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ISA: In the Heart of Disruption

Posted in Member News on April 19, 2018

By Tom Gale – 4.16.18

Disruption and transformation lessons come in all shapes and sizes, as I’m learning again this past weekend. Though the name has changed, the Industrial Supply Association is 116 years old this year; certainly among the oldest in our industry.

The theme of the ISA annual convention over the past few days has been disruption. Anecdotally, the industrial supply sector is confirming what MDM’s Q1 quarterly survey in partnership with Baird indicates – sales and pipelines are strong, and pricing is firming for the first time in a long time. There is an energy in the room for the current business cycle that has not been seen in many years.

The optimism here may seem surprising given the disruption and challenges associations and distributors have been facing. Marketing groups have evolved, digital channels and alternative competitors have exploded, and face-to-face meetings have shifted in value. The traditional value proposition of association meetings has been severely challenged recently and is still adapting to these changes.

ISA experienced more than its share of turmoil and uncertainty due to the untimely death of its executive vice president, John Buckley, four years ago. John had been in that position for ten years and in distribution association management for most of his career. A strong leader, John’s sudden loss was a blow to ISA, followed by a stint where its leadership was a mismatch to its needs. It’s really hard for business organizations to change, and much more so for volunteer-directed associations.

It was a crisis for an organization that has one of the deepest legacies and generational continuity of any distribution association I have been privileged to participate in. And I say that as someone who has worked closely with ISA in many capacities and successive leadership for 25 years and developed many long-term friendships along the way.

A year ago, ISA hired a new leader in longtime industry professional Ed Gerber, following his successful career in distribution sales management, including a 10-year run as EVP of sales and marketing for Industrial Distribution Group, acquired by Sonepar in 2014. In the 12 months Ed has been at the helm, he has orchestrated an impressive turnaround. But his strong leadership capability wouldn’t mean much unless there were a lot of dedicated people who were passionate enough to support him in this mission. It’s a great story in many ways – a validation that associations still have a role, but they must change with the times to remain effective. The same can be said for each and every one of our companies and for us as individuals, no matter our role in this industry.

By the nature of volunteer organizations and association management companies, change management tends not to be a major competency. That’s not a knock, just an observation about these organizational structures after three decades of close business relationships with dozens of associations and wonderful people creating a lot of value for their members. My take is that associations are far from being dinosaurs, but only if they can transition with all of the emerging disruptive factors – from Amazon to marketing groups to collaboration tools like Zoom videoconferencing, which in some cases offers alternatives to in-person meetings.

I think this is Newton’ 3rd law of motion applied to history; the more digital we get, the more important will be the value of carefully directed face-to-face meetings where you can build relationships, knowledge and context that you can’t get from an app to make better decisions. Disruption and change are really uncomfortable, but they’re a lot easier to understand and face when you’re surrounded by other professionals facing the same struggles.

Today, people are walking around at this meeting with their heads up and shoulders back – even 100-year-old orgs can adapt, regroup and reinvent themselves. ISA’s revitalization story has lessons at many levels. It takes a deep engagement of individuals, management skills and the right team.

But I can tell you that the core values I’ve known and have been enriched by professionally and personally have not changed. That’s a value gained in meetings like this that you can’t displace by artificial intelligence or algorithms, and only truly measured by the heart.

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