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Changemakers — a graceful term that describes an individual who makes a powerful impact. Take a simple premise of advancing the common good and execute it to perfection. The process is done by exploring all options, taking risks or leaps of faith and relying on the process and individuals set in place to drive the desired outcome.
They are leaders who champion others to be their personal best — in business and life. They tend to be charismatic, drawing people into the excitement of possibilities with a plan. They inspire and instill confidence and respect, and move people and industries forward. The Wholesaler magazine pays tribute by selecting and honoring an individual as our Person of the Year.
This year we honor and celebrate Bill Weisberg, chairman and CEO of AD, whose forward-thinking, innovation and leadership built an organization based on respect for championing the independent wholesale distributor. And, in the process, inspires people to be their personal best.
The term passion comes up frequently when describing Weisberg and the buying group. It starts with the innovative development of tools to help the group’s members thrive, succeed and round out their growth and development through mentorship, networking support and a group culture steeped in faith and helping others above all.
Established in 1981, AD is the largest member-owned contractor and industrial products wholesale buying group in North America, with more than 800 independent member-owners spanning 12 divisions in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Annual sales exceed $46 billion and encompass electrical, industrial, safety, bearings and power transmission, plumbing, PVF, HVAC, decorative brands and building materials.
The group has had tremendous growth since its formation. Its success is rooted in its passion for people, independence and innovative risks to drive owner success. At the helm is Weisberg, who started at the organization as its third employee — and grew the group from its small but fierce beginnings into the powerhouse it is today.
Weisberg is laser-focused on growth, momentum and member engagement. Through his leadership and vision, AD members have access to programs and services that provide development, direction and expertise in several areas (e-commerce, networking, HR, etc.), resulting in group sales growth year after year. The offerings, content and engagement have catapulted the group as a go-to in independent wholesale excellence.
In addition, he has created and fostered a passion for giving back. The group’s success is a result of the team he has cultivated and the company culture he champions.
You could describe Weisberg as a driven and creative problem-solver. He has the unique ability to see and define a problem from a different viewpoint and aggressively create an opportunity or solution. The impact he has made on the industry and people is why he is our Person of the Year.
From the Beginning
Bill Weisberg grew up in a small, middle-class neighborhood in northwestern Philadelphia. His father, David, was an inventive and creative spirit who worked for a lighting company in its marketing department. His mom was a homemaker “who went back to college, got her degree and became a teacher — then a professor,” says Weisberg.
With one older brother, I asked if, as the youngest child, he was the favorite. “My brother was a tough act to follow,” Weisberg notes. “He graduated first in his high school class and was accepted as a sophomore at Harvard; they let him skip his freshman year.”
But fate and drive had plans for Bill Weisberg — big plans.
Weisberg’s father, David, was a creative individual, a “basement inventor” whose “primary motivation was creative restlessness,” Bill Weisberg explains. His father had several friends who were electrical distributors; he understood from their discussions how unequal the independent distributors were treated compared to national distribution firms.
“From my dad’s perspective, the independent often added more value; they stocked more inventory locally, they sold features and benefits, they trained,” Weisberg says. With his creativity and drive, David Weisberg knew he could do something about the disparity — and he was up for a challenge. His friends encouraged him on his mission — to start a buying group that could even the playing field. In 1981, David Weisberg formed Affiliated Distributors.
After Bill Weisberg graduated high school, he went to strike out on his own. “I had a bunch of different jobs that one would have without the benefit of a college education — from construction to working in a warehouse, to retail, you name it,” he says. He married, started a family, and found his niche working as a sales rep in Maryland. At age 27, things were progressing along.
Almost two years into the formation of Affiliated Distributors, the board of directors was concerned that in the event something happened to David Weisberg, who was then 57, what would happen to the buying group? They needed to hire someone — think of it as an early succession plan. David convinced Bill to interview with the board.
“I was ready to make a career change but was not sure of the viability of the business,” Bill Weisberg recalls. “In business as in life, there are those who cheer you on. My friends encouraged me; they said the worst-case scenario is you meet a lot of people and get hired to do something else.”
