The Forte Conference is taking place this month in sunny Palm Springs, California. We spoke with Forte President Howard Frankel to get his thoughts on the future of buying groups and what attendees can expect from this month’s conference.
Danielle Galian: What can attendees expect from this year’s Forte Conference in Palm Springs, California?
Howard Frankel: The Board and Forte staff understand that at our once-a-year, mandatory conference for our Shareholders and Preferred Vendors, it has to be special and provide a return on their investment that exceeds their expectations. Maximizing the value of our time together is the driving principle in our planning and execution of Conference activities. We modified the schedule in deference to our Vendors, eliminating the need for them to sacrifice another weekend away from their families. As such, we have compressed our schedule.
The Palm Springs venue offers an attractive and weather-friendly backdrop that complements the real reasons for our Conference. Forte Shareholders look to forge stronger partnerships with Preferred Vendors and determine how the newest products on display can enhance a showroom’s merchandise mix and improve a showroom’s ability to deliver compelling customer experiences.
Forte’s Peer-to-Peer roundtable discussions are one of the Conference’s most valuable benefits. There, Shareholders with common business models in noncompetitive geographic markets meet to exchange their most successful business practices, discuss common challenges and gain new perspectives that help them improve their business operations. Discussion topics range from identifying a showroom’s highest performing vendor and reasons for that performance, to marketing strategies that provide the best returns.
At the Conference, both Shareholders and Preferred Vendors look to reinforce their bonds and enhance both business relationships and friendships that have developed over the years.
DG: What are you most looking forward to at the conference?
HF: The two marquee agenda items are the Peer-to-Peer roundtable discussions with the best decorative plumbing and hardware minds in North America, and the rotations with Vendors. The roundtables are like a mini-MBA for showroom operators. We always return with new ideas for making our showroom more effective and our business more profitable.
Vendor rotations represent a unique opportunity not only to see the latest products, but also to keep our fingers on the pulse of what is happening in our industry. During rotations, we forge our business plans with Preferred Vendors, order new displays that keep our showrooms on the cutting edge and discuss how showrooms and Vendors can mutually benefit one another. It’s an intense two days that provide incredible returns.
The opening reception at the Conference gives all attendees their first look at what to expect from each Preferred Vendor. Forte Shareholders enjoy a first glance of the newest product offerings before shows like ICFF and ISH. This gives Forte Shareholders a competitive advantage by being able to order products and displays before the country see these offerings. Our Shareholders also receive additional advantages from Vendors whose products are only available to Forte Shareholders.
DG: Do you have any exciting news to share?
HF: We certainly have exciting news for our Shareholders and it will all be revealed during the Shareholder meeting, in case this goes to print before the Conference. I can only whet your appetite a little. The details will be revealed in Palm Springs, but I can say that the Forte Board continually develops new ways to sell more through this channel. Forte will present an industry-first initiative that will move the sales needle. The new Forte Rewards Program will incentivize the best-trained showroom sales professionals for participating in educational and professional development training and to drive sales to Forte Preferred Vendors ahead of all others. There is no other group or individual entity that invests or can invest in Forte’s people like we are willing to do. Forte’s new Rewards Program will continue to drive sales to the group and our Preferred Vendors.
DG: How was 2016 for Forte?
HF: 2016 was a year of retrenching for Forte occasioned by the loss of several high-performing Shareholders acquired by businesses not eligible to belong to our buying group. We also made strategic business decisions to cut ties with nonperforming Vendors and replace them with business that add value to our group.
Forte represents best-in-class showrooms in virtually every major market in North America. For as long as I’ve been a part of the Board, Forte has turned down more applications for both Vendors and Shareholders each year than accepted. This should not scare anyone off from applying or reapplying if turned down before. It is just fact.
Where we believe we are well represented in a product category or area of North America, we do not feel compelled to divide the pie into smaller pieces. We do, however, look to grow through intelligent, pointed expansion. In Palm Springs, Forte will welcome eight new Shareholders and two new Preferred Vendors attending their first Conference.
As markets change, we also shift and are able to adjust to new paradigms. The Forte Rewards Program sales initiative will grow sales through the channel without having to add new Preferred Vendors or Shareholders.
DG: What are you expecting for the group in 2017?
