From the Manufacturer's Point of View: Interview With Mark Carlisle of M.L. Campbell

M.L. Campbell, a leading North American manufacturer for the wood working industry, provides professional wood finishes to cabinet, furniture, millwork, and display manufacturers. Mark Carlisle, M.L. Campbell’s director of sales and marketing, works to “develop and maintain a strong relationship with the distributor leadership.” He collaborates with distribution leadership to ensure that M.L. Campbell’s strategy meets their mutual goals.

M.L. Campbell operates on a distributor-only sales model, and has built up a distribution network that stretches across the entirety of the U.S. and Canada. While M.L. Campbell is not aggressively pursuing new additions to its network, Carlisle said: “We’ll look at areas of the country where there’s a market that might have some opportunity. If there’s transition in a distributor or weakness in a particular market, that’s where we might be looking for new distribution.” For the most part, however, Carlisle emphasized “we have very solid distributor partners.”

Who are these distributors? Carlisle said “Quite frankly, from the beginning, and now if there’s an opportunity to seek out new distribution, we’re looking for the distributor that is the leader in that particular marketplace. We want the A-player, that has the strongest market share and the strongest penetration into that marketplace with the current products they distribute.”

Carlisle is serving his second term on NBMDA’s Board of Directors, and is the sole manufacturer associate representative on the executive committee. From the manufacturer’s point of view, he provides the executive committee with insight and perspective. He also seeks out new board members for upcoming terms and recruits new distributors and manufacturers to participate in the organization. NBMDA returns the favor. “Especially at the annual convention, it gives us an opportunity to network and meet with our current distributors to continue to make sure that we’re following our course of action. Any updates, new strategies, those sorts of things, because the amount of time that you have in the formal tabletop appointments is limited to following up on what’s been put in place in our business planning process earlier in the year. It also allows us to network with other distributors. Quite frankly, where we have added new distributors in certain markets, those have really come from developing those relationships through NBMDA and recommendations from our current distributors that are part of the association. I think also, from the overall convention standpoint, we see a lot of value in the majority of the speakers that they bring in for the different sessions. So, we actively participate in all of those.” Carlisle also lauds the opportunity the convention provides to simply socialize and network with the other members.

Going into the most recent NBMDA convention, Carlisle scheduled in advance meetings with all of M.L. Campbell’s key distributor partners that were in attendance.  He also left time open to participate in the various speaking engagements on the schedule. But the value of the convention really comes down to “the networking opportunities throughout the entire time of the convention.”

Despite the recent economic downturn, M.L. Campbell sees opportunities every year. “We continued to invest in our business. We did not let go a single sales or marketing individual during that time frame. We continued to take advantage of any opportunities that presented themselves when some of our competitors were taking the opposite approach to the weakness in the market. I think now, as we start to see an uptick in the economy and the industry, we continue to expect to grow our business and our market share through our distributor partners. We see opportunity in every market that we participate in.” M.L. Campbell continues to invest in new staff, technologies, products, and other resources.

However, Carlisle recognizes that some challenges exist for the industry, namely “pricing pressures, margin pressures, a continual challenge to the value proposition of distributors, and also an increase in imports.” These imports play a key role in both pricing and margin pressures. Imports of primarily Chinese products have created a challenge for distributors supplying hardwood plywood and board products. More recently, “we’re also seeing that they’re now expanding into pre-built cabinets themselves.” The direct competition these imports represent is one of the larger challenges the industry faces.

M.L. Campbell continually strives not only to improve itself, but to help improve its distributor partners. “We support that with our M.L. Campbell training programs designed for our distributors. We also actively participate in the educational opportunities through NBMDA, such as the University of Industrial Distribution in Indianapolis. We have sent our regional sales managers through that program in the last couple of years and have encouraged our distributors to send their sales managers that support our business along with our people to those. The other thing that we continue to do is invest in new products and resources that will help us to continue to grow, and one of those initiatives that we’re currently working on is a new design center in High Point, North Carolina. That resource, along with a new person that is our marketing manager of color and design, which is a new position for our company, will work with our sales organization and our distributors to help support current customers as well as provide a resource to support the selling process and continue to grow our business with new customers.”

Carlisle noted that “if you talk to all of our distributors, there’s a range of relationships that they have with their different manufacturers.” However, he was proud to point out that “quite frankly, the majority of our distributors will mention that we set the bar for the relationship between a distributor and a manufacturer.” M.L. Campbell truly believes that their business relationships are not just buyer-seller relationships, but partnerships. To actively manage this, they meet with their distributors at the beginning of the year to determine strategies and set goals which they measure themselves against as the year plays out. “I think if you survey specific distributor partners, they would say that they probably have their best relationship between a distributor and a manufacturer with the M.L. Campbell team.”

Where is M.L. Campbell going in the next few years? “One of the areas we see opportunity in is furniture and furniture manufacturing.” Noticing a rise in reshoring and an increasing number of companies building and finishing in North America, M.L. Campbell took action. “We’ve developed products that are specific to that industry. We’re also working to open our new design center in High Point, NC, which is really the heartbeat of the industry, and that’s why we located it there.” M.L. Campbell identified an opportunity and created products and programs and added design and sales resources to take advantage of it.

Over the next two to three years, while Carlisle noted that jobs are slowly coming back, he said that “we’ll probably continue to see some consolidation there, and some challenges.” He expects price pressures and tight margins to continue. Also, he has noticed that both end-users and distributors are having difficulty finding skilled labor. “I think that’s one of the things that the industry as the whole needs to understand and help support, is the next generation of people within that industry, whether it’s at the distributor level or at the customer level.”

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