Like many executives, Monte Salsman stopped traveling by plane when COVID-19 hit the U.S. in the spring of 2020. He quickly pivoted to conducting meetings with out-of-town associates via Zoom or Teams.
But Salsman, the president of Winsupply Acquisitions Group — the M&A division of the Dayton, Ohio-based, privately held distributor Winsupply Inc. — still wanted to physically visit companies around the country to see if they might be a good acquisition target.
Salsman believes strongly that successful M&A hinges on in-person interactions, so he didn’t want to permanently eliminate that element from the deal-making process.
“I consider the face-to-face to be a key part of acquisitions,” Salsman told MDM. “I love it and sellers do too. I think that while sellers, of course, want a fair price, they want to leave their business in the hands of somebody they trust.”
So as the pandemic continued to rage, Salsman took to the road — literally. He bought an Airstream RV and began driving to destinations around the country so he could keep meeting people in person while also making those gatherings safe for himself and the other parties.
And he could keep Winsupply’s M&A activity moving forward.
A safer way to travel
The roots of the decision to send Salsman on the road via an RV date back to October 2019 when Winsupply formed its acquisitions entity and appointed Salsman, then the president of Winsupply’s local company group, to lead the division.
A few months later, COVID brought Salsman’s travels to a halt. But video conferencing wasn’t Salsman’s style, so after a couple of months avoiding planes, he finally booked a flight in May 2020. But pandemic-era travel, he quickly learned, wasn’t ideal.
“The trip in May didn’t feel like a good thing to be doing,” he said. “The planes were empty, but it seemed to be fraught with danger.”
He encountered other obstacles on this trip, such as restaurants all being closed, and Salsman didn’t see himself living on Peanut M&M and Cheetos for his business travels during the remainder of the pandemic — however long that might last.
Even worse, he didn’t like the idea of increasing both his and others’ exposure to COVID. “It felt weird not only for myself but for the people I was going to visit,” he said.
In June, Salsman was scheduled to meet with someone whose office was within driving distance from Dayton, so he drove and was able to limit interactions. No planes, rental cars, hotels, restaurants. On that trip, he felt safe. He also realized that always driving to visit target companies would be safer for him, his business associates and his wife whenever he returned home to Dayton.
“I thought this had a lot of possibility because I could control nearly every variable possible,” Salsman said. “I wouldn’t be in an airplane, I wouldn’t be eating out, I wouldn’t be staying in hotels.”
Salsman began shopping for an RV in June only to find that COVID had created a huge demand for motorhomes and campers. He lucked out by finding an Airstream in September, and soon he was hitting the road and able to meet with folks in person yet safely. It didn’t even seem out of place driving a 25-foot Airstream into the parking lot of a distributor’s facility.
“Every place I visit has 25-foot trucks, so you’re not looking conspicuous when you pull up,” Salsman said. “And it was self-contained but not so big that you couldn’t navigate it anywhere.”
‘Efficient and effective’
Salsman, who now measures his business travels with an odometer rather than a frequent flier statement, quickly adapted to life on the road.
He began driving to meet potential acquisition targets last September and spent weeks at a time traveling to destinations across the U.S. Although he has been home in Dayton during March and April, Salsman had logged almost 12,000 miles in the previous six months.
His willingness to drive to meet prospective partners has paid off for Winsupply, which recently inked its first acquisition that stemmed from Salsman’s RV travels. Salsman, who expects more deals to be announced soon, is digging the rhythm of this new M&A process.
“In the past, I would say I can be there tomorrow, or I can jump on a plane and be there in two days. That was the expectation,” Salsman said. “One of the nice things about RV travel is I can say, ‘Can I get to you in 30 days?’ That has become acceptable, and people are very accommodating, which probably wouldn’t have been the case before COVID.”
Salsman, who is preparing to again hit the road starting in early May, said the time is right for Winsupply to ramp up its M&A efforts. He sees industry consolidation accelerating in 2021 for a variety of reasons, including aging company owners, the growing importance and expense of technology, and a potential change in the tax impact of selling a business.
But even when COVID subsides and air travel returns to pre-pandemic normalcy, Salsman said he’ll continue to drive his rig to business meetings in part because he’s grown accustomed to it, but mostly because it has benefited all the parties involved — himself, his family, his company and his counterparts.
“I think it’s a good tool to have at my disposal,” he said. “It’s also a less expensive form of travel than jumping on an airplane. I’m finding myself being more efficient. I’m planning my trips better. I’m spending more time with people. I’ve got flexibility if I want to stick around an extra day. I anticipate that I will probably get to a place where it’s still a very big part of what I do because it’s proven to be incredibly efficient and effective. Now, I’m eager to get back out there.”