Dealing With Disruption: We’ve Been There Before

Disruptive forces have been part of our industry for many years


GAWDA President Bill Visintainer spoke of Industry Disruption in his inaugural address and it has become the theme for his year as our president.

While it would be preferable to plan positive disruptive activities within one’s organization as part of continuing improvement, we often find ourselves reacting to disruptive forces over which we have little control. It may be helpful to recall suggestions from the Serenity Prayer, which suggests that we change those things over which we have influence, recognize forces over which we have no control and have the wisdom to define the difference.
Disruptive forces have been present in our Industry Space for many years.

An easy example would be to look back to Peter McCausland’s initial acquisition of Connecticut Oxygen Company more than 30 years ago. The formation of Airgas has been responsible for a catalog of positive disruptive forces impacting the industry for many years.

Building From Acquisitions

The acquisition of so many small independent distributorships has been a vehicle of beneficial gain for countless individuals. It served as a driving force for building for the expansion of industry buying groups — individual distributors consolidating purchase volumes to level the field as Airgas built an enormous footprint. National accounts strategies had to be developed. Airgas embraced internal continuous improvement and lean programs, encouraging their suppliers, as well as independent distributors, to find inefficiencies within their respective organizations and to improve all sorts of processes. Collectively, these efforts have made us much better partners with our end users and suppliers.

With the closing of the Air Liquide acquisition, many dedicated Airgas managers will be justly rewarded and we may see a whole new series of evolutions that will challenge an industry to manage change again.

Merger and acquisition activities over the years have not been limited to Airgas. Nearly all of the major gas producing companies have engaged in moving in and out of the packaged gases business over the past 30 years. The total census of privately owned distributorships has fallen dramatically, but that change has been matched by the growth of large regional companies with skill sets and capabilities far exceeding those of the early stage ‘Norm Distributor.’

Change Via Technology

The world of e-business is placing disruptive challenges on all segments of our business. In addition to new entrants bringing alternate sources to our traditional client bases, industry manufacturers are seeing their long-standing supply chain channels blurred by that development.

In addition, between the Millennial culture and rapidly developing technology, our traditional models of catalog- and doughnut-carrying salespeople making smokestack calls no longer works.

Product and process research, training, safe practice issues, documentation, inventory availability, and the whole set of transactional functions will be at everyone’s fingertips through technology. Suppliers, distributors, and technology platform providers are going to have to find new ways to meet the demands of rapidly changing end users.

A Continuing Conversation

Bill Visintainer has placed the subject of the recognition and mitigation of disruptive forces front and center for our Savannah Spring Management Conference program. As is the case with so many past challenging business evolutions, the talent resources residing in our industry, from both the supplier and distributor sectors, will rise to the task.
We should be able to carry these discussions forward through a year of Regional Meetings — all begging for meaningful content — and have confidence we will find some mutually satisfactory and profitable solutions by the time we visit Maui for GAWDA’s Annual Convention.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
Meet the Author
Ken Thompson, an Association member since 1960, started with the Distributor Products Department of Union Carbide Corporation’s Linde Division and has served in executive and principal ownership positions in gases manufacturing, wholesale and retail distribution. He has represented the Buying and Information Group as their facilitator for the past 20 years and has served on many industry boards. Connect with him at: tomgroup@mindspring.com.