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The Dance of the Survivors

May 1, 2003
In the struggle of the dot-coms to survive lies a lesson for electrical distributors. Today's turmoil in Web world and its impact on the electrical wholesaling

In the struggle of the dot-coms to survive lies a lesson for electrical distributors. Today's turmoil in Web world and its impact on the electrical wholesaling industry reminds me of a saying an old soccer coach of mine used at the beginning of each season: The names change, but the game remains the same.

As dot-com companies have found in recent months, financial performance does matter - no matter how they do business. Investors now want to bankroll fledgling dot-coms based on profitability.

Other techno-bubbles that burst in the 20th century offer insight into what may happen next in the dot-com world. According to a recent article in The New York Times, from 1900 to 1925 more than 3,000 automobile start-ups were cranking out cars, some with three wheels, others steered by a ship-like tiller. We all know which companies are left from that shakeout: Ford, Chrysler and General Motors.

About 60 years later, a similar situation existed at the dawn of the personal computer era, when investors bankrolled now-forgotten companies such as Eagle Computer, Northstar Computer, Kaypro and Word Star. In the summer of 1983, the bubble burst and many of those technology stocks collapsed. From the wreckage emerged a handful of giants, including Microsoft, Dell, Sun Microsystems, Apple Computer and a handful of software developers and hardware manufacturers.

I am not suggesting that only a handful of electrical distributors will be left standing after the dot-coms sort themselves out. Far from it. The distributors in each local market doing the best job of stocking the right products in the right place at the right price will continue to be the top dogs.

When home centers took dead aim on the market in the 1980s, electrical distributors doing things right survived that onslaught. Indeed, more home centers ended up as road kill from competing with Home Depot and Lowe's (witness Builder's Square and HQ) than electrical distributors.

A similar scenario will play out with dot-coms. Things happen fast in Internet years. In the next year or two, you will see most Web-based companies that sell electrical products pummel each other to death. Few will survive. In fact, some industry observers say new Web merchants only have a one-in-10 chance of surviving - at best.

However, the handful of online electrical merchants that carve out a niche in this market will control an enormous amount of the online transactions. Indeed, in an industry where about $80 billion in sales flow through the warehouses of 8,000-plus distributors, the Web entrepreneur that captures even a few points of market share will make a nice living.

It's a pretty safe bet that one of the survivors will operate a "trading exchange" where a large chunk of the electrical industry's online transactions will take place. It will probably be similar to the online marketplaces that Daimler-Chrysler, Ford and General Motors envision for the auto industry to handle $240 million in annual purchases, or a consortium named "Twentypounds" that 20 large general contractors with a combined buying power of $25 billion are building for e-commerce in the construction industry.

It's still too early to tell which of the dot-coms will be the next Ford, GM, Microsoft or Dell Computer, and which companies will be the forgotten builders of the three-wheeled vehicles of years gone by. Just make sure the company you are driving in this battle has the horsepower to continue getting customers what they want, when and where they want it - and at the right price.