At 27, he interviewed for the job, was hired, and officially became employee No. 3.
As job descriptions go, there wasn’t one. “My main focus was on the group’s members — on getting to know them and their businesses, their wants and needs,” he says. “My greatest strength was my awareness of my complete ignorance — I had to go out and ask members to explain everything to me. They did, and I received a wonderful education. In fact, everything I’ve ever accomplished at AD is only because people gave me a chance, coached me and helped me achieve it.”
Weisberg began to learn about the electrical distribution industry during this exploration process — its challenges, obstacles and needs. “Through the process of having our members really explain their issues, what their problems were, what the dynamics were, I developed tremendous respect for them,” he notes. “They are remarkable people, yet they received little respect. The independent businessperson was completely ignored —disrespected and marginalized.”
He viewed how these great local businesses were being ignored in favor of the larger corporations and feared they might lose their value and disappear. His thirst for knowledge about the industry and independent business struck a chord and became his passion.
“Very early on, it became my passion to trumpet about independent distributors — helping them have a voice in their industry and supporting their needs,” he says. Weisberg was quick to point out that all the members were successful before joining the group. “We (AD) add to their success by having members work together,” he adds.
Weisberg smiles as he talks about the grassroots start: “Here I am in my late 20s, working with industry leaders of these great independent smaller companies. The national companies think the independents are nothing to worry about, as they will consolidate — so no need to focus or worry, which is untrue. We started to see (and continue to see) the independents grow market share.”
He began to develop teams, committees and task forces. “Members wanted help solving problems they couldn’t solve on their own — which, in effect, became our business strategy,” Weisberg says.
When asked for advice on how to succeed in business, he notes: “I sum it up like this: Go find a problem people have and figure out how to solve it better than anyone else. And if you’re able to do that, go find another one and do it again— success will follow.”
Weisberg’s father was proud of the accomplishment. With roadmaps in place for member growth, marketing plans developed and agreements in place, the group was off and running. Bill was hitting his stride, and it was time to talk about succession planning — and what that would look like. Weisberg’s father wanted to retire when he turned 65, so the father-son team went to work on trying to navigate a collaborative, multiyear plan. In 1991, David Weisberg retired, and Bill Weisberg stepped into the role of chairman and CEO.
What started as an electrical buying group in 1981 with 48 electrical distributors grew with deliberate intention and careful selection of its members. To date, AD has more than 800 members with an annual sales volume of more than $46 billion per year. The expanse in membership, sales volume and growth opportunities continues while supporting member engagement, enthusiasm, opportunities and member growth avenues.
All while maintaining its No. 1 fundamental: Respect for the independent distributor.
Do Things Differently
The core of a buying group is providing cost savings to its members via negotiation of rebates and growth programs. As a buying group is a cost center and not a profit center, the cost of operating a group is shared by the participants, along with the desire to keep costs as low as possible.
“Keep in mind, you need to address and meet people's needs, provide programs and services for growth and price value as high as possible — continuously,” Weisberg explains. He understands that to accomplish and keep its standards and deliverables at the highest level, you need people and resources. “Ultimately, you need to scale up.”
This was a deviation from a typical buying group, whose primary focus was on rebates. AD was entering into a territory that was expanding into marketing, and programs and service in other areas that cross multiple verticals but address and deliver the same results. The caveat was to ensure that in doing so, AD added members to the group that would “fit in” culturally and keep relationships in a community that is wide open and not oversaturated.
“We created scale by moving into other industries and countries and leveraging our costs without oversaturating the industries that we're in and without having to say no to bring programs, services and value,” Weisberg notes. The group was in uncharted territory — operating in multiple industries was a significant change.
“To date, I have done six different startups and 11 different mergers — creating multi-country and multi-industries, to generate scale,” he adds. “We can cost-effectively fund the delivery of programs and services by being able to afford more talent, but it costs the members less than if we had just a couple of people.”
