An International Perspective: Interview with Jamie Barnes
McKillican International is based in Edmonton, Alberta, with branches in both Canada and the United States. Jamie Barnes, the president of McKillican, knows that the Canadian markets are no less competitive than American ones. “I think there is a perception out there that the Canadian market is less competitive than the U.S. markets but I would argue that the Canadian markets are every bit as competitive and in some cases and some products even more.” Citing the vast distances of Western Canada and the resulting logistical difficulties, Barnes also points out that serving the smaller centers requires a different approach that can be tough to implement in a down economy.
But technology helps us to lighten our burdens, and McKillican International embraces it. “We continue to look for technology that will improve efficiencies in all areas-from sales to warehouse to logistics-for years we have embraced technology as an enabler. In addition to our core transitional system we have invested in and developed a proprietary system that we call McPortal, and it has evolved to what we think is a dynamic and leading edge tool for all our people.” McPortal provides real-time data to McKillican’s staff and “it really allows them to be, we think, more effective and more efficient in their daily tasks.” McPortal arose organically from within the company as a reporting tool and is useful to all of McKillican’s departments, especially sales. McPortal can be accessed through mobile devices, allowing McKillican’s staff to stay up to date even when in the field. For companies interested in the system, Barnes offers good news. “We are in the late stages of releasing what we think will be a customer centric, multi-channeled tool that we believe will help them in their everyday business routines, which is a spin-off of our McPortal system.”
Barnes recently attended the 2013 AWFS Fair in Las Vegas, and considers the show a great time to network with customers, vendors and even competitors in the spirit of friendly competition. “My main objective for the show was to really follow up face to face with our core suppliers on strategic plans that we set at the beginning of the year–which I was able to do. Additionally the show provided a venue to host a couple internal meetings and revisit our progress and set the tone for the rest of 2013. I always try to work around an agenda and set up as much as I can ahead of time in terms of meetings, etc. I spend a great deal of my time talking and working with vendors on a regular basis so the show is really a good place to review our mutual strategic plans and update each other on where we are and to experience what is new.“
Speaking from his experience, Barnes said he thinks the relationship between distributors and manufacturers is very healthy. “I know we work as a company, at all levels, very closely with our vendors, and we value those relationships. Like any relationship, the more you work together and understand each other and the mutual expectations the more successful they become-after the last few years I actually think that the relationships have become stronger as everyone humbly realizes their role and the need to work together to achieve their mutual goals.” Although the down economy has strained resources across the industry, Barnes thinks that “everyone humbly realizes their role in the process or in the chain and that the need to work together is vitally important, more so today than ever before.” While it takes effort, Barnes believes that everybody is on board to make their relationships as successful as possible.
Barnes recently returned to the distribution industry after an absence of several years. Why did he come back? Because Barnes missed the "character of our industry, the down to earth, hardworking people and the overall distribution business.” While he says it may seem simple from the outside, anyone who works in distribution knows there’s a lot more to it. Within each segment, from sales to operations, there are many moving parts, and Barnes derives his enjoyment from “the challenge to make those areas incredibly efficient and successful, because they all need to come together to have a successful product-in, product-out process.” Once he was removed from the industry, Barnes realized that “Our industry has a lot of ‘character’-more than people from the outside think, and I missed that on a day to day basis. I have a strong passion for building business and specifically really enjoy distribution. I like working with our suppliers and our customers-there are always challenges and obstacles but at the end of the day overcoming them is the satisfaction.”
As to the biggest challenges facing distribution, Barnes believes the maturity of the industry can be an obstacle to attracting young, new talent. “I believe other industries may have a leg up in recruiting the so-called ‘up and comers.’ So, we need to continue to promote ourselves in a fresh way and companies need to provide working environments that attract and appeal to the up and coming generation.”
Other challenges include the lingering malaise of the recent economic downturn, and the unprecedented speed of change. New products are constantly entering the market. While some may be easily absorbed into a product mix, others emerge as a major challenge to a company’s product mix. “Customers are changing quicker. Their needs, their wants, their expectations, frankly, are changing.”
Conversely, he thinks these challenges present opportunities for the industry. “I think that in addressing the biggest challenges lie the biggest opportunities-so we need to continue to invest in talented people and embrace technology as an enabler.”
This fall, Barnes will join the board of the NBMDA. “I’m very honored to be joining that board,” he said. “NBMDA to me has been a huge part of my career. I’ve made tremendous connections there, and still talk to those people on a regular basis.” What will he bring to the table? “I think that having over a decade in the industry and working in the business in all facets, along with having exposure to both the U.S. and Canadian marketplaces, has given me a unique perspective. At the same time I continue to learn new things every day about our industry and business, so I continue to have an open mind”
What makes McKillican unique? While distribution is a traditional type of business, Barnes believes his company is unique in how it goes to the commercial market. “We have a large investment in pulling ‘specifications’ through the channel. That includes everything from project tracking to marketing to architects and designers, along with field personnel dedicated to getting and holding the specifications.” Barnes thanks the company’s McPortal system, which “ensures follow-through with the right people at the right time.”
Of course, nobody does it all by themselves, and Barnes thanks several mentors for the support and advice over his career. “The most notable would be Gary McKillican. He’s the CEO and owner of our company. He’s really been the guy that’s taught me about the industry and the business, and I really owe him a lot for all that.” With teaching style both nurturing and challenging, McKillican taught Barnes what he knew of the business, and continues to challenge him every day. “He gives me the autonomy to make decisions and evolve, but he’s also right there to support me in any way.” Another mentor Barnes would name is Mark Kasper, of Amerhart. “Mark Kasper is also someone I feel has helped me from afar. Mark has a long history in the industry and I admire his demeanor and approach to business. Mark is a good listener and when we are able to connect he is more than willing to share his thoughts and perspectives with me.” Barnes also thanks his father, Wayne, for his guidance. “Although he is just retiring, he has been in business for 40+ years. So, he brings a wealth of experience and perspective that is unique, which I value. He, too, holds some high expectations, and you never want to let your father down so that provides some healthy pressure.”