In the opening session of the Industrial Supply Association’s ISA23 annual conference, held April 17-19 in downtown Phoenix, group President Brendan Breen noted, “I think you’ll find there are so many people here willing to help you.” This was evident when he asked session attendees to grab a stickynote from the stacks provided on their ballroom tables and jot down any suggestions they’d have for ISA to engage its members throughout the year.
Attendees stuck those notes onto a board at the back of the room upon exiting, creating an instant collage of ideas for ISA to ponder going forward. That’s some pretty effective crowdsourcing.
The notion was also perfectly encapsulated in a brief interview I had on the ISA23 expo floor with Peter Madsen, who has led New Jersey-based industrial distributor Madsen & Howell for more than five decades.
“I’m working with a supplier this morning on a problem we have with a customer. One supplier sent me to another supplier, and it looks like they might have a solution,” he told me. “So there’s no better place to talk with various different people who have products that I might not know they even have.”
It was a great reminder that, despite the rapid digital transformation wholesale distribution is undergoing, it remains a people business, and relationships will always be its key driver.
Networking, Networking and More Networking
Because of that, ISA ramped up its offering of networking opportunities for event attendees. Across its three days, ISA23 had five receptions, a charity 5K, a charity golf outing and a networking lunch. The event still had a nice offering of educational sessions in the form of two pre-conference workshops and six sessions on Day 2, alongside opening and closing keynotes from basketball legend Bill Walton and economist Alan Beaulieu.
That focus on networking paid off, as ISA23 had 750 attendees — up 17% from ISA22. Breen noted that the number of companies represented in attendance likewise was up 11%; the number of distributors attending increased 17%; and the number of manufacturers attending increased 10%.
“This is real momentum, guys. What we’re doing is working,” Breen told the ISA opening session crowd after noting that the association’s north star for its annual conference is not just to be a good networking event, but to be the best networking event in the industry.
Last year’s event was scaled down and had a more intimate feel, as it was ISA’s first in-person event since 2019 after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the vast majority of in-person industry events in 2020 and 2021. I was happy to see that ISA23 felt closer to pre-pandemic conferences from a scale and energy perspective.
“When Brendon talked about having an event that was the best in the industry for networking, that speaks volumes to me,” NetPlus Alliance Vice President of Supplier Relations Zach Brado told me in another brief interview. “Of course, I want to see the suppliers and distributor partners at the show and talk strategy and talk programming and all that good stuff. But how do you get your young professionals excited about an industry like this? This is what excites me. The networking that you do at this show is second-to-none.”
Besides getting their thoughts on ISA23, I asked interviewees — a few who had no advanced warning — about what they’re seeing and hearing on the industrial demand front. I also asked a couple executives for an update on their supply chain and labor situations.
Those interviews were in the following order:
- Brendan Breen, ISA President
- Jessica Yurgaitis, Industrial Supply Company President
- Zach Brado, NetPlus Alliance VP of Supplier Development
- Peter Madsen, Madsen & Howell President
- Nick Pinkston, Volition Founder & CEO
Check out the full Podcast via the embedded audio player above, and you can find all of our past MDM Podcasts here.
(My apologies in advance for the inconsistent audio quality with this episode, as I had to alternate between different recording devices on the expo floor.)