Ahead of ISA24, Brendan Breen Shares Member Sentiment and What Gives Him Industry Hope - Modern Distribution Management

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Ahead of ISA24, Brendan Breen Shares Member Sentiment and What Gives Him Industry Hope

The ISA24 conference is rapidly approaching on April 15-17 in Charlotte, NC. As a primer, we chatted with CEO Brendan Breen on what to expect from the agenda, what he's hearing from ISA members and what gives him hope about the industry.
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The Industrial Supply Association’s annual spring convention has been an education and networking staple in the MROP and contractor supply space for decades, and its annual event — ISA24 — is fast approaching on April 15-17 in downtown Charlotte, NC.

The event’s roots actually date back to 1902 when the Southern Industrial Distributors Association held its first meeting. SIDA eventually merged with a handful of other prominent and regional associations to form the Industrial Distribution Association (I.D.A.), which then became ISA in 2004.

My first ISA Convention was in 2015, and ISA24 will mark my seventh edition. The event has considerably expanded my network over the years and served as a great way to see, learn about and tangibly interact with what has long been a core industry vertical in MDM’s editorial coverage. 

I recently chatted with ISA President Brendan Breen about what’s new about ISA24 and what went into its planning, what he’s been hearing from ISA members and what gives him hope about the industry going forward.

See our conversation below:

Hockett: ISA essentially overhauled its spring conference during COVID after having to convert 2020 and 2021’s events to virtual. 2022’s resumed in-person with a more focused, more intimate format, and 2023’s was noticeably bigger. What can we expect from ISA24 in terms of attendance and exhibitors? 

Breen: More and more! Anticipate even greater attendance and exhibitor numbers for ISA24. Charlotte’s accessibility contributes, but there’s also a growing buzz around ISA. We’re becoming a topic of conversation, which is attracting both new and old members back to ISA. We are seeing substantial growth in participation, reflecting the value attendees and exhibitors find at our event.

Hockett: What’s new at ISA24 that wasn’t at ISA23, or at least to the scale that this year’s event offers? 

Breen: ISA24 includes several exciting additions not seen at ISA23. We’re introducing a third keynote in the form of a legislative luncheon featuring Brian Wild, Chief Legislative Director at NAW. This offers insight into legislative developments affecting attendees’ business outlooks in the coming year. We also did a full buy-out of the NASCAR Hall of Fame for our Opening Party, sponsored by 3M and Vallen. It’ll be tons of fun and a really unique experience with race car simulators and a hands-on pit crew challenge. Attendees can even try broadcasting a race. We’ve also enhanced our education sessions by bringing the power of two industry events right to the ISA24 audience. Attendees will get a sampling of the most relevant and impactful sessions from MDM Shift and Applied AI for Distribution, providing attendees with diverse industry perspectives and expertise. It’s a partnership that just makes sense.

Hockett: One of the trickiest elements of conference planning is finding that right balance between education and networking. You want attendees to feel that they had plenty of opportunity to learn something, but also want to maximize the networking that almost everyone cites as the main reason they attend industry events. How has ISA gone about finding that balance for ISA24? 

Breen: It’s always difficult because no two attendees are the same in terms of why they attend. That said, at ISA24, we’ve addressed this by offering more booth time AND more education options compared to ISA23. Our aim is to ensure attendees can fully engage in both aspects without compromise. We believe they shouldn’t have to choose between valuable education and meaningful networking opportunities.

ISA CEO Brendan Breen delivering the opening address at ISA23 in Phoenix, AZ. (MDM/Mike Hockett photo)

Hockett: For a first-timer, what’s the best way for someone to get the most out of their ISA24 experience? 

Breen: For first-timers, maximizing the ISA24 experience begins with proactive planning. Keep an eye on your email inbox starting March 15th. Our meeting scheduler tool will be available, allowing registrants to request and accept 15- or 30-minute meeting invitations from fellow attendees. This ensures you know exactly who you’re meeting and what topics to discuss, facilitating more productive interactions. We have also created many how-to guides to boost attendees’ confidence in navigating the event effectively.

