As this magazine counts down to its 100th anniversary in 2020, I was struck by how many things in the industry haven’t changed over the years.
When I stepped off the elevator on the 36th floor of the McGraw-Hill Building in midtown Manhattan back in Nov. 1982 to begin my job with Electrical Wholesaling as an associate editor, this industry was in many ways a very different business.
IBM had just launched the personal computer the previous year, and it would be several years before personal computers became commonplace in the industry. Computers eventually replaced many of the more manual processes in distributorships — like the Cardex inventory management system that required writing down every product transaction onto individual file cards that were kept in massive bins — but it’s surprising how many other things remain the same in the business.
As the electrical wholesaling industry’s publication of record for the past 99 years, the pages of this magazine chronicled the people, companies, ideas and technologies that changed the business, as well as the business basics that matter as much today as they did in April 1920 when the magazine’s first issue rolled off the printing press.
Leading up to EW’s 100th anniversary issue next April, we will be looking at the basic building blocks that have supported this industry’s growth and resilience over the years. Let’s look at three of them now.
The electrical industry has proven to be stronger than the many challenges that threatened to replace it over the years. Think back to 1990s, when Home Depot started going after electrical contractors. Anyone who lived through this era won’t forget the howls of outrage every time an electrical manufacturer inked a deal with Home Depot. But an electrical distributor never went out of business because of competition from Big Orange.
Just when the furor over Home Depot started to die down in the late 1990s, the dot-com competitors came onto the scene with big ideas on how the channels of distribution would lead through their websites instead of through the thousands of local distributor branches. Electrical distributors survived this threat, too, once the dot-coms burned through all their cash and their business model never quite worked the way it did on the whiteboards in their Ivy League MBA classrooms. We think the industry will survive Amazon and other online purchasing options, too.
Despite all of the acquisitions, this is still a local business. While updating Electrical Marketing newsletter’s database of distributor acquisitions the other day (available as part of a $99 annual subscription to the newsletter), I was struck by two things — the huge number of acquisitions that have taken place since the 1980s and the fact that in the more than 200 acquisitions listed in this database, the branch networks of the acquired companies have for the most part remained relatively intact.
Look at the distributors that the biggest acquirers purchased in your local market, and then think about how many of the branches of those companies are still operating. The local branch is one of the basic building blocks of this industry, and despite Amazon’s best efforts to provide alternative purchasing and delivery options, they aren’t going away anytime soon.
It’s still very much a people business. The success or failure of any business in this industry still has just as much to do with how any employee handles their piece of each and every business transaction, as it does the price or technical specifications of the product. A poorly packed order, inaccurate return authorization, out-of-stock item, rude receptionist, counter worker or truck driver, or any one of a hundred other daily customer touches can still blow up a business relationship that took years to build.
I hope you enjoy our coverage over the next few months on the evergreen issues of the electrical industry as the magazine’s editors begin our celebration of Electrical Wholesaling’s 100th anniversary.