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How Innovative Sellers Engage Customers in Entirely New Ways

Sellers provide new solutions to their customers based on increased collaboration, information flow and buying trends analysis

The next BriefingsDirect case study interview explores the new face of customer engagement and procurement modernization by examining how MSC Industrial Supply is improving how they define and relate to their customers in the manufacturing sector.

MSC has been using the Ariba Network to innovatively bolster customer engagements, and to provide new solutions to their customers based on increased collaboration, information flow and buying trends analysis.

BriefingsDirect had an opportunity to uncover more about about such new, agile business services at the recent 2014 Ariba LIVE Conference in Las Vegas when we spoke to Erik Gershwind, President and CEO of MSC Industrial Supply in Melville, New York. The discussion is moderated by me, Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.

Here are some excerpts:

Gardner: What procurement pressures are your customers facing? Why are they looking to change things? What's wrong with the status quo?

Gershwind: Most of our customers are North American manufacturers. One of the sea changes that we have seen occur, particular since the 2008-2009 global recession, is if you look back for the past two decades, there was a heavy focus by procurement, supply chain, and finance organizations on price, on cost.


Of course, that's still critically important, but since the 2008-2009 recession, businesses around the world, and certainly manufacturers in North America, now have a much greater awareness on the importance of cash flow and speed through the supply chain.

That's probably the biggest thing that we’ve seen in the past few years. Our customers are telling us that speed of the supply chain, getting to market faster, so they can have more of their products into their customers’ hands faster, is becoming a much bigger priority.

Gardner: So to be swift, agile, and lean in the way you go to market requires that you look at your internal processes, and get lean there. Is that right?

Gershwind: Dana, that’s exactly right. Leaner supply chains turn into shorter lead times. Shorter lead times mean faster speed to market. And all of that requires really tight dependency from every single link in the supply chain.

What we’ve found is that everything that’s happening in our supply chain right now is driven by the end-user, what's happening with the customer, but that customer’s needs are working their way back very quickly.

And collaboration, which is enabled by technology, is making it critically important in order to be effective in leaning things out.

Gardner: I certainly want to learn more about how you’re modernizing procurement and bringing benefits, but first, tell us a little bit about MSC, for those of our listeners and readers who are not familiar with you.

Over a million items

Gershwind: MSC is a distributor of industrial supplies. We sell over a million items, primarily into manufacturing or any maintenance environment. That could be anything from a safety glove, to an abrasive, to the most advanced metal cutting tools that are used in the manufacturing process.

We exist so that we can help businesses focus on their business. We do that by ensuring that supply chains run smoothly. Our small part in that bigger mission is around taking the complexity, the obstacles, and the inefficiencies out of maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) materials.

We were founded over 70 years ago in a tiny storefront on the lower East Side of Manhattan, and everybody at MSC, including myself, has been part of what's been an amazing growth story.

We focus on anything that's an indirect part of a production process. So not the raw materials, not the direct stuff, but all of the other things that keep plants running. That’s what we specialize in.

We focus on anything that's an indirect part of a production process.

Gardner: Another thing that’s going on, in addition to business pressure to be lean and agile, are some technology improvements over the past several years. One of those is a topic of the day, a hot topic, big data and the analytics that you can derive from more and more types of content and gain more and more insight.

How do you get information or acquire insights or analysis that can allow you to then bring better approaches to your customers in helping them be lean and efficient?

Gershwind: Historically, when I look at the core assets of MSC as a distributor, there were three things I would highlight: our people, first and foremost; our inventory; and our distribution centers, our physical assets.

What we’re quickly realizing is that there's a fourth one that’s every bit as important as the other three assets. That's information. You’re absolutely right. With every transaction that occurs, especially because of technology now, there's learning in there.

Drive improvements

To answer your question, we’re using technology to help us harvest that data, use it to drive improvements within our own four walls, but more importantly, with our customers and with our suppliers.

I’ll give you two examples of how we’re employing technology. One is Ariba. Ariba is the perfect platform for connecting buyers and sellers. It's a network, but it's a network that leaves footprints. With every transaction, there’s a footprint left behind that’s waiting to be mined for operational improvements.

Another example is our vending initiative. We at MSC will take a little piece of ourselves and put a vending machine on the plant floor of our customers to store tools and let them take responsibility for procurement. Certainly, one advantage is security and inventory optimization, but there is information to be mined in each one of those machines, and we’re using that to help our customers.

Gardner: Tell me about your history of working with Ariba. How long have you been doing it, and what are some of the chief benefits that you see in using Ariba's Network and various cloud-based services to conduct your own procurement and tighten up your own processes?

