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A Tribute to Rusty Duncan

Visionary, champion of big data helped shape industrial channel marketing.
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Last week the industrial supply industry lost a visionary and advocate; I lost a longtime friend and business partner. Following a prolonged fight with Parkinson’s disease, Rusty Duncan died on July 20 at age 69. Rusty was the publisher of MDM for eight years in the 1990s, and brought me in as a co-owner and editor in 1992, when we became the second owners of this industry publication that started in 1967. Rusty gets a good share of credit for the fact that this year we are celebrating our 50th anniversary.

He was a marketing visionary in the true meaning of the word – a champion of data mining and the power of “big data” more than 30 years ago. He was a pioneer of database marketing back in what we called the information age.

Rusty brought a passion for marketing to industrial product markets in the 1980s when it was a heavily sales-focused industry. He first brought that mindset to his family company, Duncan Company, to increase the effectiveness of the company’s sales force. After serving in the Navy right out of high school, Rusty started working for Duncan Company part-time while completing a college degree in business, ultimately serving as president in the 1980s. He was dedicated to finding ways to better align the efforts of manufacturers and distributors, in his own words – “if two partners agree to a joint sales plan based on shared data, they can go forward with a mutual plan to increase their market shares.”

Rusty saw a better way to deploy sales resources, and had little patience for manufacturers (or others) that brought assumptions and not data to meetings about how to best identify demand for products and grow sales territories. By the mid-1980s, Rusty’s passion for marketing led him to create a standalone company, Industrial Market Information (IMI). He then left the family business to grow IMI, which he continued to do until I bought the company and merged it with MDM in 2010, when Rusty was ready to retire. It operates today as MDM Analytics and continues to provide data through software tools and reports to help distributors and manufacturers balance sales territories, do market share studies, and target specific industries and customers. The technology has changed, the core deliverables have not.

Industrial Market Information was an innovative software company far ahead of its time. Rusty applied a statistical methodology to determine market size and definition at a product category level. He created a marketing database that assembled massive amounts of data – including 18 million records of every U.S. business location, together with a proprietary model he developed that patterned industrial product demand for specific types of businesses. If he had started IMI in the 2000s, Google or Amazon would have bought it, not MDM. But it’s in the right place to serve the industry he cared so much for.

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Rusty Duncan

It was tough for him to retire. He loved this industry and the deep friendships he formed with so many over the years. He was deeply respected for his knowledge of industrial market research. When we shared an office together, it was not uncommon for Rusty to be on the phone for two – sometimes four – hours in a heated discussion of industry politics or the latest competitive shift taking place. He was highly skeptical of fads but a dedicated believer in the quality process, the emerging power of computers, data and automation. Duncan Company was an early adopter of EDI for automating the purchasing process with its large customers. He wasn’t a technology geek, but he educated himself to get the desired business result – lower costs, increase sales or improve performance of the company. Rusty was a top-shelf thinker and a bottom-line manager – two qualities rare to find in one person.

His love for the industry was borne out in his dedication to the Industrial Distribution Association (renamed Industrial Supply Association in 2004). He worked actively on committees in the 1980s to advance market analysis, and served as president of IDA in 1989-1990. He was proud of the fact that his grandfather had also served as president of the same industry group in the late 1930s. Tradition and history were important to Rusty. He was very attentive to his attendance record for Rotary meetings, an organization he was deeply involved in for many years. But he was not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom, and that formed the basis for his professional life with IMI.

He was also a visionary in another aspect beyond data before his time – content. Content marketing is arguably the dominant marketing channel today. Not so 25 years ago. Rusty recognized the power that MDM could bring to market IMI, and he leveraged it well, using it as an education tool by writing articles such as “The Quality Process in Sales,” “Database Marketing: Boon or Bust?”, and others. He could boil complex concepts down to the core business value, as in this conclusion to one article:

“Is database marketing worth the effort? If you want to make sense of all the things that affect the end-user and make up his critical product mix demand, yes. If you want to continue to fly by the seat of your pants with data-free feelings, no. But watch out, your competition may be improving the effectiveness of his sales force (And distribution channels) and using the data he is developing to spend most of his efforts where it pays off, leaving you the low fruit while he gets to pick the whole tree.”

Rusty was a creative and analytic thinker, and more often than not, would bring a comment from somewhere out in left field into a conversation, often with a quiet touch of humor. It would challenge your thinking or an assumption you held. And that’s why he developed so many friends across decades and multiple manufacturing and distribution channels.

I was fortunate to have a partner and friend so passionate about the core values of this industry – and not just in the strategic sense or value propositions of distribution, which we discussed so often. He was tireless in advancing the need of true partnerships to create value for the customer. He did the same in his many friendships.

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