A Rock Star Playing Field

Wholesaler Panel
December 6, 2023
By John Mesenbrink

In today’s ever-changing business landscape, strengthening the contractor/wholesaler channel is critical to survival. A recent general session at PHCCCONNECT2023 drilled deep into the conversation.

“How does my supplier make me look like a rock star?” asked Dan Callies, president of Oak Creek Plumbing, Inc., Oak Creek, Wisconsin, during the “Collaborative Connections: Strengthening Supplier-Contractor Relationships for Success” general session at PHCCCONNECT2023 in Cleveland, Ohio. Joining Callies on stage was an all-star cast featuring moderator Robert Grim, senior vice president, Global Sales, InSinkErator, Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin; Scott Robertson, president, Robertson Heating Supply Co., Alliance, Ohio; Kathryn Poehling-Seymour, president and CEO, First Supply LLC, Madison, Wisconsin; and Jason Pritchard, co-founder, PriCor Technologies, Seattle, Washington.

That’s the million-dollar question, right? How does the supplier/contractor relationship make each other better at his/her jobs and contribute to the overall company mission? Throw in the manufacturer here, too, for that matter. Some of the fundamental tenets for strengthening that relationship that were discussed at the general session included collaboration, value distribution services, availability, technology and training, and expectations.

Can’t We Just Get Along?

InSinkErator’s Grim asked about the value of working together, and Poehling-Seymour stressed that collaboration is critical in this relationship. “We must understand the pain points and what is working and what isn’t,” she said.

And with that comes better communication. “We are in a relationship industry where communication is imperative,” said Pritchard. If that means paying a bit more for that stronger relationship, then so be it, intimated Pritchard.

Callies echoed this but stressed right communication over more communication. The common thought is “wide equals pricing and deep equals relationships,” said Callies.

So, let’s go deep as an industry. When asked what the landscape is going to look like in five-to-10 years for the contractor/wholesaler/manufacturer, people, processes, and services matter. Through trust and preferences, “relationships are going to matter more,” said Pritchard.

What about expectations? “We want to be around for another 10 to 20 years,” said Robertson. “We want to see contractor loyalty in the channel,” he continued. “And that means a loyalty to the wholesaler in your particular market.”

Stock Market

Let’s not avoid the 800-lb. gorilla in the room. With contractor loyalty comes availability and pricing. For Robertson, inventory presence is critical so much so that Robertson Supply holds inventory for approximately 100-125 days. “Listen, we don’t make or install anything, so we better be damn good at inventory management,” he said.

Value distribution services ties right in here … “It’s about right product, right time, right price,” said Poehling-Seymour. “Be that added value family.”

Tech Relevant

It’s imperative for these brick-and-mortar supply houses to stay on top of the latest trends and technology. “The key to survival is to stay progressive and current,” said Robertson. Upon further self-reflection, “how do we make it easier to find product?” he asked. “This includes being totally integrated with our contractor partners and researching and developing a technology that contractors will use.”

Poehling-Seymour added that First Supply LLC institutes “customer councils” to continuously get a pulse of the customer. “We try to make sense of the noise,” she said. “Where is critical mass in that noise so we can make the right decisions?”

Unless you’ve been hiding under a technology rock, artificial intelligence (AI) has dominated the talk in most every corner of the tech universe, and it has crept into the plumbing and HVAC industry as well. While artificial intelligence, in and of itself, can sound scary and intimidating, according to Poehling-Seymour, “AI has real application in the industry purchasing and predictability.”

For suppliers, it’s imperative to keep all “moving-forward” options available, as Robertson suggested. This includes, and nothing new and earth shattering in our industry, maximizing e-commerce when necessary. “E-commerce presents the right tools at your fingertips,” said Poehling-Seymour. Robertson added that, for his company, online ordering represents 20% volume. Other tech advancements – including the use of QR codes to streamline processes and online training – were also mentioned.

Training Room

InSinkErator’s Grim offered that, in today’s business landscape, there is more need for training.
In fact, he said, PHCC members ask for training and education now more than ever. “With evolution and advancement comes training and education,” said Callies. Doubling down on this, Poehling-Seymour stated that First Supply opened a training center and offers a variety of training through streaming content.

Callies suggested that people still are the cogs in the wheel that makes this industry run; “Digital when you can, verbal when you must.” Pritchard and Poehler-Seymour agreed, saying that people and the process are key through direct communication, and that includes all members of the channel: contractors, manufacturers, all the way down to the inside and outside sales, drivers, dispatchers, and others within each organization.

So, let’s go back to the original question: How do we all make each other look like rock stars? Consuming all of the above, and, quite simply, “look for successes and build on them,” said Callies.

John Mesenbrink, president of Mechanical Hub, and editor-at-large at CONTRACTOR Magazine, has been covering the plumbing and HVAC industry for nearly 20 years. 

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