HF: I could not be happier with the way 2017 is taking shape. I’m enthusiastic to the direction that Forte is taking. I am confident that both Shareholders and Preferred Vendors will embrace the new Forte Rewards sales incentive program, because it is a game changer. Leveraging Forte exclusive products, the way our strategic Forte-only vendor program works and our willingness to partner with a European manufacturer to be its exclusive North American distribution channel, ensures that Forte will continue to be the most dynamic, innovative and successful buying group in the decorative plumbing and hardware arena. We will not rest on past successes, but spend much of our time looking to the future.
DG: Talk a little bit on being president of the group and the relationships you’ve forged with Shareholders/Preferred Vendors?
HF: As President of Forte, the most important thing I can do for the benefit of our Shareholders and Preferred Vendors is to be sure the future is incredibly bright. I consider my choices to serve on the Board, and Vendor Committee the best way to ensure a strong group well after I’m gone. The Board recognized the need to re-establish a Vendor Committee that has four Board members and four non-Board Shareholders to be able to act and answer any Preferred Vendor issue, and to forge better and more constructive relationships. The Forte Only Products Committee also has a permanent Board member to help make decisions and bring product and advice to our Preferred Vendors quickly and more efficiently than ever before.
I also want to ensure that the Forte Board and committees represent the makeup of all of our Shareholders. I’m especially excited adding to the Forte Board and Vendor Committee the next generation of leadership that represents Forte’s best young talent tapped from our Young Leaders group. The addition of such young, bright talent will guarantee Forte's future.
DG: What are your thoughts on buying groups in general? Their effectiveness? Their relevancy?
HF: Not just because of my role as Forte president, but my thoughts on buying groups in general is they can be incredibly effective and indispensable when they can achieve their goals. The easy answer is always about the financial benefits and competitive advantages that buying groups offer through better pricing, rebates, exclusive offerings, etc. However, those benefits are only the tip of the iceberg. They may be the reason a company wants to join a buying group, but that’s not the only reason why a business remains a member.
Why does a business join a buying group? Why do you want to attend mandatory conferences? Why would you pay an application fee or risk rejection? Isn’t joining a buying group only about rebate dollars? Rebates are a buying group benefit and help enhance the bottom line, but there should be so much more to belonging to a buying group. First and foremost, because most of the interactions between Shareholders and Preferred Vendors are also social, determine if you and your firm fit the group you are considering. Forte prides itself in having market leaders throughout North America.
Forte Shareholders and Preferred Vendors are innovative and actively looking to improve through quality and design. Those criteria are important to consider if you would want to become a Forte Shareholder or Vendor. You need to be willing to be outspoken, discuss innovation and share your areas of expertise. Our Shareholders also understand and embrace the two-way street mentality. We work in partnership with our Preferred Vendors. We communicate the most successful product offerings in our market and those that fall short and the reasons for both successes and shortcomings. Candid dialogue aimed at forging better partnerships and improving financial performance paints a bright future for both Shareholders and Preferred Vendors. That is the reason why Forte is a club that everyone wants to join, because we do provide returns on investment that are not available from any other source.
DG: What would you like readers to know about the Forte group that they don’t?
HF: The Forte Buying Group was founded by independents to create synergies that leveled the playing field against national and multibranch competitors. The goal of aggregating both purchasing power and business acumen has created a group of nearly 100 Shareholders that operate almost 300 of best-in-class showrooms throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Forte also has leveraged its innovative, entrepreneurial DNA to create a successful brass good line called Ammara Designs that can only be sold through Forte showrooms. This line has a strictly enforced MAP and minimum sell price policy that generates margins not available through any other offering. Forte understands that controlling distribution of key products is essential to the future viability of a brick and mortar business in the digital age.
Forte also has worked side-by-side with our Preferred Vendors for Forte-only products that can’t be sold by competitors or have margins compromised by online etailers. We look to take advantage of future opportunities that provide Shareholders with controlled distribution.
DG: What’s been a big take away for you personally being a part of the group?
HF: I’m stunned by the ideas brought forth from Shareholders. I am constantly inspired buy the thoughts and concepts the Board develops. The wealth of ideas from Shareholders represents an enormous pool of expertise that continues to amaze me and enhance our group. The only limit I see is time. Every Shareholder runs a business. The time Board and Committee members give for the good of the group is inspiring. I continue to be amazed by, the unselfishness and willingness to share best practices and guidance on issues experience has taught and the camaraderie are a testament for selecting a limited number of industry leaders that call themselves Forte Shareholders.
It was humbling to be chosen as President for two years. I can only say that the first year was remarkable and now it’s time to double down in 2017.