2020 was a momentous year for Mark Fisher, who was appointed as CEO of NW Synergy (NWS), the recently formed holding company that manages JanSan and facilities maintenance distributors North American, WAXIE Sanitary Supply, SWPlus and Southeastern Paper Group. He spoke with MDM about where the businesses have been and where they’re heading.
NWS was created last spring after WAXIE (which is on MDM’s 2020 top Jan-San Distributors list) and North American finalized their partnership agreement with Fomento Económico Mexicano, S.A.B. de C.V. (FEMSA), the Monterrey, Mexico-based publicly traded company. NWS and its companies are part of FEMSA’s “strategic businesses” division.
Fisher, whose past experience includes stints at such distributors as Univar, Owens & Minor and McKesson, was instrumental in guiding NWS through two acquisitions in December (SWPlus and SEPG), and he also says the company is experiencing nice organic growth, though FEMSA doesn’t currently break out sales for this division.
MDM checked in with Fisher about how business is going, what’s driving growth, how the recent acquisitions fit with NWS’s overall strategy and what’s next for the companies. Here’s what he shared.
How was business for NW Synergy’s companies in 2020?
Fisher: Surprisingly good, given that we’re in a global pandemic. The industry, in general, had a mixed year. We’re fortunate in that we’re in so many different end markets. We’ve got 36,000 different customers, 37 different markets that we’ve got distribution centers in and we do business in all 50 states with our 2,000 teammates. Some of our end markets understandably were down — retail and hospitality come to mind — but many of them were up, including health care, education and government.
Our supply chain and distribution businesses took off. And we pivoted in terms of the products and solutions that we offered, toward PPE, sanitation, cleaning, air purification. We got a boost there when things like paper and plastic were a little bit muted given the change in the economy. It’s about how our teammates adapted to the challenges. What we think separates our company from others is our teammates, their knowledge of the products that we sell, and the solutions that we put together for each one of our 36,000 customers.
We all became much more virtual. We got good at digital sales and marketing. But again, it’s our teammates in the warehouses that have to come in every day, and you can’t pick, pack, ship deliver an invoice virtually. It’s all about the teams. Fortunately, FEMSA, WAXIE, North America, SEPG and SWPlus — this isn’t the first time they’ve gone through a crisis; all of them have been around a long time. They’ve gone through some challenges in their history, and having a culture of customer-first helped us put the customer and the suppliers and our teammates in the forefront of our thinking, and then come up with creative solutions.
What’s been driving growth and how has the company navigated COVID-19?
Fisher: We had a tremendous amount of inorganic growth with the acquisitions that we did, but for our organic growth, it starts with our people. We’ve got, across our platform, tremendous people in sales and service, and category management. Our sourcing team was able to reach out to our great supplier network globally to find the products that were in high demand. With PPE and sanitizers, we’ve got a phenomenal national brand called WAXIE, where we have a great supply of cleaning and disinfectant chemicals that we’re selling across the platform. That helped.
We also had a great opportunity to bundle our products and services together. We combined JanSan facility supply marketing and our packaging business and came up with solutions called Re-Entry 6 [RE6] and Reimagine Clean, where we bundled those products and services, and brought them to our customers, combining the education, product services and training that they needed to keep their employees and customers safe.
What initiatives, if any, has NWS undertaken (marketing, technology, sales transformation, etc.) to increase organic growth?
Fisher: We’re in some unique markets like JanSan, facility supply, foodservice disposables, packaging solutions and then, very unique to NWS, is our NVISION marketing supply chain team. We were able to create these campaigns for our customers and educate them around cleaning supplies, how to use them, which products kill COVID-19. But also, much like a lot of companies, we pivoted to use Zoom and Teams a lot to reach out internally, but also to our customers and suppliers, so we didn’t lose connection. Although we couldn’t be in person with them as much, or in some cases at all, we kept our contact, we kept listening to our customers. And we kept pivoting and getting them the supplies and the solutions they needed.
We’ve become also much more omnichannel. We’re trying to meet customers where they want to do business, whether it’s phone, fax, in-person, and now we’ve got an incredible web presence and a digital marketing team. So not only are we reaching out and further penetrating our customers with our digital marketing, we’re also attracting and acquiring hundreds of new customers that may not have known us before the pandemic.
Finally, what makes us different is the amount of customer, supplier and product data we have across the country now. Our teams are using data to look at regions and customers and end markets differently, and then penetrate those end markets and those customers with products and services that heretofore we didn’t have or didn’t have access to across the platform. We’re using data for our digital marketing, our sales and marketing teams to bring new and different solutions to our customers. [Something] that we may have in service in Georgia, we now can show [customers] this solution in California that the data has pointed us to. We’re excited about the amount of data we have, and we’re going to continue to enhance our data analytics capability.
With all this being said, what’s the outlook for 2021?
Fisher: I think it’s pretty good. We’re nowhere near the end of the pandemic, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccines. Our cleaning, our PPE, our air purification products will continue to see great growth. And that’ll sustain for years to come. We do forecast, in the back half of the year, things opening up in retail, transportation, office, hospitality — that’ll bring back some of our traditional paper and plastic products. And we plan to maintain our lead in chemicals and cleaning supplies. So that’s the big picture, we continue to innovate with our solutions and meet customers where they want to do business.
