The story behind the meaning of Dallas-based buying group WIT & Co.’s acronym is an interesting one.
So what exactly does WIT stand for? Executive Vice President and COO Charlie Moorhead explains the acronym has gone through several meanings over the years.
“The original meaning was ‘Wholesale Investment Trust,’” he says. “Because the group wasn’t actually a ‘trust’ by financial definition, some of the early leaders of WIT decided to modify the meaning.”
Moorhead, who is in his seventh year as WIT’s EVP/COO after a three-decade-plus career in the plumbing wholesale distribution and contracting businesses, adds that he was told the acronym at one time also stood for “Wholesalers Invest Together” before settling into its current-day meaning of “We Invest Together.”
That acronym has literal meaning for the buying group, which started in 1974 thanks to a vendor invoice getting into the hands of a competitor of one of WIT’s founding members (Marion, Ohio-based Johnston Supply, one of the five original Midwestern-based WIT companies) and has since grown into a national organization with 86 distributors operating more than 750 locations around the country. WIT boasts revenues of more than $3 billion and has seen group purchasing revenue rise by nearly 40% since the economic downturn of 2008-2009.
“The people who are WIT members make WIT a success,” current WIT President Greg Skagerberg (chairman/CEO at Minneapolis-based Goodin Co.) says. “We have members and vendor partners who are committed to helping everybody succeed in our channel.”
As WIT commemorates its 40th anniversary in early September with a major celebration in Portland, Ore., its member owners and vendor partners took time to talk about the group’s success and growth over the years.
Reaping the benefits
As with any buying group, the main on-the-surface benefit of membership is of a financial nature. But WIT members note ownership in the group brings with it much more than simply dollars and cents.
“You become friends with other owners and you get to know them on a personal basis,” says Knoxville, Tenn.-based Modern Supply President and COO Dottie Ramsey. “You can pick up the phone and call them and share ideas, successes and problems. We learn from each other.”
Ramsey says having ownership in the organization acts as a natural incentive to help push the group forward. “This is a very transparent membership,” she says. “Every member is an owner. You see where everything goes. When you have ownership in something you are going to pay attention.”
Elkhart, Ind.-based Mid-City Supply President/owner Jeff New adds: “We’re all partners in this together and we’re here to help each other succeed. If I succeed, I’m helping everybody else in the group succeed. Since we joined WIT, we now have 80-plus other wholesalers around the country that are there to help us succeed. As the saying goes, ‘All for one and one for all!’”
Former WIT president Morris Cregger, CEO of West Columbia, S.C.- based Cregger Co., notes when his company first joined WIT it had two locations and annual sales in the seven-figure range. Today, Cregger Co. has 31 locations and annual revenues in the nine-figure range.
“We owe a great deal of that growth and success to our WIT affiliation,” he says. “The owners have shared so much valuable information with me that has been a part of our company’s direction as well as helping us avoid many pitfalls.”
Larry Fanella, president of Harrisonburg, Va.-based May Supply, says credit must also be given to WIT’s staff in suburban Dallas, which in addition to Moorhead, includes Jeff Smalley (director of vendor relations), Brenda Nees (operations manager), Eric Fenwick (systems analyst), Teresa Yosten (executive assistant), Gary Beard (controller), Kevin Roquemore (IT director) Sabrina Hawthorne (marketing and meetings manager) and Lisa Watz (accounts payables).
“This is an organization that works really hard for its members and is managed by professionals for its members,” he says. “WIT has provided us with the ability to compete in today’s competitive marketplace.”
WIT features a stable of more than 170 vendor partners that span the plumbing, heating and cooling product spectrum. WIT also benefits from longevity among its vendor partners. At the group’s annual spring meeting in April in Dallas, 26 vendor partners were honored for tenure in the buying group ranging from five years to 30 years. Keeney Manufacturing and American Water Heaters (a division of A. O. Smith Corp.) each are celebrating 30 years in WIT in 2014.
