The next generation of wholesalers is a hot topic at Omni’s Spring Meeting 2012.

Wholesalers and manufacturers enjoyed productive discussions at Omni’s Spring Meeting 2012 in Orlando. Photo by Scott Franz

Regardless of the industry, there comes a point where a changing of the guard occurs from one generation to the next.

That process, and the various ancillary components that come with it such as recruitment of young talent, company succession plans and adapting to new technology, elicited productive discussions from a group of wholesalers and industry executives who talked with Supply House Times at Omni’s recent Spring Meeting 2012 in Orlando.

“This is an older industry,” says 26-year-oldLee Williams, general manager for Cookesville, Tenn.-based Williams Wholesale Supply. “At our place, we’re bridging the gap between the traditional-style people and the Generation Y people. Right now we’re about 50-50 with the two generations at our location.”

Central Plumbing Specialties President Howard Frankel sees the younger generation pushing the new technology bar forward. Photo courtesy of Howard Frankel

Recruiting tomorrow's brightest stars

Wholesalers and trade association officials have mixed reactions regarding the current influx of young professionals into the industry.

“Some of my peers and my vendor peers are not here anymore because of retirement, death or consolidation of businesses,” statesLew Miller, president of Iowa Wholesale Supply in Marshalltown, Iowa. “I used to know everybody at these meetings and now there are a lot of younger people here, more so than before.”

American Supply Association Executive Vice PresidentMike Adelizziemphasizes an increased push must continue in order to attract new talent into the industry.

“We’re still not doing a good job of reaching out,” he says. “Think of how many other wholesale industries we compete with. We have to show these young people that there is a future in this industry.”

Adelizzi says getting to that point involves mapping out a clear plan for the younger generation to follow.

“This industry is not sexy,” he states. “From a career standpoint, how can we appeal to an 18- or 19-year-old? We are competing with the Steve Jobs of the world. This is what we are struggling with. College kids would like to make $80,000 right off the bat, but they have to realize they likely are going to start out picking product in the warehouse for $12 an hour. We have to adjust and we have to show them how quickly they can make $80,000. Let’s show these young people a logical process where ultimately they can get into management and build a good career. We can do that as an industry.”

Miller adds: “This new generation wants self-gratification. You aren’t getting as many kids out of college because they aren’t going to get a $90,000-a-year job in this industry right away. There is a great opportunity now for younger people to become involved. There is potential, but you have to pay your dues and get up to speed like everybody else.”

Williams, who is part of a fourth-generation family-owned company, agrees incentives will better resonate with today’s younger generation.

“It’s important to know that type of career path up front,” he says. “It’s what this generation wants to hear. It’s important to get that incentive instilled up front so the employee understands this is what the job entails and this is what you have to work for to get to that point.”

One major shot in the arm of late has come via the various young executives groups formed by national and regional wholesale trade associations.

“One of the best ways to help is to get this new generation involved in young executive programs at the regional and national levels so they can start interacting with their peers,” Southern Wholesalers Association and North Central Wholesalers Association Executive Vice PresidentTerry Shaferstates. “They can foster more relationships and realize opportunities that exist at the regional and national levels. You need to build relationships with peers in order to be successful.”

Adelizzi adds: “Most of the young guys don’t have those connections yet. If you go to a young executives event, you are going to cultivate relationships with young salespeople and young executives working in wholesale companies. In the past, some of these guys have gone to conventions and chased around their dads like young ducks because they really didn’t know anybody. Now, they can go to a convention and call their network of friends from this next generation.”

Robertson Supply Showroom Consultant Carol Hundley uses a wireless tablet during a customer consultation. Photo courtesy of Robertson Supply

Seamless transition

Talk about the next generation morphs into the future health of wholesale businesses - specifically having proper succession plans in place.

“I’ve seen a lot of companies that do not have succession plans,” statesDavid Riggs, executive vice president of St. Louis-based Plumbers Supply. “A lot of baby boomers struggle with how they are going to hand off the business to a family member. A business is like a child. You don’t put it up for adoption. You make sure it’s with someone that is going to care for it the same way. You want to make sure it is cared for generations to come.”