NWS has made two acquisitions — SWPlus and SEPG — in the last couple of months to join North American and WAXIE; what was the strategy behind those additions to the portfolio?
Fisher: We’ve been very transparent in terms of telling the market, “We want to build a nationwide platform,” and the way we’re going to do it is to find like-minded and like-valued companies. If we can get the culture right, the strategy will be much easier to execute. So fortunately, [WAXIE CEO] Charles Wax and [North American CEO] John Miller have phenomenal relationships inside the industry; their families have been in it for over 100 years. And their friends want to be part of this family of companies that are like-minded and share the same visions and values.
So, we’ve been fortunate. Now we brought on Eric Tangeman’s company [SWPlus] and Lewis Miller’s company [Southeastern Paper Group], and the cultures have been great.
It’s been challenging to do integration virtually, but again, if you start with great foundations, great values, great strategies and cultures, it’s a little bit easier. We’re in no rush, but we’re getting a lot of interest in the market from people who John, Charles, Eric and Lewis know, but we’re going to wait and be patient and find companies that fit our values and fit our strategy. If we see an opportunity that fits, we’ve got a great partner and thumbs up if they’re very well capitalized. We’ll make the appropriate acquisition if anyone’s interested, or willing to talk.
How did those deals enhance the value proposition of NWS, and how did the cultures align?
Fisher: Obviously, it’s got to be a good fit from a product standpoint. We’re focused mainly on facility supply, JanSan, packaging solutions, foodservice disposables and then our NVISION marketing division. We don’t want to get too far afield from those end markets or those product suites. But then, geographically it’s got to be a good fit.
Most importantly, it’s culture — family-oriented, customer-centric, teammate-focused, and having an interest in being a good partner in the community, too. All the companies we’ve brought together, including FEMSA, are very focused on their teammates. If we take care of our teammates and the communities they live in, they’ll take care of our suppliers and our customers. We’re focused on the culture, the values. You’ve got to be humble, you’ve got to be service-oriented, you’ve got to be customer-focused, you’ve got to value hard work. If you’re into that, we will be into you. If we get the culture right, the culture will eat the strategy for lunch.
We’ve written a lot about the complexity of M&A during COVID-19; what challenges did you encounter and how was the team able to overcome them and reach the finish line?
Fisher: For sure, it was more challenging. Again though, it started with like-minded companies and cultures, and the fact that John and Charles know every player in the industry. Their friends called them, and they called their friends, so the trust factor was there immediately. One of the challenges when two public companies come together is the trust factor, but the Waxes and the Millers have a great amount of respect in the industry from their peers. That helps a lot.
Where normally you’d be in person for a lot of the due diligence, we clearly had to do it over Zoom and Teams, but that trust was there immediately, as was the common vision of building this nationwide platform that’s focused on our teammates, our suppliers and our customers. We did make a few visits out to some of the sites to kick the tires, if you will, but a lot of it was done virtually. And we traded a lot of spreadsheets and Word documents back and forth. We got through it and we continue to do it today. And again, it starts with a trust in the same value system.
What’s on tap for NWS on the acquisition front in 2021?
Fisher: I’d like to keep my job for a little bit longer [laughs], so nothing specific. But you can look at a map and you can tell where we need to go. We’re not going to rush into any deals. There are several good like-minded companies that we’re talking to and that we want to partner with, it’s just getting the right deal so it’s a win-win for both us and them. We’ve got four great companies together and I’m confident we’ll have more here soon.
What type of businesses are you targeting, and are you looking for product expansion, geographic growth or just good companies that fit the NWS model?
Fisher: We’ve got the products and services and solutions down. We’ve got great sourcing teams, great category management teams. If you look at a map of our footprint, we clearly need some acquisitions, or some organic growth, in the Northeast, and maybe a little bit in the Western part of the Midwest, and then Texas. Those are probably the big ones. We’re going to be choosy, make sure we find the right partners. If we don’t, if it’s not a win-win for both companies, then it won’t be successful. So far, so good, and we like the people we’re talking to now.
Anything I forgot to ask about NWS or its companies?
Fisher: We’re focused on growing the business. When the team and I get together, we talk about how “run the business” is our No. 1 priority. Do no harm as we bring these great companies together and also do more acquisitions. Take care of our customers, take care of our suppliers, take care of our teammates. If we take care of the teammates, they’ll take care of our customers and suppliers. So No. 1 is run the business, No. 2 is “grow the business.”
There’s organic growth that our sales team and marketing teams are doing every day. And then there’s the inorganic or acquisition growth that we’ve got a team of folks working on every day also. And then No. 3 is “build the culture, build the team and build the company.” We want to get the right culture. If we’ve got the right mission, vision and values, the strategy will come along nicely. We’re focused on running the business, growing the business, and building the company and culture. That’s what’s going to set us apart. It’s going to be an exciting 2021. Our future is pretty bright.
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