The past year has changed life all across America. Millions of people lost jobs, while millions more went remote. But some industries had to simultaneously adapt to the pandemic while staying open and meeting customer needs — including wholesale distribution.
I recently asked Eric Hoplin, president and CEO of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, to talk about how distributors have weathered the pandemic, their role in getting essential supplies into the right hands, and what stories the industry is telling to Americans. Read on for our Q&A.
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It’s been a year since the coronavirus radically changed daily life in the US. While every distributor’s experience is different, what are you hearing from distribution leaders about the lessons learned?
Hoplin: The resiliency of this industry is one of its most impressive traits, and it has been evident throughout the pandemic. Through countless stories, we have heard that distribution can make a difference and, more than that, distribution is essential. From sourcing new products when demand appeared overnight to fast-tracking technology upgrades, the industry has risen to the occasion time and time again.
But what has been most impactful are the endless stories about how we are helping people — hearing from the companies that moved Heaven and Earth to help set up temporary hospitals, get PPE to companies on the brink of closure without it, and, of course, the donations that so many of our companies made to help meet the needs of nonprofits and the public in an unprecedented environment. By stepping up during the pandemic, many distributors developed new and innovative ideas and creative solutions to serve their communities and customers amidst these unprecedented challenges while at the same time keeping their employees safe and their doors open.
A good example of this is an NAW member that is a distributor of building products. They immediately launched a campaign encouraging their customers to buy online as a safe way of buying. Soon after, at branches, they set up kiosks to allow customers to ask questions and place orders, and drive-through lanes with self-service checkouts. They also put orders into lockers and behind fenced-in areas with digital security for 24/7 pickup. The lesson this distributor learned, and which can be applied to other businesses, is to grab opportunities without hesitation and to act quickly and boldly to offer new customer services appropriate for the changing customer needs.
Vaccine rollout is accelerating, and distribution is a part of that success, as NAW has made clear through a recent ad campaign. Who is NAW hoping to reach through this campaign, and what actions does NAW want to see as a result of the campaign?
Hoplin: We are taking this moment — where the actions of wholesaler-distributors are so visible and critical to Americans — to tell the story of our industry. We touch every sector of the economy and move goods and services to every corner of the country, yet our importance as the central partner in the supply chain is not always top of mind for most Americans. Distributors solve customer problems and deliver for customers every day in every congressional district across the country, and we want our elected officials and policymakers to know it.
There’s still a lot to do in terms of vaccinations, not to mention testing and treatments for COVID-19. What additional roles does NAW see for the wholesaler-distributor industry in vaccinating the country and opening back up?
Hoplin: As vaccine supply increases, it is more and more important to rely on the built-in advantages and innovative capabilities found in the existing supply chain. Over decades, the distribution industry has developed the world’s leading network, knowledge, technology and logistics expertise to move products efficiently and safely across the country. By utilizing our existing comprehensive distribution channels, the government can create a much larger and efficient network of vaccinators — reaching more hospitals, pharmacies, clinics, dental offices and community health centers, helping get the vaccine into the hands of the medical professionals whom people trust.
Beyond directly distributing the vaccine, NAW and our members are working with organizations like the Detroit Lions and the Pittsburgh Steelers by tapping into our network to source things like 300,000 pairs of medical-grade gloves, massive quantities of sanitizer and medical waste containers — all of which will enable them to help vaccinate hundreds of thousands of people.
Looking ahead, as supply becomes more available, we’ll share best practices with our members for how they can best incentivize their employees to get vaccinated, either by offering onsite vaccines or offering flexible work schedules and other benefits to encourage their workforce. Every piece of this is important, because the faster we can distribute the vaccine and the easier we can make it for more people to get the vaccine, the faster we will reach herd immunity, which will save lives and help get the economy moving again.
Many distributors have stepped up with in-demand products related to testing, safety equipment, cleaning supplies and more. Why were distributors able to adapt so well, and what can other businesses learn from that?
