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This issue includes an interview and articles on global market changes, private label strategy, a major international acquisition in the office products distribution sector, an analysis of ESOPs, and how one distributor is leveraging environmentally-friendly product offerings.
My first thought regarding this mix is how different distribution markets look today. Green"products were not part of the line card ten years ago. But like the happy lobster feeling the temperature of the water rising nicely, maybe my memory isn't perfect when it comes to incremental changes. So I drew some help from the MDM Archives.
In 1998, suppliers and distributors were dealing with major structural changes in channels with the growth of integrated ...
Is it a buyer's or a seller's market in wholesale distribution mergers &acquisitions? I think the answer is both, as there are a lot more variables on how value is being measured than even a year ago. If you run a tight ship and considering a sale, your value is still historically high. If you are a buyer with a clear strategy and view of current markets, there are great opportunities.

As this issue's lead article details, the feeding frenzy of the past few years in wholesale distribution merger &acquisition activity is over. But note carefully that deal-making is not. Mega-deals with double-digit EBITDA valuations have cooled in risk-averse credit and economic climates. Well-managed smaller distribution companies are in some ways more marketable than ever, particularly as ...
Distributors have ample opportunity to take the lead (and build stronger customer relationships) in creating leaner and more productive supply channels. Author Joel Roth says he wrote The 20% Solution, some of it excerpted in this issue, to address the frustration of purchasing professionals who have difficulty dealing with MRO procurement. He gives the following recent example of how corporate buyers can go amiss:

A well-known international manufacturer of building materials tried for 15 years to install an effective integrated supply program for MRO. Three costly attempts failed. Their fourth attempt led to the following Request For Quotation: Time allowed for bidders to respond -13 working days. Total corporate spend on miscellaneous mill supplies -$1.2 million ...
The economic outlook in our lead article notes that the link between industrial distribution revenues and manufacturing activity has weakened as traditional industrial distributors have diversified into more general commercial facility supply.

I have certainly seen distributors push hard into new product sectors and customer segments in the past five years with great success. You could argue that this trend is the natural outcome of how industrial channels have matured since the 1980s. Systems contracts emerged as the first step to manage MRO industrial supply procurement from a process versus product focus. Yes, there were clearly some similar models in the first part of the 20th century, but manufacturers held a different position in controlling distribution channels. ...
Why have three investors been raising the price for Industrial Distribution Group (IDG), the traditional whipping post of the investment community?

Last year, when IDG's board pursued an exit strategy to free itself from the constraints of public ownership, the M&A market in distribution was still near its peak. In a year's time, we have shifted dramatically from a financial frenzy to a quieter, more strategic buyer's market. In today's risk-averse debt markets, show me the money has taken on new meaning in the bidding war for IDG.

The three bidders active in this deal -Platinum Equity (owns Strategic Distribution), Luther King Capital Management (owns 15 percent of IDG stock), and WESCO (owns Bruckner Supply) -know the strengths and weaknesses in IDG. Based on ...
You'll notice a few minor changes in the print version of MDM this issue, as well as some upcoming changes online, in an effort to make our information services more user-friendly. This column, which has been on the front page of the yellow section for a few years, will now appear on this page.

This Perspective column is often either related to the cover story or about broader distribution-related issues, so page 2 of our print edition is a more logical place for it to live than in the Industrial &Construction Markets Update yellow section. This page also gives us more space to explore issues than the single-column format in place for the past 40 years. More space also gives us some flexibility to address, when warranted, more than one topic.

The Industrial ...
In the movie Groundhog Day, the main character wakes up each morning doomed to repeat the exact same day, until he realizes he can change his life and do better.

That movie might be a useful management tool as we move through the current downturn in the economic cycle. As noted in an upcoming interview in MDM, Al Bates has been conducting financial performance surveys of distributors for nearly three decades. He has a wealth of data on how distributors have done across multiple business cycles. So is this cycle any different? We are going to come out of this recession the same way we came out of 2001-02, he said. Distributors will give up the same ROA they have in every cycle, then rebuild sales, add too many people and overhead, then cut when the next downturn ...
A funny thing happened on the way to a recession. Data keeps getting in the way, at least in certain markets that the mass media don't pay a lot of attention to. Case in point: January trend data by the Power Transmission Distributors Association shows an uptick in sales for the month in the U.S. and Canada.

So while broad-based needles continue to point down, it's important to keep the market niches, customer segments and top ten customers that define the long-term health of your business front and center in your perspective.

The MDM Survey on the Economy in this issue offers a few interesting indicators within wholesale distribution. Nearly a quarter of those who responded are planning an acquisition in the next six months. More than a third expect to have ...
When one of my mentors in this industry emailed in December to say he just left his office for the last time at the company he had been with for 48 years, it struck me how much impact he has had on so many people in this industry.

I first met Roy Otto, former owner of Machine Tool Supply in Eagan, MN, 25 years ago. He has been a teacher to many people in this industry and beyond. He has been generous in sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm for the industry, and has been a strong role model for hundreds of employees, peers, suppliers and competitors.

Roy started in the warehouse of in 1959, worked hard and moved into inside and outside sales. It was natural that he ended up with an equity stake. Roy built a well-planned exit strategy, sold his business a few years ...
The role of master distribution has shifted significantly. That's why we wanted to understand more clearly why United Stationers diversified with the acquisition of ORS Nasco in December.
Dick Gochnauer addresses (see page 1 interview) how United adds value in two places: marketing and logistics. Different forms of support services have evolved to fill these two needs in highly fragmented and consolidating markets. These include buying/coop/marketing groups, master wholesalers, hybrid catalog/master distributors, independent logistics providers (CoLinx in power transmission) and joint ventures between manufacturers ( There's a mix of competition and cooperation across all these entities.
Distributors and manufacturers have leveraged these tools to ...
Home Depot bought Hughes Supply in January 2006 with an EBITDA valuation above 12X, a number still ringing in the ears of many distributors. A scant year later HD announced its intentions to focus on retail and explore alternatives for its $12-billion distribution unit. It sold the unit this past June.

