Editorial: Big 50 Flex Pandemic Lessons Learned

Don't ever let them to tell you a big company can't be nimble.


Last summer, Mike Hockett and I set out to assemble the 2020 Big 50 List based on the results of the 2019 fiscal year. It was an odd exercise, considering the world we were living in was vastly different than the fiscal picture painted by 2019’s revenue numbers. Despite some softness in industrial markets, many distributors were holding steady… even improving. But as we reviewed their year-end, we had to do so in the context of a complete bottoming out brought on by the coronavirus, a situation that represented a dark cloud hanging over our annual report.

This year, we’re essentially doing the same, only the circumstances have flipped. As we review in detail the 2020 results of the industry’s top-performing companies, we do so as many face an upward curve as sharp as last year’s downward one.

Anna Wells, ID Executive EditorAnna Wells, ID Executive EditorBut that’s not to say industrial distributors suddenly have it easy. We’re starting to discuss old problems again, like the talent vacuum that has distributors scrambling to fill vacant positions while holding tight to their top performers. We’re doing so in a sales environment that’s rife with supply disruptions and a regulatory environment that’s constantly shifting — both amid margin-threatening cost increases and an opaque future for many industry verticals.

That said, we’re also seeing the results of the work that was being done behind the scenes in 2020. While distributors stood out, superficially, as the workhorses of the pandemic, they did more than just sling safety supplies. You will see this in more detail as we walk through the year’s top sellers, where numbers were down for many but strategic progress was taking place all the while.

One obvious standout was MSC Industrial Supply, the Melville, NY-based metalworking and MRO products supplier that has announced some significant changes to its business model in response to the pandemic. In early 2021, MSC revealed that it was taking its customer support model fully virtual. In an effort CEO Erik Gerschwind characterized as “creating a leaner, faster and more agile customer care organization,” MSC closed 73 branch offices — making permanent closures brought on by the pandemic that required remote work.

For MSC the change is reportedly win-win. Not only does Gerschwind confirm that both associates and customers believe “the work from home model is working and will work well into the future," but the permanent remote structure will also save the company up to $9 million in FY 2021 and up to $18 million in the years that follow. These are not small changes, and MSC is not alone in finding the pandemic to be an impetus for dramatic and necessary upheaval.

Don’t ever let them tell you a big distributor can’t be nimble. You’ll see more examples of this as you explore the full Big 50 — in either its single page list, our countdown videos from last week (50-31 here, 30-11 here, 10-1 here) or in its print & digital edition feature — including the many businesses that are rebounding nicely with some lessons learned from 2020. This year’s list represents an industry that’s changed but for the smartest and most agile, that change will be for the better as they emerge from the pandemic challenges with a more lean and fit operating model.

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