Gershwind: MSC has been a seller on the Ariba Network for well over a decade. If you’ll bear with me, I’ll share a quick story, a trip down memory lane. One of our very first Ariba interactions was close to 15 years ago. One of our customers at the time, a big manufacturer, asked us if we could get up and running on the Ariba Network in less than a month's time.

It’s bringing business networking to happen faster, more efficiently, and more frequently.

The three partners together -- the customer, MSC, and Ariba -- rolled up our sleeves. We had teams working on the same side of the table for a month straight. It was a great example of collaboration.

And I still remember us huddled around the computer screen, waiting for that first transaction to go through. I’m proud to say that that customer relationship is one of the best we have still today.

In terms of the benefits that we as a seller see, there are three things I would point to.

Number one is certainly enhanced revenue growth. Number two is cost savings, because transactions are now done electronically. But I would call out the third one as the most important. Ariba is helping us collaborate. It’s bringing business networking to happen faster, more efficiently, and more frequently. And those collaborations are resulting in innovations to our supply chains collectively and are driving improvements.

Gardner: Erik, I’d like to return to this notion of the vending machines that, as you said, was an extension of your business into the actual physical plant of your customers. This reminds me of what happens in technology on the Internet. For big bundles of objects and data, rather than going from the server of the originator down to the individual user, we have what we call content delivery networks (CDNs), where we put those objects out as far toward the last mile as possible.

It seems to me that this is an interesting development for physical goods, and you also, of course, get the data back on how they are used. Explain to me your rationale and how far you’ve taken this into the market, this concept of the extension of your physical distribution capabilities into the very physical plant of your customers.

Critical element

Gershwind: Vending and the idea of extending ourselves into our customers’ supply chains is a critical element of fulfilling our mission of helping supply chains run more effectively.

I’ll share a quick example with you. This is a customer that uses vending machines for us. This customer has about 150 vending machines installed as part of an MSC system across 75 locations in North America, and that system is yielding tremendous benefits for them.

Recently their MRO category manager was in New York and shared with me that at one site in Alabama, one of this company’s locations, their people were doing a mile-long walk there and back just to get to a centralized storeroom and get a supply replacement or part of a tool.

Think about that for a second, a mile walk. If somebody is doing that just once a day, and by the way, many are doing it multiple times a day, they’re walking a marathon by the end of the month. So by bringing inventory closer to where work is getting done, this company is saving time and they are translating that time savings into real dollar savings.

There's no such thing anymore as "my" supply chain and "your" supply chain. It’s one supply chain.

Gardner: I suppose there is also a common thread here with mobility, where people can use their mobile devices or smartphones to conduct businesses, activities, and processes and allow for check-offs, okays, and so forth, reducing that last mile and compressing the distance.

It also reminds me of being able to, in a sense, cross organizational boundaries. They become fuzzy. Your organization is inside another, for example.

Let's take this to a theoretical level. As we look three, four, or five years down the road, is the nature of buyer and seller changing? Are we really combining them into a common supply-chain ecosystem, where there isn’t necessarily an adversarial relationship, but something different, more collaborative?

Gershwind: Dana, you just hit the keyword. It's collaboration. The way we look at it, we’re all part of one supply chain. There's no such thing anymore as "my" supply chain and "your" supply chain. It’s one supply chain, and we are all interdependent parts of the one bigger supply chain. The reality is that we can't be effective without each other, and that's how business is going to be run. The beauty of Ariba, more and more, is that it's making that collaboration happen faster, more efficiently, and more effectively.

Gardner: Now, what about the data, returning to that subject. It’s okay with you to share data with Ariba and Ariba to share data with you. Then, we extrapolate that across industries, verticals, and go global. The amount of information we’re gathering, even anonymized and private, gives us great insights. We can start to be more predictive. That is to say, you know your supply chain, what your customers will demand maybe quite a bit before, or we can identify risks when things go amiss, sooner rather than later.

So do you have any thoughts about the future of analysis and intelligence when we apply it to the supply chain equation?

Information business

Gershwind: It goes back to the idea that, as a distributor, we used to think of ourselves as being in the hard goods business, and of course, we still are, and always will be, but we’re also in the information business.

The biggest change and trend that I would point to is the idea that information is now being used beyond our own four walls. At MSC, we always did a fairly decent job of mining our own data for supply chain improvements, forecasting, and understanding what to purchase.

What’s now happening, and it all starts because of our customers’ needs, that’s working its way back through the supply chain, is data and information is now being used to help our customers, and even our suppliers run their businesses better.

So the vending example I gave you is a great one. As I said, each one of those electronic transactions is a footprint. It’s the same thing with our website. E-commerce now represents nearly 50 percent of MSC’s revenues. Every single one of those transactions leaves behind little breadcrumbs that give us insights that we can then use and share with our customers and further back in the supply chain with our suppliers.

I don't think anybody can do it alone anymore.

