Dirk Van Dongen: Wholesale Distribution Advocate, Free Enterprise Defender - Modern Distribution Management

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Dirk Van Dongen: Wholesale Distribution Advocate, Free Enterprise Defender

Dirk Van Dongen was an influential leader and force who spent decades advocating for the wholesale distribution sector. MDM reached out to some of those who worked closely with him to capture his legacy.
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As MDM reported earlier this week, Dirk Van Dongen, President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors for 41 years, died on June 8. There has been an incredible response this week from every sector of wholesale distribution and beyond. MDM reached out to some of those who worked closely with him through the years to capture what he meant to the industry and beyond.  

The terms “icon” and “legend” are often overused. There are notable exceptions.

Dirk Van Dongen was exceptional across more than five decades as an advocate and staunch defender for an industry, small business and the core tenets of free enterprise. He was a mover, shaker and innovator throughout his career, recognizing early on the power of the wholesale distribution sector, through which nearly one-third of U.S. GDP flows, but often with little visibility and even less understanding by the general public… and politicians.  

Most importantly, he was a master at leveraging relationships and building coalitions.

“I once asked him how he became so impactful on so many people,” said Mike Marks, Founding Partner of Indian River Consulting Group and an NAW Fellow since 2002. “He told me, ‘It is really pretty simple, Mike; I have spent years collecting relationships and sharing them with my friends.” And many friends he had, including in the highest hallways, offices and backrooms across D.C. and beyond.  

Our team reported the highlights of his career earlier this week. His tenure with NAW began in 1968 when he transitioned from AT&T’s marketing department to direct NAW’s membership drive through phone solicitations. The strategy boosted the association’s membership and set the stage for Van Dongen’s career. He went on to nurture NAW’s young executive group (execs under 40, like Dirk), where he not only developed new programming to engage members more deeply, but friendships that lasted more than 50 years. He became head of NAW in 1979 at the age of 36. That was the beginning of many deeper stories. 

Power of Politics & Networking 

Dirk (and how many in the history of wholesale distribution have been universally known by their first name?) became one of the most effective influencers, fundraisers and powerbrokers in Washington, D.C. – not to elevate himself, but to elevate the entire industry of wholesale distribution and free enterprise.  

“He was about getting something done, not getting attention,” said Chuck Cohen, Managing Director of Benco Dental Company and current NAW board member. “He was the first guy to figure out the power and influence that wholesale distribution could have. He harnessed that to give the industry a voice at the table, and consistently punch above its weight in influencing national policy for decades.” 

NAW formed NAW-PAC, its political action committee entity, shortly after Dirk became NAW’s leader in 1979, with the first contributions impacting the 1980 election. Over the next two decades Dirk led its growth to become one of the top fundraisers in D.C. Fueled by his skill in relationship and coalition building, NAW increasingly influenced policy on Capitol Hill as well as in the Oval Office. Dirk built important coalitions in the 1980s with the National Federation of Independent Business, National Association of Manufacturers, National Retail Merchants Association and other lobbying groups. He was a key driver in forming the Tax Reform Action Coalition with other business groups, which helped pass the Tax Reform Act of 1986, a major overhaul of the federal income-tax system that included lowering corporate income tax rates, a major benefit to distributors.  

Any visitor to his office was distracted from any meaningful conversation by pictures on his office wall of Dirk with every President and major political figures from Ronald Reagan forward. He worked with House Republican leaders in the mid-1990s to advance Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America initiatives for a balanced budget, capital gains tax reduction and more. In the following decade, Dirk was part of the inner circle of President George W. Bush’s administration, even earning the moniker “Dirkster” from the President, a highly coveted honorific not lightly given.  

Video: In December 1990, business leaders — including then-President of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors Dirk Van Dongen, who is depicted speaking in the above video — met privately with President George H.W. Bush in private sector support of Operation Desert Shield. The group was unanimous in their approval of the president’s actions and endorsed his broad consulting of members of different groups across the United States, according to C-SPAN

“Dirk was the guy you wanted at the helm of the ship in a storm,” said Joe Nettemeyer, Executive Chairman and CEO of Valin Corporation, who also served on NAW’s board for seven years and the Institute’s board for eight. “He wasn’t flamboyant; he took a non-emotional approach to dealing with the realities of politics and business.” And in the process he developed an ironclad reputation for integrity in an environment where that is often in short supply.  

