That was the upbeat message delivered by ASA President Jack Hester and keynote speaker David Kohler to the 400+ attendees at the 74th annual convention of the Southern Wholesalers Association, held March 14-16 in Orlando.

"I'm very excited about the future of ISH North America," said Hester, giving the SWA crowd a report on ASA activities. He said the trade show was just one example of "why we differ from buying groups and are not in competition with them." He also cited the national association's focus on supply chain issues involving every sector of the industry.

Hester spent most of his brief presentation talking about Source ASA+ and other aspects of e-commerce. Hester's presidency has become identified with using technology to boost productivity. "The industry needs to develop ways to streamline operations and reduce costs. Source ASA+ currently has about 300,000 products listed from 85 manufacturers. We still have a way to go to reach critical mass on our database," said Hester.

David Kohler, president of Kohler's Bath and Kitchen Group, followed Hester to the podium and delivered an upbeat assessment of the year ahead and longer range future. "Consumer sentiment plummeted last year, especially after 9/11," he said. "Now the country is emotionally getting over those events. I think this will be an up year" for the economy.

Kohler believes it will be "an inventory-led recovery," citing a significant reduction in business inventories during 2001. Productivity is also "on the rebound, and housing starts are stable to slightly increasing," said Kohler.

For the longer term, he cited the demographics of aging, the shift away from do-it-yourself and globalization as among the most dynamic forces impinging on the plumbing business. He also offered this insight: "Consumers are getting more demanding of service. One survey found that 55% of kids between the ages of 9 and 17 have e-mailed a company about bad service. That has important implications for the future. How convenient are we to work with as a company? That's one of the key underlying factors in the industry today."

Kohler gave a boost to Hester's pitch for technological progress by linking convenient Web sites to customer service. "Are we driving technology fast enough? That's something we need to ask ourselves every day."

He called consolidation "a natural evolution of the industry." However, Kohler also took note of a Supply House Times article from March 2001 showing that the top 10 PHCP wholesalers control merely 19% of the market. That compares with 70% market share of plumbing he said was owned by the top 10 manufacturers globally.

"Strong local independent wholesalers can continue to exist," he said. "What will be missing are the weak players. To survive you will have to be focused on continuous improvement and growth."

SWA was also treated to two particularly strong seminars. One was on "Managing Showrooms for Profit" by Hank Darlington, the other on "Making Technology Profitable," by Joel Becker of Torrington Supply in Waterbury, CT. Both presentations received rave reviews.

SWA's 75th anniversary convention will take place March 16-18 next year at the Boca Raton Resort, Boca Raton, Fla.