Gardner: It seems to me, Erik, that it requires a third party like the Ariba Network to aggregate and bring intelligence to bear on this massive data. I know that they’re leveraging the HANA platform from SAP more and more to do that sort of big-data analysis and intelligence gathering.

How important is it for you to look at that third party and see them in a trusted fashion? Could you do this alone, and are there many other organizations that can fill the role like Ariba Network is?

Gershwind: I don't think anybody can do it alone anymore. That's really the nature of the supply chain that we just talked about. What Ariba does is bring businesses together.

Think of it as a virtual networking forum. It used to be that, in the old days, you were able to network when you got together maybe once a quarter. Ariba is letting that happen in real time, all the time.

Are there others doing it? Maybe, but none that we trust more than Ariba. As I said, we’ve been doing it for well over a decade with them and we view them as an extension of ourselves into our customers.

Gardner: We’re about out of time, but let’s look to the future. Do you have any ideas about what you’d like to see from your unique position in the supply chain business, in manufacturing, and in indirect goods? What would you like to see for the next revolution?

Indirect materials

Gershwind: The one thing I would point to that we haven't talked about is the opportunity that’s sitting right in front of procurement and supply chain, when it comes to indirect materials. For the last decade or so, procurement has done a wonderful job cleaning up direct materials, getting clear line of sight, optimizing the supply chain, and taking cost out.

Earlier this morning, in the general session, I referred to direct materials as the garage of the house, because everybody goes in, it’s a high profile spot, everybody is in it, it’s core to your operations, and it’s gotten a lot of attention.

Indirect materials is like the attic of your house. If it's anything like my attic, it’s neglected, the light bulb hasn't been replaced. So it’s dark and you can't see what's going on.

What we do know is that today, sitting in North American businesses, is $145 billion of MRO inventory alone, let alone broader indirect materials. We also know that 70 percent of that is likely never to be used.

So sitting in front of procurement is a $100 billion opportunity. It's not just the job of procurement, but all of us as a supply chain. It's sitting there waiting for us.

So sitting in front of procurement is a $100 billion opportunity. It's not just the job of procurement, but all of us as a supply chain. It's sitting there waiting for us.

Gardner: What do you mean? How do we attack this problem, clean up the attic, as it were? Do we need to have better inventory? Do we have just-in-time supply chain, ordering and fulfillment? What is it that we need to bring to indirect that’s missing?

Gershwind: There are three things that we want to bring to indirect procurement and get at the attic. Number one is looking for time. The natural bias is to focus on cost, but what we’ve come to learn with our customers who are doing it well is that, if you focus on time savings, the cost savings does follow. That's number one.

Number two, we need light. We need light up there and we need to bring a flashlight with us. That flashlight is technology -- technology like Ariba. Use technology as the flashlight.

And the third thing, and we’ve been hitting on it all morning here, is collaboration. Get another set of eyes. It's hard to see things by yourself. You can't be successful on your own. So bring partners in and help you attack that $100 billion.

Gardner: So we are really talking about modernizing indirect procurement in ways that we have already established. We know these things work and we just have to establish the will and then bring it into that part of the business.

Gershwind: That’s it. It’s about taking what we have already done in the garage and applying it to the attic. That’s right.

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At Interarbor Solutions, we create the analysis and in-depth podcasts on enterprise software and cloud trends that help fuel the social media revolution. As a veteran IT analyst, Dana Gardner moderates discussions and interviews get to the meat of the hottest technology topics. We define and forecast the business productivity effects of enterprise infrastructure, SOA and cloud advances. Our social media vehicles become conversational platforms, powerfully distributed via the BriefingsDirect Network of online media partners like ZDNet and As founder and principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, Dana Gardner created BriefingsDirect to give online readers and listeners in-depth and direct access to the brightest thought leaders on IT. Our twice-monthly BriefingsDirect Analyst Insights Edition podcasts examine the latest IT news with a panel of analysts and guests. Our sponsored discussions provide a unique, deep-dive focus on specific industry problems and the latest solutions. This podcast equivalent of an analyst briefing session -- made available as a podcast/transcript/blog to any interested viewer and search engine seeker -- breaks the mold on closed knowledge. These informational podcasts jump-start conversational evangelism, drive traffic to lead generation campaigns, and produce strong SEO returns. Interarbor Solutions provides fresh and creative thinking on IT, SOA, cloud and social media strategies based on the power of thoughtful content, made freely and easily available to proactive seekers of insights and information. As a result, marketers and branding professionals can communicate inexpensively with self-qualifiying readers/listeners in discreet market segments. BriefingsDirect podcasts hosted by Dana Gardner: Full turnkey planning, moderatiing, producing, hosting, and distribution via blogs and IT media partners of essential IT knowledge and understanding.

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