Quick Thoughts from SHIFT: Distribution Remains “Prime” for Disruption - Modern Distribution Management

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Quick Thoughts from SHIFT: Distribution Remains “Prime” for Disruption

Mike Hockett distills key themes and takeaways from MDM's marquee thought leadership conference event, held Sept. 18-20 in Denver.
SHIFT Tom Deion

Lead photo: MDM CEO Tom Gale donning the look of Colorado Buffaloes football coach Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders while delivering the opening remarks to MDM’s SHIFT Conference Sept. 18 in Denver.

As I decompress after an amazing three days at MDM’s SHIFT | The Future of Distribution conference Sept. 18-20 in downtown Denver and a late arrival back home, I have so many ideas percolating.

Our lineup of 40+ speakers covered expansive ground across content pillars of digital transformation, sales and marketing, and talent/culture. The volume of key takeaways and interesting nuggets they shared could fill a notebook, and it was great to see many of the event’s 200-plus attendees doing just that.

Here, I want to share some quick quotes or tidbits I was compelled to jot down during sessions and that I’ve had top-of-mind since departing the event venue Wednesday afternoon.

Disruption remains ever-present. MDM CEO Tom Gale began SHIFT’s opening remarks donning sunglasses and wearing a University of Colorado Buffaloes hat, emulating the look of first-year head football coach Deion Sanders, who has rapidly turned Boulder, Colorado, into the epicenter of discussion in the college football landscape. MDM’s office is located just outside of Boulder, after all.

Leaning into his flashy persona that accompanied a Hall of Fame NFL career and college football’s transfer portal that has enabled frequent roster turnover, Sanders — also known as “Coach Prime” — has taken what was a bottom-feeding Buffaloes team (1-11 record in 2022, two winning seasons in the previous 17) to a No. 19 ranking heading into this weekend’s showdown vs. No. 10 Oregon in what is viewed nationwide as the game of the week.

“He’s disrupting college football, he’s innovating, and whether you agree with what and how he’s doing it, the results so far are undeniable,” Gale said in his opening remarks.

It’s not just that Sanders is a disruptor, it’s how fast he’s done it. 

Gale went on to relate how after decades of stability, the distribution sector remains prone to disruption that has persisted seemingly since the 2008-2009 Great Recession and the ensuing rise of eCommerce. The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, was the ultimate disruptor for all industries, but even several years after things have since “normalized,” distributors today are still combating simultaneous disruptions in the form of a very challenging labor situation; manufacturers selling direct; eMarketplaces; customer demands for a robust digital buying experience; and overlaying it all, AI and automation.

Small wins create momentum. With much of the SHIFT content focusing on digital transformation and leveraging data analytics, more than a handful of speakers on those topics emphasized the importance of aiming for small, frequent wins rather than eating the elephant of large projects. Having just one, massive goal can often result in “moving the goalposts” along the way and never sticking to an original plan, ultimately leaving those projects stuck in the mud.

“Leadership is about increasing the capacity of the team.” — Tony Pericle of ProfitOptics. He said this during a panel session discussing MDM’s new AI research report and what it found, but it also was a common theme throughout SHIFT. More than a handful of speakers touched on an inverse pyramid way of looking at talent in distribution and the benefits of empowering front-line employees with the resources that make them more efficient and boost their job satisfaction, rather than viewing them as just cogs in the machine. “You work for your staff, your staff doesn’t work for you” was a common anecdote.

“Distribution is an amazing market … for the winners. It’s not as amazing for everyone else. The averages don’t always apply to the winners.” – Kevin Sachs, who leads the Distribution sector practice at McKinsey & Company as Senior Partner, during SHIFT’s opening keynote session.

“You have to educate yourself. You can’t inspire others to use AI if you don’t understand it. Expect failure, encourage, and you will see things you’ve never seen before.” — Also from Tony Pericle. SHIFT content frequently touched on AI’s potential in distribution, and Pericle drove home that AI isn’t something that leaders can just plan on making some investment in, handing off to tech-savvy staff, setting and forgetting.

“You can look for an AI that’s generalized, but you’re going to have to customize the hell out of it. AI is here, it’s moving very fast — so fast that you may miss the moment to get involved and end up having to play catch-up.” — Paul Noble, Founder and CEO of Verusen. This was also from the AI research panel, in which Noble alluded to the “garbage in, garbage out” element of AI in that what you get from it is only as good as the quality of the data you feed it. This is why it’s often best to find AI tools that cater specifically to distribution’s nuances. Noble went on to relate AI’s rapid proliferation in distribution to that of eCommerce and that distributors that remain on the sidelines for too long likewise run the risk of forever playing catchup.

Additional Takeaways

Don’t just take my word for the level of quality shared from our SHIFT speakers. Here’s what a couple of other attendees had to say:

More to Come

Stay tuned as we will provide plenty of follow-up coverage from SHIFT, including deeper dives into session takeaways. View plenty of photos from the event on MDM’s LinkedIn Group and Independent Distributors Group, as well as by searching the #SHIFT2023 hashtag on LinkedIn.

The MDM team extends a sincere appreciation to all of our SHIFT sponsors — including Platinum sponsors White Cup and Infor — for their support in making the event a great success and their coordination along the way.

We hope to see you at next year’s event!

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