Within the first few years, the group was growing, with roadmaps in place and member businesses more successful. During this time, the group established its AD Networks — group networking built around the premise of sharing best practices modeled on industry roundtables. The networking was combined with the Young Presidents’ Organization concept — a global leadership community of chief executives driven by the shared belief that the world needs better leaders.
With these subgroups established, the core focus and mission now extended beyond being a cost-savings group to one built on working together and sharing best practices.
“It’s one of the things we created that I am most proud of,” Weisberg notes. “We formed a well-structured and formalized way of sharing best practices. It builds trust, openness and creates dialogue. What was exciting was putting together networking groups that would enable the members to help each other solve problems and move good ideas efficiently, from one local market to another local market.”
He adds: “Everyone shares best practices, everyone does roundtables. But most organizations do not invest in creating a real structure and a process that enables them to be powerful. There is a big difference between doing something and doing it great. So how do you get a group to share? How do you get a group to trust each other enough to be truly open and honest? If you can solve those issues, then you can have a really valuable exchange of information, and the walls come down.”
One could describe Weisberg as a renegade or fearless cowboy, traveling into the unknown. What sets him apart from others in commanding roles is his willingness and vision to do what has not been done before. “I guess I would call it a gift — this willingness to do things that people haven't done before,” he notes. “The way I look at it, I’ve got a decent batting average — it’s not perfect but you just have to keep swinging.”
Members described a need for a national accounts program — as being independent and, for the most part, localized, they could not compete successfully against the large national chains for multiple-location contracts. They were losing business. The members asked Weisberg to help solve the problem, resulting in another first for the group — the development of its national accounts program.
There were many issues associated with how to address and even the playing field. “I had a lot of people tell me we couldn’t or shouldn’t do it,” Weisberg recalls. “There were issues associated with possible market allocation and price-fixing. It's counterintuitive that adding a competitor to bid would be anti-competition — we are increasing competition.”
Knowing there was a solution, he took the issue to Washington and found an individual who had worked at the Justice Department to assist in reviewing the information and fine-tune their program. “It took us a year and a half to get the business model approved by the Justice Department, and when we received its review letter — Wow! We now had a national account program to help independent distributors collaboratively bid on contracts,” Weisberg recalls.
That opened the door to other verticals to create the same opportunity — from industrial distribution and those involved in pipe, valves and fittings.
PVF and Plumbing
Several individuals in the PVF industry had heard of Weisberg and Affiliated Distributors — was it possible the same synergy could be created in PVF?
Gary Cartwright of Pumping and Equipment and Mike Horner of Frischkorn knew Weisberg and believed that the AD model would work for the PVF industry. Largely speaking, the PVF industry was similar to the industrial side of the electrical industry. For the most part, industrial-oriented distributors and suppliers were shunning industry groups because they felt such groups did not understand their nuances and needs. Weisberg did.
Cartwright and Horner believed in Weisberg and the AD model; they asked if Weisberg would come to a meeting of several of their PVF friends to explain the concept so they could decide if it would work for their industry.
“People thought it would never work, but I was able to explain we understood how to work with industrial-oriented companies and build a value proposition for them,” Weisberg says. They listened and agreed — and in 1995, 12 pipe, valves and fittings distributors joined AD to form AD PVF. It has grown significantly over the years; most recently, in November 2020, when the Delta Distributors buying group merged with AD.
For his dedication to the advancement and support of the PVF industry, Weisberg was inducted into The Wholesaler Magazine’s PVF Hall of Fame in 2006. The list includes several AD members, showcasing his role in advocacy and support of the channel.
Success favors the bold — and in 2001, The C. L. Watt group joined AD to form AD Plumbing, followed by the HVAC Group in 2006. Other groups joined along the way and today, AD has 101 companies in its PVF vertical, 75 in plumbing and 51 in HVAC.
With growth came concerns of competitive overlap within the AD community. “We are all competitive in our own right, and so I wanted to try to build AD with one distributor in a market or territory,” Weisberg explains. “We tried it but soon realized it was not sustainable. Over time, companies expand and sell, and you end up with overlap anyway and holes.”
