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From a Black Swan event to a noble calling, distributors rally to the call to provide strength, determination and a can-do spirit to weather any storm. For this reason, and the unrelenting effort and circumstances our industry has gone through over the past 18 months, we celebrate you, the PHCP-PVF wholesale distributor, as The Wholesaler magazine’s Person of the Year.
From the beginning of civilization and nations, the manufacturing of goods has taken place to support the local area. As humans with curiosity about faraway lands, exploration took place. As we ventured into parts unknown, we took with us what we knew — the essentials of food, clothing and tools — to enable new communities to be created.
We ventured out either on animal backs or ships, searching for the new world. Along the way, individuals bartered and sold goods – in essence, traveling salesmen. The idea of wholesale distribution — or bringing in a middleman — was conceived by manufacturers and merchants from distant lands to supply goods to other areas, sometimes even other continents, not served by them directly.
During our explorations, communities were established as we left our nomadic life and built homes to raise families. With community development came the need for necessities, such as a fresh water supply, which is vital to survival. History has shown that ancient civilizations in Egypt started channeling water from open sources through pipe and drains to new communities.
According to an encyclopedic entry in the resource library of National Geographic (https://bit.ly/3ob2Hje): “Roman aqueduct systems were built over a period of about 500 years, from 312 B.C. to A.D. 226. Both public and private funds paid for construction. High-ranking rulers often had them built; the Roman emperors Augustus, Caligula and Trajan all ordered aqueducts built.” By connecting a series of pipe from one location to another, the Romans understood that “as water flowed into the cities, it was used for drinking, irrigation, and to supply hundreds of public fountains and baths.”
While traveling these routes — from the spice routes to the silk road — distribution allowed for the growth of communities and the development of nations.
In the Smithsonian Magazine’s “Turrets to Toilets: A Partial History of the Throne Room,” written by Jimmy Stamp (https://bit.ly/30acwpB), the flush toilet was invented in 1596 but didn’t become widespread until 1851. Before that, the “toilet” was a motley collection of communal outhouses, chamber pots and holes in the ground.
The necessity to serve communities by elevating health, sanitation and life was formed early on. Unfortunately, there are many nations (including our own) where the struggle to provide basic water and hygiene still exist in the 21st century. Societies around the globe are trying to the best of their abilities to help those in critical need.
‘We Supply America’
When COVID-19 hit our shores in early 2020, we soon transitioned to a new way of living — including how we did business, how we lived at home, how we shopped and how we interacted with others. We didn’t have a playbook to help us navigate through this global phenomenon.
Wholesale distribution was designated an essential industry, which enabled distributors to continue to provide their life-changing work and offerings to the construction industry, while keeping their team members and families safe. They tirelessly worked to keep the nation moving forward by supplying the products needed for its health and safety.
It wasn’t easy. From supply-chain shortages, to shifting from in-office to remote working, to conducting meetings via Zoom and to ensuring that, financially, they could keep the doors open — wholesale distributors dealt with challenges daily. They leaned on their partners — from buying groups and other supporting organizations, to their peer-to-peer groups — for support to navigate the times.
In March 2020, industry advocate Dirk Beveridge, founder of UnleashWD and executive producer of documentary series “We Supply America” (https://wesupplyamerica.net/),realized the pandemic would change the world. “On the 33rd day of the pandemic, I wrote an open letter to distributors, which was titled ‘Shift to Tomorrow,’” he says. “It was time to start lifting their eyes over the horizon, to come out stronger on the other side. And it was the first time that I used the words the noble calling of distribution.”
Beveridge knew that taking on the challenges distributors were facing was an incredible task, for wholesale distribution was and is the backbone of all industries — getting products from the manufacture and into the supply chain. From logistics to partnerships, this vital role was being tested in ways we had never known.
He started out with four basics: inspiration, insight, connectedness and a “hug now and then.” Within 48 hours, he and the UnleashWD team started a series of Sunday informal conversations, eventually with 55 leaders from inside and outside of the industry.
“We started to have 20-to-30-minute conversations on Sunday afternoon, at no charge, to help distributors stop, pause and think about what they’re going to do tomorrow and the next week, because there was no playbook,” recalls Beveridge.
He continued his outreach in 2021 and started “We Supply America”, where he spent the summer touring the nation in an RV, meeting with wholesale distributors from many industries to offer guidance, support and to tell their stories. “Our standard of living is not the standard of living without distribution,” he explains. “Without distribution, we don’t have the health care system, we can’t go get our food, we don’t have the sanitation.”
During his nationwide tour, Beveridge filmed each, documentary style. The series, he says, is the “untold story of these independent, family-owned local businesses that are so darn critical to the local communities.”
He adds: “I also concluded that we, the collective we, we needed optimism, we needed positive stories, we needed inspiration, we needed to come together. And we needed to remind each other about how important what we’re doing is, so we need to tell stories.”
A noble calling, indeed.