As distributors ring in this year, the competitive landscape looks vastly different than even six months ago. While there is still a lot of private equity money searching for deals in distribution, debt markets have tightened.

As a result, valuations are dropping fast, and the level of deal-making activity dropped significantly in the last quarter of 2007. In 2008, we will likely see strategic buyers execute smaller add-ons, rather than the blockbuster deals spawned ...
Employees who care about a customer? Valuable. Employees who take ownership of making customers happy and initiative in making your company more profitable? Priceless and perhaps increasingly extinct.
Distributors aren't ignoring the issue of human resource development. In fact, the University of Industrial Distribution, an annual program that a few years ago went begging for students at its annual one-week session, has been quickly selling out about 500 seats the past two years. But it will take a lot more than annual off-site training to keep your company competitive and growing in turbulent economies. A team of motivated, resourceful and creative problem solvers can make the difference in a company's performance.
People with great skills are in short supply; ...

This time of year serves as a reminder of the incredible logistics infrastructure that now exists in this country and around the globe. But while we increasingly take for granted the ability to point, click, shop and select overnight delivery, let's acknowledge the distinct value wholesale-distributors provide.
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A unique set of capabilities, service functions and responsibilities defines how a distributor meets customer requirements (often including same-day delivery and 24-hour service). In addition to large customers, there are countless micro markets that depend on local supply services that go far beyond logistics expertise or product selection with a mouse and price-comparison sheet.
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Yet, as conversations often remind us at holiday parties, many ...
News that CompUSA will shut its remaining 100 stores and sell off its assets offers some insight for distributors and manufacturers feeling the pressures of consolidation. The downturn of the electronics retailer was not for lack of investment, but likely poor positioning.

Investing in the business in the late 1990s, Mexican telecom and retail store magnate Carlos Slim (now the richest man in the world) took CompUSA private, and the company grew its consumer electronics business through acquisition, including The Good Guys, a California chain.

The Wall Street Journal estimates annual sales last year at $4 billion, but likely to come in at $1.5 billion this year. Early in 2007, it said it would close 126 stores, more than half of its total then.

Anyone who ...
Many sources are predicting a more significant slowdown in 2008 than previously thought, as several articles in this issue address. Perhaps the only predictable certainty for 2008 is that the attention deficit disorder the mainstream media suffers from will be epidemic. Not only is it an election year, but the credit crunch and residential construction downturn will give most reporters severe whiplash. It will be even harder to get an accurate read on the real shifts taking place in the economy.

We don't predict the future, but we do try to offer observations and insight from our coverage of diverse distribution sectors in

North America and abroad so our readers can plan and react quickly. Our lead ...

As a good friend once observed, success in distribution is not so much hitting home runs or triples, but executing singles well and celebrating the occasional double. (The baseball analogy might be a little late but only because the World Series ended too early).
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It would be nice to apply that thought to the area of data standards in distribution, but we can't. There are some isolated sectors where there have been successes, most notably in electronics and electrical product sectors. But most areas in distribution have been striking out or at best getting an infield hit every once in a while. Not surprising really, when you consider how fragmented this industry is at every level.
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For more than 20 years, there have been efforts to connect distributors with ...
Never say never. It was only five years ago when U.S. industrial markets were in the deepest trench anyone could remember. Customers were shutting plants and moving offshore. Private label was going to put all known brands out of business. Nearly every conversation about the largely ignored industrial downturn in this country included the phrase: It will never be as good again.

You can argue there are fewer distributors serving fewer customers than ten years ago, but look at the growth of industrial distributors the past four years. Overall, most sectors have enjoyed double-digit growth into 2007, and from anecdotal reports, many distributors are pleasantly surprised&nbsp ; that sales haven't started to luff sooner.

Industrial markets look different today, but ...
As our lead article notes, the big attraction for Sonepar is Hagemeyer's North American industrial business. Sonepar's U.S. customer base is 64 percent electrical contractors and only 14 percent industrial. Hagemeyer's North American operations are 85 industrial and 15 percent contractor. Sonepar would get a well-developed integrated supply business with more diversified products.
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You have to ask how the model developed for a century or so by Cameron & Barkley and acquired by Hagemeyer at the turn of this century would change& hellip; again -for customers, vendors and employees.
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Will we see more diversification across channels? Is it possible to buy growth in big chunks and combine different pieces to produce a profitable entity? Recent history seems to ...
As our lead article outlines, many distributors are trying to evolve a traditional sales model -where the outside salesperson owns the customer relationship -into a more flexible one. It's a tough transition that engages the entire company, not just the sales rep.

The payoff goes far beyond particular customers. It really shifts the way in which distributors position themselves with customers and suppliers.

Not only do these customer relationships become much more productive and cost-efficient, it is much easier for distributors to tailor services to specific customer needs across the organization. That in turn defines for the customer the real difference in the value your company offers versus alternatives.

Distribution management gains much better ...

We are at a point again in the business cycle where the national media hold a powerful tool and heavy responsibility when it comes to accurately reporting on economic trends. The danger is that one-line headlines and sound bites about recession can spook U.S. consumers into their shells and create the proverbial self-fulfilling prophecy.

The first three articles in this issue offer a few different viewpoints from economists on the state of the economy, the impact of the credit crunch," and what our readers might consider based on the current climate. We do not predict the falling of the sky. And as economist Alan Beaulieu notes in the cover story: "The U.S. economy is in better shape than most people think it is."

That's not to discount the very tough conditions ...

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