Business as usual it was not. That’s not just a summary of the core theme of innovation that ran through the NAW Executive Summit programming this past week in Washington, DC; it is at the heart of how the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors is itself creating a new and very different value proposition for the future of wholesale distribution.
More than anything else, this event reinforced for me that this industry is truly in the middle of a transformational shift unlike any most of us have seen in our lives. And as the past few years have proven, this business model transformation that well-led distribution companies have been investing in is not chained to the economic cycle. Constrained, yes; chained, no. Companies with healthy balance sheets are in the cat-bird seat (we’ll be exploring that more deeply in our upcoming virtual Distribution M&A Summit Feb. 22-23).
What started as eCommerce and digital transformation well more than a decade ago has now expanded into a combined digital-sales-analytics-talent-supply-chain transformation that is defining a more deeply integrated distribution business model of the future. And as the panel discussions framed at NAW’s event, many distributors are doubling down across these transformational enablers.
In this week’s Quicktake podcast, Mike Marks and I share our takeaways from our time there. I had the honor of moderating a panel on evolving sales models as part of the NAW Executive Sales Forum that kicked off the conference. Mike Marks, as an NAW Institute Fellow since 2001, was on a panel with his fellow Fellows Mark Dancer and Brent Grover with a focus on innovation, moderated by NAW’s new Chief Innovation Officer Bart Tessel (there’s that theme again).
There was a new level of momentum here. Some of the energy we can attribute to timing – it feels like we are moving past the broken record of disruption factors stuck in our heads over the past three years, but has hung around like toilet paper on a shoe. But there was also a new level of intention in how this conference was assembled, with a blend of thought leadership, transformation, innovation; it’s the kind of mix that those of us who have spent significant chunks of time attending (and producing) conferences hope for – that spark that elevates an experience from eventful to magical.
As far as the depth of shared insight, panelists and distribution speakers were leaders from a diverse lineup of companies including Turtle & Hughes, Sonepar, Motion, Bunzl, Do It Best, RelaDyne, ORS Nasco and Medco Tool, McLane, Valin Corporation, US Electrical Services, Livingston & Haven, Millcraft, Motion & Control Enterprises, IPS Packaging & Automation. As Marks notes in our conversation, it was a firehose of the best kind.
For context, if you think I’m laying it on a bit thick, I attended my first NAW Summit in 1993. It has always brought together a unique mix of business, thought and political leaders. As Mike and I discuss, this was the first annual conference NAW CEO Eric Hoplin has been able to put his full set of fingerprints on, and it showed.
The success of this year’s gathering has to include a deep gratitude to the foundation, value proposition and transition plan built by Dirk Van Dongen, NAW’s leader from 1979 to November 2020, and his incredibly strong team throughout the years. We’re in the early stages of the next version of NAW and the industry it serves.
Innovation Research in 2023
As we discuss in our Quicktake, this year Mark Dancer, CEO of Network for Business Innovation, is leading the thirteenth iteration of NAW’s Facing the Forces of Change report series. For nearly 40 years NAW has produced deep research every three years on the trends (and threats) distributors can leverage to keep growing and innovating.
This is Dancer’s second turn at the helm of the study, and he’s not just producing a static report or book 12 months from now. Instead, he plans on making this project a platform for enabling innovation. He’s facilitating many conversations and distilling insights throughout the year, presenting at next year’s NAW Executive Summit. In his words, “We will look for a process for innovators to innovate on distribution’s terms as intermediaries operating at the center of commerce, helping customers innovate in their business.”
Our team at MDM will do what we can to support this research throughout the year. Learn more by reading Mark’s recent post here outlining his research in his Substack newsletter. You can volunteer by connecting with him or NAW’s Chief Innovation Officer Bart Tessel; their contact info is at the end of the post linked here.
Listen to the full QuickTake Podcast via the audio player above, and check out our full library of MDM Podcasts here.
Lead photo credit: NAW; Evolving Sales Models panel moderated by Tom Gale, with panelists Anne Vranicic, EVP Sales & Marketing, Valin Corporation; Bob Decker, VP Sales, Livingston & Haven; and Randy Eddy, President & CEO, U.S. Electrical Services.