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Learnings from the NAW Executive Summit in Washington D.C.

Karthik Chidambaram
February 5, 2024 |
NAW Executive Summit


This was my first time attending the NAW (National Association of Wholesale Distribution) Executive Summit, and I had a great time. The conference was held at the luxurious Fairmont Hotel in Washington D.C. and there was a great group of executives in distribution to network with and learn from.

NAW Executive Summit

NAW Executive Summit – Day One – January 30, 2024

I went in early on Tuesday and got myself checked into the hotel. This was going to be a great event for me to learn about NAW, how it works, and understand who its members are. It was very exciting that the who’s who of Distribution was there in the audience.

The NAW Executive Summit had two parallel tracks running – the Commercial Growth track and the Operational Excellence track. I attended the Commercial Growth track, and one of the first sessions I went to was a conversation between the author, Mark Dancer (Mark Dancer on Flourishing Business) & Chuck Cohen, the Managing Director at Benco Dental Company

I really loved this session. It was held for 45 minutes, and during the session we were also given time to interact or network with each other at the table. We could also interact with Chuck and ask him questions. Mark asked some great questions and Chuck talked about Sales Compensation and how his company embraces innovation. He mentioned that they use Xcatly for Sales Compensation to help them succeed. The three key areas his company focuses on are Innovation, Process and Portfolio, and Innovation is the key reason they exist.

The next session I attended at the NAW Executive Summit was a panel discussion on Omnichannel. The key participants in the panel were – Bob Decker, COO at Livingston and Haven, Paul Kennedy, President & CEO at Dakota Supply Group, Sean McCloskey, Digital Business Owner of WESCO, Stu Tisdale, SVP and Chief Experience Officer at ADI Global, and it was moderated by David Bauders, CEO at SPARXiQ. It was a very informative discussion, where Sean mentioned that listening to the customers is key when it comes to finding success in eCommerce, as well as the importance of Marketplaces.

Later in the evening, the main session of the NAW Executive Summit was held, and over 300 distributors attended. Eric Hoplin, President and CEO of NAW, delivered the opening note. Eric talked about how NAW has been successful and growing every year. 

One of the big announcements was NAW’s acquisition of MDM (run by Tom Gale) and how this additional resource will help the members of NAW. It was also noted that, as the conference is continuing to grow, they will also be shifting from the Fairmont hotel next year. Eric emphasized how NAW makes a difference to distributors by being an agent for change and how it is a voice for them in Washington. I enjoyed listening to Eric and his plans for the growth of NAW.

After this, there was an enlightening session by Daniel Pink that followed, and he was introduced to the audience by the CEO of Graybar, Kathleen Mazzarella. 

Daniel delivered an awesome session. He made the audience think. He asked us to write a To Don’t List (in addition to a To Do list), and he also highlighted the power of subtraction. A few things on Daniel’s own To Don’t List were not answering email first thing in the morning and not saying ‘yes’ to just be polite. He also talked about documenting your daily wins as a motivator, and he elaborated on the power of subtraction in motivation.

There was also a book signing event (for The Power of Regret, by Daniel Pink). Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend as I was recording a podcast with Hank, Michael and Daniel Josephs at Spruce Industries

Be sure to subscribe to our Driven by DCKAP podcast here to watch for when that comes out, as well as many other captivating interviews we already have uploaded. 

Thankfully, I was able to get back in time for the evening Welcome Reception, and it was great to network with so many distributors, NAW members and the NAW Team. 

NAW Executive Summit – Day Two – January 31, 2024

The second day of the NAW Executive Summit started with a PAC (Political Action Committee) breakfast. We were lucky to have a US Congressman in attendance, Patrick McHenry, the representative for North Carolina’s 10th District. He talked about social media politicians and people who actually do the work in politics. Work gets done outside of social media and we do not hear about these people. It was an interesting observation. Additionally, he talked about his time as the Speaker of the House. 

The NAW CEO Panel included Keith Rozolis, President & CEO at ABC Supply Co. Inc, Barry Litwin, CEO at Global Industrial, Joe Tracy, CEO at DOT Foods, and it was moderated by Kathleen Mazzarella, CEO of GrayBar.

Barry talked about talent management and how one of the best things to do is to invest time in people. Keith touched on how, in 2024, people are more cost conscious than in the past when money was available freely because of low interest rates and people wanted to pay $300k for a $400k house. 

Two key things that matter for a company are technology and people. Keith also talked about investments in technology and people (like having a 45-person data science team). He also talked about tech investments and compared it to the bets taken in Hollywood. You will never know what works and what doesn’t. 

Joe Tracy talked about innovation and how it was ok to make wrong bets. This is how innovation happens. Kathleen did a great job moderating the panel and she also touched on doing things outside of your comfort zone. One cool thing was that I was also able to meet with Kathleen – It was easy to have a conversation with her and I also asked her for a picture, which she was kind enough to agree to.

We also had a session from Louis DeJoy, Postmaster General and Chief Executive Officer at the U.S. Postal Service. He talked about the challenges with the current postal system and how he loves what he does, and also about his plans to transform the U.S. Postal Service. 

Roy Spence, the Co-founder of GSD&M, talked about the importance of purpose and also how they worked on the ‘Don’t Mess with Texas’ campaign and its long running success, showcasing that Marketing can be used as a force for good. 

