Tom O’Neill Says Better Partnerships Help Field Rapid Demand After Long Winter

One of the biggest changes in building materials distribution in recent years is the rapidly dropping lead times customers are given before starting a project. Plummeting ETAs on multiple jobs means that distributors may be required to supply a wide range of products with little or no notice. Fortunately, distributors can turn this challenge into an opportunity by building better partnerships with customers and manufacturers alike, says Tom O’Neill, CEO of Würth Baer Supply Company. Based out of Vernon Hills, Illinois, Würth Baer has 25,000 residential and commercial customers served by 20 branch locations in the Midwest and Northeast. In a recent interview, O’Neill discusses how Würth Baer keeps ahead of the curve in an industry that is very different from what it was several years ago.

As O’Neill points out, the biggest challenge in the building distribution industry since the recession has been forecasting market demand. “Prior to 2008, you knew what you needed and who you needed it for, but now that things are picking up again, business is very different,” he explains. “Our customers can now win two or three jobs, and their ETAs will be so short that they need their product immediately, which requires more open communication between the sales and purchasing departments.”

This problem has been exacerbated in the Midwest and the East Coast coming off of record snowfalls and arctic cold this past winter. While that put many businesses behind in the first quarter, the weather is finally turning, and orders are coming fast and furious. To cope with that demand, O’Neill says, distributors need to be positioned in every way—from staffing, to inventory, to phones— to make sure they meet customer needs as all the jobs that were pushed back start to get releases. While that could be a problem for some companies, O’Neill views it as a chance to help customers manage inventory effectively through the boom.

Würth Baer offers several inventory management systems, including a tool that maintains a customer’s inventory for them based on how often they request certain products. This ensures that customers have a “safety stock” on the floor, saving them time that would have otherwise been lost by sending someone out at the last minute to restock. Würth Baer will not just ship those products, O’Neill adds, they will also physically process them and put them in the correct departments. It is that kind of flexibility, he says, that helps a company make the change from distributor to partner. “Anyone can price stuff out and anyone can ship it, but those extra services really make a company stand out from the competition.”

While Würth Baer is working to better partner with customers, it’s also improving the way it works with manufacturers. “It used to be that you met with manufacturers a few times a year to discuss market conditions. That has shifted into more strategic, long-range planning conversations. Now we spending time on strategizing as well as on the numbers,” observes O’Neill. Questions that come up as part of these meetings now range from, “What can we do to stand out from the competition?” To “What can we do to take out costs?” It is out of these types of questions that Würth Baer created a new program to better represent products. In working with some of the company’s manufacturers, they have recruited product specialists who work with general sales representatives to help both the customer and the sales team. For example, laminate product sales representatives are dedicated to penetrate the laminate market. “The support we are getting from our manufacturers is incredible,” O’Neill enthuses.

Beyond those new partnerships, O’Neill says the biggest thing Würth Baer has going is its people and company culture. This success is partially because O’Neill sees himself not just CEO but as chief culture officer. In that role, his primary goal is to make the Würth Baer Supply team happy and ensure they love driving to work in the morning. “I could have every system and every tool in place, but if I don’t have the right people it is not going to matter either way,” he comments. Würth Baer has also staked its reputation on supplying one-stop shopping and flexible ordering. While those processes have been enabled by the company’s robust Internet presence, O’Neill says much of their flexibility comes from empowering employees to make decisions as best suits their customers’ needs.

Instead of resting on their laurels, however, Würth Baer is working on several new Web-based products to further enable such flexibility. Although he could not give more detail on those in-development projects at this time; O’Neill did discuss some other recent innovations, including a 2013 upgrade of the company’s warehouses. The new platform allows pickers to be more efficient by supplying them with portable printers and other technological upgrades. The result of such changes is Würth Baer can now pick, pack, and ship an order within 15 minutes of it being placed.

Using these strategies, Würth Baer continues to be a force across the markets it serves. In the Northeast, O’Neill notices a number of changes when it comes to innovation and compliance, trends he believes will rapidly spread across the country. For example, he has observed many more environmentally friendly products being requested. More soft-close products in cabinets as well as drawers have become big sellers in all markets, he says, and there have been a number of advances designed to cater to the country’s aging population, such as pull-down shelving inside shelving. A few final, “hot” items right now that O’Neill notices are LED lighting and anti-bacterial cabinet surfaces, which have become widespread in the commercial sector, but that he anticipates will be useful for residential customers. “It eliminates worries that you’re going to take the finish off when you wipe down a cabinet, so I think that is going to become very popular going forward. At the end of the day, our goal is to satisfy all our customers’ needs – commercial and residential – so they know when they work with us, they are getting the best of the best in whatever category they need.”

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