A festive time was had in Kohler, WI, at ASA’s Young Exec Spring Forum.

Distribution turnaround specialist Rick Johnson held an appreciative audience captive during his “Strategies on Leadership” seminar. Photos by Jim Olsztynski.

Rick Johnson

TheAmerican Supply Association’s Young Executives (YE) Divisiongot some major league counseling on leadership at their Spring Forum ’11 conference, held May 23-25 in Kohler, WI. The featured speaker over two days wasSupply House Times’ columnist Dr. Rick Johnson (CEO Strategist LLC), whose dynamic presentation on Strategic Leadership captivated and engaged the 59 attendees.

Also, the YE crowd enjoyed a special treat on the opening night of the conference with a lavish banquet at Kohler Co.’s renowned Blackwolf Run golf complex, featuring CEO Herb Kohler as guest speaker and evening companion. (President David Kohler was advertised as the speaker but a schedule conflict led him to recruit his famous father to pinch-hit.)

Herb Kohler

The CEO held the audience’s attention with a review of Kohler’s history (founded during a financial panic in 1873 at a time when 68 railroads went bankrupt) and commitment to enduring values. “The only way to survive that time was to believe in what you’re doing. We believe in gracious living - defined as charm, good taste and quality of life,” Kohler said.

“Copying adds clutter to the marketplace. The market will not reward the copiers,” he added.

These days Herb Kohler is known as much as a golf entrepreneur as for his plumbing domain. Although not picking up the game until age 45, he took to it with a passion and stunned the golf world by developing two world-class golf facilities at Blackwolf Run in Kohler and Whistling Straits a short drive away, just outside of Sheboygan. Kohler teased the golf fans in the audience by telling them he would soon announce another plush golf development somewhere offshore, although he gave no hint of where that might be.

Conference participants included Tim Schenecker of Bradley Corp. (left) and Jeff Worly of Worly Plumbing Supply (Columbus, OH).

The next morning, YE Spring Forum participants were treated to an eye-opening tour of Kohler’s renowned hometown plants and their state-of-the-art plumbing manufacturing technologies.

Johnson’s seminars drew on humor, personal inspiration and case history presentations in which the young executives devised solutions to business problems. A 30-year veteran of the wholesale distribution industry, Johnson started his career as a steel salesman, then built his own company while pursuing MBA and PhD degrees. Afterward he sold his company but continued to work as a turnaround specialist helping other distribution companies work through strategic and internal problems.

One key piece of advice he offered was: “You can be the smartest CEO in the world, but if you’re surrounded by idiots you will not succeed. And vice versa.”

Despite his business success, Johnson advised the young executives to achieve balance in their lives by “working to live, not living to work.” He emphasized throughout his two-day presentation that his greatest rewards in life came from family and friends rather than business success and its trappings.

At the conclusion of his seminars, Johnson invited YE participants to develop their “Top 10 Action Steps I’ll Take as a Result of This Conference.” He later shared the results with the group on a sheet that tallied 74 separate actions.

The 2012 YE Spring Forum will take place May 21-23 in New Orleans. Read my“In Closing” column herefor more thoughts about this event.