Thought Leadership Legacy  

Formed by a group of about a half dozen line-of-trade distribution associations in 1946, NAW was unique in its structure, and continues to act as an umbrella organization to more than 60 sector-specific distribution associations as well as individual companies within the distribution sector. And while the norm for associations was to hold annual meetings in warm-weather locations, and NAW specifically with international destinations, Dirk disrupted that model by bringing NAW’s annual meeting to Washington, D.C. in the month of January and transformed it to a leadership summit.  

“It was a bold move,” said Jim Risk, CEO & Chairman of Indiana-based electrical distributor Kirby Risk Electrical Supply, an NAW member for more than 50 years who has held key leadership positions on the Board and PAC. “It immediately transformed the value proposition and changed the paradigm to focus on the business and political issues Dirk was so passionate about.” Risk’s initial member engagement at an early age deepened into a 54-year family relationship with the Van Dongens, a common thread for many.

In addition to the formation of NAW-PAC at the start of his leadership tenure, Dirk created the Distribution Research & Education Foundation (DREF) to advance leadership and knowledge in the field. That in turn produced the first of a landmark series of industry trend analysis and guidance reports, Facing the Forces of Change, in 1982, published roughly every three years and continuing in its fifth decade today. The series has arguably had a larger impact on improving virtually all aspects of wholesale distribution businesses over the past 40 years than any other single resource. And NAW quickly became a major publisher of a broad range of industry thought leadership through partnerships with university distribution programs and leading industry consultants. 

Legendary Gatherings, Crisp Bacon, Loyal Team  

Dirk was strategic in all he orchestrated, leaving nothing to chance. He set the table, figuratively and literally, and an even higher bar. We all wore suits and ties to NAW summits, long after other associations shifted to business casual. Receptions were top shelf. Dirk could even be seen checking the breakfast buffet line to ensure specifications had been met to his preference for crispy bacon. Every NAW annual meeting began with the ritual presentation of the colors by an Honor Guard that established the tone for importance and special experience at the center of politics and policy making.

Protocol for the presentation of the colors includes the singing of the national anthem, often by NAW’s longtime computer operations assistant, Kimberly Jordan Waters, who performed the same duty at most of the Washington Wizards NBA games for many years. Then the Pledge of Allegiance formally started the proceedings of the business meeting. Dirk had set the stage. 

He was also legendary for the dinners he hosted and restaurants in his repertoire. But the even deeper portfolio he pulled from were the political figures he got to participate in the annual summits – from Newt Gingrich at his peak to nearly every political powerbroker any given year who aligned with NAW’s mission. That included a visit for attendees one year to the White House for a personal audience with George W. Bush (background check required). 

Though known as a man of few words, the ones he chose were precise. In conversation you often wondered if he was being patient and polite with small talk before getting to the heart of the matter. Stories of his skill with words are many.  

“I once asked Dirk if the Dutch honorific of Van was a higher honorific than the German version of Von,” recalled Nettemeyer. “Without a pause he said: ‘The vowel a is number 1, and the vowel o is number 4! Anything else?’ I laughed and that evening the drinks were on me!” 

His attention to detail extended to his team.

Dirk cared about the people who worked for him,” said Joy Goldman, NAW’s Vice President of Operations, hired by Dirk in 1984 (and retiring this month). “He knew our kids’ names. He knew our grandkids’ names. He’d check on you if he knew something was going on in your personal life. He’d offer to help in any way he could. It’s not surprising so many of his staff stayed at NAW for 20, 30 years and more.” And to cap his career, he developed with his board a visionary succession plan for elevating NAW for another generation. 

And then there are the stories by his board members and others trying to get Dirk to smile, a challenge that grew as the friendships became deeper.

“Most importantly, he became a friend, a trusted ally,” Nettemeyer said. “How many of those do you find in your life? I’m a better man because I knew Dirk Van Dongen. He made a difference in my life. I think that is the most sincere compliment one can give another.” 

There will be many more toasts shared over dinners and elsewhere of Dirk Van Dongen and his impact on wholesale distribution for a very long time.  

Dirk Van Dongen (fifth from the right and to the left of current NAW President & CEO Eric Hoplin) attended the NAW Innovators Summit in 2023. (Photo: NAW)

MDM Senior Editor Vesna Brajkovic assisted with the research for this article.  

(Lead Graphic by Vesna Brajkovic, sourced from NAW, C-SPAN, Politico, Los Angeles Times and enhanced with AI)

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