Coping with a Global Pandemic
According to a timeline of 2020 compiled by the LA Times (https://lat.ms/3He1z7d), the first COVID-19 death is reported in the United States Feb. 29, though earlier deaths will be reported later. March 11 was the day the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic (https://lat.ms/3BYl53W).
The world as we knew it stopped — businesses closed, people sheltered within their homes to work remotely for those industries that did remain open, and we struggled to understand how to stop the spread of the disease. It came to light early on that sanitation and the manufacturing and installation of hot water was essential to stopping the spread of the disease.
In the early part of 2020, President Donald Trump and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a “Coronavirus Guidance for America,” identifying plumbers and other tradespeople as “essential critical infrastructure workers” as our nation responded to the threat of COVID-19.
Our community jumped into action. From the beginning, wholesale distributors worked on safety first — protecting their employees and customers from the threat by working remotely, and the implementation of strict safety guidelines within their business to stop the spread of COVID-19, all while keeping the health of our nation at the forefront. From there, they worked on how to help their customers, as well, during the turbulent times.
During that time, The Wholesaler magazine started our “Off the Cuff” podcast to connect with industry leaders and to hear, from their perspective, what was taking place within their businesses during that period of uncertainty (www.phcppros.com/off_the_cuff). Our inaugural conversation in March 2020 was with Lewis Finn, CEO of Control Supply, a master distributor located on Long Island, N.Y.
I asked Finn what his company’s biggest challenge during the pandemic was, and how he was addressing it Finn’s response would be echoed in future OTC with industry leaders: “Our biggest issue today, and always, is the safety and success of our Control Supply family — our employees and customers.”
Finn went into detail about the safety procedures the company implemented, from social distancing to face masks to working flexible work hours in order to ensure protocol. He noted that in the 45 years of the company’s history, they have never laid anyone off — and wasn’t about to start. “We’ve never laid anyone off, and that is tremendous,” he said. “My in-laws, who started the company, view everyone as their surrogate sons and daughters, and we’ve always viewed their financial lives as our responsibility.”
During this time, Control Supply helped its employees financially by providing an early dispersant of their end-of-year bonus to help alleviate any financial burden. “We just want them to have a little extra money, whether they want to spend it on food or supplies, or just socked away for a rainy day,” Finn explained. “We want to let them know that we’re here for them as well and we appreciate all the hard work they do for us.”
In addition, he echoed a sentiment that we heard over and over again: “When it comes to our employees or team members, I would not ask someone to do something that I wouldn’t do myself.” He described how actions speak louder than words, as is his leadership style, and that it boils down to safety, security and leadership — front and center.
Around the same time, we spoke with Don McNeeley, Chairman of Chicago Tube and Iron (CTI), a wholesale distributor of PVF, and headquartered in Illinois. In discussing the impact of COVID-19, McNeeley drew an analogy with the black swan theory, - which describes an unexpected, rare event that has a catastrophic effect on a country or the world, with severe consequences. In addition, it is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.
In our conversation, we discussed how CTI was supporting its employees during this time, and his answer was clear: “At the end of the day, there’s only one thing that trumps profitability, integrity and ethics — the safety of our employees.” As an industry leader, McNeeley understood that leading out in front includes keeping team members informed and leading by example.
“Right now, 90 percent of our office personnel are now sheltered at home, they are all working full time and we don’t want them coming in if they’re not comfortable coming in.” he noted.
Business was still taking place, albeit in a new way — remotely, with meetings taking place via Zoom, and connecting with customers in creative ways. We heard about business meetings being held in parking lots with 6-foot social distancing. Customer pickup counters were moved to outside buildings, and customer drop-offs were conducted while maintaining protocol.
We watched as Paycheck Protection Program loans were rolled out, and the challenge to understand, secure and implement the desperately needed funding to keep wholesale distributors in business — and secure the livelihoods of their team members and associates. We heard stories of how companies were working with their associates in every way possible to be creative about keeping the lights and doors open, even while sales were slim.
While this was taking place, there was also the understanding that with a nation on shutdown outside of essential businesses and work, that one’s customers may be suffering.
McNeeley paraphrased it best during his OTC conversation, on how CTI, and the rest of our community, was helping its customers. He responded, “It’s a simple answer, and it’s whatever they need. I think right now we have an obligation to accommodate.” He elaborated that while the customer may have ordered inventory, they are not consuming it based upon their projects being on hold.
“They are in the same boat we are, so nobody’s getting pressured to take inventory that we put in for them; we’re getting more calls from people needing to stretch out their receivables,” he said. His response was echoed by other distributor leaders about how they were helping their customers during challenging times. In the end, the full circle does come full circle.
While distributors were focusing on the immediate of safety for employees and customers, owners and management were looking to their peer community to find support and guidance on how they were managing day to day, week to week and month to month.
In an interview last year with Bill Weisberg, CEO of Affiliated Distributors, who was named The Wholesaler Magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year, he outlined how he was helping AD members navigate the challenging times (https://bit.ly/3D9YvGP):
“He (Weisberg) 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.