The plan was modified and today, the selectivity is not based on geography; it is based on the independent’s mindset, its forward-looking stance.
“If they are progressive, if they want to grow, if they want to stay in the industry, then we want them on the team, we want them in the community,” Weisberg says. “And if they happen to compete with somebody else within AD, so be it. We want companies of all sizes. We want people who want to grow, people who want to be engaged, who want their businesses to continue to improve. They must embrace change and new ideas.”
The AD Way
AD’s foundation is built on its vision: To aspire to be the most valued business relationship of every AD member and supplier partner. Its mission is steeped in helping members, supplier partners and associates grow and prosper. Both are achieved by its company culture, defined as the “AD Way” of serving others, delivering on promises and making things better.
The culture can be felt through the energetic group meetings, networking groups and achievement celebrations, as well as staff enthusiasm for growth and success — theirs and others. It starts when a member is approved to join the group — he or she is assigned to a networking group to share ideas and learn from other top-tier distributors.
It's about supporting the independent distributor to reach maximum potential. “There's a lot of passion in our culture,” Weisberg notes. “We are passionate about adding value, about winning. We are passionate about collaborating and service. There's a desire to be better, to treat each other with respect and encourage each other along the way.”
He understands that collaboration is vital to a group’s success — and it starts with the governance process. “Most groups have a few key members who run the group, making decisions without a lot of input. They usually make a good decision — but not always,” Weisberg says.
He explains that often members in groups like these feel unheard and excluded, which divides a group. “At AD, collaboration is fundamental because we have tremendous respect for the independent; we need their input to make good decisions,” Weisberg explains. “Our members are involved in the governance, and they are now owners of this business. I am most proud of this transition to member ownership.”
The group was always intended to be member-owned and, in 2018, the vision became a reality. In a statement released at that time, Weisberg says: “One of the saddest things to witness in any industry is what happens when an independent distributor sells to a national chain. Long-time suppliers, customers and employees are often negatively affected. And so, it was important to me, as a person who has spent almost my entire career at AD, that it would transition to people and companies that highly valued our culture, people, strategy and services. I am incredibly pleased that AD’s members are now our owners and directly elect AD’s board.”
The transition combines the board's oversight with the empowerment of management and staff to make decisions based on the AD way.
“We are also making sure we are winning together,” he continues. “We want to respond to members' needs and get things done — we want to take chances and try new things. If you are not striking out sometimes, then you are just not taking enough swings.” The AD way includes bringing programs and services to its members to maintain their best-in-class status through increasing collaboration and providing specific programs and services to support the independent distributor.
Weisberg explains how several years ago, he and AD staff members discussed member needs. E-commerce was on the cutting edge and they knew the digital marketplace tools needed to be developed. They understood that having a digital marketplace was vital, yet the undertaking to put together a product that could be scaled for its membership was a crucial advantage for the membership. It would take a lot of hard work.
“We knew we could help them there. It would be hard, but we could do it,” Weisberg says. “We love to succeed; we know people are scared of failing, they're scared of the embarrassment and the cost. And we are human, too. We feel the same emotions. But our members want us to try; they need us to. Within reason, they will accept a certain amount of failure to get to the finish line.”
The group succeeded in developing an e-commerce platform and a massive library of digital content that is shared by the members. It is currently the only one created by a buying group.
Other powerful tools in the member toolkit include sales and marketing programs; HR services that provide powerful tools and information to recruit, develop and retain top talent; procurement services that identify service provider partners and Power Buy opportunities; and warehousing that provides central locations that afford AD supplier partners the ability to consolidate operations and reduce freight costs.
AD’s culture could be described as full of passionate, collaborative problem-solvers, encouraged to make positive impacts that drive success for the independent distributor. A company's culture is the direct result of the CEO, president, or founders' behavior. Their behavior becomes culture.