Plumbers Supply recently purchased Cape Girardeau, Mo.-based Meyer Supply Co. “We actively look for companies that still want to preserve their culture and still are interested in staying in their local market,” Riggs notes. “We want the independent wholesaler to be integral to its market. That city-centric independent wholesaler is critical to this industry. It’s what we are all about.”

Shafer says succession plans tie into educating younger generations to the benefits of making a career in the wholesale industry.

“A good question is are we going to see a drop-off in the next generation staying in this business based on who this generation is?” he asks. “There needs to be strong education and networking, which will serve as a catalyst to greater exposure and interest in the industry. If we don’t educate and promote network development in the next generation, I think even more will drop off.

“Companies need to focus on succession plans. Sometimes people die unexpectedly at early ages. There is a plumbing distributor in the SWA area that died recently in his mid-50s. You must have a plan in place for how the company is going to carry on into the next generation or hire someone with industry experience to come in and run the organization.”

Omni’s Spring Meeting 2012 brought 380 member attendees and 315 vendor attendees together. Photo by Scott Franz

Bridging the gap

Wholesalers agree the tide is quickly turning in terms of the younger generation embracing and introducing new technologies into the workplace.

“It was the same way when we replaced our fathers,” notesHoward Frankel, president of New York-based Central Plumbing Specialties. “We understand things they didn’t. Now our generation is learning about things like Facebook and Twitter. I know that change is here. The customers are savvier and the employees better be savvier. It’s the way the market is being driven.”

Williams Wholesale Supply recently added a software program to help streamline catalogs.

“We’re providing the tools to get more of the right information to the customers,” Williams says. “With the click of a button, you send the information where it needs to go. There definitely is a learning curve with new technology. We learned from my dad’s generation and there is a learning curve for his generation with new technology. You have to evolve. You have to keep up or you are going to be left behind if you don’t follow along with the trends.”

Boise, Idaho-based Robertson Supply equips its showroom consultants with wireless tablet computers and handheld scanners.

“The consultants scan small bar codes on each fixture/faucet while they are with the customer and the scan propagates either a bid or a sales order, while at the same time it displays availability, item description and other pertinent information,” Robertson Supply Vice PresidentMark Michelssays.

Robertson Supply created the bar codes using Mincron MyHD software, which generates a company-exclusive six-digit code, that prevents price shopping.

“It is vital distributors embrace new technologies,” Michels says. “The ‘pad and pencil guy’ is just going to hold everyone back. I am a numbers guy looking for a return on investment, and investments in technology, if spent right, can have big payoffs.”

“I’ve seen a lot of companies that do not have succession plans.” -David Riggs, Plumbers Supply

Miller, who took over Iowa Wholesale Supply in 1972 after his father died, is not afraid to learn about the latest and greatest in technology.

“Plumbing 101 isn’t going to change,” he says. “What is changing are the whistles and the toots. Change is so quick now. You have to go in there and get your feet wet and learn as much as you can as fast as you can. It’s a lot easier to get educated. It’s a lot easier to get the product knowledge you need due to the websites of most major manufacturers and all the online training available 24/7.”

With optimism starting to work its way back into the industry picture, making sure the future is secure is in a company’s best interests.

“It’s coming,” Adelizzi says of greater economic recovery. “There are predictions that in 2014 or 2015 we could be back to where things were before the housing collapse. If that happens, there are going to be a lot of folks that need to be hired.”

Omni PresidentBob Hoffnever wants to see the industry get to a point where it doesn’t set the stage for its up-and-coming young executives.

“There should not be a time where it is critical,” he states. “The transition should take place throughout time. Youth always should be introduced into the industry. This is an aging industry. When new youth comes into the fold we need to provide the platform to help them with their growth and make sure they are a viable part of the future of this industry.”

Michels feels the industry ultimately is on the right track in taking the necessary steps to ensure today’s youth develops into tomorrow’s success stories.

“Many of our company’s young professionals started in the warehouse, learning our company policy and philosophy from the ground up,” he says. “We continue to challenge them, while giving them opportunities to advance and learn. Organizations such as Omni and Robertson Supply continue to place an emphasis on young talent. Where do you find these bright, young people? They are out there.”