by Stephen White
Without doubt the most action-packed show in years, SP Richards’ ABC has also been hailed as the best yet
"You’ve got a print solutions programme? Well, hey, so have we and we’ve just gone and bought someone to do it for us". "Look at how cool our Jan/San stuff is." "Well, that’s nothing, you should check out our new furniture division." "Yeah, we did that months ago…"
Since the last ABC show, the two dominant US wholesalers have locked themselves into an arms race of better technology, products and services. While it has been entertaining to observe, if you’re a dealer, you may have been left wondering where you fit into all of this ‘progress’.
In fact, your worst fears may have been compounded when SP Richards’ (SPR’s) VP of Marketing Jim O’Brien stepped up to the plate in the opening General Session and asked the audience: "Who are you-
However, O’Brien was setting an important theme for four energetic days at ABC. SPR has changed and now dealers have the opportunity to change with it.
Almost 4,000 people attended the show, now in its 12th year, with the majority being dealers. It was to those dealers that O’Brien made an impassioned plea to use their relationship with SP Richards to their advantage (pun not intended). Explaining the theme of this year’s convention, CSi, O’Brien broke the acronym into its constituent parts. He tackled the first two before introducing Wayne Beacham onto the stage.
Previously O’Brien had described ‘C’ as representing change, create, collaborate and challenge, but it was the first of these that he chose to concentrate on: "We want to talk about change. What do we mean by change? It can represent transition, excitement and even fear."
That fear referred to companies and individuals being hindered by a reluctance to change the way they operate within an uncertain economic environment. O’Brien warned that a collective failure to deal with it could "lead us to COD – cause of death".
However, this was not a speech dwelling on the negative but the positive as O’Brien (with the help of his dog-cum-coach Sparco!) told the delegation that it was vital to embrace the shift in the market. Urging attendees to look to SP Richards as they progress their businesses, he identified many of the initiatives that the wholesaler has launched in recent years, including Business Source, the only brand exclusively available to independent dealers in the US.
Feigning disappointment that some dealers have been "less than enthusiastic" about its potential, he joked: "After a period of introspection, I realised the only person I could talk to was Sparco."
He added: "Business Source is a brand and concept that came together a decade ago but now is its time."
Moving on from the focus on change, he turned the audience’s attention to the letter ‘S’ in CSi. This time he said that the most important word he could think of in 2010 is ‘strategy’.
CEO Wayne Beacham was next up to bat – or was that pitch – as he drew comparisons of doing business in 2010 with baseball.
He urged delegates to take time to prioritise and focus their efforts on the things they can do. He also emphasised that SPR’s own future was inseparably linked with dealers. SPR’s strategy plan is really its customers’ strategy plan.
"We will continue to keep costs down, invest in becoming more efficient and invest in our preferred suppliers," he pledged. "We will also continue building a differentiated offering and expanding the market."
Taking a bucket of baseballs, he told the audience to focus on what he called ‘Make the Pitch’. Beacham relayed a story of a rookie pitcher that didn’t want to throw at the club’s legendary batter. At first freezing, he eventually got back on the mound and threw three strikes. To Beacham, the comparison with independent dealers and their fight against the big box competition was obvious.
As he began pitching balls out to the audience he hollered: "We have no reason to fear the competition – make the pitch! Your people are your pitch, so is your customer service, your suppliers’ commitment, being local and you have SPR."
Echoing O’Brien’s earlier statement, he rallied the audience: "Remember who you are: the best, and you’re up to the challenge."
If Beacham was finding the right pitch with dealers, Larry Winget, the morning’s Keynote Speaker, was coming out swinging. The big hitting and inspirational speaker had been promoted as being a real livewire and he didn’t disappoint. He prefers to not be called a motivational speaker and he certainly eschewed light and fluffy rhetoric.
"Be happy and you’ll be successful- said Winget. "No! Do what you are paid to do and you’ll be successful!"
Although there was a little of the motivational speaker in the way he told the audience that "people can chose to be less but they can also chose to be more", Winget delivered a refreshing series of jokes ("I love Las Vegas, it’s loud, tacky and up all night – hey, just like me!") and insights ("hard work and excellence are the keys to success") into becoming better at what it is that you do.
Change was once again the main theme for the multi-talented speaker, writer and broadcaster. "Change is everything and with the recession it is only just getting started. The key is learning to deal with it. Doing business in a year from now will be a lot different from doing business a year ago. I know it’s a pain in the butt, but you’ve got to keep up with it."
O’Brien returned to the stage to conclude the General Session and open the day’s Seminar Programme, while urging the delegates to follow the third theme of CSi: "I is for investigate. Don’t waste the next three days, investigate as many things as possible. I asked earlier, who are you? The answer is you are our future."
Changing and adapting for the future formed the backbone of the seminars and workshops that followed. Whether it was David Nour asking for dealers to become pro-active on social networking or risk losing contact with their customers; Krista Moore on turning your sales reps into a crack team; Troy Harrison on better understanding your customers; Scott Deming on creating brand loyalty; or Kelly MacDonald arguing that, when it comes to price and branding, it’s difficult to compete with the big boxes so use as many online tools as possible; the message was: change is good and you better be ready to accept it. Ever more so if you want to make the most of your most powerful sales tool and your best advocate – the customer.
Skilfully, SPR chose to maintain an emphasis on dealers getting more out of the show than lazy hand-me-outs about its technology, products and services throughout the event. As any visitor to a Florida theme park knows, you can forgive the queue as long as you enjoy the ride. And if it’s really good you may even buy something in the store at the end. SPR blended a programme in Miami that placed state-of-the-art good practice tips and information first and SPR benefits second.
It was a move that was greatly appreciated. As one dealer told OPI, someway through the four-day event: "They used to push the SP Richards stuff on the first day – but, boy, the seminar programme has been fantastic."
Nearing the end of the convention, SPR’s Beacham certainly felt that ABC had gone up a notch or two this year. "This is the twelth one we’ve done – and every year we try to make it bigger and better. And from the enthusiasm we’re hearing from people it looks like we’ve got it right," he said.
Beacham quoted Thomas Edison during the show when he said: "Vision without execution is hallucination – we have a vision that can be executed for everyone." A tongue- in-cheek reference to United Stationers’ dealer event, perhaps, but also a reiteration of SPR’s commitment to its own independent dealers.
The last season of CSi Miami closed with an episode called All Fall Down – if SPR wanted to convince dealers that its own fortunes are tied to those of the dealers, then it put together a powerful case.
Whether or not everything on offer from SPR, in terms of services and products, is suitable for their own businesses, talking to dealers it was clear that the ABC event itself gave them plenty of ways to navigate through a challenging environment. They may now also feel it is one that is filled with more opportunities than they had considered before driving down Miami Beach.