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Taking MSC into the Digital Universe

The 38-year-old industry outsider came into distribution when e-commerce was just taking off and has since led MSC Industrial Supplys Better MRO online knowledge hub to hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors.
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The 38-year-old industry outsider came into distribution when e-commerce was just taking off and has since led MSC Industrial Supply’s Better MRO online knowledge hub to hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors.

Like many promising new job candidates who come across opportunities in distribution, Kathryn Murray didn’t have any hands-on experience in the industry before moving into her first role with Melville, New York-based MSC Industrial Supply. In fact, she was working for Foot Locker as an e-commerce mail order retail merchandizer in New York when the career opportunity popped up on Murray’s radar screen.

“The opportunity to move into a completely different industry was compelling,” says Murray, MSC’s e-community marketing manager. Upon researching MSC, Murray says she learned that the company was “very solid” and a great place to work.

“Sometimes you have to take on a little risk when you’re accepting a new job, so nine years ago that’s exactly what I did,” says Murray, who joined the distributor at a time when the industry as a whole was beginning to embrace the B2B e-commerce movement. It was 2011, and U.S. B2B e-commerce sales came in around $4.4 billion — a number that’s expected to hit $4.4 trillion in 2021, according to Statista.

According to Steve Baruch, EVP and chief strategy and marketing officer at MSC, Murray was hired as a “searchandiser,” which combined merchandising and digital search at a time when a growing number of B2B buyers were ordering via tablet or laptop.

In her new role, Murray, 38, would help MSC harness that buying power through more effective, personalized management of the online buying experience.

“Kathryn was almost the manifestation of that bridge that we’re crossing from the traditional world of distribution, where everything was print advertising, direct marketing or salespeople,” says Baruch, “and over into the digital universe.”

Ready to Take on the World 

Once Murray mastered her searchandiser role, she was ready for a new challenge. As luck would have it, this happened right around the time that a more expansive e-commerce project management position opened up at her company. She interviewed for the job, got the position, and served in that capacity for three years.

“I was responsible for working with our IT team and bringing the latest features and advancements to the e-commerce site for our customers on a regular basis,” says Murray, who “continually iterated” the site in order to meet changing customer expectations.

For her next move, Murray would pivot away from MSC’s e-commerce team and transition into a marketing role. That meant working with a different team and for a different manager, Rich Bonfiglio, MSC’s digital and marketing communications leader.

Today, Murray leads MSC’s Better MRO online knowledge hub and community site for manufacturers. Murray also helps MSC extend its social media presence, where she has overseen the addition of value-added information to support the success of manufacturers. The distributor’s social media followers and engagement levels have grown considerably under her leadership and direction.

“Before Kathryn joined my team, she came onboard to take over a project that was pretty much in its nascent stages (the ‘searchandiser’),” says Bonfiglio. “She was working with a skeleton and a little bit of content for our Better MRO website. We wanted her to find a way to get this site to gain traction and embed it into the MSC strategy.”

Bonfiglio says Murray took the challenge and ran with it, effectively evangelizing her work across various different groups within the company. “She came in as a team of one, and built out a quasi-team by collaborating across the organization,” says Bonfiglio. “That’s what allowed her to succeed rather quickly.”

Over time, that tenacity and teamwork approach has helped Murray hone and grow her leadership skills.

“It’s difficult enough to lead a team of direct reports, but it’s even harder to lead folks that aren’t necessarily your direct reports,” Bonfiglio points out. “These are folks that you have to influence and get on board with the mission as opposed to directing them to do something.”

It is paying off. Bonfiglio says Murray has grown her web property into the mid-six-digit range in terms of audience. “When she came in, we had a couple of thousand people on the site monthly,” he says. “Today we’re getting hundreds of thousands on the site monthly.”

Never Stop Learning 

Reflecting back on her choice to work in industrial distribution, Murray says it did require a mindset shift but ultimately worked out very well. “Coming from a completely different industry, I had to learn my way through it,” says Murray, who credits her mentors at MSC with helping her through those early challenges. “I continue learning about industry resources and about our industry as a whole on a daily basis; it’s continuing to evolve.”

Recognizing the persistent labor recruitment and retention challenges that distributors are dealing with right now, Murray says she sees a “wealth of available talent” on the market. “I’ve had some great interns on my team who came right out of college,” she explains. “That really made me raise the bar in terms of who I hire or bring on as an intern for my team.”

Calling the incoming generation of workers “very bright,” Murrays tells other distributors to look for eagerness and ambition over specific industry experience.

“They’re all digital natives who pick things up really quickly,” says Murray. “Sometimes you just have to give people the opportunity and then invest in their careers.”

For her own career, Murray doesn’t see any new pivots ahead but says “you never know.” If the opportunity to advance or reach out into a new area arises, she just might grab it with both hands. Baruch wouldn’t be surprised if she did, and says Murray’s leadership prospects in distribution are virtually limitless.

“In distribution, she’s at the tip of the spear and in a place where she’s close to the customers,” says Baruch. “Kathryn understands the value of connections and really does sit in a catbird seat here at the intersection of value in the distribution space and technology as an enabler for bringing that value. She’s in the right spot.”

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