I'm fearful that with the energy being put into the reorganization, it will become the destination."

We couldn't have said it better ourselves. Our industry still needs a strong national voice on issues that affect wholesalers. The survival of the wholesale channel remains at stake.

ASA's leaders have accomplished much in the last two years, and we commend them for their diligence. They must remember, however, that the hard part still lies ahead.