Abest practices roundtable discussion was one of many high points during the recent 87th annual Southern Wholesalers Association Convention on Hilton Head Island, S.C. This year’s convention drew more than 650 attendees to the Hilton Head Marriott Resort and Spa.

As opposed to a previous SWA Convention roundtable forum where small groups of distributors and manufacturers sat at a podium and fielded questions from attendees, this year’s format had attendees break into small groups, discuss hot-button topics and then report their findings to the overall group. Outgoing SWA President Travis Elrod (DeVore & Johnson) was the moderator.

Attendees discussed issues such as the use of technology, addressing the aging workforce, protecting against theft and effective marketing and advertising strategies.

The groups revealed their varying degrees of technology usage. One common thread was the ramping up of technology in showroom settings with items such as iPads for showroom sales consultants and the use of technology such as bar codes in the warehouse.

Participants agreed programs and strategies must continue to be executed in order to address the concern of attracting new talent into an aging industry.

“It’s a big challenge in the industry right now,” said Chat Howard, vice president of Savannah, Ga.-based Sandpiper Supply. “Part of the challenge is getting the word out that this is an evolving industry that needs bright people. As an association the LDC (SWA’s Leadership Development Council) is reaching out to that next generation. You have to be opportunistic and offer the right value proposition. This is a fun industry to work in and there are companies that will take care of you.”

Lee Steinhouse, president of Steinhouse Supply Co. in Nashville, agreed further education is needed to convey the many benefits of working in the PHCP-PVF industry. “A lot of us have been in the industry a long time and we need to get across the point that this is a great industry. Wholesale distribution is what lubricates the U.S. economy. We can’t function without it. We need to educate younger folks on who we are.”

Hajoca Corp. North Florida Region Manager Richard Menter talked about the national distributor’s aggressive recruiting program and stressed adapting to today’s younger employee is important. “We have to adjust to millennials,” he said. “We have to search for the ones who want to be there and want to be there a long time. The key is getting them into the industry and getting them out to manufacturing plants and seeing what it’s all about. How do you get them in and get it in their blood? It might take nine months or a year but they realize this is a good business where you can make a good living. We’ve had good success with our recruiting. We have to have young people coming into this industry.”

On the topic of theft in the industry, the group agreed it is a problem and noted such safeguards as cameras and closed-circuit TV are ways to combat it. The session wrapped up with the topic of effective marking and advertising strategies. Direct mailings, targeted customer events and social media were among the responses discussed.

The opening-day educational sessions were kicked off by Dion Wilson, manager of Toledo, Ohio-based Waterhouse Bath & Kitchen Studio. One of Wilson’s key points in his discussion on the future of showrooms is focusing on the customer experience.

“Give customers something that will make them sing your praises and spend more money with you,” he said. “The focus has changed to having meaningful interactions. To remain relevant showrooms must meet customer expectations.”


Building a winning team

Steve Koonin, CEO of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and the Phillips Arena, was the convention keynote speaker at the annual SWA breakfast meeting. Koonin, a former television executive, shared his five keys to building winning teams: 

  1. Take a fresh look (look at things differently);
  2. Use the “F” word — focus;
  3. Place your bets (sometimes you have to take risks; look for underserved audiences);
  4. Know your strengths (build an environment where people can bring their best selves to the company);
  5. Don’t be afraid to fail.

“Ideas are like disposable diapers. When they are full of crap you throw them away,” he said to a room full of laughter.  “I don’t mind mistakes of aggression.  Mistakes of laziness and stupidity have to be changed and taught.”

Koonin’s advice to the capacity morning audience was that of a simple variety. “Whether it’s wholesale distribution or sports, hiring the best people usually is the right idea,” he said. “When professionals run something, it runs a whole lot better.”

In addition to another large turnout that mixed business with family time, Shafer said SWA membership levels continue to rise and the convention’s sponsorships have more than doubled in the last five years.

“We continue to see a large surge of new members,” he said. “Part of it is this convention and part of it is our benchmarking, which is growing. Our Leadership Development Council (SWA’s young leaders arm) is exploding. We had more than 50 people attend that meeting this year. We have more manufacturers joining. We have 84 different vendor groups here and the individual wholesaler part is strong. This is what is driving this organization forward. In the Southeastern United States, if you are a wholesaler all the major manufacturers are here.”

The 2016 SWA Convention returns to Palm Coast, Fla., June 26-28 at the Hammock Beach Resort. 


 This article was originally titled “Information Download” in the August 2015 print edition of Supply House Times.