It seems that many distributors believe their information has to be kept secret, especially among those of the Baby Boomer generation. As for Gen Y, sharing and collaboration are cornerstones of many of their business models. So which is the wisest in the distribution industry?

In my short time in the HVACR industry, I’ve noticed a significant unwillingness to share data among distributors. Collaborative problem solving seems to be an issue as well; even if the collaboration promises to make the innovation and business processes easier. It seems that many distributors believe their information has to be kept secret, especially among those of the Baby Boomer generation. As for Gen Y, sharing and collaboration are cornerstones of many of their business models.

So which is the wisest in the distribution industry? Should distributors play close to the vest and keep a tight lip or should they jump into the collaboration pool and let the information fly? Perhaps there is a middle ground to be reached.


At the Marketing Optimization Conference in Laguna Beach, Calif., during the innovation tournament with Sue Smith, there was an amazing sharing of ideas amongst suppliers, distributors, marketing professionals and other HARDI members. Each table was a team that was given the assignment to come up with two big ideas to make the HVACR industry better. Later everyone would vote and the top ideas would be picked and displayed. As I watched this process, however, it became clear to me that many of the more seasoned participants didn’t seem to want to present their best ideas in front of competitors. While there’s nothing wrong with this, the tournament itself was hinged on complete collaboration and open sharing.

A lot of the younger attendees, however, were the exact opposite. They were vocal about their ideas and adamant about wanting more collaboration among distributors and the HVACR industry as a whole.

How do we put these two different ideals together to make it work? The Boomers, with their knowledge of industry history and products could give the younger generation perspective on an industry that will one day be theirs. The younger generation could open up their predecessors to new ideas that may make them uncomfortable but will ultimately help in the long run.

“When the tournament started, I began thinking of ideas that would just help NIBCO, but as the ideas started flowing, my team started building on each other’s thoughts. We manufacturers don’t do a lot of that type of idea-generating,” said John Silwonuk, national sales manager, NIBCO Inc. “By the end of the session, it was very refreshing to hear the different ideas.”

The main theme behind the many ideas generated was a want for togetherness in the industry; a sense that even though they’re all competitors, they can still work together to achieve something greater.

The innovation idea that stressed this idea of collaboration was called the “Emerging Dealer Toolbox.” Presented by Ryan Kiscaden, business development manager at APR Supply Co., this idea received the most votes from attendees. His idea centered on helping trade school students and graduates get started in the HVACR industry. Observations from other attendees noted that this type of program could help future industry leaders but also acknowledged it would require a great deal of effort and collaboration among distributors.

Kiscaden likened the innovation tournament experience to the popular TV show “Shark Tank.”

“Perhaps this is my perspective being in a different and younger generation, but I still think I have a lot to learn and prove so I take that event seriously when given the chance to shine,” he said. “I guess I did a pretty good job considering my idea won.”

As I observed the innovation tournament, I noticed that a lot of the young marketing professionals seemed to be taking the session more seriously than the more experienced distributors and suppliers. Perhaps Kiscaden was right. We are trying to prove ourselves in an industry that is more amenable to experienced people, an industry that looks at us “young-ins” with a wary eye.


Another big idea that won the second most votes was a standard product database which coincided with an industry database for all OEM parts. This idea would require an industry-wide effort to catalogue products and parts for easier access along with teamwork among distributors and suppliers.

“It was interesting to see so many similar ideas being generated by entirely separate groups (using apps and mobile technology, industry-wide databases, online ordering systems),” said Renata Morgan, marketing manager, Century A/C Supply. “It was also amusing to see the ideas that vendors and product manufacturers were creating versus the ideas that distributors created. This is just my observation, but it seemed the vendors/manufacturers’ ideas helped the top two levels of the supply chain, while distributor personnel came up with solutions to problems across the entire channel.”

It’s easy to see how distributors and suppliers can sometimes butt heads on how to improve the supply chain. At Morgan’s table, there were many vendors who “came up with ways to sell directly to the consumer, thus eliminating the need for distributors.”

Taking the distributor out of the supply chain completely could cause a breakdown in the system. Each link in the chain is essential in providing the level of comfort consumers are used to.

It seems there isn’t just a warring of ideals between separate generations, there’s disparity in thought between the links in the supply chain as well. I think overcoming this attitude of, “every man for himself,” is the first step toward the middle ground for the generations to meet on. Instead of trying to cut one another out of the equation, let’s work on how to get one of these great ideas off the ground. The ideas generated during session can lead to better customer relationships, improving supply chain communications, and building a standard everyone can adhere to. It may take help from a third party, but the interest and the motivation from the HVACR distribution industry has to be there. Who’s with me?

Vanessa Spates is the communications and PR coordinator at Heating, Air-conditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International. Contact her with your Gen Y questions and topic suggestions at