Wilsonart Transitioning but Staying True to 'Real Partnerships' in Distro

TimTim Atkinson, a vice president at Wilsonart International, will participate in NBMDA at a different level this year from his seat on the board of directors; but he won't need a refresher on the benefits of being a member. “First of all, anytime peers can get together and compare notes, they get better,” he states, listing the first of three major takeaways. “I think peer comparison breeds improvement.” And while that can possibly be achieved through phone contact, Atkinson quickly makes another point about NBMDA membership: there really is no other place for industry participants to quickly, easily, and concisely obtain the formal education, training, and exposure to new ideas they need to compete – all under one roof. Rounding out his Top 3 list, the sales exec cites the additional opportunity for dialogue with the distributor community. “Not only that,” he adds, by listening to the same speakers and hearing the same ideas, “there's the opportunity to build trust and to build consensus.”

Wilsonart first got involved with the organization 20 to 25 years ago, Atkinson gauges. The firm based in Temple, Texas, manufactures interior decorative surface materials for commercial and residential applications across North America. It maintains exclusive distributor territories as well as exclusive distributor relationships from market to market; and, in about 10 markets nationwide, it actually acts as the distributor for its products. “Being a distributor in those areas,” according to Atkinson, “gives us a perspective on what the day-to-day requirements are for a distributor: what's the investment required, what are the people that are required, what are the logistics? So, we know what it takes to make it work every day.”

What it took during those lean years after the nation emerged from recession in 2009, he says, was the addition of new product lines – both on the manufacturer side and the distributor side. The trend reflected the need to maintain volume; but the new products also meant additional sales, greater focus, and an increase in inventory investment for manufacturers. At the same time, many independent distributors went down that same path, Atkinson says. Now, with the commercial markets starting to fire back up and more business coming down the pike, he wonders how manufacturers and distributors will be able to divide their time and attention so that good sales and quality service are maintained for the entire product line – both old and new offerings. It's a huge challenge, he admits, but he believes that cobbling together a network of qualified and committed people – a challenge in itself – is a critical part of tackling this hurdle. “That's the hard part – to repeat the success formula,” Atkinson explains. “If you have Product A and it's going really well, how do you take your model from Product A and apply that to Product B? Finding good people who are committed to repeating the success formula is key.”

The challenge of attracting good talent deepens, Atkinson continues, when the consolidation movement that is taking hold is factored in. “Generation One has built it and left it to Generation Two and, now, many of those Generation Twos are also ready to move on, to settle their business, and do something different,” he says. “We love distributors that are family-owned, where the guy who signs the checks, the guy who makes the calls every day, has skin in the game. A lot of the consolidation that's taking place today is to large, multi-branch distribution sites; and it's a bit of a challenge to find good people to manage 10, 15, 20 sites around the country and do it with focus and with professionalism and with the kind of monitoring and oversight that's necessary.”

Wilsonart itself is fortunate to have decades-long ties with many of its distributors. As consolidation sweeps the industry, however, Atkinson clearly recognizes that the face of Wilsonart's distribution base is slowly changing – who they are, and what the relationship with them will be going forward. One aspect that he promises won't change is the company's constant pursuit of what he calls a “real partnership” between it and the channel. Atkinson comes across too many manufacturers that are constantly disgruntled with their distributors – and vice versa – but Wilsonart is proactive about avoiding this kind of strife. Regular meetings with a distributor council foster harmony in the relationships, he says. “We look for consensus, dialogue, and a common path forward,” Atkinson remarks. “It's about agreeing that if we bring something to market, you're going to be able to sell it, and your customers are going to want to buy it.”

Going forward, as it transitions from a laminate company to more of a surfacing company, what Wilsonart does bring to market will be more diversified. It already has rolled out two new items over the past year: a manmade stone and thermally fused melamine panels. One, the former, is a higher-end product compared to the firm's other materials; while the other is lower on the scale. Expanding merchandise offerings in both directions will give Wilsonart greater reach to accommodate its customers' needs, says Atkinson. As an example, he notes that the developer of a new project may want quartz in some areas, waterproof materials in other areas, and lower-end options elsewhere. “In the past, we might say, 'Hey, we've got a laminate for every one of those areas,'” Atkinson states. “Today, we can have real surface materials that meet real needs, specifically, in those environments.”

A dearth of end-users, however, could prove to be a bit of a problem, Atkinson concedes – for manufacturers and for their distributor partners. The pool of end-users has contracted considerably since recession, as many failed to exit the slump intact. With commercial construction poised for a rebound, he worries that some of those firms will find it difficult to bear the financial impact of the higher volume. “Great sales are cool,” Atkinson points out, “until you realize that it's going to take me six months to bring it in, build it, install it, and get paid. So they're having to finance some of that construction for their own customers.” That pressure could exact a heavy toll on the “cottage industry” of independent end-users out there, Atkinson predicts. These five- to 15-person outfits may not have the resources or wherewithal to respond to the challenges facing the industry as a whole, including the speed of information today, which has made immediacy – in terms of order fulfillment, feedback, and the like – a consumer expectation. How they deal with these challenges, he says, will “separate the weak from the strong.”

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