Despite the myriad executive titles earned and lofty positions attained during a successful 34-year career in distribution and manufacturing, Marc Strandquist prefers a moniker that best describes his passion for an industry where he’s spent his professional life.
After all these decades and all these accolades, Strandquist still describes himself as a “fastener rat.” He has earned that distinction, having worked in a variety of roles in the fasteners industry since 1986 when he began as a traveling salesman.
Through different companies and numerous roles in sales, operations and leadership, Strandquist has climbed the ranks to president and CEO of Optimas OE Solutions LLC, the Glenview, Illinois-based manufacturer and distributor of industrial fasteners and supply chain solutions.
Strandquist joined the company as president of the Americas in January 2020 and ascended to the company’s chief executive role this past October after a grooming process in which he learned the ins and outs of the company from its private equity owner, American Industrial Partners, and one of its leaders, TJ Rosengarth, who served as interim CEO for about a year before Strandquist’s appointment.
Of course, Strandquist joined Optimas on the cusp of the COVID-19 pandemic, so along with such duties as learning the company and its culture both inside and out, he’s had to navigate the business through a maze of state lockdowns and customer shutdowns, social distancing and sourcing disruptions. It’s a challenge only a true fastener rat would relish.
As he approaches his first anniversary with the company, Strandquist is focused on applying his fasteners acumen to help grow Optimas, an $865 million-a-year distributor that was spun off from Anixter International in 2015. With his background in both fasteners manufacturing and distribution, AIP is banking on his experience to lead the company to new heights.
“They needed sales growth — that’s me. And, the person before me had no fastener background,” says Strandquist, whose resume also includes a term as president of the National Fastener Distributors Association. “I’m not saying fastener people are smarter than anybody else, but our business is unique, and you need to understand the nuances of it. The ability to look out strategically and develop a plan for the next three years was a perfect fit. And I’m having a ball with it.”
The initiatives Strandquist is leading include a host of technological and talent upgrades to help Optimas compete within its sectors. The company also recently opened a new distribution facility in Overland, Missouri, near St. Louis, that will handle the U.S. distribution of a new line of manufacturing consumable products focusing on personal protective equipment (PPE) and maintenance, repair and operations (MRO).
With so much going on at the company, MDM recently spoke with Strandquist on a wide range of topics related to his decision to join Optimas, how his background is guiding this new role, the state of the fastener industry and what’s next for the company he now leads.
Here is our conversation with him, edited for length and clarity.
MDM: Take us through the progression of joining Optimas in January as president of the Americas and then being named CEO just nine months later. Why was this the right opportunity?
Strandquist: At this stage of my career, I’m pretty picky about who I’m going to report to. When I began looking for a new opportunity, I talked to a lot of different people at both privately held companies and PE companies, and then right before Thanksgiving [of 2019], I got a phone call from American Industrial Partners.
In mid-October, they had parted ways with their CEO at the time, and they had put in, on a temporary basis, one of their operating partners. When we first sat down that week after Thanksgiving, it was one of those “love at first sight,” “you had me at hello” situations. It was a perfect fit.
MDM: How will the past year leading the company’s Americas division guide you in this new challenge as CEO?
Strandquist: I found that, when I joined Optimas, this was a sleeping giant. But it was lost in terms of having all these great resources and having all these great people without having a really good sense of direction. That’s what this year has been — building up a culture of success.
Our sales pipeline is just exploding right now. Because of COVID, a lot of people are reevaluating their supply chains. We’ve never had such a large pipeline of quotations that we’re working on than right now. We started to land business and I am excited about what’s going on with manufacturing here in the Americas.
MDM: What was the culture at Optimas when you joined and how have you tried to influence its development?
Strandquist: I believe that people want to be proud of the companies they work for and they want to follow the guy on the white horse. They want to be a part of something special. They don’t want a leader who only says, “Well, you guys didn’t make enough money, so why aren’t you doing this and why aren’t you doing that?”
If all they heard for several years was that they weren’t satisfactory, that’s a tough thing. A lot of what we’ve been doing since I joined Optimas is re-establishing a culture of winning, re-establishing a sense of pride.
