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NAW Makes Shift Happen at Summit

This years summit says its time to stop waiting to be disrupted.

The National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors (NAW) annual summit is running this week in Washington, D.C., and this year they’re taking the conference theme – Disrupt Yourself! – very much to heart. While the traditional hallmark of suits and ties is in full force, many other aspects of the event are getting attendees out of business-as-usual comfort zones and encouraging them to think differently. Since 1993, I’ve attended more than 20 of these annual events, which bring together leaders from every sector of distribution, and the last time disruption (in a very different form) was this big a theme was in the mid-1990s, when Newt Gingrich was the speaker. 

This year, kick-off speaker Sekou Andrews kicked the discomfort level up more than a few notches right out of the gate with his own disruption story as an inspirational speaker/performer leveraging poetry in a business setting. Talk about a tough gig! This was not your vanilla PowerPoint – far from it. And that’s the real point. 

Leveraging his creative word skills, he riffed on a few dozen variations of this blog’s title to push convention and underscore his core message: Change and disruption is not something expected or planned for in strategic meetings. It’s discomfort, even a punch in the gut. His takeaway was that distributors have to innovate from within, embrace failure and disruption, and find ways to stay in front of customers and competitors.

His message and tone set the stage for a day full of disruption, transformation and innovation stories from a more diverse set of speakers and thought than NAW traditionally serves up. Welcome to 2019. Jia Wang, Professor of Human Resource Development at Texas A&M University and a panel moderator, led a discussion that highlighted the shifts required in building stronger cultures in distributor organizations. Key shifts in HR, as in many other areas of distribution, require an expanded use of analytics both in talent acquisition and development in order to address the challenges of building culture across a five-generation workforce. Leadership measurement and development are also key focus areas that panelists are developing in the organization to build a better employee experience. 

Customer and employee experience were recurring themes. Joe Nettemeyer, CEO of Valin Corporation, outlined the transformation of his company into a learning organization across the operational, technological and HR functions to move from a focus on customer service to building a deeper customer experience. 

The day capped with a panel of NAW Institute Fellows – Brent Grover, J. Michael Marks and Mark Dancer, who is the author of the next edition of NAW’s “Facing the Forces of Change” series slated for release in 2020. Here are a few of the key takeaways on how to compete in the “age of Amazon”:

  • What are Amazon’s strengths and how do you disrupt them? Go on the offensive by being different. What would something like Prime look like for distributors? Perhaps it would involve inviting customers to join a service that records and analyzes their buying patterns using artificial intelligence and machine learning. Maybe it’s blowing up the big warehouse model and getting the product closer to the customer to be more responsive. (Dancer)
  • It’s not just a matter of being aware of the forces of change – distributors have for the most part been reactive. It’s a race/battle to apply the forces first and capture our customers’ imagination. (Marks)
  • E-commerce is not just a marketing, logistics or sales phenomenon. There has to be someone responsible for digital transformation rather than having it buried in the CEO’s portfolio. It needs to be a CTO who is accountable and rewarded for performance and results. (Grover)
  • The moats, regulatory and otherwise, that we’ve depended on for years are gone. If we do anything in the next 5 to 10 years, we have to get rid of opaque and convoluted pricing structures, which often lead customers to question the value of distributors. Tesla cut out the car salesman. It’s important for distributors to recognize that not all customer experiences are positive, and adjust their value proposition accordingly. (Grover)
  • Distributors are aligned with suppliers. Amazon is aligned with buyers. (Marks)
  • Amazon will be Kodak someday. Don’t let them frame for you how you build and innovate for the future. Can you list five innovative things to do with a salesperson in front of a customer? You’re way behind if you can’t answer that question. (Dancer)

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