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One-on-one with STAFDA executive director Georgia Foley

BY Ken Ryan

Georgia Foley has been the executive director of the Specialty Tools & Fasteners Distributors Association (STAFDA) since 2000, but her involvement with the trade organization dates to when she was barely a teenager, when she helped her father — founder Morrie Halvorsen — run the operation out of the family basement.

Through the years, Foley has seen membership grow in numbers and stature even though STAFDA has maintained the same dues rates it first established in 1977.

Home Channel News recently spoke to Foley in advance of the 2012 STAFDA Convention & Trade Show, Nov. 4 to 6, at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla.

What excites you about this year’s STAFDA convention?

There are a lot of things that excite me every year about our Convention & Trade Show. First, it provides the best opportunity for members to exchange ideas with not only companies from North America, but globally, while having the chance to attend an 800-booth trade show, where our manufacturers are showcasing their latest product line. We cram a lot into three days — including top business experts presenting educational workshops — giving attendees plenty of take-home value with minimal time out of the office. 

If I am a distributor who is not sure whether to attend or not, why should I attend?

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked from distributors is: ‘What are you hearing from distributors in other parts of the country?’ One of the intangible benefits to a distributor who attends our convention is that he realizes he’s not alone. It doesn’t matter where he’s from, but by visiting with peers from non-competing markets, he has the opportunity to pick up an idea from another distributor, talk products or common business issues, or even commiserate on the economy. Plus, there is a good chance the majority of his vendors are at the STAFDA show, so that alone should encourage a distributor to attend.

How did you get involved in the industry?

My father, Morrie Halvorsen, used to be the VP sales and marketing for Milwaukee Electric Tool and also with ITT Phillips Red Head. He started STAFDA in 1977, along with 18 of his distributor customers. STAFDA began in our basement. He put me to work for him when I was 13, and I helped him make the initial prospect mailing. I worked for him while in junior high and high school, and even during college. After I graduated, I managed an exhibit and trade show industry association for seven years. That outside experience prepped me well to join STAFDA full time in 1994 as member services director. I became executive director in 2000 when my father retired from STAFDA.

What are some of the personal or association achievements that you are most proud of?

It’s personally rewarding to be involved with an organization that started with 18 members in ’77 and now has more than 2,500 internationally. Our membership dues are the same now as they were in ’77 ($350, less than $1/day) and our convention registration fee is the lowest in the industry ($190). We continue to add new services and programs, while dropping those that no longer serve us well. STAFDA is always evolving, and it’s exciting to be part of a dynamic organization serving a great group of people.

How has your industry been able to survive, or in some cases thrive, during this long downturn?

I think ‘thrive’ might be too optimistic of an adjective for the construction industry. During the recession, our members, like other businesses, made tough decisions on what to cut, who to cut and took the necessary steps to eliminate any overhead. The stimulus promoted infrastructure work, which helped our members through the worst of the recession, while others turned their attention to utilities, solar energy and other non-typical STAFDA markets. Those now involved in fracking and alternative energy sources are doing well. Mergers/acquisitions have impacted our industry, but STAFDA members are resilient, flexible, tenacious entrepreneurs who know how to compete.

What does the future look like for STAFDA and the industry it represents?

I believe the biggest driver for STAFDA and the construction industry is technology. It’s changed how we all do business. In a very short window, salespeople have gone from hauling catalogs to sales calls, to laptops and now iPads. Selling online has gone from being a threat to just another component of the sales process. For the construction industry, contractors have more product information, training and a greater assortment of vendors to choose from. Product technology has completely revolutionized our industry. Everything is faster, lighter, safer and easier to use.

But for all of today’s technological advancements, the one thing I don’t foresee changing in the construction industry is the value and importance of personal relationships and the hands-on demoing of new tools. That’s what built our industry and will carry us into the future.

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Distributors who take risks, seize new opportunities

BY Ken Ryan

What keeps Mike Kangas up at night? For the president/general manager of Alaska Industrial Hardware, it’s not concerns about business or the prospect of another dark and foreboding winter in Anchorage. It’s about seizing the next opportunity.

“My sleepless nights are due to anticipation of what’s around the corner the very next day,” said Kangas, a member of the board of directors of the Specialty Tools & Fasteners Distributors Association (STAFDA). “I’ve been in this industry my whole life. Every corner I turn, I’m always learning with enthusiasm — whether I’m buying product, selling in the stores or using tools hands-on in my shop. I couldn’t have picked a better job in my wildest dreams.”