MDM: How has the company navigated the COVID-19 challenge?
Strandquist: The only thing out of my control is COVID and whatever the various state governments do in terms of lockdowns and shutdowns. But my philosophy on that and what I keep preaching to everybody is: I don’t want to hear about COVID [as an excuse] because everybody’s up against it. It’s not like the world’s picking on us.
We have to make our own economy. We have to go out there and get market share. We have to be able to provide the best products and services and achieve the best customer satisfaction levels in the marketplace.
Because of our unique business model, that should position us well to do that. It’s easy for salespeople and others to use COVID as an excuse, but I’m trying to keep that out of everybody’s mind. Everybody’s up against that. It’s time to get out and be aggressive. We’re figuring out how to adapt and improvise.
MDM: You now oversee the planning and execution of the company’s strategic plan for the Americas and international regional business groups. What are the market opportunities for each of them?
Strandquist: Well, certainly there are opportunities for PPE and safety because of COVID and because we opened up the new facility in St. Louis. While our primary customer is an OEM, what’s interesting about PPE and safety is those can be sold to school systems and hospital systems and a whole variety of people who are now consuming those products at levels never before seen.
Another opportunity is on the manufacturing side because not everybody wants to buy from a distributor. There are some customers today who will only buy from the manufacturer; they have no interest in distribution.
As for international, we just think there’s a ton of room for growth in Asia. Our sales there in November were about 40% ahead of the year before. We’re barely scratching the surface. The number is small, but it can be huge, so we’re putting some focus on that.
E-commerce is another high-growth area. We’ve quadrupled monthly sales in just 10 months. We’re just scratching the surface, but we look at that as an engine of growth — not that we will catch up to Amazon anytime soon, but we can certainly, for our industry, be an equivalent to that in terms of offering people what they can do.
So, all those are markets that we’re going to go after. There’s plenty of business out there with our traditional business, too.
MDM: The Fastener Distributor Index has grown the last two months; what is the health of the fasteners vertical right now and what’s driving such demand in the market?
Strandquist: In terms of our customer base and the consumption of fasteners, I’d say 60% of customers are booming. Some are higher than the pre-COVID numbers right now, so there was a lot of pent-up demand. Others are not doing great, so it’s kind of a mix.
In terms of the fastener base, we’re seeing capacity is getting eaten up and lead times are extending as people get busier and busier and busier.
And, we’re seeing some pricing issues that we’ve got to try and deal with because one of the first things people do when capacity gets tight is inch up their pricing and try to take advantage of it. There’s not as much of an issue with the fastener suppliers as there is with the supply chain. Freight costs have doubled, if not tripled, in some areas because everybody’s so busy. And we’re seeing problems getting containers off the boats over on the West Coast and other ports of call.
MDM: What role has M&A played for Optimas in its first five years and how do you approach the company’s role as a key asset in AIP’s industrial portfolio?
Strandquist: AIP is interested in further acquisitions. But this year, between the restructuring and then COVID, no one’s been too excited about doing anything. I would think next year you would see us do one or two small to medium acquisitions — companies that would help us improve our geography or product offering or that get us into a market we’re not in today.
Right now, we’re focused on finishing out the year strong, completing our IT upgrades, getting our refinancing complete by Dec. 30. After that, we’ll see what the new year brings.
MDM: What specific goals does the company have for 2021 in terms of typically measured areas such as revenue, EBITDA, or other growth metrics?
Strandquist: In three years, I’d like to increase the size of the company by 50%. Currently, the post-COVID level is we’re roughly $55 million, $60 million a month in terms of sales. We’re not back to 100% of the pre-COVID levels, but we’ve made all our changes and we’re profitable.
When you look at Optimas — and I know a lot of CEOs blow a lot of sales gas and talk about what they would like to do — what I’m most proud of is talking about what we have done. I love talking about our team and what they’ve accomplished.
We’re a totally different company now. We’ve got a good mix. We’ve been able to promote from within a lot, but in spots where that’s not possible, we’ve been able to recruit some talented people. We’re excited about the future.
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