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Changing of the Guard at IMARK

July 1, 2007
After almost 22 years, Steve Cunningham is getting ready to retire as IMARK Group Inc.'s president and CEO. During that time, the buying/marketing group has grown from 20 distributors with combined annual sales of approximately $200 million to 172 members with total sales of $8 billion-plus.

After more than 20 years with Steve Cunningham at the helm, IMARK Group has named Bob Smith as senior vice president. He will join IMARK at the end of this month as senior vice president and be elected as IMARK's president and CEO at the buying/marketing group's annual meeting in October. (See sidebar on Smith on next page.) Cunningham will continue full-time with the group until year-end to complete its management transition plan. He will then be available in a consulting capacity.

Cunningham doesn't plan to begin another career. He turned 66 years old in June and is ready to retire. “This is a great job and I love it,” he said in an exclusive interview with Electrical Marketing and Electrical Wholesaling. “So I'm not retiring to start a new career or a new job. If I wanted a job full-time, I'd keep the one I have. And that would be fine with everyone.”

He plans to continue serving on the board of directors for the National Cooperative Bank, Washington, D.C., and remain as chairman of the board for the National Cooperative Business Association, Washington, D.C. In addition, he wants to spend more time with his family, which includes his wife, Sally, six children and 12 grandchildren.

In the more than two decades that Cunningham has served as IMARK president and as the top executive for the other groups that became part of IMARK, he steered the organization from a buying group to a full-fledged buying/marketing group. “At this point today, I think we are recognized as a premiere marketing organization,” he says. “Our marketing tools and programs are used very, very widely by our members and preferred suppliers and by reps in the field. Our meetings have evolved into marketing events.”

Cunningham began his career in the electrical industry in 1986 as president of Middle Atlantic Electrical Distributors (MAED), Forestville, Md., a group that merged over the years with other buying groups to eventually become IMARK. In 1987, that organization merged with Southern Independent Electrical Distributors (SIED), Atlanta. The combined organization became The Independent Electrical Distributors (TIED). In 1996, TIED merged with Western Independent Electrical Distributors (WIED) to become IMARK Group Inc., which took its name from the phrase “Independent MARKeting.”

Marketing groups have come a long way from their initial role of offering their members a means of obtaining volume-purchase rebates. It's the networking, education and sharing of ideas among noncompeting distributors that have made the difference, he says.

One of IMARK's most popular events is the IMARK Showcase. The showcase format was first used at SIED meetings. At first, the Showcase was held every other year, but it has evolved into an annual event because of popular demand. “It's a unique event,” he says. “Nobody in the industry runs anything like it. It's a trade show with product booths, coupled simultaneously with a format that everyone is using these days: strategic one-on-one meetings or appointments arranged in advance between our members and our suppliers.

“The other thing that makes the IMARK Showcase unique is that in addition to targeting the owners of our member companies and senior executives, our showcase is attended by many working-level people from our member distributors. That's unique. These are people who rarely go to a National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED) meeting. They rarely go to any of the industry conventions.”

The Showcase's popularity continues to grow, and this year approximately 1,200 people attended. While IMARK has continuously tweaked the meeting and made improvements over the years, Cunningham says the formula is simple: “Get the right people to any town at the same time, shove a little food under the door once in a while so they don't starve to death, and then just get out of their way. That cooks.”

One of the core benefits of IMARK is networking. “The technique is not patented,” he says. “If you have an organization with lots of really good members, when you get these people together and they share their experiences with each other, the quality of the information being shared is industry-leading.”

IMARK has also made giant strides in its Web site, he says. “We now have a Web site that is light years ahead of where it was five years ago in terms of being a business-utility site,” he says. “The public side of it is very ordinary brochureware. But there are three private domains accessible to members, suppliers and sales reps to do their market planning, monitor their progress and do their gain-share plans, etc. They can look monthly to see what their progress is and calculate their potential income. All kinds of directories are sliced and diced different ways. There is information on every supplier — e-commerce capabilities, the transaction sets they are capable of doing, etc. There is a profile of every member and every supplier so a user can go in there and look up comprehensive contact information. It's an interactive business tool.”

One new feature of the Web site is online training. Cunningham is very excited about the rapid acceptance and growth of IMARK University. “It's an on-line training capability linked to our Web site, where IMARK-preferred suppliers provide short training modules on product or commercial selling opportunities,” he says. “BlueVolt is our technology partner. Suppliers are creating modules with quizzes and IMARK member associates can take the courses on-line. Information on course completion is made available back to the suppliers so they can follow up in the field with those who have taken their courses. We also provide links through our site to NAED's Learning Center and to our suppliers' on-line training resources.”

One of the group's newest areas of interest is an Energy Market Task Force. This committee brings together IMARK distributors with expertise or interest in energy-savings market opportunities, supplier experts and an industry consultant knowledgeable in that area. Says Cunningham, “The group is in the process of defining the opportunities, determining if they are real (not just talk), and exploring how IMARK can develop resources, education, best practices, etc. to capitalize on them. This is a work in progress, and we expect to have results in the next quarter.”

Cunningham says IMARK's biggest challenge will be to make sure it doesn't get out of step with its constituents. “The members own the organization, so you dare not get out of step with where independent electrical distribution needs to go in the industry,” he says. “The core of our business model is the relationship with a group of preferred suppliers. So we must keep up with the deliverables we need to produce to continue earning the income we're getting,” he says.

Cunningham believes IMARK is beyond a point of critical mass when it comes to being threatened by industry consolidation. “We are way beyond the point where we would get consolidated into difficulty or danger of becoming irrelevant,” he says. “We're large enough to be beyond critical mass and will thrive as long as we continue to deliver to the people with whom we are in business.

“If you look at IMARK and A-D's electrical division, we are the two largest entities in the industry, including all the chains, and we are twice the size of most of them in the purchasing power harnessed under our umbrella. So as independents evolve and perhaps consolidate or become part of entities that don't do business with our groups, I think there's a long way to go before the business model is jeopardized or our value in the channel is jeopardized.

“When we sit down with a supplier and they say, ‘Our share of the market is 10 percent. But we think we have a 12 percent to 13 percent market share among the IMARK members.’ Then we are getting our job done.”

Meet Bob Smith


Bob Smith comes to IMARK with 30 years of business experience. While attending Philadelphia University in his home town, Smith was drafted by the New York Yankee organization and played for a Yankee farm team between his junior and senior years. After graduating with a B.S. in marketing, Smith joined Jenkins Brothers, a family-owned manufacturer of industrial pipe valves and fittings. He held various positions including sales representative, product line manager, specifications representative and expediter, starting in New York City. While at Jenkins, Smith attended Long Island University and earned an MBA.

Other work experience

Smith joined C.R. Bard Inc., a $1 billion medical apparatus manufacturer in Syracuse, N.Y. He held positions in sales and marketing and was promoted to division manager of the company's Medical Systems unit in Murray Hill, N.J.

Industry experience

In 1985, Smith joined Pass & Seymour as a regional sales manager. He was later promoted to national sales manager. Smith then joined Affiliated Distributors as the director of their industrial pipe valves and fittings division. In 1996, he returned to Pass & Seymour/Legrand. He progressed through the organization to vice president of sales, vice president of sales and marketing, and most recently, executive vice president of sales, responsible for sales in domestic and international distribution channels for the Legrand brands of Pass & Seymour, OnQ, Wiremold and Cablofil.

Family life

Smith and his wife, Kathy, have two children, Colin, who is beginning college, and Kyle, who is in her sophomore year in high school. They will relocate to Davidsonville, Md., a suburb east of Washington, D.C.

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