The Distribution Blog

Q&A: UnleashWD Founder Dirk Beveridge on the Distribution Industry's Future

July 9, 2021

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Dirk Beveridge is the founder of UnleashWD, an innovation and strategy firm that transforms distributors into nimble and innovative market leaders. This summer, he’s traveling the country in an RV to create a docuseries that highlights the movers and shakers behind distribution. We Supply America captures the stories of these businesses and the people behind them, and it’s a project we’re big supporters of. We’re proud to sponsor the tour.

We recently talked to Beveridge about the We Supply America project and asked for his thoughts on the state of the industry in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Proton: What was the genesis of We Supply America?

Dirk Beveridge: Let’s back up to early last year. On Friday, March 13, of last year at 10 a.m. in my office, I realized that the world was going to change overnight, and we all know that it did. My vice president of design and I were trying to figure out what to do. We decided to support distributors by doing four things. We wanted to reach out and provide inspiration, insight and connectedness, and to give a hug whenever we could. What came out of that was our Leading During the Coronavirus Sunday webinars. After that, we pivoted to Shift to Tomorrow. We were thinking about not just leading through this pandemic, but also focusing on coming out of this stronger than we went into it.

Proton: In an open letter to distributors, you mentioned the “noble calling of distribution.” What do you mean by that?

Beveridge: The open letter was titled “Shift to Tomorrow.” In that letter was the first time that I used the phrase “the noble calling of distribution.” I love this country. I love entrepreneurialism, and I’m a big supporter of independent businesses. I truly believe that the 30,000+ distributors in this country are primarily made up of family-owned, independent businesses, and I think we’ve fallen into a trap of defining what they do by the products on their shelves, and that’s such a disservice.

What these distributors do is so much bigger, broader and more important than that. The products on their shelves are critically important, but they create 6 million jobs. That's important. They create economic vitality. The economic engine of this country is largely built upon the backs and shoulders and hard work of these businesses and the employees they hire. It's a $6.9 trillion industry. These independent businesses are the heart and soul of our society.

Profit is important, but that's not all. Their story is building their local communities, creating jobs and providing a purpose for their employees. Coming out of COVID-19, now's the time to tell the story. We are all yearning for connection, purpose and meaning. We are all yearning for optimism and inspiration. And if you want optimism and inspiration, if you want to learn about goodness in this country, walk into a distribution center and meet the people. Spend a day on a truck with one of the drivers. Sit down with the accounts receivable person or talk to the receptionist. These are wonderful human beings, and they mean everything to our society.

Proton: How do distributors distinguish themselves in the age of Amazon?

Beveridge: Amazon is a hell of a story. What they've done is absolutely unbelievable. They've got the technology and growth and data. They've got Amazon Web Services. They've got warehouses and distribution centers going up within six miles of every home in this country. There's a story there, but that ain’t the story. The story is how this country was built, which was by these businesses that are now second, third and fourth generation, who have given their lives to their employees, to their communities and to this country. It's time we champion not just the businesses, but more importantly, the 6 million people who do this every single day.

Proton: How does the “We Supply America” project tie into this?

Beveridge: Everybody in this industry is part of this story. We need to hear and broadcast their stories. We need to get in the heart and soul of these individuals because this country needs it. This project is a canvas to bring goodness, inspiration and a message of togetherness to America.

Proton: What are the changes you’ve seen on the ground as a result of the pandemic? Is what we’re coming out of the toughest thing to hit the industry?

Beveridge: I believe that the biggest change we're going to see in distribution will be a focus on culture. We can talk about digital transformation because it’s accelerated as a result of COVID-19. We can talk about the future of work because it’s being re-engineered as we speak, and it will impact every distributor. But I believe, and I’m hopeful, that the No. 1 change will be a focus on culture and on people, on the human spirit. Every one of us, every one of the 6 million individuals in distribution, has been personally impacted in untold ways.

I believe the pandemic called for every leader in distribution to look at their people in a new way. Leadership has a greater responsibility than ever before to help our employees grow. Some distributors have embraced that in unbelievable ways over the years while others haven’t. Culture is how employers truly partner with their employees to not only grow the business, but to also grow the individual personally and professionally.

Proton: Can you give an example of distributors doing this well?

Beveridge: One distributor is posting employee stories on social media. Another leader in the industry shared their 12-month leadership program with me, which focused on developing the skills and capabilities of their team to grow as individuals and leaders. Another company has a t-chart. On one side, they list their values, things that the company is committing to giving their employees, such as training and growth opportunities. On the other side, they list what they’re asking of their employees: innovation and loyalty. It's good for the company, but it's also good for the individual. It helps both grow.

Proton: You mentioned that the industry has been misunderstood. Can you explain that? How do distributors combat this?

Beveridge: I think it’s something bigger than misunderstanding. It’s that they’re almost forgotten. It's an awareness issue that we are all responsible for. Think about when somebody is coming out of the university with a technology degree. How many of them raise their hand and say, “The first place I'm going to look for is distribution?” No. They are looking to the Amazons and the Elon Musks of the world. But I think it's bigger than that.

It has to start inside these 30,000 distribution businesses. We have to tell our stories of these amazing businesses. We have to remind ourselves of this noble calling of distribution. Every leader in distribution should start every internal meeting with who they are, why they do what they do, and the importance of their company to society and to their customers. We've forgotten that the awareness isn't just outside of distribution; it's within our four walls, and we have to change that.

I’m thankful for Proton being a huge supporter of what we’re doing here. We need more like Proton. We encourage you to not just follow We Supply America, but insert yourself into the story. Find opportunities to tell your own story because that's how we're going to make a difference.

Tune in starting July 8 to the We Supply America docuseries. The docuseries includes kits for management to lead conversations in their businesses for each episode.

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