Atlantic Plywood, Ahead of the Technology Curve

In a field where female workers and younger generations are underrepresented, Emily Vella is both. The 37-year-old has served as director of marketing at Woburn, Mass.-based Atlantic Plywood for the last six of her eight years with the distributor. Vella lends no celebrity to the fact that she is a woman, however, preferring to let her graduate and undergraduate marketing degrees speak for her. Such is the Atlantic way: the company openly entertains all qualified job applicants, regardless of gender and ethnicity. That's not to play down the importance of workplace diversity, though, says Vella, who believes it to be a plus for any firm, in any industry. That being said, she proudly notes that in addition to herself, Atlantic has female representation--often in senior management roles--in its accounting, human resources, purchasing, sales, and specifications departments.

Still, Vella admits that distribution isn't the most glamorous of trades nor is it the highest-paying profession. Atlantic, specifically, has the added misfortune of being located in close proximity to the software mecca of Burlington, Mass., where much "flashier" opportunities with big-name employers beckon job hunters. All of these, however, are factors that might influence the decision making of any prospective hire--not just women but any demographic, especially younger workers. Atlantic has tried free search tools and even paid headhunters but, like many of its peers in the channel, it continues to struggle to get new talent in the door. For now, Vella sees many newcomers to the business landing there because they have an "in," that is to say a family connection or a friend who has referred them. (Vella, herself, is the daughter of Atlantic President Paul Vella.)

One factor that gets some of those prospects in the door—and gives existing workers an incentive to stay—is Atlantic’s employee stock ownership program (ESOP). It’s a relatively new perk at the 40-something-year-old company, which converted to an employee-owned entity in 2008, but one that Vella says is highly attractive. Someone with an annual salary of $40,000, she estimates, could expect his or her ESOP account to fatten by roughly $8,000 per year. Anyone can invest in the ESOP after a year of service to the distributor, Vella adds, and the benefit is available in addition to the company’s traditional 401k plan.

Another development Vella believes could help it and other distributors draw a younger crowd is growing technology and innovation within the sector. And this is an area where Atlantic may have a leg up on the competition. "We've been very quick to embrace technology, both from the marketing and IT point of view," she says. While the departments are separate, Vella explains that they are also highly integrated, working together to formulate plans for greater efficiency. That includes a good deal of in-house technology development, which she says allows Atlantic to adapt to the market quickly. A perfect example is the company's proprietary CRM system, which debuted about five years ago.

While many other distributors use salesforce.com and other outside resources, none of those options had everything that Atlantic wanted. "We reviewed all of the software out there and didn't see anything that was a natural or perfect fit for what we were trying to do," Vella recalls, "so we took what we thought were the best parts of all those other software platforms and combined them into something that is very, very specific to us and our company." The result is an impressive network of separate, but integrated, platforms for outside sales reps, inside sales reps and call centers, lumber specialists, lacquer specialists, and spec reps.

Vella adds that technology and innovation are also forcing distributors to come up with more creative ways to promote themselves--namely online and through social media. Again, she believes Atlantic is a standout in this respect. The company's commitment to staying ahead of the curve even included putting Vella and Wayne Moriarty--Atlantic's vice president of finance--through the paces at NBMDA's Social Media Boot Camp. The 8-week course "has something for everyone," Vella recalls. For Moriarty, it was a solid introduction to navigating sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. For Vella, who came into the class already with a high level of proficiency in social media, the greatest benefit came from advanced instruction on how to use the platforms from a business perspective. "NBMDA covered the different linked tools that are out there for scheduling purposes and tracking purposes--resources that tie everything together and help measure the ROI you're getting from putting all of this time into social media," she says. That's an important aspect for Atlantic, Vella adds. "For us, it's always been about what are we getting out of this? Are we actually driving sales? And how do we measure that?"

Other companies may have different objectives for social media, but the point is that they need to be using it; those that resist will find themselves lagging the market, Vella warns. "I don't think you necessarily have to start out doing everything all at once," she says, "but it's important to choose at least one and be consistent with it." Thanks to its detailed overview of the major social media platforms, she considers NBMDA's boot camp a good starting point for companies that are just beginning to get their feet wet.

NBMDA is good for much, much more, continues Vella, who finds tremendous value in the networking opportunities that membership affords. She frequently finds herself calling or emailing colleagues from other companies to get feedback or a different perspective on an idea. "You're talking to people who are in the same situation as you, so it helps to be able to bounce ideas off each other," Vella remarks. While that level of networking is a constant benefit of being affiliated with NBMDA, the annual meeting, to her, is the icing on the cake. Atlantic works with too many manufacturers to name, some of which it may only be able to meet with in person once or twice a year. The annual meeting, however, lets the distributor touch base with dozens of vendor partners over the course of a few days. "To be able to have that face time, even if it's only 20 or 30 minutes, allows you to formulate some ideas for your follow up conversations that you need to have at a later time."

Vella stresses that keeping the lines of communication open with manufacturers is a critical part of doing business, especially with the market moving at the speed that it is. Products are rolling off the pipeline one right after another, she says, with barely enough time to catch one's breath in between. The red-hot pace represents both an opportunity and a challenge for the distributor. From a marketing content and social media viewpoint, Vella sees it as manna from heaven--always something new and flashy to tell Atlantic's customers about--but she admits it can be taxing from the purchasing and inventory side of things. In an environment like this, she says it is more important than ever to stay on top of things with manufacturers. "Everything is so fast-paced now, if you're not constantly communicating with them throughout all levels of the organization from purchasing to sales and marketing, etcetera," she concludes, "no one is going to be successful."

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