And vice versa, as our industry is in good hands for the future.

To me, it’s a sad sight to be in one of those social circles where everyone is up in years and hanging around almost exclusively with people their own age. Don’t get me wrong. As I approach (some would say landed in) old-fogiedom, I enjoy the company of friends my own age more than any others. We share similar life experiences and, increasingly, aches and pains.

The down side is that we old-timers tend to be set in our ways. Viewpoints and habits forged over an extended lifetime are hard to change. It’s refreshing to be around generations that look more to the future than the past, and whose conversations aren’t overly studded with medical matters.

With that mindset, I volunteered to leap as a fish out of water to a small town that needs no introduction to our industry, Kohler, WI, to attend the annual ASA Young Executives Spring Forum, held May 23-25. A review of what went on thereappears here. Here are some additional observations more suitable for an opinion column than straightforward reporting.

  • First and foremost, I was impressed with the enthusiasm and intelligence of the YE participants. Without exception, those I encountered throughout two days of business seminars and social gatherings exuded business professionalism. Many were the sons, daughters or in-laws of people I had written about in the past and gotten to know. Most were college-educated with business degrees ranging up to MBAs, along with plenty of hands-on experience working in the grubbier aspects of wholesale distribution. Their acumen was on display as they tackled case history problems presented by seminar leader Dr. Rick Johnson with quick and incisive thinking. All of them seemed to grasp Johnson’s main thesis that leadership is about managing people much more than the nuts and bolts of distribution operations.

  • ASA’s thrust toward vendor participation seems to be working out well. The 59 persons attending the YE Spring Forum represented 22 distributors, 14 manufacturers and four independent manufacturer rep firms. Faced with a declining membership and dues base, ASA had to reach out to vendors in order to survive. Yet the experiment seems to be shaping up as a lot more than desperation. ASA has become more of a supply chain organization rather than one focused solely on distribution.

  • Although I had attended events in Kohler a couple of times in the past, this was the first opportunity I had to take the company’s fabled plant tour. I’ve visited many manufacturing facilities over the years, and some of what I saw at Kohler was repetitious. What fascinated me most, though, was the company’s cast iron operations. Behemoth machines slung around red-hot cast iron bathtubs like they were children’s toys. Every time I see sophisticated machine tools do their stuff I marvel at the human ingenuity that goes into modern manufacturing.

  • Just as astounding from another direction was the realization that Kohler and other cast iron manufacturers have been creating similar products for more than a century in more primitive fashion. Our guide occasionally pointed out operations handled by one or two button pushers that used to require dozens of humans performing back-breaking labor. Automation is the salvation of American manufacturing. Lost jobs are nothing to celebrate, except in realizing that it’s the only way to stay competitive in today’s global marketplace.

  • Although we’ve been running Rick Johnson’s Distribution Management column for years (mostly online), this was the first chance I’ve had to meet him, and it was a pleasure. Despite his PhD, this is no egghead. Johnson’s intellect and personality are perfectly suited for our down-to-earth industry. A message he hammered home throughout the conference was: “Work to live, not live to work.” Hard work is essential for business success, but not when it crosses a line where business owners and managers have no time to watch their kids grow up. It was good to hear someone with his track record of business success point out that workaholism is more a disease than a virtue.

  • In the Q & A session following his dinner speech, I asked CEO Herb Kohler what was his biggest business challenge. His reply: “Anything onshore. We have 10 plants in China, and all of the production is going to the Chinese market.” Our country’s troubled housing market appears not likely to get well soon.

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