MDM Podcast: Denver's AIS Exemplifies Small Distributor Innovation - Modern Distribution Management

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MDM Podcast: Denver’s AIS Exemplifies Small Distributor Innovation

AIS Industrial & Construction Supply is a single-location distributor, but its innovation in sales, marketing and eCommerce has outdone that of many larger industry counterparts. CEO Dale Hahs joins to discuss what AIS has been up to lately, what he's seen change in his 40 years with the company, and what he'd do differently in a career restart.
AIS Podcast

I enjoy learning about distributors of all shapes and sizes, but there’s something particularly special about getting to know small, independent and family-operated firms. They are staffed by employees who often wear many hats, and their executives tend to be willing to share interesting anecdotes, gripes and factoids about the industry than those at large firms (though we love conversing with large distributor representatives as well!).

Our latest MDM Podcast is another example of a candid conversation with a longtime industry veteran at one of these small firms. It features Dale Hahs, President and CEO of AIS Industrial & Construction Supply — a single-location distributor based in Denver that has been family-operated since 1945.

Rebranded from Aviation Industrial Supply in 2011, AIS has 44 employees, operating from five buildings just north of what used to be Denver’s Stapleton Airport. It’s largest building is a former aircraft hanger that AIS rented to Frontier Airlines in the 1950s, now used to house ladder inventory and the company’s shelving rack locker division.

It was great to discuss AIS’ history, of which Hahs has been part of for 39 years, including the past 19 as CEO. He started with the company in 1985 when he was 21 years old. At the time, AIS was operating with a mainframe computer that had a 75 megabyte hard drive, and four workstations. 

Technology has certainly been the industry’s biggest change driver since then, which includes the evolution of eCommerce. AIS was an early adopter of it, beginning to sell excess inventory on eBay in 2006 back when the industry was just getting some footing in eCommerce and it was primarily large national distributors that had a dedicated online store.

Hahs shared his thoughts on the complicated and often frustrating dynamic that comes with selling on Amazon, while competing with Amazon, while also trying to emulate what Amazon is doing with customer experience.

Dale Hahs

“As the Internet started to come about, and all this visibility to pricing, your competition just magnified. You’re no longer dealing with just your area, you’re dealing with the entire world out there of anybody that’s selling things,” Hahs said of the drastic change. “That has really made it challenging. Information is at your fingertips, but it’s also at the fingertips of everybody else. So you’re always getting customers coming in and looking at their phones to pull it up a price on Amazon, showing it to you and saying, ‘Hey, would you match this?’ So you have to play that game, but you have to learn to you always stand up for yourself and price the value that you’re providing to the customer.”

I first had the idea to get Hahs on our podcast after seeing him on a panel at the 2023 STAFDA Convention in San Antonio this past November. Comprised of two distributor executives, two manufacturer executives and two manufacturer’s representatives, that panel discussed everything from labor challenges to sales & marketing, eCommerce and more.

I found Hahs’ commentary in that session to be particularly insightful, so I posed some of the same questions from it during our conversation to share with the MDM audience.

The final question during that November panel was, ‘If you were restarting your career today, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?’

Hahs’ answer for that is the same as mine would be: Make more of a networking effort early on. 

“You can have all the best ideas in the world, but if you’re not able to articulate them because you’re afraid, then you’re going to hold them to yourself or just within small group,” Hahs emphasized. “So I think that that’s something that you got to do early on — force yourself to break out of your comfort zone and do things that are hard for you. Every time you do that, it’s something that’s memorable, something that helps you grow as a person, and you gain confidence.”

For professionals in industrial distribution — especially for small- to mid-size firms, their executive network often becomes their lifeline. Expanding that as much as possible will only help in the long run.

Besides AIS’ history and Hahs’ take on eCommerce, we explored a couple of unique marketing tactics the company has recently put to use; how it goes about recruiting and retaining talent; and the increasing importance of product data.

Another interesting fact about AIS is that it had 233 solar panels installed across four of its five buildings. I’ll soon detail that project in a forthcoming Premium piece, so keep an eye out for that.

Check out the full episode via the audio player above, and you can find our full episode library at our Podcasts page here.

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