Strong attendance and a positive near-term pep talk by economist Alan Beaulieu of ITR Economics kicked off the two-day Executive Summit meeting of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors this week. As has been the case for every meeting I’ve attended (since 1993 with a few exceptions), a few themes defined the education sessions and hallway conversations; this year it was analytics and sales process improvement.
In his opening presentation, Beaulieu painted a picture of moderate growth in 2013, with conditions slowly improving into the third quarter. But he does anticipate a mild slowdown in 2014. After that, there should be growth until the end of the decade, when more of a correction will take place. And, as always, Beaulieu gets everyone entirely on their heels with his long-term prediction of a depression taking place in 2029 – a hundredth anniversary we’d all like to avoid.
Bringing best practices and analytics to the sales process formed the core of education topics, including Texas A&M’s channel optimization research; Mark Dancer’s research on CRM implementation in distribution; and Scott Hudson’s (of Chally Group Worldwide) discussion of talent management and how analytics can improve sales talent management decisions. (Look for highlights on these topics in blogs in the coming week.)
Mark Kramer, CEO of Laird Plastics and 2012 NAW Chairman of the Board, set the tone: “When a salesperson today goes to make a call, that customer has more information and knowledge about products than ever before through the Internet and other sources. There are very different skills required today to be effective and communicate the value of your offering.”
Merger and acquisition activity in wholesale distribution was also much discussed by attendees, and there was a healthy representation of private equity and investment bankers at the meeting. Key observation: There was a spike in deal closings in the fourth quarter 2012 with the expectation of tax increases on Jan. 1, 2013. “There’s a bit of air bubble in the deal pipeline now,” noted Jim Miller of private equity firm Supply Chain Equity Partners. “Many companies that intended to sell in 2013 and beyond decided to sell in 2012 for taxation issues. That pulled forward some of the 2013 supply.
“In addition there’s been a noticeable change in owner psychology – at least those owners of privately-held distributors. Because of the shifts in public markets, value of the dollar and other macro-economic instability, vis-à-vis the recent performance and opportunities for their own companies, it’s becoming more attractive for private owners to consider keeping a meaningful investment in their distribution companies, rather than sell 100 percent and shift their capital into other investments.”
Key takeaway for me from the conference: Even though 2013 may provide a greater degree of stability, it’s relative. We are now in an “attention economy,” one marked by a higher ongoing level of uncertainty and volatility, and one where we all have to work harder to gain and keep the attention of our customers as they are bombarded on multiple communication platforms.
As the NAW speakers emphasized, taking advantage of tools that allow you to use data to improve processes and value in all parts of your organization will be critical to maintaining competitive advantage.