One of the most important recent trends is the accelerated interest and involvement of private equity investors in wholesale distribution. Stuart Mechlin's blog on mdm.com focuses on thinking differently by using a Private Equity Investor Framework. He recommends distributors think more like investors to add value to their businesses.
Some of the best distribution companies have unified the diverse voices that make up a business into one message, both internally and externally. I call this Many Voices, One Message. The idea is a staple of the B-to-C world.
Most distributors understand the concept of projecting their value message as one voice to customers and suppliers.
But its greatest power is in its application to internal messaging. It is used extensively today in distribution by private equity investors and acquirers with newly acquired businesses. (Read about the Value of Thinking Like an Investor.)
As I mentioned in a recent blog, investors value distribution management as a platform for growth. Many Voices, One Message recognizes and even encourages the distinct culture and personalities in a business. Any private equity investor will tell you that this distinctiveness is attractive and must be cultivated. However, the voices must be delivering one message. In other words, employees must be in alignment on the end goal, even if their ideas for reaching that goal are different.
Many Voices, Many Messages is a recipe for less than optimal results.
Take an internal decision to increase inventory turns as part of message to improve net income percentage. If a salesperson instead holds some product in inventory just in case a customer needs it six months down the road that does not contribute to reaching that goal. Many Voices, One Message instead encourages alignment with the primary goal but freedom to be creative in reaching it.
Here are the 6 Cs of the Many Voices, One Message discipline:
- Choose: You must decide what your key performance measurements are for everyone and keep those to a small number. (Read The Trend is Your Friend to learn more about the value of tracking data over time.)
- Clear and Concise: This is not about a single-spaced, full-page mission statement. It is about one sentence, with few words, that gets your message across quickly but effectively.
- Consistent Communication: You must be disciplined. This internal communication task is your most important sales job.
- Criteria: Put your goal in writing. Develop your message scorecard (remember, fewer items) with a quantitative component. For example, we want to increase net profit by X percent each year.
- Consequences: Executing this is as important to your business as any traditionally more weighty subjects such as tax compliance or safety. Your company is not the place for folks who don’t take your message seriously or don’t think it applies to them.
- Celebrate: Your “many voices” are your trump card. You must work at framing the importance of having many voices carry one message and the resulting success. Encourage the team to buy-in and to be stewards of that message while rewarding their contributions to ways that message can be fulfilled.
Here are examples of the importance of Many Voices, One Message.
Many of you are acquiring smaller companies in your market areas who have presented you with an opportunity to arbitrage their poor performance. By and large this phenomenon is under the radar screen and not reported as extensively as the M&A activities of the larger distributors.
You are a regional distributor who knows the marketplace; knows the competitive environment; and is close by. Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil’s famous quote “All politics is local” has been used by many as an acquisition framework.
What usually happens in these situations is that the seller remains in place. The potential for a “many voices, many messages” is huge. After all, these sellers are used to running their own show.
But to be successful, the seller and acquirer must have adopted and implemented a deep, public, internal management practice of Many Voices, One Message – preserving the distinct voice of the seller under the new owner’s message.
Here’s another example.
We have a number of distribution companies that are employee-owned, or ESOPs. By definition, in this structure, everyone is an owner. At first blush, this environment is rife for a Many Voices, Many Messages approach to the business that may portend stiffer odds for success.
On the contrary, some of our most successful firms are ESOPs. While the reasons for success are many, one glaring reason is that they have mastered the art and science of Many Voices, One Message and utilize many of the 6 Cs above.
They also view themselves more as investors. Their multi-faceted business finds ample expression in their many voices, in celebration of the success that accompanies the one message.
You can, too.
I know about the importance of the value of the qualitative side of our business. It is an integral part of our value to us, our stakeholders and investors, current and future. Having lived and breathed it, I can state categorically that it's a big part of what makes distributors tick.
However, these values must be accompanied by financial strength to realize their full promise and potential. This is not a zero-sum game. This is not about either/or. In fact a combined quantitative and qualitative message is the holy grail of this process. You should have both within the guidelines of the 6 Cs.
After 18 years in the wholesale distribution industry, including the role of senior vice president of Affiliated Distributors’ Industrial Supply Division, Stuart Mechlin is actively engaged in working with distributors, suppliers and technology companies on growth, marketing and profitability strategy/tactics. He is a member of several wholesale distribution company boards of directors. He has worked in such varied management roles as sales, finance, international J-Vs, purchasing and distribution for several public and privately held best-practice companies. Mechlin is also a member of MDM's Editorial Advisory Board. Contact him at [email protected] or connect at www.linkedin.com/in/stuartmechlin.