The Real Top 200

<b><i>If Yogi Berra really said, &#8220;You can learn a lot just by observing,&#8221; maybe he was talking about EW's Top 200 largest electrical distributors.</b></i>

As EW's editors wrap up another Top 200 ranking, we once again come away with a ton of fresh insight into the electrical business. We always learn much more about the market than just which companies logged the most sales or grew the fastest last year. In this case, it's the story behind the story that reveals the most about the electrical industry. Here is what we learned.

All the economic forecasts you hear about the sorry state of nonresidential construction are true. Just in case you were living under a stack of pallets for the past few years and didn't hear nonresidential construction hasn't improved as much as hoped (or forecast), the Top 200 analysis on page 18 will give you a grim slap of reality. But our research also revealed that MRO sales will fuel growth for many industrially-oriented distributors in 2011.

The green market is fueling sales. On the sunnier side of the street is the market for green products, particularly for lighting retrofits. Many distributors expecting double-digit growth are pegging their expectations in part on the demand for lighting retrofits.

More distributors and their customers are interested in the solar market and LEDs than you think. You may be tired of hearing about the business potential of photovoltaics and LEDs, but as you will read in this month's cover story, many Top 200 distributors are already stocking these products. Equally surprising is how many distributors reported that their customers are asking more questions about LEDs and PV equipment than other new-technology products. EW's editors were also surprised to find out 29 Top 200 companies are already stocking electric-vehicle charging equipment.

Electrical distributors are all over iPads and other tablet computers. Think iPads and other tablet computers are only for geeky folks who always gravitate toward “The Next Big Thing”? Think again. Several dozen Top 200 respondents are already using tablet computers and an equal number are thinking about buying some within the next 12 months.

Distributors rely on a combination of sources for their product data. When asked where they get their product data, Top 200 respondents painted an interesting picture of the state of digital data in the electrical market, with many respondents using a mix of data from the Industry Data Warehouse (IDW), Trade Service Corp. and direct manufacturer updates. The most respondents (74 companies) still use direct manufacturer data. Trade Service Corp. (69 companies), and the IDW (63 companies) are also major providers.

Acquisition activity is starting to percolate. While the number of acquisitions during the past 18 months is still rather small compared to the go-go years, from everything EW's editors hear from some of the biggest players in the M&A game, we will see a new wave of acquisitions crashing onto the electrical market within the next year. Stay tuned.

An amazing number of electrical distributors continue to be willing to share their sales numbers and other company data. In these still-uncertain economic times, we were blown away by how many companies provide this information. Sixty-seven percent - 134 distributors — of the entire listing provided their sales data, either for publication or for ranking purposes.

It's getting harder to come up with 200 electrical distributors with more than $15 million in annual sales. EW's editors see a shrinking pool of distributors big enough to be ranked in the Top 200. The biggest single reason is acquisitions. In some years, we have seen 10 to 20 Top 200 distributors acquired. The cumulative effect of that many distributors being acquired drains the pool of potential Top 200 companies.

If your company has at least $15 million in sales, please respond to next year's survey. Being ranked makes you part of a rather elite industry club, and the marketing benefits of being a Top 200 distributor can't be overlooked. You will also be helping Electrical Wholesaling showcase electrical distributors as the channel of choice in the electrical market.

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