NAW Summit: Distribution Execs Get In-Person Glance at 2022 and Beyond

Enlivened by the chance to safely rub elbows with other distribution stakeholders, industry leaders met this week to discuss the future of the industry, including planning for future growth and retaining quality talent.
MDM podcast Feb 9

In the frigid Nation’s Capital, the National Association of Wholesale-Distributors made a triumphant return to an in-person conference this week during its 2022 Executive Summit. The now-unusual nature of a live, in-person gathering was evident, especially based on the commentary of attendees and presenters. Yet attendees, sponsors, headliners and support staff excitedly leapt back to the future with a robust collection of panels, roundtable discussions, receptions and keynotes.

For many, the ability to network in person — not over Zoom or Teams — was worth the price of admission. Safety was at a premium, however, as NAW required all attendees to be fully vaccinated.

The centerpiece of the event was a CEO panel featuring Kathy Mazzarella, chairman, president and CEO of Graybar; Randy Breaux, president, Motion Industries; Kevin Short, president and CEO ORS Nasco and MEDCO; and Chuck Cohen, managing director, Benco Dental Company. This dynamic panel addressed a wide variety of topics, including how technology is changing the way we work, what kinds of cybersecurity threats are visible and which ways companies can transform themselves for the future.

Panelists agreed that, for pandemic-disrupted employees, it is more important than ever to “communicate the why” about what leadership is doing. They added that the distribution industry is still one that is based on relationships, and how that relationship is defined is vital as the industry moves forward in 2022. Checking in with employees also is crucial, as the panel reflected that understanding mental health is a pertinent factor in workplace success. While working from home is not going to last forever — and may not even last much longer — it is virtually impossible that employees across the distribution industry will return to an external office full-time. After two years at home, the “hybrid” model of alternating working from home and going to the office is likely to be the industry standard for some time to come.

Employees want cultural attachment, and panelists asserted that one thing has not changed during the pandemic: valuing team members as humans with emotions, concerns, prominent levels of motivation and an ardent desire to belong to something greater than they are. Working and serving in the communities where they live is essential to underline as a way forward after years of remote service.

Precision is going to be expected in this decade, along with hiring more specialists and fewer generalists. Salespeople are going to have to be more tech savvy, incorporating analytics into all decisions they make. One continual theme of the Executive Summit was the fervent need for “data-driven decision making” to be front and center in any kind of sales or execution strategy.

As Leonard Brody, an entrepreneur, venture capitalist and innovation expert proclaimed buoyantly in his presentation, “Bouncing Back! Preparing for Future Growth,” “history is telling you a story.” Brody asserted that the American economy is heading into a “great renaissance period in this economic boom.” For the distribution industry, “this is a once-in-a- generation opportunity.” Brody’s conclusion was a prevailing mantra in a conference often marked with exuberance and a driving desire to make sure the wholesale distribution sector capitalizes on a post-pandemic world.

Capitalizing will have to include “Winning the War for Talent,” a seminar hosted by Alex Chausovsky, director of analytics and consulting at Miller Resource Group. Attracting and retaining talent during the “Great Resignation” was a persistent topic of conversation throughout the Executive Summit, and Chausovsky provided hard data about the state of play now. For example, there are 10.6 million job openings nationwide, but only 6.3 million are looking for work. There are 0.6 unemployed individuals per job opening. Even with these staggering numbers, most leaders admit they do not have a comprehensive talent strategy. To wit, 27% of leaders in a recent Miller Resource Group survey said they have a talent strategy, while 64% said, “no, but we’re working on one!” Chausovsky also cited Gallup’s venerable Q12 survey as a tool that may be applied in the workplace to assess if employees may be on the verge of jumping to another company. The Q12 is notable for testing levels of employee engagement, utilizing 12 questions such as “I know what is expected of me at work,” and “In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.”

In addition to other wide-ranging panels and discussions, there were unique memories for those who attended the Executive Summit. On the opening night, those in attendance were able to sip cocktails next to the Declaration of Independence as they networked at the National Archives during the kickoff reception. On the second night, highly decorated Navy SEAL Robert O’Neill delivered the keynote address during the NAW Distributors Deliver Awards Dinner. Finally, the much anticipated NAW Legislative and Regulatory Update and the NAW 2022 Economic Forecast sessions officially delineated what to expect from an economic and public policy perspective in this year to come.

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