Kangas’ enthusiasm and positive energy is a trait shared by other STAFDA board members, including Rick Lamb, marketing manager, Frank’s Supply Co., Albuquerque, N.M.; and Nils Lindbloom, president, The Tool Shed, Greenville, S.C.

Despite tough economic conditions — commercial activity and prospects in Albuquerque rank near the bottom among 100 metro areas, according to a recent study, Lamb said — these business leaders are resourceful entrepreneurs who have proven they know how to get the job done.

Kangas said that like the rest of the nation, the construction industry in Alaska has not been spared, but he does not despair. “Thank goodness work continues, albeit at a slower pace,” he said. “Sales continue, but customers are much more frugal. However, one thing we can always count on is winter in Alaska. Ice melt, heaters, snow shovel and outerwear will continue to do well.”

Lamb said commercial building in Albuquerque is stagnant these days, but because Frank’s Supply operates four other stores in other markets — and those are doing quite well — the business as a whole has endured. “Overall, it’s a good stable market,” he said.

Lindbloom said in Greenville, S.C., there are some fairly strong pockets of manufacturing growth that The Tool Shed is looking to capture. He said he knows it could be a lot worse. “We haven’t been as weak here as in some other areas of the country,” he said. “I’m guardedly optimistic about the future; however, a lot of people are waiting to see what happens in November.” 

STAYING RELEVANT

In this still recovering market for home building and materials, distributor executives such as Kangas suggest that to experience any growth, companies must be willing to search out new opportunities. “Whether it be remodeling or expanding locations, increasing an existing category, or thinking out of the box and trying something new,” he said. “Several years ago, we tried some portable storage shelters, just one or two sizes at first; now we are selling roughly 20 containers annually. Never miss an opportunity. Believe me, not everything we venture into is a success story, but if you never expand your horizons, growth will be limited, at best, in today’s market.”

The Tool Shed, as with other STAFDA members, is putting more focus on the Internet, including social media.

“The Internet is a tough market to break into,” Lindbloom said. “Still, we’ve been revamping our website, trying to make it look more professional. We’re using Facebook, email marketing, social media. But, really, we haven’t changed our clientele. We’ve been selling to professionals for 35 years. We have had to expand our product selection over the years; that is always expanding.”

TREND SPOTTERS

The STAFDA directors point to the continuing advancements in Lithium-ion technology as the major trend driving power tool sales in 2012, with more to come in 2013. “Since Lithium-ion batteries are now very close in price to the old Ni-Cad platform, there seems to be a surge in cordless tool sales,” Kangas said. “Consumers are beginning to realize the advantages of Li technology. Brushless motors, although beneficial, haven’t caught up to the learning curve. I think 2013 will be the year brushless technology takes off.”

Lamb added that “advances in Lithium ion will be the story in 2013 as manufacturers build the family of tools that work around that system. Companies like Milwaukee are getting into trade-specific products, for such trades as electrical and plumbing.”

Lindbloom said there has been significant sell-through with the Fein MultiMaster, particularly the cordless versions, which he said are expanding quite nicely.

“We’re seeing growth in power tools from newer platforms that allow better ergonomics — lightweight yet longer-running batteries that allow for more exotic products. We’re seeing for the first time 18-volt sanders and other cordless varieties that we haven’t seen,” he said.

Lindbloom said ergonomics is increasingly important to today’s professional, and advances in ergonomics are being incorporated into lighter-weight power tools. “Tools with better grips and anti-vibration technology that ease the stress on the professional,” he said. “There is a lot more attention paid to worker safety these days.”

STAFDA SHOW STRENGTH

For Alaska Industrial Hardware, STAFDA is a highlight event on the trade show calendar, according to Kangas.

“I attend several shows throughout the year, but nothing compares. One of the things I benefit from is that being from Alaska I get to connect with industry peers from the lower 48, as well as around the world. There isn’t any price tag you can put on that opportunity.”

Lamb added: “STAFDA by far is one of the best conferences you can go to. Even though the economy is down, there has been an increase in manufacturer membership because they know it is an important show to be at. You really can’t beat it.”

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Power tool trends: Faster, lighter, better performance

BY Ken Ryan

Innovative new products engineered with the latest advancements in battery technology continue to fuel the power tools industry for the major brands — including DeWalt, Makita and Milwaukee Tool — as they introduce faster, lighter products that provide superior performance for users.

Construction professionals have access to power tools that not only improve efficiency but are as tough and reliable as they are, according to Bob Welsh, VP industrial design and brand marketing, DeWalt Industrial Tool Co. “When the job they do requires performance, they select for features, functionality and performance first,” Welsh said. “We strive to deliver appreciable value to the user, while over-delivering on performance and durability.”

