Leading From the Front: Daniels-Olsen/Metro Hardwoods

Ask Michael Donnelly of Daniels-Olsen/Metro Hardwoods what makes the forest products distribution firm unique and he'll list not one, but three traits that he believes set it apart from the rest of the field. First, despite its considerable bulk, there's the deep, personal interaction that the company maintains with its hundreds of individual customers in the Upper Midwest. There's also the commitment to having an abundance of inventory on the floor at all times, so that product is available and accessible whenever a customer requests it. And, then … there's leadership. 

 He's not just talking top-tier positions, either, clarifies Donnelly, who runs the Sioux Falls, S.D., and Omaha, Neb., branches of the company--which caters to the secondary wood manufacturing industry. “Leadership at the customer-contact level is even as important, I think, as it would be for just the managers to lead,” he elaborates, noting that this skill set has importance for all facets of the business--from the warehouse workers to the truck drivers to the sales associates and beyond. To be clear, though, his intention is not to downplay the role of management, which he says bears the responsibility for developing the next generation of leaders. 

“Leadership is about pulling someone forward, not about pushing them in the back,” he stresses. “That's the philosophy of the company, and all of my managers share that viewpoint.” For that reason, every worker— regardless of station—is recognized and respected for his or her individual contributions to the overall success of Daniels-Olsen. One of the ways in which the firm demonstrates that, according to the 15-year-plus company veteran, is by investing in employees' futures through training programs that can help them advance their careers. NBMDA, an affiliate for many of Daniels-Olsen's years in business, proves time and time again to be an important resource toward this end, he says.

“That's one of the great things about NBMDA—it helps us to facilitate those leadership principles by offering our staff the same opportunity to learn from tremendous people,” Donnelly continues. Every year, Daniels-Olsen sends a delegation to the University of Innovative Distribution, a five-day annual event sponsored by NBMDA and other distribution groups. Access to instruction from some of the most powerful and knowledgeable experts in the distribution field is well worth the cost of attending, he insists. Another staple in the company's training and leadership portfolio, he singles out, is Distribution Management University, which takes place during NBMDA's conventions. These programs and others create a payoff, Donnelly believes, in the form of employees who are better equipped to serve customers.

Much of that benefit going forward will be tied to technology training and education, Donnelly speculates. “The more that our customers become tech-savvy and the more we align ourselves with their ability to utilize that kind of technology, I think we have an opportunity to service them more effectively,” he suggests. “We can understand them better, and we can tailor solutions accordingly: we can personalize our sales calls better, we can personalize our interaction with them better.” Donnelly sees the millennial staffer as a valuable asset in this process. Not only are these employees generally more comfortable with technology than older generations, he reasons, they are the leading educators about the customers of the future as well as the top teachers in terms of technologies they are already using.

For distributors to really tap into millennials as the great resource they have the potential to be, Donnelly is convinced that a major paradigm shift will need to occur industry-wide about how to do business. “Millennials have very different ideas about that,” he points out, “and if we let them teach us without resenting the differences, I think the companies that allow young leaders to flourish will be the most educated companies; and they'll be able to soak up market share because they'll be listening to the changers instead of resisting the change that's happening.” Businesses that fight, he warns, will wind up on the losing end of that battle. “It's a matter of numbers,” he rationalizes, noting that 10,000 millennials are entering the work force every year even as 10,000 baby boomers exit it.

One of the biggest impacts from that transition will be in the transportation segment of the market. Distributors are already feeling the pain from a shortage of drivers, and the ones still on the road are older than the average U.S. worker and will soon be approaching the end of their careers. Driver-less trucks are on the horizon and will alleviate much of that pain, Donnelly predicts with great certainty, noting that the technology has already arrived and that a sea change in trucking is not as far away as one might believe. The introduction of driver-less transportation will have a major impact; but, again, Donnelly says it will be the millennials who will be most receptive and most comfortable with this revolution.

The implications of working with, and serving, millennials are so great that it has become a popular topic of discussion at NBMDA workshops in recent years, reports Donnelly, speaking from his own personal experience. As a member of the organization's board of directors and a recently appointed officer, he understands that leadership and learning are continuous processes that benefit even those in charge of helping others move upward.

One of the primary objectives of NBMDA, Donnelly says, is outstanding education for its members. In addition to being taught and mentored by extraordinary leaders who are passionate about the industry, their own companies, and the organization, he says there is a fiduciary benefit—not just intellectual growth--associated with the knowledge gained from these programs. Membership also conveys an opportunity to network and get acquainted with new members and others in the industry. “If you have an educated staff and if you have fellowship with vendors and competitors,” Donnelly insists, “there's no reason you shouldn't be improving your bottom line specifically because of membership in the NBMDA.”

At Daniels-Olsen, he also credits NBMDA for facilitating the stellar relationship between the distributor and its vendors. The company aspires to distribute only No. 1 and No. 2 brand products and, as part of its vision statement, "Striving to Be Your 1st Choice," to rank as vendors' leading customer for those items—which include everything from plywood and solid hardwood lumber to particleboard and laminates. Daniels-Olsen also desires to be first in line for its own customers when they purchase products and also to be the leading employer candidate for existing personnel and prospective hires looking to develop careers in the industry. As the final piece under its four-part vision statement, the company aims to fulfill its responsibility to the company's sole shareholder. That commitment entails delivering, through solid business ethics, a fair and just profit on ownership's investment.

As it reaches for those goals, the distributor is betting on its culture of respect to help it retain talent, its strong principles of leadership to help it nurture that talent, and its willingness to adapt to help it serve the customer of the future. “We want the best-trained employees to feel the highest level of respect; and when we do that, they have more to offer our customers and they respond to them in the same way, hopefully, that our leadership responds to our employees,” Donnelly sums up. “It's a win-win deal.”

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