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In July, manufacturers, firms reps, vendors and distributors will have the chance to network around the pool or on the golf course during the 89th annual Southern Wholesalers Association (SWA) convention. Taking place in Hilton Head, South Carolina, the prevalent theme for attendees will be communication. Not just with their peers, but also with customers and other members of the wholesaling community.
Kyle Milnamow of The Wholesaler spoke with Terry Shafer, executive vice president for SWA, about the convention, how attendees can register for free, and how unlike many conferences, this one is family friendly.
Kyle Milnamow (KM): Describe the history of the SWA? Also, what is the goal of the annual convention?
Terry Shafer (TS): This is a storied association that if you look at our past presidents, it’s many of the who’s who of plumbing distributors. It’s been one of those things where the association, I think, has supported the independent wholesale distributors around the southeastern U.S. We really bring a family element to our industry, which has a bunch of family-owned businesses, and I think our convention each year really highlights that. Everything from spouses and kids attending the event for free, to our Young Executive program called the Leadership Development Council (LDC) gets the next generation involved. We are able to marry one generation with multiple other generations, and one of our efforts is to try and help facilitate the continuation of each and every one of the companies we work with from generation to generation.
What we want to do is be able to provide our members with an opportunity to develop a network; not just with the current generation that is at the helm of the company, but the past generation too. As we put our convention on each year, we want to make sure we have an educational component to where people hear from speakers in our industry that can challenge the way they operate their businesses, and create opportunities for them to think and understand from other distributors.
KM: How does the convention help develop networks for those that attend?
TS: We do four hours of 10-minute meetings on Tuesday morning that are intentionally timed to get people to focus on their business and interaction between the vendors and their distributors. We also allow free time to create opportunities for people to meet each other and go to dinner afterwards. Sunday and Monday night are open for vendors to take wholesale distributors to dinner.
We’ve got structured time even in the education sessions. That interactive communication about industry issues allows the wholesaler’s rep and the manufacturers to hear each other talk about the issues, get to know each other and how we approach the business.
We also have a golf outing each year, and our effort is to put a wholesale distributor in every foursome. That way, vendors are getting to spend four hours with a distributor.
KM: Who are some of the big-name speakers that will be at the convention that people are looking forward to?
TS: This year our speaker in the afternoon is going to be Dr. Alan Zimmerman. He’s going speak about the changing environment that we sell in, and how we communicate with customers during two sessions on Sunday.
Then we have Former CEO of Harley Davidson, Ken Schmidt. He understands branding and distribution. He’s another speaker that I think helps people think outside their box of “how do I brand my distributorship.”
We learn from some of the people that are very accomplished in that.
KM: When you’re looking for speakers for the convention, are you looking for speakers in or outside of the wholesale industry?
TS: A little bit of both. Dr. Zimmerman doesn’t work simply in our industry, but he brings a knowledgebase that is valuable to our industry. I think sometimes it’s good to catch people that work in a variety of industries because there are crossovers and there are ideas and concepts that can come in and help our industry advance. Where if you stay just within the industry, you stay just within the box. It is helpful, and I do look for people who have some experience. For instance for our educational speakers, we will sometimes use some of the names we have used over the years that bring a wealth of education and consulting experience throughout our industry. It just depends on where we are going with our event that year; we’ll get a focus and then try and build around that.
KM: Do you see more first-time attendees become regular patrons of the convention?
TS: I would say that we’ve grown tremendously over the last four to five years. We’ve seen huge growth and a lot of that is from people coming back. We had 50 wholesale distributors last year, which is a mark that we hadn’t hit in probably 20 years. Of course, if the distributors show up — we all know who shows up when they show up— that’s the reps and the manufacturers. That’s a big part of why they come to the show, because they know they can come and see the who’s who of distributors in the Southeast.
KM: What special events do you have catered toward first-time attendees?
TS: I think we’re going to invite all the first-time attendees to join us a little early at the reception. Our executive committee could meet them, and we can just make them feel comfortable, answering questions that they have, and help them kick-off the event in the right way.
KM: What about events catered toward younger people in the industry?
TS: Our LDC is one that is an open invitation; it’s for the young executives in our industry. We don’t like the term “Young Execs” simply because we feel like that age is one of those things that is tricky. We’re looking for the folks that are going to be around the industry for the next 20-30 years. Our LDC is an opportunity for people to come in, and have a real focus. It is an opportunity for the next generation to get to know each other. We have wholesalers now that are in their 40s, and they were coming when their grandfathers ran the business, and they got to know other wholesalers who are running businesses at our event, but 30 years ago.
KM: The conference takes place over four days, which is pretty unique. Is that because you have so much going on during the conference and didn’t want attendees to not get the most out of the event?
TS: Our event is unique, in that we have a huge family turnout. Our event runs Sunday through Tuesday, but we have a lot of people who will come and stay Friday and Saturday, or stay over a couple of days after the event. Because we’re actually drawing a lot of younger executives and that next generation to our event, we get a lot of folks who are doing a little family vacation on the front or back end of it. We cater to the spouses and the kids with a program for each. This past year, we had 788 attendees at the convention and 450 were spouses and kids.
KM: Another unique part of the conference is the fact that people can attend for free. Can you explain how someone can go about getting free registration?
TS: That’s one of those things that we pride ourselves on too; we try to keep it affordable for everyone. Doesn’t matter if you are a manufacturer, vendor of any kind — rep firm or a distributor — if you invite a distributor that has not attended the event in the last three years we will comp you and them of registration. If people say it’s not affordable to attend the event, there is an easy way for them to get free registration. We publish a list on our website where people can see who has attended the event in the past three years, which gives them the opportunity to know (who is coming). For the vendors, they’re meeting with wholesalers all the time, and so all they have to do is look at who they meet or who they sell to on a regular basis, and if they’re not on the list, they can invite them to attend the convention.
So every year we usually have two or three who show up because somebody invited them to attend. So that program has worked really well.
KM: How should a veteran of the industry plan effectively?
TS: It depends on who you are. It’s always helpful to look at who’s attending the convention before the event. I would encourage people to set some goals for going in the first place. Are you trying to build some new accounts? Are you trying to strengthen some accounts? The business meeting format helps with that because we send a list out, and then the vendors actually rank whom they want to meet with prior to the convention. Then, we put a schedule together for them.
You might not get a meeting with everyone you want, but that’s the real beauty of the rest of the schedule; there’s opportunity to get with those people if you really want some other time. We will have people by the pool or on the beach. Guys will be sitting around, drinking beers and talking shop. Arguably, that might be the most valuable part.
KM: Terry, thank you so much for your time. Is there anything you would like to add that you haven’t touched on already?
TS: Value to the wholesaler is there are a lot of vendors there: some of the vendors are not in their buying groups, and there’s a lot of opportunity for the distributors to get with vendors they would like to get with during the event as well. I think it’s helpful for everyone to get to know how the other distributors are doing as well. While there’s obliviously tremendous value in each of the buying groups, they don’t interact with all the distributors in the region, and we have a lot of commodity with the wholesalers in our region. I would just encourage the other distributors who are not attending to take advantage of our opportunity to have a free registration. Come and try it. My guarantee is if they try it one time, they will attend again because we seldom ever have someone come one time and not come back.
You can learn more about the conference and register to attend by visiting southernwholesalers.org.