The Entrepreneur and Distribution

Jack Keough on the importance of maintaining the industry's entrepreneurial spirit.

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After writing about and studying distribution for more than 40 years, the stories that intrigue me the most are the ones depicting how people developed their entrepreneurial spirit and started distribution businesses.

You’ve probably heard about Sid Jacobson, for example, who started selling cutting tools from the trunk of his car in 1941 and established the foundation for the company now known as MSC Industrial Direct — one the largest distribution companies in the country.

One manufacturing representative, who happens to be a friend of mine, wanted to have his own business. He would drive down from Vermont late at night and sleep in his car so he could call on prospective customers first thing in the morning.

Starting a business is one of the most difficult and demanding things any person can undertake. And yet, it can be so worthwhile. In fact, several distributors I’ve talked to told me that starting a business was one of the most challenging and rewarding things that they have ever done. Statistics seem to agree.

Entrepreneurship on the Rise

Americans are starting and running their own businesses at record rates, part of a post-pandemic shift toward entrepreneurship led by women and people of color, according to a new report.

Nearly one in five adults – 19% – are in the process of founding a business or have done so in the past three and a half years, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, an annual report by Babson College. That is the highest level since the survey began in 1999.

The latest report from Babson, part of an international partnership with London Business School, offers a snapshot of American entrepreneurship. Adults between the ages of 18 and 34 were nearly twice as likely to start a business as those between 35 and 64, the report found. And although men are still slightly more likely than women to start their own companies, that gap continues to narrow. There was also a clear shift away from service industries, such as finance and real estate, and toward manufacturing and logistics.

“A Million Times Harder Than I Expected”

Jensen Huang built chipmaker Nvidia into a trillion-dollar company, but if he had to do it over, he wouldn’t start a company again.

Founding the AI chip manufacturer was “a million times harder than I expected it to be,” the Nvidia CEO said on an episode of the tech podcast “Acquired.”

Huang said when you think about all the things that can go wrong in starting a business, “I don’t think anyone would start a company. Nobody in their right mind would do it.”

Elite Supply

As hard it is to start a business, entrepreneurs still exist in the distribution business.

Take, for example, Elite Supply. This Ohio-based hose and accessories distributor was founded only a few years ago, and was named this year to ID’s 2024 Watch List, based on recommendations from an industry buying group.

The company was founded by Matt Steer six years ago while he was still a sophomore at Youngstown State University.

Steer said that incorporating in 2018 and building the business over time while finishing his education was beneficial. The year 2021 was really the company’s “first full year” in business; that was when he’d been able to begin focusing on it full-time and bring on another part-time employee after his graduation in 2020.

Steer explained that, in the beginning, Elite Supply found its first customers through door-to-door sales and cold calls. He joked that he would “get rejected nine times out of 10,” prior to finding customers willing to give the company a chance. According to Steer, Elite Supply has excelled in retaining customers, once acquired, through unparalleled customer service and has had “a lot of success just showing that we care.”

Elite Supply’s comparatively small size belies its impressive reach, having shipped its products to customers throughout the United States and beyond — 36 states and four continents, all told.

Virginia Strut and Hangar Supply

Cody Bilcheck, the owner of Virginia Strut and Hangar Supply, founded the company in January 2023 to provide supplies to job sites across eastern Virginia — with only his 401(k) as financing.

The company reported sales of some $2 million in its first year, and says it plans to bolster its sales staff and add a facility — enabling it to reach markets across the state.

Virginia Strut and Hanger Supply was founded as a true grassroots startup. The business launched as a one-person job site supplier and quickly grew into a small business. Over the course of 2023, the company experienced rapid month-to-month growth.

IPC Electrical Supply

On the electrical distribution side, Kevin Kalish, a well-known electrical industry veteran, last October founded a new company, IPC Electrical Supply in Ottawa, Illinois. Kalish, in announcing the new company, said the goal was to provide innovative solutions that not only meet but exceed a customer’s expectations.

Spirit Propels the Industry

Why is it so important to keep the entrepreneurial spirit in distribution? Experts say new entrants create new ideas and challenge the status quo of existing, traditional companies. Distribution, for many years, has been leading the charge in developing entrepreneurs. We hope that continues in the future.

Jack Keough is the president of Keough Business Communications and the former editor of Industrial Distribution. He can be reached at [email protected].

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