Truly, it’s a noble calling.
As I have traveled this country over the last 79 days, traversing more than 10,200 miles, visiting 27 distributors, and meeting hundreds of distribution professionals, I have identified what defines the noble calling of these essential businesses. What I have discovered is a value system consisting of the seven ethos that break down the noble calling of distribution:
- Ownership mindset
The order is important, too.
You see that Purpose is the driving force—the starting point. What follows is a focus on the humanity of the industry because that purpose is tied to service—developing People, and building and supporting Family cultures. Equally as important, are the tenets of the business: the Ownership Mindset, Expertise, and Customer Centricity that are the foundation of success and lead us to Profits—the result of all of the hard work and, to speak plainly, the thing that sustains the business and enables that noble calling to keep moving forward.
I’ve seen each of these values embodied by the distribution companies I’ve visited on the We Supply America tour. Each company instills the seven ethos in its own way and in accordance with its individual mission. You can hear it in the way people talk, see it in the innovative ways that operations are performed, and understand it in terms of these companies’ vast successes—growing and competitive businesses that are 40, 50, 100-years old; unheard of employee retention rates with tenures in the decades; loyal customers whose own success is funneled back into their distribution partners; growth, expansion, technological innovation—and more.
These are the seven ethos of the noble calling of distribution, and this is how I’ve seen them play out.
The purpose is what compels entrepreneurs to take up the noble calling of distribution. It’s the drive and desire to serve, to help, to innovate, and to build a “forever” entity that provides significance for all stakeholders, the community, and the country.
I’ve seen that it is vital to define organizational purpose, the reason why your business exists—and each distributor I’ve visited has done just that. The leadership teams I’ve met with have had a clear understanding of the “why” behind their businesses. It goes beyond picking, packing, and shipping. These companies are in search of something more—something inherently noble. They are driven by a deeper, more meaningful, often emotional—and, at times, altruistic aim.
People are at the core of distribution. They make up the sales team, warehouse associates, drivers, marketers, managers, buyers, financial personnel, technologists—and, ultimately, the customer. And more than anything, distribution is a people-focused business.
What I have come to discover is that these businesses are much more than the four walls, rolling stock, and inventory. They, in essence, are a platform for helping their employees grow, develop, and achieve their potential.
Throughout the We Supply America tour, I have had countless conversations with individuals—from drivers and warehouse associates to administrators and company leaders—who have seized opportunities for growth to become the best version of themselves. These noble businesses are human at their core and have created means for every individual who aspires for something more—to chase those dreams.
I wish I had a dime for every time I heard people talk about the family-oriented culture in their workplace. Not only was the We Supply America journey driven by family values—we wanted to create a support system for distributors—but every company modeled the same type of focus. The Wiseway team came together as a family when some of their own came down with COVID-19, and Porter Pipe’s team spoke about the loyalty they have for one another—and there are so many other examples.
The vast majority of businesses I visited are family-owned and have long legacies of family values. The Hovis family is so ingrained in Hovis Auto & Truck Supply that you can find everyone from grandfathers on down to high school-aged grandchildren walking the Hovis floors, helping staff, acting as staff, and doing what they can to grow the business. Where many other industries are dominated by impersonal corporations, distributors have taken up the banner of the family business from one generation to the next, and there is no sign of slowing down.
Good leaders are accountable to their businesses. They are accountable to their customers, their staff, and the community at large. And here is the thing—I witnessed this type of accountability at all levels of the businesses I visited. Titles didn’t matter. Function or role in the company was not an issue. Throughout my travels, it was uncanny how many employees had such a significant amount of pride in their jobs and companies. Even if they weren’t owners of the company, they carried an ownership mindset and were proud of the businesses that they work for.
With an ownership mindset, the professionals throughout distribution that I have met take responsibility for business outcomes and are empowered to make decisions, proactively drive improvements, and act with a work ethic and integrity that truly separates these businesses I have visited from others.
Every buyer wants to know that they’re in good hands. In distribution, this is essential—not only must you be an expert at logistics, but you need to know your products as well. Expertise is tied to professionalism and innovation, and the companies I visited were dedicated to creating professional work environments that provide customers with innovative services and products.
I saw the long tenure of distribution employees, many with decades of experience, and how it has created a level of expertise that is unmatched by new, non-traditional, and digital-native competitors.
When I visited Great Lakes Hotel Supply Co., the team talked passionately about designing kitchens for their customers. They create innovative and effective spaces with top-quality products to ensure that their customers were set up for success. They are truly experts in the field, and their impressive customer list of culinary professionals is only growing.
Distributors aren’t background characters, they are not one-click relationships, they’re actually the people pushing the envelope and delivering the expertise their customers require.
This one is so important. The heart of distribution is identifying and satisfying customer needs—helping customers succeed. At Benco Dental, they operate with the mindset that there is a dental patient at the end of each distribution journey. Each box that they ship out, ultimately, is used to serve a customer. This compels them to build strong relationships with the dentists that are their direct customers so that they can provide better care to patients.
Customer centricity is often perceived as customer service—providing service with a smile, having a friendly and helpful disposition, and building relationships. This is true, but it is only part of the customer-centricity ethos. At its core, the customer-centric distributors I have met on this We Supply America tour are fully committed to helping their customers achieve their mission.
Talking about money can often be seen as a faux pas—but businesses don’t exist without profit. Without profit, we cannot hire and employ our staff—we can’t support their lives and careers. Without profit, we cannot supply our customers. Without profit, distribution doesn’t exist—and it’s no secret what will happen to this country if the distribution industry crumbles.
I was amazed to learn about the profits of these companies and how they were using profits to drive growth. It has been incredible to learn from their successes and hear their honest thoughts about their failures. So many of the companies I visited started out as small, mom-and-pop, single-location businesses, and they have expanded over the years to multiple locations across multiple states.
This growth equals job creation, local community support, charitable contributions, and so much more that define the noble calling of distribution. And none of this happens without profit.
Profit is, in fact, noble.
It’s been enlightening to watch these seven ethos pop up all over the map, so to speak. It is truly fascinating to see how these common threads appear at each company but in very unique and nuanced ways. As I continue the last leg of this We Supply America tour, I’ll be thinking and writing more about these ethos and how they truly help sustain this noble industry.
I hope you’ll stick with me for the rest of the ride.
If you want to get a feel for these seven ethos from one company perspective, I encourage you to watch my interview with Nick Porter, the CEO of Porter Pipe. In this conversation, you will see his passion, vision, and commitment to supplying America in these seven noble ways.