Top Distributors Look to Put the Pandemic in the Rearview with Critical Growth Initiatives

Three key themes from conversations with executives at Fastenal, Winsupply, Lawson Products and W.W. Grainger.
Tompkins Solutions VP Roy Smith

Despite the turbulence of 2020, you will notice there were not many shifts in the rankings for MDM’s 2021 Top Distributors lists, with the biggest moves coming out of mergers and acquisitions rather than company performance. It certainly speaks to the stability of the industry during unstable times. 

The rankings reflect 2020 North American revenues, whether company-reported or estimated by MDM. The complete lists for all sectors are available at mdm.com/top_distributors. As we say each year, the rankings are not a perfect science — if you see anything worthy of a second look, please let us know at editor@mdm.com.  

Throughout the June 25 issue of MDM Premium, you will find our Market Movers company profiles, where we highlight the latest developments at several Top Distributors companies and how they reflect larger industry trends. 

Here are three key themes that came out of our editors’ conversations with executives at Fastenal, Winsupply, Lawson Products and W.W. Grainger.

1. Flexibility with sourcing paid off

Both Fastenal CFO Holden Lewis and Winsupply President John McKenzie discuss the value that came out of branch employees’ ability to reach out to their local connections to quickly source materials when other supply chains were clogged. Being empowered to act independently provided much needed flexibility in quickly changing circumstances. “That’s what’s really allowed us to be nimble and flexible, and more importantly, to have the product that the customers need when they need it,” says Lewis.

2. Global supply constraints remain a factor

However, even successful local sourcing efforts haven’t kept larger global supply chain issues from affecting distributors. Grainger Chairman and CEO DG Macpherson calls current supply chain snags the “worst in 30-plus years” as manufacturers struggle to normalize after the demand swings of 2020. It’s also a driver of Winsupply’s focus on disciplined market forecasting in order to mitigate supply surprises, says McKenzie.

3. Ongoing talent investment is critical

Additionally, all of the Market Mover companies have been touched by ongoing national labor shortages. Lawson Products EVP and CFO Ronald Knutson says, “I don’t think you’ll find anybody else that services their customers to the level that we do.” To maintain that level means a concerted effort to bring in the best new sales rep recruits. 

Winsupply is tackling the talent issue with a large-scale investment in internal talent development — launching a scholarship program to develop future company presidents. “I couldn’t think of a better way to spend money and invest wisely than to invest in the leaders of the future,” says McKenzie.

For more detail on this year’s Top Distributors ranking, listen to our recent webcast, available here. 

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