Hockett: From what MDM has seen and heard, the market consensus across the industrial supply landscape is that distributors and manufacturers expect flat to modest growth full-year growth 2024, with the second half expected to ramp up, followed by a stronger 2025. Is that about the same as ISA is hearing from its membership? 

Breen: Yes. While it’s still early, I am hearing a slower start in January and February where members missed plans by a point or two. Nothing catastrophic to report but consistent across the board. Many anticipate a pickup in the latter half of the year, positioning 2024 for decent overall growth. Comparing to 2023 is challenging because so much of the activity was driven by pricing fluctuations and inventory destocking, which have now stabilized, leading to more normalized conditions.

Hockett: At ISA23, the general session asked all attendees for their suggestions on how ISA can enhance its your-round engagement — I think via sticky notes on a big board — which was a quick and effective way to crowdsource hundreds of suggestions. Which of those suggestions has ISA since acted on or tried to reflect in the ISA24 planning?   

Breen: I have a desk full of Post-it notes with some great suggestions! It really shows the passion of our membership to contribute to their industry. Among the most prominent requests was for continuous networking opportunities beyond the convention itself. Members are striving for connection with industry peers but struggle with the travel necessary to do it. Our board is diligently exploring innovative solutions to fulfill this need without putting people on the road more. I’m excited to share some progress updates on this front from the main stage at ISA24.

Hockett: ISA’s spring conference has always done a great job bringing in a keynote motivational speaker that’s typically from outside of industrial supply channels. Bill Walton was fantastic last year. Why did ISA24 go for U.S. Hockey legend Jim Craig? 

Breen: The best keynotes are good storytellers and Bill Walton must have the most stories of anyone I have ever met. Jim Craig’s selection as the keynote speaker for ISA24 was driven by his remarkable storytelling ability and the inspirational nature of his story. If you aren’t familiar with the 1980 U.S. Men’s Hockey team, look up ‘The Miracle on Ice’ on YouTube. This David vs Goliath story where a group of amateur, no-name players defeat the dominant and heavily favored Russian team is one of the greatest sports stories of all time. His story serves as a powerful reminder of the strength that comes from teamwork, a message that resonates deeply with our industry facing numerous challenges. It aligns perfectly with ISA’s mission of empowering its members to Lead the Channel Forward.

Hockett: When I’m talking with industry executives, I love to discuss the many challenges that the industry is facing and how distributors can go about combatting them with best practices. Rather than end with more challenges, I’d like to end with an optimistic question of, what gives you hope about this industry? Or, what are you seeing from ISA members that leads you to think this industry is well-positioned for future success?  

Breen: Many things, but I will go with my favorite, ISA Emerging Leaders. Witnessing the passion and dedication of these young leaders at ISA events fills me with optimism that this industry will be in good hands. As our industry grapples with an aging workforce and concerns about succession planning, there is a lot of concern that there is not a generation with the skills, experience, or passion to see this industry through the challenges that lie ahead. I am here to say that ISA is proving that wrong. Through programs like our Emerging Leaders Channel Certification as well as the ISA Fall Summit (our 3-day event that’s focused on professional development), we are cultivating a new generation of skilled and passionate leaders. It’s amazing to see and it gives me great hope and excitement for the future.

 

As a reminder, ISA24 is set for April 15-17 at the Charlotte, NC Convention Center.

Further out, you won’t want to miss the 2024 edition of MDM’s SHIFT conference, set for Sept. 11-13 in downtown Denver. It will serve as an excellent thought leadership summit for distribution executives to learn from and network with fellow execs, industry consultants and solutions providers — all who are driving wholesale distribution forward. Registration is already open, and we’ll let you know as soon as an agenda is ready to view.

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