Moving the Needle in the Industrial Sector

By Bridget McCrea
Contributing Writer

During periods of uncertainty like the COVID-19 pandemic it is tempting for an organization to focus completely on the immediate needs of the company, team members, and customers. However, as the crisis subsides and the environment returns to something resembling normal, it is the companies that looked ahead and used the downturn to develop strategic efforts that are most likely to emerge stronger and better prepared for the future.

Recognizing that its members are now operating in a very different business environment than they were just five to 10 years ago, the American Supply Association (ASA) has launched a new program that concentrates on talent recruitment, technology, and supporting members’ long-term business sustainability. The ASA – which serves distributors and manufacturers in the plumbing, heating, cooling, and piping (PHCP) and pipes, valves, and fittings (PVF) industries – also understands that, for better or worse, the tendency is to focus on the day-to-day versus the future.

The Three-Legged Stool

Wanting to increase the value that it delivers to its members – all while maintaining a long-term vision of success and allocating resources to move the association, and its members, toward the future – the ASA has built out a model that FEDA is considering and one that reflects the latter’s overall goals. Known as “Building One Future,” the strategic plan incorporates three overarching pillars: Project TALENT, D.NEXT, and VITALITY.

Here’s a snapshot of each component:

Project TALENT was designed as a significant long-term solution giving members access to talent that can help accelerate success. It includes a fast-track phase, whereby an industry narrative will be created within a detailed media campaign; a career portal will be built; and a career opportunity toolbox will be offered to ASA members. During phase two of this component, the initial phase results will be analyzed, revised, and then set up for industry-wide scale and impact.

D.NEXT will help ASA members invest in technologies that deliver customer-valued solutions. Through this new program, members will develop the mindset, clarity, and strategies to profitably transform their businesses. D.NEXT’s platform includes a new ASA Innovation Lab that will open at the University of Illinois’ Research Park. This Innovation Lab will be a hub of industry, supplier, distributor, and technology company alliances that fund prioritized digital innovations – these innovations will be available exclusively to ASA members.

VITALITY will enable ASA members – from local businesses to national enterprises – to look critically at their businesses and to act strategically in today’s rapidly changing, competitive business environment. This third phase is still in development, but is expected to include resources that will help members assess the state of their businesses; set meaningful goals and strategic plans for the future; and enhance their abilities to execute on those plans.

Asking the Tough Questions

The planning process behind Building One Future dates back to 2018, according to Beth Ladd, ASA’s vice president of innovation. That year, ASA assessed its position as an organization and identified critical issues posing a threat to the PHCP and PVF industry over the next 10 years. It came up with three key problem areas: Human capital, technology, and member spectrum. ASA has since engaged three Issue Strategic Action Teams (ISATs) to consider solutions to those critical issues, with some of the key questions being:

  • What would it take to recruit, over the next decade, 60,000 to 100,000 employees with the needed competencies to ensure leadership succession and a pipeline of qualified candidates to fill jobs, as anticipated workforce retirements threaten to gut the industry?
  •  What can ASA do to spur growth-oriented members to transform their companies strategically and successfully, using technology?
  • What can ASA do to raise members’ awareness about their positioning for the future?
  • What tools and resources can ASA provide that will yield a viable, relevant future for members?

Ladd says the answers to these questions helped push the organization to think beyond its traditional boundaries, and to consider the key pain points that are keeping its membership up at night. “As an association, we felt really strongly that we needed to do something outside of our norm,” she says, “and with an emphasis on addressing whatever our members felt were their biggest concerns for the future.”

The group is also working to understand the similarities and differences within its own membership base, Ladd says, knowing that the fourth-generation family-owned shop will have different needs than, say, a larger corporation with a presence in multiple different regions or states. This exercise has helped ASA better gauge its members’ needs, knowing that somewhere in-between those two extremes there lies a “majority of members who need our help figuring out how to build a strategy, attract and retain talent, and/or transition their businesses from one generation to the next,” she notes.

