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Forging Links for Success:
The Distributor's Role Today

By Will Somers

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from a speech, "Forging Links For Success, " given by Will Somers, President of Somers Corp., parent company of Mersman Waldron Furniture, Celina, Ohio, as featured speaker at the National Wholesale Furniture Association's spring banquet at High Point, April 1987.

   My goal is to talk to you a little about changes that I see coming in the furniture business, and how distributors can profit from them.
   A useful metaphor is that of the distributor as part of a chain. For many years, people talked about distribution chains. That's become less fashionable. People now talk about distribution networks. I think that distribution from a manufacturing location to a retail customer is not a network at all. It's a chain. A chain is much stronger because it's linked "arm in arm." A network is more fragile. Like a spiderweb, it can be ruptured easily.
   You can't push a chain. You need to pull a chain. A chain is only as strong its weakest link. So you can't pull too hard. You need to manage a supply chain from end to end. If a link is weak, you'll break the chain.
   Unfortunately, this has happened in a lot of furniture relationships lately. Manufacturers are falling by the wayside. Certain links in the chain weren't strong to begin with. Others were allowed to get rusty. To function as a chain, each link must feature its own strengths and keep them polished.
   To be a strong link (as a distributor), you want to use the strengths you now have: strong sales force; customer relationships; geographic presence and manufacturer relationships. The way to this is through three specific actions: developing skill in electronic data interchange, concentration on a very few manufacturers and a redirection of your sales force towards real retail training. Before I ask you to accept these somewhat heretical notions, however, like to tell you why I feel they are imperative and why some commonly proposed alternatives won't work.

   A key reason for the declining number of entities in the furniture business is that we've done a much worse job than some other industries that are more highly concentrated. I'd like to give you a really graphic example: cigarettes and tobacco products.
   Over the period from 1981 to 1986, furniture and bedding sales have grown from $22.1 billion to $30.6 billion. Not a shoddy performance. Except when you compare it with tobacco products, for example. Despite everything the government has done to shoot this industry in the foot: warnings, unfavorable publicity and the Surgeon General, tobacco product sales over the same period have grown from $22.7 billion to $34.2 billion.
   There are three crucial links that I'd like to concentrate on today in overcoming these problems. In doing so, you will be strengthening the chain we discussed, or as I said in the title of my speech, "Forging Links for Success."
   A strong sales force is a crucial element in a strong chain. For example, there's a firm out in
, LD Brinkman, that has 120 sales representatives in its 13-state area. There's not a manufacturer in the country that can bring that kind of firepower to the street.
  Manufacturers cannot possibly provide the sales coverage needed to develop proper floor sales knowledge. To accomplish this, there needs to be thorough training. Reps, both your road salesmen and our manufacturing reps, have a key part to play in the conduct of this training. For our men to be well trained they have to clearly accept the goals of our company and yours and perform against them. They link one arm with you and one arm with us. In turn, road salesmen link one arm with you and one arm with the customer. To us, this is the strongest kind of chain, one composed of strong, independent units connected at both ends with the right kind of anchors, that is, strong manufacturers and retailers.
  The second key thought for a strong chain is improved communications. I know you work hard at doing this every  day but today I'm going to stress to you the value of electronic communications. A number of manufacturers have already experimented with on-site computer systems at retail, often in conjunction with gallery programs. We have created a system which has been quite successful. Its called Comfortables. It has been placed in 29 or 30 stores. While not yet perfect, it allows us to get an order from a retailer one day and begin cutting the upholstery fabric the next if we wish.
  The average time it takes to special order a typical upholstered piece is 56 days. The bulk of that time is paper- work delay. The actual manufacturing time for upholstery is only a couple of weeks.
  Obviously, both developing the knowledge to provide thorough training, and establishing complex but durable electronic links like these require close working relationships with a limited number of like-minded manufacturers. This is the reason for my third heretical notion: that you limit your sources, and become less opportunistic about changing to what some may perceive as a "better line. "

   Now once you create these links between distributors and the manufacturer and the retailer, obviously you're cutting yourself in for a piece of the action and doing it in a very major way: you become a very strong link in the chain.
   Your other key links are manufacturers who provide trained reps who accept this type of technology, retailers who don't look at it as a threat and product suppliers who can plan such a system and actually make it work.
   If we do utilize the rep relationships we have, enhance them with electronic communications, and concentrate our relationships, I believe we have a real opportunity to materially strengthen the distribution chain. All in all, we can forge a chain which is bright, closely linked and which brings success to all of us.