When I mentioned to an industry colleague recently that we would name Modern Supply our 2011 Wholesaler of the Year, he said, “They’ve been Wholesaler of the Year before, haven’t they?”

No, I told him, this is the first time for Modern Supply. But it’s an easy enough mistake to make given the number of times the Knoxville, Tenn.-based wholesaler has appeared on a Supply House Times cover.

Maybe he was thinking of our June 2008 issue when Modern Supply Chairman and CEO Pace Robinson was on our cover as incoming president of the Southern Wholesalers Association. Or, perhaps it was our March 1992 issue when President and COO Dottie Ramsey became the first woman president of SWA.

Then again, maybe he had our October 2004 cover in mind. That’s when Ramsey became the first woman president of the American Supply Association.

In industry years, my friend probably isn’t old enough to remember Mitchell Robinson, Pace’s dad, but we put his photo on our cover too. That was April 1978 when he was starting his term as SWA president.

Given its high level of sustained industry involvement, I was a little surprised myself that we had not named Modern Supply our Wholesaler of the Year. While we do not adhere to a strict set of criteria for this award, being a good industry citizen is an attribute we always consider.

But make no mistake about it: Wholesaler of the Year is not a lifetime achievement award. We also want to showcase a company that’s “of the moment” and has achieved something noteworthy in the last year.

For 2011, we wanted to tell the story of an established wholesaler that has faced many of the same challenges you have in the last few years and decided to do something about it. Modern Supply fits the bill there as well.

“In 2011, we figured out we had to change,” Pace Robinson says. “We knew we were going to be a different company. We also knew we have the willingness and ability to change.”

Tightening its credit policy, managing its inventory correctly and right-sizing its staff to 84 “A” players are important steps Modern Supply has taken to get back on track. You’ve probably done the same things at your own company.

With only a touch of irony, we note that what has helped make Modern Supply our 2011 Wholesaler of the Year is its decision to adopt a retail mindset. The change has been most evident in its ads in local newspapers and the introduction of Modern’s Millie on its website, Facebook page and in its newspaper ads.

Millie is a cut-out cartoon character in the showrooms and a cut-up online where she blogs and she tweets. In Robinson’s words, Millie “is really out-of-the-box thinking for this industry.” She’s also generated tremendous response from consumers and trade customers.

Taking a retail approach to business, however, goes beyond the ads and Modern’s Millie. “When we started to focus on retail, we knew our sales force and all our employees have to be mindful of what customers want,” Ramsey says. “The customers sign the paycheck. We never forget that, and we tell our employees that all the time.

“We’re always all eyes and ears and always on the hunt for how we can sell.”

The new approach emphasizes cross-training employees so they can sell plumbing, HVAC, cabinets, lighting, appliances and other bath-and-kitchen products including artwork and accessories. It also has given Modern Supply the ability to shift its business to commercial and remodeling customers in markets where new residential construction has slowed to a trickle.

Using Chattanooga, Tenn., as the best example, paying attention to the customer and selling more aggressively have made a dramatic difference in Modern Supply’s business. Where residential orders comprised 90% of the Chattanooga branch’s business six years ago, today it’s a 50/50 split between residential and commercial jobs.

Company-wide, Robinson and Ramsey expect their employees to take care of Modern Supply’s customers, while they take care of their employees. “Take care of business, take care of people” is a phrase they put into practice.

While no one wants to repeat the experience of the last few years, Robinson sees an upside to the experience to which many of you can relate. “We’re going to be a stronger company when we get through this,” he says. “Looking at your company can be painful but ultimately it’s helpful. You don’t do that when times are good.”

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