“The main benefits of WIT for us include the exposure to some of the best companies in our industry,” A. O. Smith Corp. Vice President Regional Sales John Altepeter says. “We like the ‘front-of-mind’ position it gives us in regard to growing opportunities, leveraging the many long-term relationships we have built, and using ideas and experiences across the group to help organically grow our collective businesses.”
Ward Manufacturing National Sales Manager Kevin Cronin adds: “We’re very proud of the strong partnerships that have been developed over many years with WIT members. The support and promotion of Ward products and services are well-embodied within the WIT group. We all are very fortunate to be in an industry with outstanding people and I’ve enjoyed meeting many new friends in the group during my career.”
New likes having the ability to meet with high-ranking officials from the various WIT vendor partners. “It’s given us more exposure on a national scale,” he says. “Our company has made a lot of good relationships with our vendors and we’ve had the opportunity to interact with the vice president of sales or a national sales manager or in some cases the president of a company because of these relationships.”
Legend Valve was honored in April for being a 15-year WIT vendor partner. “Our relationship with WIT has been very good,” Legend Valve Vice President of Sales John Kirkland says. “We have forged strong relationships with many of the members, which have provided us with continued growth throughout the group.”
One of WIT’s recent innovations is its General Product Volume Survey that provides vendor partners with market information about how they are performing within the group. “It’s great information,” Moorhead says, “and manufacturers appreciate the fact this data is shared with them. In addition to letting them know how they stack up against their peers, the metrics help them drill down and target distributors within the group so they can grow their business and improve their market position.”
No slowing down
In addition to an initiative such as the General Product Volume Survey, WIT has developed a number of other programs its owners find beneficial. The WIT Works sessions held at every meeting break down the owners into smaller groups of 12 noncompeting distributors. These distributors then meet to share best practices. Moorhead notes the WIT Works meetings are “consistently rated higher than any other activity at our annual meetings.”
“WIT Works allows you to get to know your fellow owners better,” Ramsey says. “Plus, you come away with new ideas in these meetings all the time.”
Another major hit is the group’s annual WHAM! Awards luncheon that highlights the group’s marketing category winners. A documentary-style video highlights the overall-winning company’s campaign. This year’s winners will be honored in Portland as part of the 40th anniversary celebration. Moorhead notes there has been a strong spike in the number of WHAM! entries over the past several years.
“There is a healthy sense of competition within the group and that’s a good thing,” Lawrenceville, Ga.-based Plumbing Distributors Inc. President and COO Coley Herrin says. “We’re not competing in the same marketplace, but maybe it’s a case where a company wants to win that marketing award or wants to move up in purchases this year (WIT honors its largest purchasers at its annual spring meeting). Competition helps companies move forward.”
Ramsey adds: “The WHAM! Awards make people more aware of advertising and brand awareness and how to market themselves. It’s a different world out there now.”
Breck Cayceof Hopkinsville, Ky.-based Cayce Mill Supply says the group’s willingness to come up with new programs and strategies is a major selling point. “WIT is a very innovative group,” he says. “We’re not just strictly for buying and rebates. WIT develops an all-around way of running a business from marketing to developing young leaders to purchasing to IT.”
Herrin adds: “WIT has stayed away from being stagnant. They are not afraid to change and not afraid to look at something new and try it.”
Brian Fowler, vice president of sales and marketing at Selkirk, N.Y.-based Security Supply, has seen the buying group take a number of important steps forward that have helped further fortify its position.
“We’ve added strong new distributors, strengthened our vendor relationships and have maintained strong market share for our vendor partners in the previous down economy,” he says.
Moorhead feels the group is poised for even further growth and prosperity down the road. “This group shows that the independent distributor is alive and well,” he says. “Our owners have a personal interest in their businesses, and they are very close to their customers. Our companies are healthy and growing and WIT distributors are looking forward to the next 40 years”
New adds: “The WIT formula works.”