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NAW Innovators Summit Showcases Leading Tech

Tom Gale recaps the unique industry event that connected distributors exploring disruptive tech and emerging solution providers, including insights from Grainger and Graybar's CEOs.
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NAW CEO Eric Hoplin (left) moderates a panel discussion with Graybar CEO Kathy Mazzarella (center) and Grainger CEO D.G. Macpherson (right) at the NAW Innovators Summit, held Nov. 14-16 in Austin, Texas. (Tom Gale/MDM Photo)

The National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors held the NAW 2023 Innovators Summit Nov. 14-16 in Austin, TX, a boutique event connecting more than 60 distributors and 16 technology providers to explore the intersection of distribution, innovation, technology and venture capital. The event offered a creative environment for a mix of education, networking and speed-dating through one-to-one meetings where distributors could explore ways and options for creating competitive advantage with innovative or disruptive technology.

As MDM has reported extensively, an increasing number of larger distributors are investing in non-traditional technology, although with the speed at which tech innovation and AI are pushing adoption, it’s increasingly blurry to define what “non-traditional” means. And it’s far from new. W.W. Grainger launched Zoro.com in 2011 as a digital marketplace initiative, and there have been more and more acquisitions of technology solutions by traditional distributors to build disruptive capabilities. (Zoro.com has been a presenting tech innovator at both summits.)

One unique aspect of this second annual event’s format was the interactive education opportunity. Not only were distributors able to explore tech solutions outside more traditional industry applications, tech innovators learned about unique characteristics and challenges distributors are facing in very focused conversations.

The common denominator of the invited tech innovators was a frontline position in technology leverage with specific solutions and applications geared to distribution and supply chain. Innovation use cases included back-office automation, fintech, delivery and fleet management, pricing, digital and eCommerce platforms, logistics, AI for sales and more.

Returning tech innovators included Balance, Curri, Mirakl, Nautical Commerce, ProKeep, Proton.ai, Recurrency and Zoro. New presenters included Bringg, Conexiom, Flintfox, inriver, Kodaris, Loop, OneRail and Revalgo.

Graybar and Grainger CEOs Share Innovation Journey Insights

In addition to stage conversations on fintech and investor insights on the landscape of tech start-ups, the conference wrapped up with a panel discussion on innovation featuring Grainger CEO D.G. Macpherson and Graybar CEO Kathy Mazzarella. Both leaders focused on foundational steps needed to fully drive innovation and transformation for organizations.

Mazzarella talked about the people challenges distributors face, and the need to create an environment to grow without additional resources, citing “better, cheaper, faster” as tactical table stakes going forward to keep up with customer demands. She also cited changing supplier expectations in their distributor relationships; for roles that distributors used to play in the past, suppliers now have those skills with technology.

“What we need to do to redefine our value in the supply chain is all part of our transformation,” she said. To support Graybar’s business transformation, Mazzarella said they are creating practices and policy around AI and data integrity that she feels is imperative for survival. Another part of their formula is centered on productivity enhancement. “Focus on the 20% that differentiates us,” she said. “Otherwise, if it doesn’t provide value to the customer, automate, eliminate or minimize the effort.

“Too many people lead with technology,” Mazzarella said. “You need to lead with people and create the processes to get the product or the output you need to your customer, and technology is the enabler. Innovation starts in leadership, but has to permeate through the entire organization. If your leaders don’t support it, it’s not going to happen.”

Macpherson shared some of his learning experience into AI, noting that it’s important to frame the problem you’re trying to solve. He also emphasized that the data sources are critical. “If you don’t have data right,” he said, “if you don’t have your data structures right, you’re not really going to be able to leverage AI well at all. And that is hard to do.”

As an indicator of how important technology has become to Grainger competitively, Macpherson said he now spends upwards of 20% of his time on technology review, a surprise to him but critical because of the challenges and importance to their success.

Mazzarella’s bottom-line advice to distributors considering innovation: “Do something.” Vetted innovation projects are a requirement for Graybar leadership, while cross-functional teams work together to cut waste, improve productivity or on other projects with concrete value.

This was not your prototype industry event – appropriate given the theme. While providing some group presentation and networking sessions over two days, the core event value leaned more towards the one-to-one meetings. Distributors could focus on a specific hit list of innovative tech; tech vendors could make pitches in a combination of group sessions as well as scheduled private meetings to highly-engaged learners.

NAW co-sponsored the event again this year with Applico, an advisor to billion-dollar B2B distribution enterprises on strategic partnerships with tech start-ups and co-investor through its venture capital fund.

The NAW 2024 Innovators Summit will be held in Austin, TX Sept. 25-27, 2024.

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