One of the tasks of the newest member of the Southern Wholesalers Association Board of Directors is to put together the pairings for the regional best practices group’s golf tournament at the annual convention.

“It’s a hazing of sorts,” SWA Executive Director Terry Shafer says with a laugh.

But Shafer wasn’t surprised in the least bit when Winsupply/Noland Co.’s John Simmons produced a color-coded spreadsheet that likely would earn a place in the Excel Hall of Fame if such a place existed.

And that attention to detail is only one of many traits Shafer knows will make Simmons a rousing success as SWA’s incoming president. Simmons, an area leader for Winsupply (which owns Noland Co.) and Noland’s chief operating officer, will take the reins from Cregger Co.’s Brendan Donohue to become SWA’s 66th president. SWA recently held its 88th convention in Palm Coast, Fla.

When talking about traits that make Simmons a success in the world of PHCP-PVF distribution, Winsupply COO Monte Salsman says the individual who has responsibility for nearly 70 Winsupply-owned locations up and down the Eastern part of the country has several that fall into the exceptional category.

“Most people, whether in sports, business or some other area of life have a dominant skill,” Salsman says. “For the athlete, it may be offense or defense, but not typically both. It takes both to win at the highest level. I think of business like that. People tend to have financial or people-oriented skills. It’s rare to find a person who is extraordinary in both. John is that rare individual who has deep financial understanding and a deep personal side. John has a big heart and deeply cares about people. It’s rare to find a person who has that balance at such a high level combined with this intention of caring and helping people. That’s what makes him successful.”

Hitting the ground running

The 53-year-old Simmons grew up in southern New Jersey and studied marketing and management at the University of Delaware. After college Simmons wasted no time getting into the industry, applying and being accepted for an internal auditor position at Noland Co.’s Virginia corporate office. Noland, at one point a publically traded company, was founded in 1915 and was acquired by Winsupply in 2005. Sixty Noland locations now operate under the Winsupply local company ownership model. There are 20 Noland-branded showrooms (Winsupply has 95 total showrooms in the company).

After accepting the auditor position, Simmons rose through the Noland ranks going from audit manager to managing three locations in southeast Virginia to becoming the Mid-Atlantic regional manager and finally to his present position of area leader/Noland COO. This is Simmons’ 30th year in the industry — all under the Noland/Winsupply umbrella.

Today, Simmons oversees 68 Winsupply-owned companies, spanning upstate New York (including recently acquired Security Supply locations), Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and Louisiana. Simmons, who together with his wife, Jeannette, are the proud parents of Justin (captain in the Air Force), and Brittany (Virginia Tech student), is based out of a Noland Co. location in Chesapeake, Va.

“My role is to be a business consultant to the local companies I’m responsible for,” he says. “I’m the liaison to the Winsupply corporate and local company entity. I play an integral part in helping set the vision for these local companies and tying it into Winsupply’s vision. I’m a growth architect and a growth coach. What does our area look like now and what will it look like in three to five years? Do we need to add locations, upgrade locations or add industries? That’s the growth piece. And then you take your people and resources and put them together and help your people become the best they can be. This is the growth coach aspect of the job.  And, I might add, it’s the most rewarding element.”

Simmons is proud of how well the integration from the former Noland corporate structure to the Winsupply model has progressed in recent times. “Over the last six years we’ve been able to fully integrate Noland into the Winsupply business philosophy, operating systems and ownership program,” he says. “Noland was a top-down company prior to the acquisition. Now, every one of those ladies and gentlemen has the opportunity to buy into their companies, which is a pillar of the Winsupply philosophy.”

Simmons says business has been strong for the companies he oversees — a double-digit increase so far this year in year-over-year same-store sales. “The weather in the northern climates has been a driving factor,” he says. “We did not have to shut down for two or three months in the winter because you couldn’t dig in the ground. It’s been a good year business- and weather-wise, and our local companies have been able to participate in the improved business environment.”

Simmons says Winsupply continues to thrive because of many internal upgrades it has made related to its workforce. He points out in 2015, 44,000 training courses were taken by Winsupply employees.

“We have been upgrading with continual training and investing in people,” he says. “We have a stronger management cadre right now than we’ve ever had. The investment in people is across the board from area leaders to all our employees in our local companies. Our investment in our people is paying off in a big way. No matter the economy, good, bad or indifferent, there are opportunities out there. If we have good people in place we will grow our market share.”

And ultimately Simmons says people are the deciding factor in a heavy relationship-focused industry such as the PHCP-PVF realm. “We are a vertical industry, not just at the customer level, but at the vendor and end-user level,” he says. “Relationships are key. We have the philosophy here of being a value-added company. We don’t just sell products and we’re not a sales organization. We have the products and the knowledge to solve issues and create opportunities to make customers more profitable. Winsupply’s local ownership model means these local owners are investing in themselves. They are owners who can go into the marketplace and can talk at a different level than a corporate-run company.”

Active in the industry

Simmons, in his sixth year on the SWA board/exec committee, loves the forum SWA provides its distributor, vendor and manufacturers representative members. “It’s a great foundation for big and small independents and national companies to come together and share best practices,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you are a one outlet independent or a large national. We all are out there selling products whether you are a single location or a 580-company outlet such as Winsupply. SWA provides information and resources to all companies.”

Simmons adds SWA is bolstered by the continued growth of its Leadership Development Council (which has no age limit). “We are an aging industry impacted by technology,” he says. “This next generation is doing business differently. It’s a segment of the marketplace that is going to be here for a long time and we have to be flexible enough to embrace those changes. The LDC does a great job of focusing on the younger generation.”

As far as his time as SWA president, Simmons simply would like see the organization continue to remain on its current positive path. “SWA is as strong as it has been in 30 or 40 years,” he says. “Membership has grown, we have more than 50 distributors participating in the annual convention and the LDC has very good traction. My goal is to protect and grow SWA’s strengths.”

This article was originally titled “The right man for the job” in the July 2016 print edition of Supply House Times.