Hoplin: It comes back to the resiliency of this industry and the role distributors have always played in helping their customers, keeping businesses running and sustaining the economy. Keeping the supply chain moving in normal times is no easy feat — and during a pandemic, it has been a testament to the grit, resilience and expertise found in wholesale distribution and their 5.9 million employees across the country. Distributors already move fast, work nimbly and maintain great relationships with suppliers — and those qualities helped them succeed despite significant challenges.
I talk with NAW members every day and have heard incredible stories about how they have adapted their business. Early in the pandemic when PPE was scarce, one member company relied on years of relationship-building to patch together enough sources of filters so they could fill their orders — and in one instance prevented a baby formula manufacturer from shutting down due to a lack of PPE. Another member distributes tee shirts and other casual wear and saw their business crater. They adapted and converted their product line to masks, which met a critical need for the nation and kept their business afloat until the core customers started coming back.
Resiliency and adaptation are in the DNA of every distributor — they do it constantly to provide their customers with excellent service and it has served them well as they weather the pandemic.
Remote work isn’t an option for countless employees at wholesaler-distributors and their partners. What should the public know about the efforts distributors have made to keep employees and customers safe?
Hoplin: Think about the extraordinary events taking place this time last year — virtually overnight, the economy was turned on its head. While many Americans sheltered at home, distributors went to work and kept the supply chain moving, ensuring grocery stores, pharmacies, health providers and businesses were restocked quickly and safely. The men and women of the distribution industry truly are among the unsung heroes of this pandemic. Without them, the American economy would have cratered.
Our members prioritized the safety of their employees and quickly implemented safety measures that involved testing, masks, distancing, and handwashing — all the things we’ve become accustomed to — they were among the first to implement. Importantly, these safety measures have worked as members have reported very low infection rates among their employees.
For readers who aren’t as familiar with distribution, a couple quick background questions. One, how do medical distributors fit into the long supply chain that is developing, testing, making and delivering vaccines and other medications?
Hoplin: In just the medical sector of the economy, our national network distributes medicine and other vaccines to 500,000 pharmacies, hospitals, clinics, physicians’ and dental offices, first responders and nursing homes every day. They take the healthcare products Americans need and move them efficiently and effectively to every corner of the country.
Two, when the average consumer goes to the store or orders online, they might not be aware of the role of distribution. What are some common — maybe hidden — ways that distribution is affecting their lives?
Hoplin: The wholesale distribution industry moves $6 trillion of materials, goods and products each year. Consumers know the retailer or recognize the manufacturer of products they use every day, but it is very likely a distributor is the reason the product reached that consumer in the first place. There are many ways distribution impacts people’s lives. As we look back at this past year, I’d encourage people to think about where they got their food and medicine, because distribution kept the store shelves stocked. As people made improvements to their homes and yards, distributors moved the electrical, plumbing, lumber, plastics, electronics, grass and equipment needed to make their homes a better place to shelter with their families. As they engaged with any number of businesses, schools, churches and restaurants, NAW members distributed the PPE that helped them operate safely, which saved millions of jobs and kept the economy moving.
You arrived at NAW in the midst of this pandemic. How have you onboarded yourself and been visible to members despite this challenging environment?
Hoplin: Leadership and listening have been an important part of my onboarding. With a pandemic impacting every facet of our lives and social and political turmoil gripping the nation in ways we haven’t seen in decades, there wasn’t time for a structured ramp-up. I had to start leading on day one and have worked closely with the incredible team at NAW and with our members to help meet the challenge of effectively distributing the vaccine and make the case to the new cadre of political leaders about the essential role the wholesale distribution industry plays in our economy.
I also recognized that I didn’t have all the answers, so I spent time every day talking with members to hear their challenges and the role they have played in keeping the economy moving this past year, and to understand the opportunities they see ahead for the industry and the role NAW can play to help the industry succeed. It certainly wasn’t the easiest time to take the helm of this important organization, but the members have come to know me through my leadership and listening.