The first rule: Only do what only you can do

Oh to be a headline writer today (if there were just a few more surviving newspapers and magazines):

•   3D Printer Creates Body Parts to Save Baby
• Become Leading Oil Exporter Again
•   Natural Gas Increasingly Seen as Fuel of the Future

No real surprises here. Every single component of this economy is changing with such velocity that the “good old days” refer to anything prior to 2007.

Technology-driven forces at work today are not a minor dislocation. This is the biggest structural change since the famous Lucas gusher in the Texas Spindletop field announced the arrival of the petroleum economy in 1901.

Hand wringing over globalization and outsourcing by CNN’s Lou Dobbs and many increasingly irrelevant union leaders has had little real effect.  It is natural market forces and tech-driven supply chains that are returning manufacturing to the U.S. and Mexico, plus the fact that “you’re never more than a tsunami away” from major supply disruption in Asia.

Changes are constant (if not consistent). It is critical that we devise plans to thrive in these unknown crosscurrents of international commerce. This has to become the planning goal for every participant in the independent aftermarket: supplier, distributor or service shop.


Competition no longer appears only after a series of well publicized baby steps (or missteps). It no longer creeps in from traditional sources within the industry. It is no longer simply some foggy menace or a threatening, half-priced ‘flyer du jour.’

Flexibility, experience and quick customer response have long been the service anthem for independents. To effectively direct our endlessly morphing organizations, however, there has to be a prime directive — a principle that absolutely will not be violated.

Since most of the independent aftermarket lives in a fast-water entrepreneurial reality, the first planning hurdle is recognition of finite resources.

Finances, sure, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that the real finite resource is human. For reasons too numerous to mention (or to correct in the short term), the scarcity of ready-to-work help defines today’s first rule of strategy.

Only do what only you can do.

Get in a purchasing shootout over supplying commodity parts differentiated by price alone and you will lose, because even if you “win” the customer in question, you will not be able to sustain life, as tiny margins create operations that are unforgiving dependent on perfection.

That is not the nature of this business. The only realistic strategy for growing, a customer base, a service radius or product offering, is through the growth of a technology or information-based specialty— and the people to support it.

Sell the hell out of something that plays to the strength of your most valuable competitive tool. Your workforce. What you can charge for what you know is inversely proportional to the number of others who know what you know.

Customers seek out specialists, and price is nearly always secondary — ask any surgeon!

Since most heavy-duty parts lines are fully distributed within NAFTA, one conclusion that can be drawn is that distributors must offer service (of some kind) as the critical point of specialization and differentiation. On-vehicle or bench service both can be developed to become your go-to skill.

Whether its drive line, hydraulics, engine systems, power transmission or great street-level diagnostics at the counter, specialized technical service is what successfully supports every small independent in the land of multi-branch giants.

And it can be the trick that only you can do.

Bill Wade is a partner at Wade & Partners and a heavy-duty aftermarket veteran. He is the author of Aftermarket Innovations. He can be reached at

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