What was apparent from the conversation was that distributors were joining together to share information as well as provide support within their PHCP-PVF community, and beyond. Distributors were looking for all avenues of support — to not only receive but also provide.
What resonated was an approach of help and support, which ultimately led to health and growth. In the interview with Weisberg, a statement he made was straightforward — and landed at the perfect time.
“Leaders need to encourage others,” Weisberg said. “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.”
We watched across the board as industry leaders did just that — observed, guided and, to the best of their ability, were at the forefront of doing everything possible for their business survival.
And it showed. In late 2020, companies were starting to see some changes in business. Once at a standstill in early 2020, business started operating again at a higher capacity, and sales were starting to increase.
Wholesale Distributor Leaders Encouraging Others
In 2020, with employee’s safety practices in place, working from home became the norm and Zoom was just starting out as the new “go-to” for conducting business meetings, distributors started to look within their communities to provide assistance and support. Companies and leaders understood that even while they were taking care of their team members, their communities needed support, guidance and care.
We started to hear of companies that were heading the call and one of the first we had heard was in the OTC conversation with Don McNeeley. Early in the pandemic, the company was helping to supply the need for iron rod to be used in the makeshift mobile hospitals taking care of Covid-19 patients.
In the June 2020 issue of The Wholesaler magazine, we highlighted a few of the many companies that were giving back (https://bit.ly/3qqMrgY). From Seattle-based Puget Sound Pipe and Supply: It was brought to a team member’s attention that a local farm couldn’t use its crop of potatoes as its customers were local restaurants closed due to the pandemic. Puget Sound Pipe, as an expert in logistics, stepped in to help. The company picked up thousands of pounds of spuds and brought them to one of their local branches, where team members spent the day bagging them for delivery to local food banks.
In the interview, Koltin Stratiner, president at Puget Sound Pipe and Supply, remarked about why it was important to the company, and the community.
“Instead of letting the potatoes go to waste, we stepped in to give back to our community. As a family-owned company, we take our commitment to our employees and the communities that support us very seriously,” Stratiner noted. “We have witnessed the challenges COVID-19 is creating in the areas where we operate — and nothing is harder to watch than hunger. When we heard from several customers in the agriculture sector that farmers were having to waste crops due to not having the means to move them to food banks, we immediately saw a challenge that we could solve for them.”
Through the last 18 months, more heartfelt community support was delivered from distributors nationwide. In the 2021 September issue of The Wholesaler magazine, we spotlighted serval distributors again supporting local and international communities (https://bit.ly/3Cju3Jn). One such company was JABO Supply Corp, a PVF distributor headquartered in Huntington, W. Va.
In the feature, Jay Bazemore, owner and vice president of sales and marketing, describes the meaning of giving back: “As long as I can remember, we have always supported several local charities to different degrees, but the Huntington City Mission is always No. 1 because of the direct impact it has on the people in need in our community.” He described how JABO team members donated their time to the mission, and its impact on the local communities.
“It is pretty easy when you have great employees who care about one another and the communities where they work and live,” noted Bazemore. “We support many charities in the greater Huntington (W. Va.) area and in other communities where our branch locations are as well. If everyone just took care the most vulnerable in our local communities, our nation would be in a lot better shape.”
Encouragement took another form when the supply shortage hit our industry. Distributors needed to lean into their supply chain partnerships — with manufacturers as well as their fellow industry distributors. The rise in support for master distributors to assist in supply shortages allowed wholesale distributors to fill orders for its customers.
In July 2021, The Wholesaler published its Wholesaling 100 listing, and this year we noticed a jockeying of placement within the ranking. Wondering what was taking place — with the obvious being certain industry sectors were surging, while others lagging — another interesting tidbit was brought to my attention in offline conversations. Distributors were helping other distributors fill orders — quietly helping others along the way. Companies and its leaders were helping the channel by helping their peers.
Within the same issue, we discussed generational leadership, and how the next generation was at the helm of family-owned and operated wholesale distribution companies (https://bit.ly/3qJ3JWX). Knowing that the leadership styles and attitudes change from generation to generation, our leaders had a unanimous theme — carried on from the generation before them. They discussed leaning into their networks, from industry buying groups and organizations to close friends, to find ways to champion their team members success — which would encourage personal growth as well as company growth.
Encouragement to build others up, even in the most challenging of times.
Which brings us to the here and now. The health of the nation and the development of our communities rests on the cornerstone of PHCP-PVF wholesale distributors. It was fitting that in late June 2021 we started to emerge back to in person events – and kicking off the new normal was Southern Wholesalers Association (SWA), which held its annual convention — in person in Florida. The energy of getting back together, in person, and doing business again face to face, was electrifying.
In early August, IMARK Plumbing held an invitational meeting in Florida as well, and as so eloquently stated in his welcoming of the group to the event, John Aykroyd, president of IMARK Plumbing, said, “It’s good to be back together again.”
Without your grit, fortitude, encouragement and endless sleepless nights thinking about how to take care of your families — the one you are born into as well as the one you create within your company and the communities in which you live and serve — our nation would be in dire circumstances. We celebrate you.