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Representatives of one of the country’s major HVAC wholesalers gathered recently to celebrate their successes and discuss an industry landscape that’s changed much since their last such meeting in the pre-pandemic era, barely two years ago.

The Winsupply Inc. biennial conference and vendor showcase in mid-March drew more than 1,600 people to the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center in Grapevine, Texas, just outside Dallas.

John McKenzie, president of Winsupply Inc., said it was the best company conference he’s attended. In-person meetings create an extra collaborative energy among attendees, McKenzie said.

Winsupply Conference Events.

MEETING SCHEDULE: Representatives of more than 160 vendors met individually with local Winsupply company presidents over two separate days during the March conference. (Courtesy of Winsupply)

“Everyone was extremely excited to be together again,” McKenzie said during a phone interview. “It was refreshing to see.”

Winsupply is a collection of more than 625 locally-owned distribution companies across 45 states. About 600 company presidents attended this year, in addition to local employees, top executives, about 200 support staffers from Winsupply’s Dayton, Ohio, headquarters, and representatives from more than 160 vendors, who got to show off their latest products and meet individually with Winsupply buyers.

“This is an opportunity for the vendors to meet with the local company owners and to discuss needs in the market, inventory position, jobs, new product offerings,” said McKenzie.

HVAC products, McKenzie said, account for roughly 20% of Winsupply’s revenue.

Winsupply Conference Awards.

SHINY OBJECTS: Winsupply presented awards in several categories to member companies, vendors, and individuals. (Courtesy of Winsupply)

The conference also included an awards ceremony and, instead of a keynote speaker, a town hall that saw support services executives taking questions from local company presidents.

It was the sixth conference for Jake Spitzlberger, the owner and president of Winsupply of San Diego, which distributes HVACR equipment, residential and commercial plumbing supplies, electrical equipment, and other contractor needs.

In an email, Spitzlberger said the in-person conferences are vital for professional development.

“This is a relationship business,” he wrote. “To have personal relationships, experiences and dialogue with peers that experience the same challenges/successes, etc., is what drives our culture forward.”

McKenzie, who has been with Winsupply for 26 years, had several takeaways from the event, including:

  • Current supply-chain challenges will eventually ease, and the fact that the words “supply chain” have come into wider everyday usage may mean opportunities for bringing in new employees.
    “People now have an awareness of supply chain and moving product from Point A to Point B,” McKenzie said. “Now we have the ability to sell the industry using the knowledge people have.”
  • A labor shortage means distributors need to stretch to find good employees — by, for example, being willing to hire people and then train who may not have industry knowledge. “We’ve gotten very creative in our approach to recruiting,” McKenzie said.
  • The use of digital technology in business functions — payments, e-commerce, communications — frees up time for other important tasks, such as strengthening customer relationships, but wholesaling “tends to lag behind” in going digital because it has historically relied on person-to-person transactions.
    “Owners should fully digitize as much of their business as they can,” McKenzie said, adding later, “Technology is on our side at this point.”
  • Local Winsupply company presidents of the millennial generation are coming into their own as leaders — and are thinking about the next generation too.
    “There’s just an energy that comes with a generational change,” McKenzie said.

Spitzlberger said that for him, the most important lesson in navigating industry challenges that he gained from the conference was having a business plan that gives him a bird’s eye view of his company.

“I am able to more clearly identify objective ‘accomplishments, lessons learned, mistakes, etc.’ that allow for clearer planning and preparation for the upcoming year,” he said.

The conference’s awards gala featured performances by country artists Clint Black and Sara Evans and the band Sixwire. Winsupply San Antonio was named the best-performing local company in HVAC; other HVAC distributors honored included Winsupply Tampa Bay, which was named Winsupply’s digital company of the year.

DiversiTech Corp. was honored as the best vendor in HVAC.

Although Winsupply training events have been held within the last two years, both remotely and in person (last fall, in Denver), the coronavirus pandemic was just starting to hit the U.S. when the last every-other-year conference closed in Nashville in early March 2020.

“When we got back that week, the whole country seemingly just shut down,” McKenzie said.