It was also great to listen to Shannon Bream, Anchor for FOX News Sunday, where she offered some interesting thoughts about the upcoming elections with Trump, Biden, and Haley. 

During the session on Navigating International Challenges, a Fireside Chat with Dr. Robert Gates, Former United States Secretary of Defense and Eric Hoplin, Dr. Gates talked about his experience working with different U.S. Presidents, his memoir, and the killing of Osama Bin Laden. It was a great discussion as Eric asked some great questions and also followed up with some of his own experiences. 

When Eric asked about China’s invasion of Taiwan, Dr. Gates mentioned that it was not likely to happen in the near future. He also mentioned that the FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) in China is down in Q3 and Q4 of 2023. He talked about freedom of navigation in the seas. When Eric asked a question on Leadership advice, Dr. Gates talked about transparency in decision making. He also recommended that we talk to and listen to the people on the front-lines because they are the ones who know what is working and what is not.

One of the cool things about events like the NAW Executive Summit is that you get to meet people, and at this event I was lucky to meet Kathleen Mazzarella, CEO of Graybar. One thing I found amazing was that she was very simple and humble. It was very easy to strike up a conversation with her. It was also great to find some time to chat with Ed Orlett, Senior Vice President at NAED (National Association of Electrical Distributors). This was the first time we had a chance to meet up since our interview on the Driven by DCKAP podcast.

In the evening, we had a great time at the International Spy Museum. The exhibits were great and it was very interesting to learn about the different spies, how they worked, and also how they were able to relate it to the TSA security screening. 

During the evening event, Tom Gale received the Lifetime Achievement Award from NAW. It was great to hear him speak and thank the people in Distribution who have made big contributions to the industry. 

NAW Executive Summit – Day Three – February 1, 2024

The last day of the NAW Executive Summit started with the run at the National Mall in D.C. The course of the run was from Washington to Lincoln Memorial and back. Buses were arranged and we assembled by 5:30 am in the morning, and the run was from 5:45 am to 6:45 am. 

Admittedly, I was skeptical and I was not sure if I wanted to wake up this early to run. However, I decided to go for it and I’m really glad I woke up and joined the NAW Run. It was a great experience walking around the National Mall and looking at the monuments in the cold weather, early in the morning. You do not get to do this often and I am glad and thankful that I had the opportunity to take part in this. 

The buses dropped us back at the hotel afterwards and then we attended a great session with InfoR on Sales Management – with Soma Somasundaram, President & CTO at Infor, Rick Rider, SVP and Product Management at Infor, and moderated by Mike Marks, Founding Partner at Indian River Consulting Group.

The session was very helpful in understanding the impact of AI in distribution and the different use cases InfoR is applying to their customers. For example, product recommendations, and targeting customers who have not ordered for a while. Soma Somasundaram talked about data being the critical part of AI and how having it in place helps tremendously. Mike moderated the session well and it was great to see him.

Once this was over, we had a session from Alan Beaulieu, President of  ITR Economics. It was a great session, I have listened to Alan talk in the past. One of Alan’s predictions is that we will be in a depression by 2030.  He also talked about how companies need to be transparent with employees and they can start with revenue and slowly open up further. Employees want to make a difference in their and others lives and companies need to enable it. 

He also talked about the state of different states in the U.S. like Illinois (people moving out), West Virginia (wil be most impacted if we have a recession/depression), Utah (being very resilient and will be the least impacted). He also talked about interest rates coming down this year and in spite of the setbacks. Alan predicts US dominance in 2040, with sectors like Pharma and Healthcare to do well (with the aging population). One thing he suggested is that in 2035, when prices are low and people are scared, everything is cheap, use the saved up money (save till 2030) and invest well. It will help you to have a great future. 

Afterwards, we had a session from David Walker, Former Comptroller General of the United States. He talked about how over 1 trillion dollars in the Fed’s balance sheet is from student loans. Debt and Demographics were two major problems according to David.

My Take on the Conference

I enjoyed every bit of the NAW Executive Summit conference. This was not a usual conference for me, and it helped me understand how business and politics work together. It also was a great learning experience in terms of understanding how associations like NAW help businesses and how they can make a difference in the business and political world. 

This conference also helped me understand the distribution industry better. The quality of the speakers stood out, and it was very well put together. When I was talking to fellow members and distributors in attendance, they also mentioned the same and referenced the quality of attendees. You do not see this often. The social updates were also prompt and helped things run very smoothly.

Thanks to Dan Schuberth, CRO at NAW. The morning run at the National Mall stood out for me and I enjoyed every bit of it, as it was an experience I won’t soon forget. 

Many Thanks to Eric Hoplin for his dedication to leadership in the distribution industry, and for the chance to meet in person and have a great interaction while at the event. 

& Many Congratulations to the entire NAW team for hosting a great NAW Executive Summit. I’m already looking forward to next year!

Karthik Chidambaram

Karthik Chidambaram is the Founder & CEO of DCKAP. He bootstrapped the company from his small apartment in Chicago, Illinois. DCKAP simplifies commerce for distributors. DCKAP was started with 2 people, 2 computers and 2 desks and is now a global and distributed team. Karthik reckons industry setbacks and renders solid & practical solutions to organizations. He holds a Master’s Degree in Computer Engineering from Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago. You can read more about him on his personal blog here.

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