Advanced battery technology, primarily Lithium ion, and brushless motors are the two major development areas shaping today’s power tools market, executives said. Rick Lamb, marketing manager, Frank’s Supply Co., Albuquerque, N.M., said the major power tool companies are pulling out all the marketing ploys to try and differentiate their Lithium ion-based products.

Mark Sense, group product manager, Milwaukee Tool, said his company’s objective is to deliver forward-leaning products to its core professional users, such as Milwaukee’s RedLithium battery, a technology designed to bring greater efficiency to the job site. “In a crowded marketplace, success requires innovation,” Sense said.

In 2012, Milwaukee introduced its new M12 Fuel line, a sub-compact battery system, and six new drilling and fastening tools that feature Milwaukee’s Powerstate brushless motor, RedLithium technology and what it calls its RedLink Plus intelligence, which is said to integrate full-circle communication among tool, battery and charger.

The M12 Fuel line of compact, lighter-weight tools includes the company’s RedLithium 2.0 and XC 4.0 batteries. The upgrade, Sense said, provides up to twice the run-time, 20% more power, two times more recharges than standard Lithium-ion batteries, and the ability to operate in climates below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. The bottom line: “This next generation of Lithium ion will allow our users to focus more on getting jobs done and less on charging their batteries,” he said.

Following the addition of the M12 Fuel line, Milwaukee’s M12 sub-compact system will feature more than 50 tools.

Welsh identified brushless motor technology as the biggest trend in power tools in 2012. “Brushless motors have runtime and performance benefits that are proving highly beneficial in the professional power tool arena,” he said. “The brushless motors run cooler, last longer and deliver significantly more runtime. As the price points come down, we should see this new innovation become more common on professional power tools.”

Welsh said that for such power tool companies as DeWalt, delivering products that help users perform their work faster, easier and more productively is critical. “These are all characteristics users are interested in when money is tight, and serve as a growth catalyst even in down economies,” he noted.

For Makita, the biggest innovation in 2012 has been the 18V Rotary Hammer with a built-on HEPA vacuum. The BL brushless motor allowed Makita engineers to include two motors powered by one 18V (not 36V) battery in the LXRH011: one powering the rotary hammer and another for the vacuum. “This is an important point of difference that results in increased suction efficiency without sacrificing tool performance,” said Wayne Hart, communications manager. According to the company, the built-on HEPA vacuum captures 99.95% of dust particles (size .3 microns), meeting the demand for improved dust extraction on job sites.

ERGONOMICS TRENDS

Providing a tool that is comfortable both dynamically and statically is what best-in-class ergonomics is all about in premium power tools, Welsh said. “These are products that are easy and comfortable to handle and transport during extended use.”

Makita’s Hart said ergonomics is key for any contractor who uses a power tool for extended periods. “Metrics like torque and speed are clearly important for industrial applications, but to provide a total solution, the tool also has to be engineered with a good power-to-weight ratio, with proper balance and comfort,” he said.

“We developed the slide-style battery back in 2005. This allowed our engineers to build the handle of a cordless tool around the human hand — not the battery — for superior ergonomics and comfort. Another innovation is Anti-Vibration Technology. Not a spring-loaded or padded handle, AVT is an internal counterbalance system engineered inside the tool for reduced vibration. These features are clear points of difference and deliver increased comfort, from single applications to all-day job-site use.”

LOOKING AHEAD

With economic signs starting to brighten, power tools executives are cautiously optimistic that exciting new innovations will be the underpinning of growth for their business and the overall market. Some of the new products will be on display at this month’s STAFDA conference.

Makita, for example, will debut its 18V LXT X2 Lithium-ion cordless 1-in. SDS-Plus Rotary Hammer (model HRH01ZX2), a product designed to deliver convenience and performance. “Performance means three joules of impact energy, two-times faster drilling, and up to three-times longer runtime than other 18V rotary hammers,” Hart said. “The user also gets convenience because the HRH01ZX2 is powered by the same 18V Lithium-ion batteries that power more than 50 Makita 18V LXT tools.”

The company plans to introduce more than 60 18V LXT tools in 2013.

Despite the challenging economy, DeWalt has not significantly changed the way it goes to market, but has redoubled efforts on delivering the tools its core users demand. “We continue to speak to the customer in their language and seek them out in our traditional manner — where they work, learn and play,” Welsh said. “It’s hard to tell exactly what the overall market will be doing over the next year, or even just the power tool market. I believe with remodeling and housing starts both trending up, and innovative new products making their way onto the market, we will see share growth in our categories and ideally overall market growth as well.”

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