Meet the Wholesaler: Leading the Way to Organizational Engagement
Name: Tom Roberts
Company: cfm Distributors, Inc.
Location: Kansas City, Missouri
No. of Branches: 6
No. of Employees: 75
Year Founded: 1969
Tell us a little bit about your company.
Tom Roberts: cfm Distributors is an employee-owned company devoted to the success of our customers, our employees, our suppliers, and our business with warmth, integrity and spirit. While that is our mission statement, it is the feeling you get when you are at one of our locations or talking with any one of our employee-owners on the phone. We own it, we live it, we breathe it every day, and on some nights and some weekends, too! We are a service organization through and through, led by customer need and driven by a pursuit of improvement and growth. We are fortunate to have many long-term relationships with both customers and suppliers that continue to improve with age. I work for the employee-owners every day knowing that they are making the smartest decisions possible, with them trusting me to do the same.
Please share your thoughts regarding the vision of your HARDI presidency during 2017.
Roberts: I view this as another opportunity to serve on a broader scale. There is a lot to love about HARDI. We have an amazing staff, combining talented leadership with creative and dedicated specialists across the board. Supporting them in their desire to deliver value to the members continuously is our board of directors. The board is comprised of a motivated group of leaders of member companies that strive to be forward-looking and present-acting. We have an executive committee that consists of officers who will spend five additional years moving through all of the leadership positions. This provides an essential continuity to the development of our organizational structure and programming. For example, Bill Bergamini and Mike Meier dedicated extra efforts to human capital development. Bill is focusing on future sources of people and Mike on education programming and utilization. My emphasis is really an extension of those platforms with ideas we have found valuable at our company. My theme is “Organizational Engagement.” Put simply, this idea represents the full transition from HARDI being an organization which one or two people from each company are involved with into an organization where virtually everyone in the member distributor company is involved. It’s an evolutionary change that yields revolutionary results. It is the codification of the known fact that sending one person to a HARDI annual conference or Focus Event is not anywhere near as impactful as those responsible parties attending in person, networking with peers, developing support systems and contacts, and seeing how high the bar has become. These in-person experiences are truly transformational for the individual and cumulative in effect for both the attendee and the sponsoring member company.
Please tell us about your product line.
Roberts: I was very fortunate in 1979 to take my first job out of graduate school with York. Not only was it a great opportunity to work with future leaders in our industry, it came with the Graduate Engineer Training Program, a summer-long intense technical school that I really enjoyed. York’s history in our industry dates back to 1874 and includes remarkable products and projects, some of which I have been lucky enough to have been involved with. I worked for York for almost three years, then returned to Kansas City to sell York unitary products for cfm Distributors beginning in 1981. It’s really the only job that I’ve ever had, one of the reasons that the York product line comprises the bulk of our sales at cfm Distributors, Inc. Additionally, we proudly sell Bohn refrigeration systems, Reznor heating products, and depend heavily on relationships with over 100 other manufacturers to provide the solutions our customers need and want.
What does Tom Roberts do when he’s not running the company?
Roberts: I am fortunate to have three daughters and four grandchildren who always seem to have time for something fun. They are spread around a bit, so traveling often is a part of the fun. The grandchildren are split equally, two boys and two girls, so it gives me my first chance to see boys grow up and have a minor role in the process.
How do you relax?
Roberts: I love to walk and have several courses that I walk regularly. On the weekends, I take the longer ones, four to six miles typically. These provide a great opportunity to think, too. I can start out my walk with a single “project” in mind, and finish a couple of hours later having worked through many more. Disconnecting from passive input like TV and media gives you the uninterrupted time to think more clearly.
What is your favorite news source?
Roberts: Because I place such a high value on first person involvement with people, I always have a difficult time accepting both the content and the format of many media sources. (Sorry, Tom!) However, when I am driving, I am an XM radio fan, listening to three channels consistently; NPR, BBC and Fox News. I think those three use all the colors of the news palate between them and you wind up with a more accurate picture. I watch “60 Minutes” virtually every Sunday night, and I watch a local Kansas City weekend politics show to get the local scene. I also find HARDI’s Data Driven Newsletter to be one of the best news sources in the HVAC industry. It's a great combination of both the interesting and the useful data available. I struggle with the timeliness of “news.” Probably 90 percent of my news comes from my Google use. I research what I am interested in far more often than scanning what a publisher thinks I might be interested in. The irony is that I often wind up reading through several publications that I wouldn’t consider subscribing to, such as economic, finance or technology sources.