Several years back, during a board meeting, Weisberg overheard two members exalting about a company called High Performance Culture (HPC) and the positive impact it had on their companies and their lives. It is based on the simple premise that an organization’s culture has a significant and direct impact on how its people perform and, by extension, on results. It is a simple plan of action developed and executed to foster practical and easy-to-understand steps that would support the steps needed to achieve success.
“As a company gets bigger, how do you preserve the culture that made you successful?” Weisberg asks. “You don’t just put signs up on the wall; you need to instill it, drive it, teach it, practice it.”
It was an “ah-ha” moment for Weisberg and his executive team. They collaborated and developed a list of fundamentals they further refined with AD staff using the HPC method. It developed into a list of 34 fundamentals based on key behaviors that “have contributed to its past success and those that are essential for our sustained success in service of our members, supplier partners and fellow associates.”
The top five include:
Passion and collaboration are at the core of AD’s fundamentals, of its DNA.
“Passion is the basis of what we do — from our mission to our values,” Weisberg notes. “We have become a better group because of the fundamentals; it opened the door to celebrate diverse views, backgrounds and experiences. Collaboration provides better answers by getting people involved, which, in turn, gives you better support.”
Leaders Lead from the Front
Weisberg’s self-driven spirit and work ethic brought him success. “My managerial style was probably the most significant evolution,” he says. “I’m very driven and have always felt that the quickest way to get from point A to point B is a straight line. But when you have more people involved, or as an organization grows, you need to listen to others and factor in their viewpoints to arrive at the destination.”
His openness to hearing diverse opinions, strategy and inclusion of other points of view is one of the many reasons AD has earned accolades as one of the top places to work by The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2019 and 2020.
When an unprecedented event of intense magnitude hits, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, Weisberg knew communication was essential to keep AD’s member-owners informed. “It was a scary time, yet we were in an interesting position, being multinational and multi-market to help people see what was happening in different areas,” he explains.
He spent every night calling CEOs of member companies and suppliers to hear what was taking place, how they were dealing with the issue and gathering information. “We started aggressively gathering and sharing information and communicating it out, giving people even a week's advanced look at what might be coming their way,” Weisberg says.
Weisberg understood that personal contact with members and providing data would help the AD community at its most basic level — survival. “We helped people know what was going on. We established COVID message boards where people could find helpful tools, such as safety protocols; we conducted pandemic-related informational webinars; we published weekly sales reports by industry and market segment,” he notes.
He adds that while researching and reporting on the pandemic, the group was doing so remotely while continuing its daily scope of business. From a cybersecurity standpoint, AD staff needed to continue processing payments, paying bills, doing its reporting, updating the message board and presenting educational programs. “I’m incredibly proud of how the people who work at AD came together to help and support each other and our members and suppliers,” Weisberg says.
“One thing I learned to do during difficult times is to get your team focused on achieving realistic goals,” Weisberg explains. “We had to adjust our budgets and goals based upon the pandemic's scenario. We took a few months to figure out where the bottom was and then built a new plan for the second half of the year. I wanted all my teams and people focused on achieving something positive. I said, ‘Let’s make something good happen!’ And we are. And so, in spite of this incredible disruption, we are going to emerge together as a team with stronger values, better relationships and achieve positive business results.”
Weisberg would share with friends internal letters written to associates as a way to help each other. “For those of us in leadership roles, we need to encourage each other and help each other be the best leaders we could for the benefit of our people,” he notes. It worked, and the strength in connecting further cemented his leadership prowess.
Jeffrey Beall, president of the PHCP unit, recalls that during one planning session with the executive team, Weisberg said it best: “Leaders lead from the front. Now is the time to step up for our members.” This struck a chord with Beall and others.
“Leaders need to encourage others,” Weisberg says. “It is imperative to lead during times like this, even when you do not have all the answers. Even when you are a little afraid, you have to stand up and say, ‘I do not have all the answers.’ Here's what I know now — but we will get through this.”
It was the perfect way to apply Fundamental No. 25: Be honest.
At the core of Weisberg’s character is a foundation of giving, building and lifting of an individual's spirit and selfless encouragement of others in their quest for self-improvement, as well as within the communities they serve.
