Things are going to be all right, because wholesalers are fixated on the right things.

Often were heard discouraging words leading up to the 2001 ASA convention in Las Vegas during late October. The buzz I heard over and over from manufacturers and reps was that "nobody will be there."

As it turned out, more "nobodies" showed up than the naysayers reckoned. Attendance was down a bit from the 1999 event in San Antonio, but not remarkably so. (Last year's Chicago convention is not an "apples-to-apples" comparison, because it was in conjunction with the NEX show, which always inflated attendance.) ASA counted 403 wholesaler personnel in Las Vegas, representing 215 companies. That compares with 417 wholesalers from 255 companies in San Antonio. Spouse attendance dropped more steeply from 262 to 175, due to lingering fear about flying and spending restraint in a deteriorating economy. That diminished the social scene but hardly intruded on the business value of the ASA convention.

The percentage of ASA companies represented actually was a little higher (36%) than in 1999 (35%). Conference booths dropped from 343 in 1999 to 306 this year, not a breathtaking decline considering the economic and emotional turmoil of this fall.

A convention is about more than counting warm bodies, however. The speeches, seminars, panels, pageantry and all else going into the sum of convention activity present a snapshot of the state of the industry. If you looked closely at this year's picture, you'd find reasons to be encouraged about the future for ASA and the plumbing wholesale channel it represents.

Most reassuring is that the industry has come to grips with a stark fact of life. In a marketplace that has trimmed margins to the bone and is drilling toward the marrow, the only way to make money is to wring costs out of operations. If there is a single dominant theme coming out of this year's convention, it's that ASA wholesalers are fixed like a laser beam on that objective.

This isn't to say they haven't been trying to do this for many years. What makes it noteworthy today is all the easy and obvious economies have been realized. It's hard to find a wholesaler who hasn't spent recent years upgrading operations, squeezing vendors and winnowing excess staff. The results have been tallied, but still it's not enough. About the only thing left to pare are more intractable transactional costs.

Dealing with them is lumped under the buzzword of "Supply Chain Management." SCM pertains to streamlining activities that result in too many phone calls, too much handling, too many mistakes, too much wasted time and effort. It's a chore merely to identify these subtle operational glitches, but they have a way of inflating wholesaler expenses the way little snacks add calories to our bodies. The real trick is getting rid of transactional cost without reducing customer service, because today's market has no more tolerance for supplier ineptitude than it does high prices.

The Industrial Piping and Associate Member Divisions have embarked on a joint project to identify and implement ways to reduce costs while increasing service. The first stage, a benchmarking of what to expect from vendors, was introduced at the convention as a starting point. Several other programs also dealt with SCM issues, including an AIM/R-sponsored panel that zeroed in on the urgency of seamless EDI transactions. While nobody offered magical solutions, everyone seems to understand what needs to be done for all parties in the channel to remain viable in the modern world of commerce.

The 2001 ASA convention represented an industry urgently coming to grips with the intricacies of its business, and in so doing striving to become "somebodies" in the eyes of the rest of the industry.