What’s the one issue or element of the HVACR business that still drives you crazy after all these years?
Roberts: I think most would agree that our industry has a long way to go in terms of talent development. In a very technical industry, it was too easy to generate “experts” rather than “teach expertise.” As I have discussed with our Emerging Leaders Group (more than they would like), we need people who know what questions to ask, for they will find the right answers. I think what I have learned more than anything is that the intellectually curious people have the ability to become lifelong learners and those people make the most improvable, adaptable people in our industry.
Have you given any thought about recruiting more people to our industry? If so, any suggestions?
Roberts: From a hiring perspective, I think hiring people with great attitudes and strong work ethic is a core requirement. Predictive testing can help close the gap to peer expectations, but all of these presume adequate interest in our industry. We can help ourselves in this regard by engaging the STEM curriculums at the middle school age and introducing our industry as a part of the energy/technology sector. This will take time.
What is the biggest challenge to two-step distribution in the next five years?
Roberts: Adequately positioning the distributor member for the evolution of “user choice customer order and information preference methods” and understanding the difference between this approach and “open public e-commerce” will continue to challenge us. Think about the difference in investment, deployment, and human capital to evolve your distribution business from the year 2000 model to the 2020 model, where your customers routinely access all product information, easily place or edit orders, obtain accurate pricing, and view their account on desk, tablet, mobile and more – whatever their individual preference, while somehow avoiding the expense of deploying a technology model that is capable of selling all your SKU's to anyone with an internet connection. There is a distinct lack of adequate communication on how the ideal path will evolve.
As people read this, Donald Trump has become President of the United States. Without telling us who you voted for, what impact do you believe he will have on our industry?
Roberts: There will likely be an equal number of excessively optimistic and hopelessly pessimistic views on the subject. What will happen is somewhere in the middle. The Constitution provides elegant balance in the impact of any of government’s branches. Having said that, one would think that a pro-business leader would be a good thing for business. What concerns me most is that big spenders come in both Blue and Red colors. Conservative used to mean small government and reduced government spending. That is no longer necessarily the case. I’m waiting for someone to address entitlements, specifically, Social Security and Medicare, as they are the only real government spending that matters beyond debt service and Defense. I’m more likely to vote for that candidate, regardless of party.
Why HARDI? I remember you giving a forceful speech at a HARDI conference some years ago. Now you’re its president. What happened?
Roberts: Great question! HARDI is unique. HARDI has become a learning laboratory for our industry at large, and specifically for those seeking a leadership role. Where else can you hone your skills, repair your weaknesses, grow with peers, participate in the agency rulemaking processes of the federal government, learn from the top leaders in the industry, educate yourself on virtually any industry topic, save thousands of dollars by avoiding the mistakes that others have made, and more? HARDI has quickly become the backbone of the HVAC distribution market in North America. Sharing the resource development costs, lobbying costs and benchmarking reports have given world class tools to midmarket companies. This is so typically American, too!
Do you have a secret vice, and if so, what is it?
Roberts: Netflix and California Reds. Maybe the order is wrong.
Who do you admire either in the business world or just someone who has made an impression on you and is worthy of possibly emulating?
Roberts: Any one human being is tough for me to pick other than my dad, an MIT graduate, U.S. Army veteran, principled leader, life-long learner and a great guy. I would advise young people to take the best parts of lots of different people to construct their ideal person.
When you give career advice to people in your organization, what do you tell them?
Roberts: I try not to tell them. The temptation is to tell them what to do. I don’t think that works. I ask a lot of questions, though. When you ask questions, you find out what people think about their chances of success, what their current obstacles are, and what they are doing to move past them. I think every successful person has that moment when they realize, “I am solely in charge of myself and my outcome on this planet.” The really smart ones have it earlier. Once that happens, all things are possible. Coworkers become energized by these engaged staffers, managers notice them, positions open up, training intensifies, goals are made, plans executed, planning becomes second nature, execution automatic, and success a way of life. Time passes.
If you exercise, any favorite routine?
Roberts: I convince myself that my walking routine is not exercise, but “recess for adults.” I think that is the reason it works for me.
Is there any advice that you once believed in but now ignore?
Roberts: Yes, I remember the slogan well: “Paper free in '83.”