DSI Sees Trouble in Training, Rise in Restaurant Segment

Art717_Dascesnzo_w150.jpgDistributor Services Inc., known in the industry simply as DSI, has watched NBMDA's evolution over the decades—both as a member and as a non-member. The western Pennsylvania-based firm first joined the organization at a time when its core clientele were independent lumber dealers and NBMDA's focus was heavily weighted toward building materials. The advent of the big-box era during the '80s, however, sent DSI in another direction—selling industrial products for the cabinet millwork industry—and its NBMDA membership lapsed. When company officials saw the industry group gaining momentum among industrial distributors like itself, however, it knew the time had come to reactivate its enrollment.

Dave Dascenzo, who has spent 30 years at DSI and serves as its general manager of sales, celebrates that decision to rejoin. “Without a doubt, this organization and its membership is the best overall informational resource that I have available to me, period,” he said. “The ability to create high-quality professional and personal relationships is unparalleled to anything else I'm part of in this industry.” Dascenzo sees particular value in NBMDA's annual fall convention, where he says much of the year's so-called heavy lifting for some of DSI's best vendors is accomplished during the course of just one weekend. “Business Disneyland,” he calls it. Dascenzo laughs at his playful comparison but insists the analogy sums it up best.

He also appreciates NBMDA's continued cultivation of stronger and more symbiotic relationships between distributors and manufacturers, whom he sees sharing some of the same hurdles. A trend he has noticed with the potential to hurt both sides, he points out, is a lack of attention to training salespeople. While Dascenzo sees much of the blame in the talent recruitment and retention areas being placed on a perceived inability to attract young people, he shrugs that off as nothing new. “Our industry is just as unsexy as it's ever been,” he reasons. “It's not sexy, but it's never been; so attracting young people isn't any harder or easier. You can attract them all you want but if you don't put the right amount of energy into developing the training, then it's going to be a loser.”

Dascenzo suspects that there is simply an urgency to get sales people on the beat as fast as possible so they can generate revenue for their companies. While he understands that drive, he says it takes a bit more courage to take the time to nurture and really train a candidate with little experience but plenty of potential, fully integrating him or her into the organization and its culture. The alternative, he notes, is to bring on people with supposed “plug-and-play” expertise; but he warns that these and other shortcuts that companies take actually undermine sales associates' likelihood for success, regardless of their age.

Even so, he actually does buy into the chatter that there is a “missing generation” in the industry and that this absence also affects distribution customers. Dascenzo notes that when he entered the profession more than three decades ago, a great deal of his customers matched his demographic characteristics…and still do. Even within NBMDA, he adds, much of the talent and expertise is concentrated within a certain age bracket. “Our companies and our industry do have to put some serious energies into developing young folks that are interested in that—and our customers have the same problem,” he says.

What DSI's industrial customers don't have to worry about, though, is the market for their products diminishing, according to Dascenzo. “The demand for finished cabinetry and millwork fixtures within our segments may shift but it's unlikely to decline or disappear,” he forecasts. The sales exec is especially optimistic about the outlook for fixture work for the foodservice sector. “Do you eat online?” Dascenzo wants to know. “No?? Nobody does!” For that reason, he argues, restaurant work, in particular, is flourishing. “The demand for our customers to exist sets up pretty well to be solid for the future,” Dascenzo said. “There's ups and downs, peaks and valleys in our industry like others, for sure, but I feel very confident that when this industry—distributors and manufacturers alike—restocks the talent, there'll be plenty of things to sell and people to sell them to.”

One area that could see some shrinkage in the short term, Dascenzo speculates, is retail and manufacturing fixtures. The impact of e-commerce could have an influence there; but even in that case, he feels the threat is negligible, at least at DSI. The merchandise it sells—plastic laminates, industrial panel products, wood finishes, and a few complementary products—are typically large and delivered most easily and efficiently on the trucks DSI manages. “If my model made up a wide selection of things that I could put in a box very easily and send them to somebody in a day or two, I'd be pretty uptight,” Dascenzo admits. But, for now, the company's model insulates it pretty well from cyber competition.

It's just one of the aspects of DSI's business model that Dascenzo says helps the distributor stand out from the crowd. Another, he cites, is its commitment to its own identity. “We're particularly proud of the fact that we properly identify internally what our model is,” he adds. “We decide what it is we want to be good at, what products and services we want to excel at, and put a great deal of energy into trying to be the best that we can be within the scope of our model.” That means DSI doesn't aim to be a one-stop shop; rather, it strives to be the best place to shop for the services it offers and the products it carries. It also means the company doesn't covet nationwide reach; it contains its service area to the Midwestern markets of Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Kentucky. “We don't necessarily believe that anyone can be good at having everything that somebody needs,” Dascenzo summarizes, “but we believe we bring the products and services that are important to our customers.”

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