SWA convention emphasizes best practices in a recovering market.

The 84th annual SWA convention in Panama City Beach, Fla., drew more than 450 attendees. Photos by Mike Miazga and courtesy of SWA

Severe weather made another appearance at a major wholesale industry event.

Back in April, tornadoes whipped through the Dallas-Ft. Worth area while WIT’s 2012 Distributor/Vendor Conference was going on just two miles away. This time, Tropical Storm Debby flirted with the Florida Panhandle during theSouthern Wholesalers Association’s 84th annual convention in Panama City Beach.

While the weather was less than ideal outdoors thanks to Debby, the mood inside the Wyndham Bay Point Resort told a different story.

The three-day event, packed with networking and educational opportunities intertwined in a family-friendly atmosphere, drew 42 wholesale companies, 62 manufacturer companies and 30 manufacturers rep companies. A total of 455 people attended the convention, which according to SWA officials is a little more than an 8% increase from the 2011 convention on Hilton Head Island, S.C.

This year’s convention theme of the “New Normal,” centered around the significant changes that have recently occurred in the marketplace and the way business is now conducted.

“The definition of the new normal for us is an industry that is ever-changing,” SWA Executive Vice PresidentTerry Shafersaid in a Supply House Times video interview that can be viewed atSupply House Times' YouTube channel. “In an ever-changing industry we always have to redefine ourselves. We have to be prepared to change with the times.”

The 2012 SWA officers, including incoming President Harry Hayes (left).

A new kind of panel

SWA redefined itself in the way it presented two key best practices workshop sessions during the convention’s opening day. Both the manufacturer/rep and wholesale sessions featured a new format where a panel of industry executives answered questions from audience members.

George Yezbak(Murray Supply),Mike Larkin(WinWholesale),Larry Fannella(May Supply) andLee Steinhouse(Steinhouse Supply) comprised the wholesale panel, while the manufacturer/rep panel featuredZach Hudgins(White Wolf Group),Richard Goldsmith(Sunbelt Marketing) andByron Shaw(Jones Stephens).

“We determined we wanted to keep things fresh when talking about best practices,” Shafer said. “Listening to the manufacturer/rep in the first session, we were able to gain their perspective on where they stand in the channel and what they are struggling with. The manufacturers and reps had the opportunity to ask the wholesalers a lot of questions and be reminded of challenges the wholesalers face so they can better work and partner together.”

Yezbak, who was part of a panel that fielded questions on many topics, including no-lead concerns, rebates and selling on eBay, was impressed with how both sessions unfolded.

“It was an interesting format that had not been done before,” he said. “There were a lot of interesting answers in terms of what people are doing new and different with things such as training and growing.  It was no-holds-barred in the room. People asked questions on subjects such as salaries, VIPs, selling to big-box outlets and Internet pricing that would usually come out in a conference room of six to eight people and not in a big forum.”

Incoming SWA PresidentHarry Haysthought the candidness added to the value of the sessions. “Some of the questions people may have not wanted answered,” he said. “There were some pointed questions about things such as Amazon Supply. Everybody answered honestly and that was beneficial. We can continue to grow on this process. This is a new idea that helps keep the conference new and exciting.”

Yezbak would like to see one minor tweak with the format going forward. “It would be really good to put us (the two panels) together at the same time and do kind of a point-counterpoint,” he said. “A lot of questions were similar in terms of what the wholesaler wants and what the vendor wants with things such as training and keeping margins up.”

SWA attendees braved the remnants of Tropical Storm Debby and took to the links at the Nicklaus Course. The winning team: (from left) Bill Kenny, Tim Morales and Kevin Kelley.

Update from the Hill

Prior to the best practices panels,American Supply AssociationDirector of Government AffairsDan Hiltontalked to the assembled SWA membership about issues related to the wholesale industry on Capitol Hill.

“It was a progress report on the things that are going on that impact (wholesalers) and the things we are doing on their behalf to help fight for issues that are important to a lot of our members,” Hilton said.

Hilton noted with national elections forthcoming in November, progress on Capitol Hill has not been as swift as some would like. “With the elections coming up, there is a lot of lack of progress and a lot of posturing,” he said. “Folks don’t want to take tough votes when they are running for re-election. The flipside is they are forcing their opponent to take those tough votes and challenge each other on their records. Unfortunately for the stakeholder and taxpayer, that doesn’t equate to progress and it doesn’t equate to changes being made that business owners would like to see.”

Two topics of particular concern, Hilton noted, were the “last in, first out” law (LIFO) and the Affordable Care Act.

“There are a lot of concerns about whether LIFO will be repealed and what the health-care situation will look like,” he said. “Another key thing is what will happen at the end of the year when a lot of spending will be pulled from the economy and when a lot of scheduled tax increases occur? If Congress does nothing, taxes will go up.”

Hilton was pleased with the feedback he received during his session with SWA members. “There was a lot of interest and engagement,” he said. “There were a lot of concerns about inaction and the lack of progress going on in Washington. There were a lot of concerns about tax rates and what  health-care policies will look like going forward.”

In addition to vendor-wholesaler tabletop meetings, SWA presented two well-received best practices panel-style Q&A sessions.

SWA odds and ends

Attendees also were treated to an insightful keynote address from formerFortunewriter and authorNadira Hiraon Generation Y in the workplace.This month’s Supply House Times editorialhas an in-depth look at Hira’s thoughts and advice on Generation Y.

Both 2011-2012 SWA PresidentRandy Wool(Wool Supply) and ASA PresidentScott Weaver(APR Supply) delivered addresses at the annual convention breakfast, updating attendees on the progress of both organizations.

Also at the breakfast, SWA introduced its 2012-2013 officers. Wool assumes the SWA chairman of the board position, while American Pipe & Supply’s Hays is the 2012-2013 SWA president. Plumbing Distributors’Coley Herrintakes over as first vice president and treasurer andTravis Elrod(Devore & Johnson) now is SWA’s second vice president.

Hays is hopeful the convention’s “New Normal” theme will help its members continue to adjust as the nation’s economy pulls out of one of its worst ruts ever.

“Everybody thought the ‘New Normal’ was a pretty good topic,” Hays said. “I look at the economy of the last several years like a bathtub. There was a steep decline and then we hit bottom, but it’s a long bottom before you can come out. I’ve heard some people say 2013 and as long as 2015 before things really turn around.David Kohler(Kohler Co. president and COO) said last year it could be in the 2014-2015 range before we get back to some semblance of the way it was before.

“We all have to do a better job managing our businesses,” Hays continued. “It’s terrible to say, but some of us got a little bit complacent because business was so good for so long. Business was good and growth was good and we got a little lazy and had to tighten up. We have to do a better job managing day-to-day inventories and accounts receivable - that whole aspect. We’re working twice as hard now to make half as much. It’s a very competitive marketplace. The pie is smaller and everybody is digging in for that piece of business.”

The 2013 SWA convention will be held June 23-25 at the Hilton Head Resort & Spa Marriott on Hilton Head Island, S.C.