There has been a false narrative circulating for years that middlemen add extra steps, extra costs, and that they complicate things instead of making them easier. We need to obliterate that false narrative. Middlemen, like distributors, don’t just add value, they are absolutely vital to the success of their customers, and in turn, to the success of consumers across this country. We are the middlemen that supply America.
Distributors are strategically positioned to provide the expertise that their customers need to succeed. This is why expertise is the fifth of the seven core ethos of the noble calling of distribution.
During my We Supply America tour across the country, I witnessed firsthand the way that distributors fill in the gap between manufacturers and end-users. Manufacturers make the products America needs—the auto parts, building and welding materials, the cleaning products and dental supplies, toilets and lighting, and everything else we have come to rely on. It is the distributors across this country that take those products and ensure that they are at the right place at the right time and that the end-user is fully prepared to apply, use, and install those products. They fulfill multiple steps to support the businesses they supply and to ensure that the products are ready for the end-user.
I saw and felt this passionate belief in the middle man when I visited HOLT Electrical Supply in St. Louis, MO. Their manifesto is the perfect example of owning the critical role a distributor’s expertise plays in the supply chain.
They call it their “Middle Man-ifesto.” And this declaration boldly comes out of the gate with the headline: “Let’s Cut The B.S. We are the middle man.” Dang, right they are. They own it. They’re proud of it. And they know the value and the expertise of the middle man.
The team at HOLT Electrical Supply owns that they don’t make the products, and they don’t install them. But they do provide superior service, support, and the expertise that ensures that their customers succeed.
Their expertise extends beyond just a knowledge of the products and anticipation of customer needs. They are the ultimate middlemen because they have access to the right tools and resources that electricians need to complete their work safely and efficiently. HOLT’s customers know that HOLT has experts, and they defer to them when determining which tools are right for each job, which products are the right for the myriad of applications, and what innovations to keep an eye out for. This expertise is absolutely critical to the success of their customers in helping drive business outcomes such as reducing costs, increasing productivity, and maximizing profitability.
In contrast, digital native one-click distributors like Amazon simply ship products (of all kinds) without expertise that pertains to the industry or the customers’ needs. This may be fine for a T-shirt or book, but many products require a deep knowledge of the industry so that the correct products are supplied and applied in the correct way.
This is one of the reasons why America needs distributors like the ones I visited as part of the We Supply America tour. They bring a higher level of service, greater efficiency, and overarching expertise to all the industries that keep our country moving forward
I watched this play out in another industry when I visited Great Lakes Hotel Supply for the filming of our fifth episode. The company supplies restaurant and kitchen equipment, but more than that—they supply the industry knowledge and design expertise needed to create safe and effective kitchens. Great Lakes is intimately involved in all aspects of creating these kitchens for restaurants, hotels, and other commercial entities. Beyond simply shipping products Great Lakes delivers needed expertise in terms of culinary design using 3D modeling, project management, coordination of trades, staging, and delivering equipment to ensure each stage of the project remains on time and having the best craftsman in the industry installing each component to exacting standards.
Their goal is to create the perfect cooking environment for each business they work with—and it takes expertise not only in their understanding of the products they supply and how they should fit into the design but also interpersonal expertise so that they are able to understand the vision of each individual customer and how to bring that vision to life.
Expertise not only makes the customer’s experience easier, better, and more successful, in some cases, it is a matter of life and death. There are certain industries that deal with incredibly complex processes and extremely dangerous environments (think oil and gas, petroleum refining, transportation, and power generation) and/or environments that deliver life-enhancing and even life-saving products requiring exacting standards (think medical devices, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, water treatment, food, and beverage). And distributors are the people who invest the time, money, energy, and resources to become the experts these customers and industries rely on.
You can see where expertise is essential in distribution when you take a look at companies like Valin Corporation. Valin is a leading technical solutions provider for the technology, energy, life sciences, natural resources, and transportation industries. Their expertise has been honed over the last 40 years offering personalized order management, on-site field support, comprehensive training, applied expert engineering services that utilize automation, fluid management, precision measurement, process heating, and filtration products.
As the middleman in the industry, Valin’s team of experts, including their highly skilled Application Engineers, are constantly updating their knowledge to ensure that they are at the forefront of advancements in the industry. They play an essential role for their customers that goes beyond supplying products. With the expertise that Valin offers, they act as the vital “middleman” to speed client projects from design to prototype and into production significantly faster. They become an extension of their customer’s design team, cutting through system interface questions and product selection details and allowing the customer to focus on their core competencies. They fill this need for highly specialized knowledge and precision that their customers wouldn’t otherwise have access to. That’s the type of high-quality expertise that our industry provides, and it’s truly unique to distribution.
Companies like Amazon have certainly innovated in the world of distribution, and there are positives that come from that. (Check out my letter to new Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, welcoming him to the distribution world.) But the distributors that supply America have a relationship with their customers that’s much deeper than one-click orders and same-day shipping. They bring deep domain expertise to their customers as a result of living in and amongst those businesses every day, and as a result, these distributors know the business, the markets, the customers, their needs, and their applications like no others.
When you work with a leading distributor—like Valin, Great Lakes Hotel Supply, and HOLT Electrical Supply, along with so many other small and midsize independent distributors—you get more than just an online catalog of products. These people go above and beyond to provide the expertise that allows their customers to succeed and meet the needs of end-users across the country.
Expertise is so central to the Noble Calling of Distribution because it delivers real and tangible value to our customers that no others are in a position to provide. If the 97 days I spent traveling this country and visiting 34 different distributors proved one thing, it is that NOW is the time to absolutely come together—all 30,000 distributors—to obliterate the false narrative that we, as middlemen, can be cut out of the supply chain. The world and our customers need our expertise—and we are here to deliver it, covering every square mile of this country—every minute of every day.
Now that is truly noble!