A convention that billed itself as "Celebrating 75 Years of Tradition" spent most of its substantive time trying to divine the future. Two speakers at the 75th convention of the Southern Wholesalers Association, held in Boca Raton, Fla., March 16-18, reviewed factors that could come into play to create an economy ranging from a train wreck to renewed prosperity.

"Things could be worse. We as a country have always emerged from problem periods stronger," said keynoter John Wills, group president of Masco and president of Delta Faucet Co. Wills substituted for Masco President and COO Ray Kennedy, who passed away several weeks prior to the convention. The opening breakfast and general session was dedicated to Kennedy. Wills repeatedly paid tribute to his colleague's dedication to "common sense and ethics."

The present economy "doesn't feel like recovery," said Wills. "There is no past model for a recovery like this." He then launched into a review of numerous factors that add up to a less than rosy outlook for the U.S. economy:

  • Steeply declining consumer confidence.
  • Manufacturing recovery lagging. ("Prices are deflating, while costs are inflating.")
  • Global economic problems.
  • Betrayal of trust in business.
  • The war against terrorism, and the pending invasion of Iraq.

Wills also told the audience that extraordinary consolidation taking place among home builders and big box retailers would impact their business.

The Masco executive concluded his speech with an upbeat review of a favorable housing market and demographics that point to strong business conditions for both the short and long term.

SWA attendees turned out in respectable numbers for a following presentation on "Traditions of the Future" by business futurist Bob Treadway. His program also reviewed a range of scenarios from rosy to dreadful. He concluded with the following predictions of the future:

1. Technology will be important but will not replace human interaction as a driver of business.

2. Exceptional service will continue to hold value in the future. In this vein, Treadway cast doubt on various predictions of fee-based service being the wave of the future. "I have not seen fee-based services work well anywhere," he said.

3. Technology will be an essential link to a growing number of clients.

4. Your best people will be worth more than ever.

Upwards of 350 people were registered for the convention, including spouses and guests. This included 76 wholesaler personnel from 39 companies. Next year convention is slated for the Sawgrass Marriott in Ponte Vedra, Fla., June 23-26.