If you think a distributor is merely a source of the hardware, plywood, glue or finishes that you need, you'd be missing out on a big part of what today's distributor offers - information and guidance. "Bring us in as a partner," says Greg Rewers, vice president of marketing for Louis and Company.

" For years the typical distributor inventoried product for delivery to their customer network, writing customer product replenishment orders via a routine milk-run sales process," says Bill Sauter, president of OHARCO Inc. "Today and in the future our role as distribution partner is to help our customers grow their business model through participating sales efforts, financial counseling and sound, ethical business practices."

First and foremost, though, it's important, says Rewers, to be a steady, reliable source of products for customers. Beyond that the distributor needs to work to be one step ahead of the curve, he says. "Customers are looking for real guidance," he says. "We can put customers in touch with experts."

Information is critical

Whether it's new construction techniques or what hardware is best for each shop's particular business, distributors are becoming more than a source of products - they're becoming purveyors of information.

Today distributors need to be partners in the business of their customers for both to be successful, says Mike Steck, president of Alpine Sales Inc. "Delivering a product is not enough anymore," says Steck. "You have to provide solutions to your customer to grow their business, which in turn grows your own. "It is now important to know who is your customers' customer and what drives them."

Distributors have become aware of the growing desire for information. "Thanks to the Internet," says Pat Abbe, president of cabinetparts.com, "people expect growing amounts of pertinent information for their projects and products. There is a growing wealth of information available and we think the best distributors will need to be in the forefront of this trend."

Providing information to a customer is critical to building long-term relationships with customers, says Cory Bonnet, director of marketing and advertising for Distributor Service Inc. "We just want our customers to come to us for answers even if they don't buy from us."

Change in inventory

In the past, distributors were about selling products or inventorying them for sale. "Currently, we are a next day, same day logistical solution for our customers, reducing cycle times and increasing throughput," says Robert Bradley, Jr., CEO of E.B. Bradley Co. "In the future, more and more we will finance inventory placements at more and more of our customers' facilities, reducing cycle times to instantaneous access of components and reducing costs for all."

Knowledgeable sales staff

What's really changing is that cabinetmakers are placing greater value on their time. Distributors realize that they need to put more time into making their sales staff the best, and the most up-to-date in new products and information, says Rewers. "The sales person is becoming more and more valuable."

Cabinetmakers often have no idea of how much a conversation with their sales reps could help them and how much the sales reps would love to share what they know, says Rewers. Cabinet shops should ask serious questions of their distributor. "Use us as a resource. We're not used enough. Bring us in as a partner," says Rewers.

Most distributors agree that it's important that their customers find success. "We expect all of our associates to be looking for ways to make our customers more successful whether it is a product or service issue or discussing ways they may look at improving their businesses," says Gary McKillican, president of McKillican International. "Generally, there are more products and suppliers for customers to choose from than ever before. We need to bring a value package to our customer, not just product and price," he adds.

It's important to offer not just superior service, but technical support as well, says Lisa Bancalari, director of operations at Colorspec Coatings International Inc. "Our staff is constantly being educated on the latest products and their usefulness to our clients. We are there to help them be profitable in the finishing room."

Working with manufacturers

The resources of the distributors have changed, says Roger Debnam, president of Wurth Wood Group. "We now have companies that can afford to bring critical added values to the table. Distributors and manufacturers alike are quicker to bring more innovation and quality to market," says Debnam.

It's becoming a trend for distributors to work more closely with manufacturers. "The distributor and manufacturer have to be operating together," says Rewers. "We spend time with the manufacture," he adds, sharing information that the sales reps gather from the shops.

"More and more," says Debnam, "distributors will be providing significant input to the strategic direction of progressive manufacturers and rely on the strength of the distributor to market in their arena. Globalization will create new space for the distribution company that has the where-with-all to source on critical needs. A global economy drives all of us to tune up and tune into the daily changing needs of our markets."

The distributor often influences the marketplace, says Andrew Wernick, president of Industrial Plywood Inc. Customers are kept informed as to what's available, what's been dropped due to lack of success and when a new product comes along that could benefit their business.

In conclusion

In the end, the distributor should be acting on behalf of the cabinetmaker. "The role of this distribution company is to be an advocate and a source of information to our clients," says Bancalari. "We are not here just to sell stuff."

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