Independent distributors share vital leadership tactics

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Updated Oct 21, 2021

After an enthusiastic presentation by Dirk Beveridge on the ‘noble calling of distribution,’ Monday’s distributor educational session at the VIPAR Heavy Duty IMPACT Conference in Marco Island, Fla., concluded with a presentation and two Q&As with distributor leaders.

The presentation was a short segment from The Granite Group’s Chief People Officer Tracie Sponenberg. The Granite Group was one of 34 businesses visited by Beveridge in his “We Supply America” tour, where Beveridge says he was blown away by the company’s people-first human resources strategy. Sponenberg detailed the strategy in her segment, touching on changes the large industrial distributor has made to its HR operations to encourage employee engagement and retention. 

One unique change that has strengthened The Granite Group’s hiring processes was creating a dedicated recruitment team to manage recruitment, interviews and onboarding at all facilities. Sponenberg says the company used to allow branch managers to handle hiring but says the responsibility was often too time-consuming and pulled leadership away from their daily tasks of running the business. She says the new strategy still enables managers to participate in key aspects of interviewing and hiring but lessens their overall role in the process.

Another change that’s worked for the company with existing employees is extending its commitment to training. Sponeberg says The Granite Group holds employee trainings at regular intervals across its business and encourages employees to seek out other training opportunities. She says the company also pays for all training courses. 

[RELATED: Seven values that define successful distribution operations]

Finally, Sponenberg says The Granite Group has enlisted the expertise of professionals to offer mental health programs for associates who may be struggling with personal issues. Sponenberg says the resource has been particularly valuable over the last 20 months during the pandemic. “If you take care of your people, they will take care of your customers,” she says, “and happy people make profitable cultures.”

After Sponenberg, Beveridge interviewed Wiseway Distribution Center Manager Alec Feagan, then VIPAR Heavy Duty stockholders Cliff Hovis of Hovis Auto & Truck Supply and Ryan Bugai of Northwest Drivetrain.

The discussion with Feagan centered on his leadership strategies, and how he engages with his associates to create a positive and productive workplace culture. Feagan says he was drawn to a career in distribution due to its importance in our economy and its process-focused nature. In running his warehouse, Feagan says he meets with all direct reports each week to discuss operations and their associates. Often, Feagan says these meetings become discussions about employees, and how Wiseway can train and cultivate its associates to maximize their strengths and reach their potential. 

“Everyone has talent, it’s about finding the right place for that talent,” he says. 

Beveridge’s discussion of leaderhip continued with Hovis and Bugai. Like Wiseway and The Granite Group, Beveridge had met both distributors during his tour and was drawn to their employee-centric leadership and deep commitment to their customers. Both men credited their parents — former leaders in their family-owned businesses — for instilling such ideals. 

[RELATED: VIPAR Heavy Duty updates stockholders on key programs, initiatives]

With nearly 500 employees, Hovis says he is acutely aware of how every decision he makes impacts his associates and their family. He says that’s why he works so hard to ensure the business is prepared for anything, and why he threw himself into inventory management when COVID-19 hit last year. Hovis says he worked sunup to sundown 87 days in a row to streamline the company’s inventory, cut costs and ensure the business could withstand the sudden upheaval of the economy. He says the efforts reminded him of the stories his relatives told him about business in the Great Depression and other major events.  

“Every generation seems to have to deal with something,” he says. 

Bugai says Northwest Drivetrain also prioritized its workforce when the pandemic hit. Relying on corporate strategies developed with employee input during The Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, Bugai says the company quickly instituted emergency protocols to reduce expenses without reducing head count. The strategy worked and enabled the business to quickly rebound once the economy began to recover.

“We knew we had to lean on the people who had been there and done that before,” he says.

Beveridge also asked both about their corporate culture, and how they work to instill his seven values found in successful independent distribution operations. Hovis says everything comes back to customer service. He preaches to his associates that customers come to their business because they need help. They have made a conscious choice to ask Hovis Auto & Truck for aid, and that’s not something employees should take lightly. 

Bugai agreed, and said he’s also learned over the last 20 months that helping his customers isn’t just about selling truck parts. Aftermarket distributors keep the economy moving. He says he’s worked hard to convey that to his associates and remind them of the truly essential work they do every day. 

“When the world shut down all you saw was trucks on the roads,” he says. “We keep America moving.”

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