This year’s WIT buying group meeting saw a few changes. “The Wholesaler” spoke with Charlie Moorhead, executive vice president of the group to gain a better understanding of the group’s goals and challenges in the future.
Danielle Galian: What was the overall tone at this year’s WIT conference?
Charlie Moorhead: Attendance at this year’s WIT conference was up about 5 percent with more than 700 vendors and distributors in attendance. This year we moved from the Anatole to the Hyatt Regency, which was a little closer to downtown Dallas. Any time you’re dealing with a large group in a new venue or hotel, you’re a little apprehensive. But our staff and the hotel did a great job of coordinating everything. The feedback we’ve had from our post meeting survey indicates that the new venue worked out very well for us.
Part of the reason we moved is because the convention hotel business in Dallas is booming and space is tight. Because Dallas is such a popular convention and conference destination, most of the major hotels are booking large groups well into the early 2020’s. We’ll be at the Hyatt again next year, then move to the Gaylord Texan in 2019 and 2020.
DG: Were attendees generally optimistic, worried or indifferent about this year?
CM: The attendees I talked with this year were generally optimistic about 2017, but also a little cautious in regards to growth. Everyone still agrees that growth across the country will be uneven, and that certain parts of the country will outperform others. There are always a few exceptions, but based on everything I heard at our conference, I’d say that the consensus for growth this year would be in the 4 percent to 8 percent range.
DG: How has your role evolved over the years at WIT?
CM: When I first came to WIT, our headquarters was located in Decatur Illinois, and we had a staff of 16. My role was well defined at that time because our board of directors asked me to evaluate and reorganize staff, and move WIT’s headquarters from Decatur to a major city in the central part of the U.S. This meant hiring and training a new staff, and because we were already highly automated, it also meant that we had to move a major hardware system from Decatur without disrupting service and support to our vendors and distributors. It took more than a year, but we made the move to Dallas, reduced our staff level to eight, and moved our system without losing a single workday.
Once established in Dallas, my role shifted to more of a trainer and general manager — six of our staff members were new to WIT (and the industry), and I spent a great deal of time teaching them about the role of a distributor in our business. I also invested a great deal of time reaching out to our vendor partners. I wanted to know how they felt about groups in general and what we could do to become more relevant to them. The industry was in a downturn at that time, so it was important that our staff focused on doing everything possible to support our distributors and vendors.
Recently, we’ve been more focused on evaluating the many new technology opportunities and developing processes and initiatives that will help us better serve our distributors and our vendors. For example, we developed a process that allows us to furnish our vendors with an annual market share report, which shows how they’re performing in the various product categories they serve within the group. In addition, we can “drill down” to the distributor level and provide them with additional information and ways to grow their business within WIT.
We’ve also just unveiled our WIT Net Enhancement EDI process that allows our participating vendors the opportunity to map one time to WIT and receive their purchase orders, order acknowledgements, and shipping notifications from all participating WIT distributors. The reverse is true for our distributors. WIT distributors can now map one time to WIT and have the ability to process their EDI purchase orders with all of our participating vendor partners. Not only is this process more accurate for both the distributor and the vendor, it is much more efficient than mapping to vendors on a “one-to-one” basis. We’ve been up and running for several months now and currently have 80 vendors and 22 of our distributors engaged in this new process. The cost is minimal to both parties and the feedback we received so far about the new process has been very positive.
DG: Can you talk about some of the challenges facing buying groups like WIT.
CM: In my opinion, the biggest challenge facing all the groups is the continued number of independent wholesalers who are exiting the business. We recently lost a long time member who had been part of WIT and active in the industry for almost 50 years. Under the circumstances, it was the right business decision for the owner, and as a former distributor, I understand that some of this is inevitable. But, whatever the reason may be, it’s still a major concern for all of us.
You could also list many of the new things going on in technology as “challenges,” but at WIT, we view these as opportunities. Having said that, none of the buying groups are fortunate enough to have all of their members on the same ERP system — we’re not like Ferguson or Grainger — so it can make it a more difficult process.
Also, because new technology is expensive, our Board and Technology committee provide guidance regarding which initiatives we should pursue at the group level. All of the groups have distributors who are much more advanced in their use of technology than others, and frankly the same can be said for our vendors. Because WIT’s business model has been automated in a number of areas since the mid-1990s, our staff is very comfortable in working with our Technology Committee to determine which of these new initiatives are most important and cost-effective for the group. We want to make sure that anything we take on will bring value to our distributors and our vendors over time.
DG: In your experience, what is the #1 advantage to a member and vendor in being part of WIT?
CM: I’ll start with our vendors. I can’t speak for all of them because they may have their own reasons for being in WIT, but I know it’s still important for them to have one-on-one access to the principals and major influencers of a group with 75 distributors with more than 700 locations across the country. It’s especially important today with all of the turnover that we’re seeing at the senior and mid-managerial levels with our vendor partners. New relationships are being established today that will replace the ones from my generation, and I believe that these relationships are still key to the success of both parties.
For our distributors, I would say it’s our business model and the complete transparency in everything that we do. WIT has always provided a great deal of value for our distributors and we continue to do so. With all the changes occurring in the channel today, it’s critical that we continue to do everything possible to keep our distributors competitive in the markets we serve — not only now, but also for all the markets we’ll serve in the future.
Finally, I believe that our distributors would tell you that being involved in WIT and getting to know their industry peers still ranks as one of the biggest advantages of belonging the group. Over time, WIT distributors become friends, and the fact that you have the opportunity to know people who face the same kinds of challenges that you do every day is very significant. Distributor to distributor relationships and the ability to reach out to someone halfway across the country and counsel with them about how they’re addressing a particular issue or problem will always be important.
DG: When and where will next year’s WIT conference take place?
CM: 2018 – March 6-8 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel Dallas in Texas.
For more information on WIT & Co., visit wit-co.com.