Q&A with OMNI President John Aykroyd
Buying groups in transition.
Since taking over as President of the OMNI Buying Group in early 2016, John Aykroyd has been injecting some new energy, new ideas, and paving the road for new frontiers within the industry. This month, we sat down with him to discuss some of his ideas and learn more about the new President of OMNI:
Danielle Galian: What insights do you bring to OMNI from your extensive experience in the industry?
John Aykroyd: First and foremost to leverage technology more than we do now. To do that, we have to understand our customer base. We, as well-seasoned veterans, are used to kicking the tires, but most of the consumers our members deal with are not doing that now. The plumbing business as a whole hasn't been leveraging technology, but meanwhile, consumers have. They are looking for solutions now, when they want them, not when we want to give them. What I want to bring to the forefront is that this isn't a buying group; it’s a marketing group. We're providing the tools and technology for our members to grow their business.
DG: Would you say motivating the members to adopt new technology is the main challenge you have?
JA: Our members are self-motivated, but everyone needs encouragement. Take social media — a foreign language to most people. Social is a challenge for our whole industry. Again it goes back to the notion that we're steadfast in our ways. We still sell a lot of copper pipes and fittings and cast iron, that hasn't changed. But the world has changed in how they find out about what we sell. So the whole industry has to get on board. Grainger and Ferguson have done a good job. The biggest challenge is eCommerce and explaining what that is and what it can be, and what that means for our industry going forward. I'd want OMNI to be at the forefront of that journey.
DG: How are OMNI members going to latch on to this eCommerce program like a Ferguson without the same funds?
JA: eCommerce isn’t a program — it’s a concept, a state of mind. That's the reason for a marketing group — to teach members how to understand this concept and market their business and move it forward. How are you going to market to the millennials? Because the business is changing, we see it all around us in everyday examples. But eCommerce as a concept is more of a strategy with social media, integrated communication, mobile and all the rest…that's what's hard. I want to bring that kind of thinking to OMNI. During my tenure career at my former employer, we updated the website twice, did search engine optimization (SEO), revisited how leads are generated, nurtured and closed. I want to bring back technology in general to this group and the application of that technology for the businesses, which is digital integration. And the nice thing is, the technology is only getting cheaper. The Internet is like a new truck for a distributor. They will invest in a new truck, and the same principle applies to technology.
DG: Do you think all buying groups are becoming marketing groups? Should they?
JA: I think they have to, yes. I think the inception of buying groups, which I've always been a fan of, was there to keep independent from the Ferguson group, the Hajoca Group. Buying group as a concept meant initialy having the same buying power as those conglomerates (don’t forget Ferguson was an Omni member at one time). Buying groups have to evolve. The challenge for members will be: how do I get away from thinking about 'buy' to 'marketing'?
DG: Is life done for the buying groups?
JA: Of course not. But life means change, doesn’t it? Adapt, change or disappear. This is an exciting time for the group, and I assure you, I would not have changed careers if I thought this was a dying model. Rather, it’s evolution happening now, not ten years from now. Just like with anything, you don't want to throw away your history. Bob Hoff spurred OMNI from $50 million to $1.1 billion. There are reasons that worked. But those reasons aren’t today’s reasons, because the world has changed. As any business, there has to be transition to meet the evolving changes. There has to be consolidation in the buying groups — in all ‘groups’ and those that will turn into marketing groups. Must look at what is going on at the retail level today. Excitement is all around us.
DG: What do you hope to keep moving forward from Bob Hoff, former president of OMNI?
JA: Bob did a lot of good things, and one of those is the family atmosphere. I'm not coming in to tear everything apart. It's definitely a family business and I'd like to keep it that way. But we are facing a world very different than Bob’s. And that is one of the reasons I’m here.
DG: How do you hope to recruit and help new members?
JA: Part of this transition is really looking into the future. Yes, I have a vision to leverage technology, but the question remains 'why OMNI?' In a transitional period, what value are we providing as a group? Everybody learned from Walmart that it's all about the buy. So I want to turn that on its head and ask 'how do we sell?' Maybe even more important, what do we sell? People think we are in the plumbing business. Here’s a news flash: we’re in the information business. People want to be with a group that's providing value not only from a rebate management perspective but how do they grow their own business? Information will help win new members, and as a group, I can’t think of anyone outside of OMNI with more information to share, cultivate and use to every member’s advantage.
DG: As a leader in the industry, what is the number one quality a leader ought to possess?
JA: Honesty. Do what you say you're going to do. That means you don't treat people as a number. I respect Bob Hoff's history, OMNI’s history, the plumbing industry’s history. I want to pull the history forward with knowledge and see why we did what we did and if we want to keep doing it or do something else. That’s how you win, isn’t it?