You know “Old Joe.” At one time, every electrical distributor seemed to have an Old Joe. Joe was often a proud service veteran who started with the company after coming home from World War II.
He was a jack-of-all-trades who knew the company’s warehouse inventory as well as he knew what was in each of dozens of coffee cans or baby food jars on the workbench in his garage where he stored and sorted nails, screws and nuts & bolts.
Joe’s knowledge of the company’s inventory was so thorough that all of the other inside salespeople would always stop by his desk and ask him how to cross-reference oddball electrical products. And if he didn’t know the answer off of the top of his head, he would whip through one of dozens of product catalogs on his desk and have an answer in a minute or two.
Joe loved to tell tales of the old Cardex system that tracked inventory, but he was an eager convert to the company’s first computerized inventory system back in the 1980s, and adapted fast when manufacturers started putting their product catalogs on CD-ROMs in the 1990s.
He was a techie at heart, and an early adopter of the internet. When product information began moving to manufacturers’ web-sites and eventually to IDEA’s data warehouse in the late 1990s, Joe was right on top of the trend.
Old Joe loved learning about all of the new technology continually transforming the electrical industry. But when Joe turned 70, he decided it was time to spend more time with his grandkids and wanted to do the traveling he and his wife always dreamed about. The company gave him an extra-special retirement party and told him to come back and visit anytime.
Hundreds if not thousands of “Old Joes” in the electrical wholesaling industry probably retired in the past 10 to 20 years. Once they left this industry, they took with them a remarkable amount of product knowledge and customer relationships that they built over the years. If distributors were thinking ahead, they made sure their Old Joe was mentoring the next generation of employees, and making sure the next generation had the resources to provide just as much service to customers as Old Joe did in his years with the company.
Electrical distributors are in the middle of another generational shift. The first wave of Baby Boomers that Old Joe taught are now starting to retire, and they are mentoring the Millennials, Gen X, Gen Y and now Gen Z men and women now entering the industry.
This will be an interesting time of transition in the industry that will have to blend and mix technology like artificial intelligence (AI) with the personal touch that many electrical contractors, facility personnel and other customers still expect and will continue to enjoy.
AI is being incorporated into ERP systems to help distributors predict when customers are ready to buy products, and to suggest related products that they have purchased in the past for a certain type of installation. When distributors need to plot out delivery routes, Waze, Google maps and other GPS systems use AI to continually get better at selecting the fastest, most fuel-efficient route that day to save the most time and money. Old Joe knew most of this stuff in his head decades before anyone ever thought we would be talking about artificial intelligence in this industry.
I will always miss Old Joe, but it’s nice to know that AI will be there to help distributors do some of the things he did with inventory, sales, truck routes and business forecasts, and to help them remind customers when some electrical equipment on the plant floor is due for maintenance or replacement.
If you want to learn more about how artificial intelligence is being used in the electrical industry, on Tuesday, July 23 Epicor and Electrical Wholesaling will be presenting a webinar on the topic: “5 Ways Electrical Distributors Can Harness the Power of Artificial Intelligence.”