Leading from the Middle: The Purpose of Distribution

C.H. Briggs

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I asked Julia Klein, CEO of C.H. Briggs, what she thinks the role of distribution is in our society. What she said about distribution struck me. “People call us the middleman, but I’ve said for years that we lead from the middle.”

People rarely realize how distribution touches every aspect of our lives—every physical thing, plus electricity, water systems, and more are all brought to us through distributors. They are the silent leaders in our country, doing the work behind the scenes to serve all of us. And it’s time for their stories to be told and heard. That’s why we’re highlighting the noble calling of distribution with the We Supply America tour. We need to lift the leaders that supply our lives, and we need to learn from them. 

According to Julia, distribution comes down to lifting others up and making sure their needs are met—their purpose is to serve. They are all about making their customers look good, helping other people succeed in their work or personal lives, and this is the passion that drives Julia and the entire team in the day-to-day operations at C.H. Briggs. The company empowers its customers to succeed at what they do—constructing personal homes, commercial buildings, and so on—by providing a reliable supply chain.

“We make sure that companies all along the chain are profitable, are sustainable, can continue to employ people, and grow their businesses and contribute to their communities.” Her company draws success from the success of others. This service-based symbiotic relationship is fundamental to her business philosophy and the purpose that drives C.H. Briggs.

But distribution has an even broader impact. If the supply chain stops, the American economy stops too. Beyond bringing us our day-to-day needs and beyond helping her customers succeed, Julia is aware that without distribution, we all fail. This is a huge responsibility that is mirrored in C.H. Briggs’ mission and actions. “We need to make sure that everyone along the chain understands the importance of each component. I think that’s what We Supply America means because when we don’t do our work, the economy grinds to a halt.”

There’s a juxtaposition that Julia, myself, and others in this industry are fighting for: we want distributors to be seen and valued for the work they do, but we also understand that the success of distributors is marked by a sense of invisibility. “We’re often pretty invisible,” Julia said when we were discussing this hidden industry. “But sometimes, when we do our job really well, we are invisible, and that’s a good thing. Customers need things, and those things arrive. We make that happen. That’s really terrific work.”

Something I have witnessed across my journey is that purpose transcends any single business—the distribution industry is unified with a mission to serve the American people. From our national economy down to each individual citizen—distribution is a noble industry that draws purpose from service. 

This service has an inward focus as well. I’ve visited so many companies that are striving to serve their employees alongside their customers. Early on in my journey, I visited Bender, a company that is driven by internal goals—supporting and sustaining their employees. COO Mark Chirgwin said that while the tangible, practical purpose that drives their company is to impact their customers, Bender has a dual-focus that includes striving to develop their team. “Most importantly, our purpose is professional development: it’s about us giving employees the tools to understand their individual purposes, and taking those tools to become a better human being. It’s beyond just work at Bender, it’s about becoming a better person, spouse, parent, and so on. It’s important to focus on giving people the tools to become the best versions of themselves.”

This philosophy is the life-blood of their company, and they have even created a tangible way for team members to recognize and express gratitude for their colleagues through what they call “Purpose Citations.” These pieces of paper changed company culture, and they’re impactful from the top down—even executives take time to write notes of recognition to team members that go above and beyond. “The first couple months it was awkward and embarrassing, but now it’s part of our culture. On our best week, we’ve had plus-50 purpose citations handed out in one week.”

For companies like Bender and C.H. Briggs, sustainability is the goal—they want sustainable customer relationships, business practices, and employees. In order to achieve this degree of excellence, these companies must be driven by a higher goal—sustaining the American people. 

To achieve the success they seek, distribution leaders have to think critically about their business. Mark does this by taking a top to bottom approach—focusing on strengths as a way to help remedy weaknesses. “It’s important to listen to people to understand where they’re at and what they can do, and then build tools around what we do really well, as opposed to what we do wrong.”

As I continue on this tour, meeting distributors, learning from them, and being introspective during those long drives—my purpose is shifting as well. I am thinking about my strengths and the strengths of the We Supply America tour, and I am thinking about this holistic goal of serving the American people. This is bigger than me and bigger than what we are doing here. These stories and these lessons need to extend beyond my voice and beyond this tour. I hope that what we are doing transcends and makes a lasting impact. It’s time for people to hear these often silent leaders—these people that lead from the middle. This industry is too important—this calling is too noble—to be hidden any longer. 

Curious about our journey and want to learn more about the distributors who lead from the middle? Follow our journey at https://wesupplyamerica.net/

Thank you to our sponsors

Infor is proud to be a Gold Sponsor of the We Supply America tour in partnership with Dirk Beveridge and UnleashWD. Infor is a global leader in business cloud software specialized by industry, with a special focus on wholesale distribution. We use data-driven insights to solve emerging industry challenges and provide our customers with the modern tools they need to innovate and transform their businesses.

Proton is proud to be a Gold Sponsor of the We Supply America tour in partnership with Dirk Beveridge and UnleashWD. Proton’s innovative artificial intelligence platform provides turn-by-turn directions for sales reps that sell various products by telling them which customers to talk with, when, and about what through our intuitive web app.

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