Recruitment and Retention

ASA’s members are understandably concerned about recruiting, developing, and retaining talent. “Everyone is struggling with this right now,” says Ladd, “not just in our industry, but in all industries.” She credits the large wave of retiring baby boomers and the fact that younger candidates haven’t been exposed to employment opportunities in the industrial sector with creating a situation that’s particularly difficult for ASA members.

Getting Out from Behind the Drywall

When she thinks about Building One Future and the positive implications it has for the PHCP and PVF industry, Ladd says the benefits go beyond just raising ASA’s awareness in the sector that it serves. “This really has nothing to do with ASA; it’s about the plumbing and HVAC supply industry as a whole,” says Ladd. “It’s about getting ourselves ‘out from behind the drywall,’ where our plumbing products are.”

By that, Ladd means that the industry as a whole tends to be “hidden” to the point where unless it’s someone who is actually touching and working with the products on a daily basis, many people don’t even realize what goes into the typical plumbing project. This low visibility transcends university supply chain programs, where students are often unaware of the potential job opportunities in industrial sectors.

“If students don’t know that these opportunities exist because they’re hidden behind the fabric of the companies that represent them, it’s difficult for us to get talent engaged and interested,” says Ladd, who has a positive outlook on the future of the PHCP and PVF industry, but believes there’s still work to be done when it comes to prepping the sector for future success.

“Will we win? I really don’t know at this point. But what I do know is that if we don’t play, there’s no chance of winning,” she says. “That’s the most important message for manufacturers and distributors across all industrial sectors right now. If you don’t at least try – and if you aren’t working to make important changes now – you’re not going to win in the future.”

Stepping up to the Technology Plate

As new generations prepare to take over the reins in the PHCP and PVF industry, they expect their employers to be tech-savvy and up to speed with mobile technology and other innovations. Through D.NEXT, the ASA wants to help members meet and exceed those expectations. “Getting the student lab up and running was the most urgent need, and perhaps the low-hanging fruit for this initiative,” says Ladd, who was hired last year to run the lab and also to get the initiative as a whole off the ground and running.

Ladd spent her first few months on the job talking to ASA members and to its Issue Strategic Action Teams. “I listened to their concerns about the industry, and heard their hopes and dreams,” says Ladd, who then assembled a report outlining how the ASA Innovation Lab would function and what it needed to get going (an initial budget, students to staff it, a list of initial projects, etc.). “We received approval from our board to move forward and set up the physical lab space.”

The ASA began remodeling physical space at the University of Illinois, where its new lab will open this summer. So far, the overall strategic plan is progressing well, according to Ladd. “The initial focus has been on getting D.NEXT up and running, followed by the talent management aspect of our plan,” she says. “We haven’t really started on VITALITY yet.”

Although the programs are still in various stages of development and implementation, together they represent how the ASA encourages members to see the challenges ahead and prepare today to solve them tomorrow. The immediacy of the day-to-day struggle of operating a business has only been heightened by the COVID-19 crisis, but Ladd believes companies must look beyond that. Quoting Walt Disney, she says, “Times and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future, and that is exactly what we are doing with ASA’s D.Next initiative. Thus far in 2020, we have secured a location, designed for a team of innovators, and completed renovation. Over 70 college students demonstrated interest in the D.Next lab and we have invited four to join our team for a summer 2020 beginning.”

The group has its work cut out for it and it knows it: “We’re determined to do something that moves the needle in our industry,” Ladd says. “We know that the odds are against us, but they’re already stacked against us whether we play or not.” 

Building One Future at the FEDA Annual Conference

To learn more about Building One Future and the ASA’s D.Next program – and how it could apply to foodservice equipment distributors and dealers – please attend the Education Foundation Presentation during the FEDA Annual Conference. The presentation will take place from 12 to 1 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 24 in the Hospitality B room on the fourth floor of the InterContinental San Diego.