I ask him when he became aware of his ability to make such a profound impact on others. He pauses for a moment, for it requires him to understand the impact he makes.
“I’ve always said we [AD] are not afraid to compete — we are here to win and do a great job in the industry, despite consolidation,” he says. “People appreciated that they had a champion, someone who was willing to trumpet their cause. I had a positive impact on the lives and spirits of people who I didn't think needed anything from me; I thought they already had all their stuff together.” That, he adds, made him feel good.
What encourages him and fills his soul are his children and his deep-seated personal journey in becoming a person of faith. He started his spiritual journey around 11 years ago.
“I was an agnostic — I believed in right and wrong, but I didn't have a passion or view of the world from the lens of a person of faith. That hit me — powerfully,” Weisberg recalls. “I thought — what does that mean to me? What does this mean to me as a dad and as a CEO?”
Weisberg respects that faith comes in many different forms and that individuals need to be respectful of others' beliefs, but how does it play out in business and life?
“I needed to walk my own walk; I needed to do what is right within my company,” he says. “How we treat each other in business became a big focal point for me as part of my faith journey.”
Weisberg continues his journey as a board member of Equip Leadership, a group formed of Christian leaders who apply their influence to transform the world, bringing the hope of a brighter future with them. The core fundamental is creating a more promising future based on biblical values and a relationship with God.
“Bill is a leader’s leader. I’ve watched him continually lift organizations and people to new levels. Bill makes me better,” notes Dr. John Maxwell, founder of Equip Leadership, and a leadership authority who has written more than 100 books, including several New York Times bestsellers, who circles the globe speaking and coaching on the subject.
This journey translated into Weisberg's desire to give back by helping others — his employees, his members, his community. He developed a program for AD employees to take paid time off for community service. Allowing team members to fulfill their desire to give back developed a philosophy of sharing that is cathartic and inspiring to others. It fills the souls and serves other people.
He also saw the need to help employees at member companies during a time of disaster to make an immediate impact. The organization created the AD Disaster Relief Foundation, a new 501(c)3 corporation to provide a tax-deductible avenue for members to help families at other member companies. Donors can give both monetary support and in-kind donations (i.e., building materials, generators, cleaning supplies, etc.).
It is the AD way — the tradition of helping others during a crisis. The foundation was formed by Weisberg's generous donation and allows 100 percent of all donations to be utilized for disaster relief. To date, the foundation has delivered more than $250,000 in disaster relief.
The most significant impact that has been made in Weisberg’s life are his children. His smile immediately forms from ear to ear — one that comes from the heart — as he starts to talk about them. “There is nothing more important to me than what kind of dad I am,” he says. He has eight children, with five under the age of 17; spending time with them is his top priority. As we talked, it was obvious they are all raised to be strong, independent individuals with a foundation for giving back — ringing true to the maverick’s way.
While visiting Weisberg for the interview, I notice a guitar case close by and a piano in the living room. He explains that several of his children play the piano, and he is learning to play guitar. Knowing music fills the soul, I ask him what his walk-on music is at AD events, as that encapsulate an individual's nature.
“I don’t think I have a song, but I do like Christian rock and, oddly enough, during the pandemic, I turned to the music of my youth — the Grateful Dead,” he says. “I think a lot of people have gone back to comfort music to help them through. It has been a lot of prayer and the Grateful Dead through this pandemic.” Filling the body, mind and soul.
I asked Weisberg about mentors, and we discussed how fortunate it is for people to have those who support you along the way. “One needs to earn people’s trust and support and be grateful that people do trust and support you,” he says. “They are taking a chance — and I am appreciative of those who encouraged me, for they saw things in me that I didn’t see myself.”
Thank you, Bill Weisberg, for your fearless spirit, compassion, energy and drive. And, above all, for defining and living life’s fundamentals — also the AD way of treating everyone with dignity and respect (No. 10), keeping it fun (No. 33) and giving back (No. 34).