“The Odd Couple,” a beloved 1970s television series starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, two divorced men, Felix, a neurotic neat freak, and Oscar, a compulsive slob, both live in the same Manhattan apartment. The long-running show, which was also a 1965 Neil Simon play and a 1968 movie, plays off of the many personality quirks of Oscar and Felix, two childhood buddies who are polar opposites in every way, except for one: their friendship.
A question posed in the opening monologue of “The Odd Couple” reminds me of the relationship that many contractors have with their local distributors: “Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?”
Like Felix and Oscar, most contractors have known their distributors for years, and live with each other day in and day out. They haggle over bids, argue over late deliveries or returned goods and grumble about each other incessantly. Like Felix and Oscar, they see each other as polar opposites. The contractor stereotype for a distributor is a street-smart sharpie who drives a fancy car and knows how to make a buck, while the stereotypical electrical contractor is a cigar-chomping, price-shopping trunk-slammer.
But like Felix and Oscar, in times of need, contractors and distributors are there for each other: that midnight phone call to get a motor starter to the factory when a production line goes down, or a 6 a.m. opening of the warehouse to load a contractor's truck with the supplies he forgot to order the day before.
For all their grumbling about each other, electrical contractors and distributors are more important to each other than either might sometimes like to admit. Electrical contractors account for $4 out of every $10 of distributor sales, and despite incursions by Home Depot, Lowe's and other alternate channels, statistics say contractors still purchase over three-quarters of all their supplies from electrical distributors.
Electrical distributors and electrical contractors have at least one other thing in common: industry consolidation. Electrical contractors and distributors both face competition that's getting bigger all the time. Although the consolidation trend has slowed with the economy during the past two years in the electrical wholesaling industry, in the past three years, several dozen large electrical distributors were acquired by large national and regional chains. Another difference between the contracting and distribution business is that the electrical distributors who have acquired the most companies — Rexel, Sonepar, Hagemeyer, WESCO, CED and Graybar — have been in the acquisition game for some time, while four of the five “contractor consolidators” are comparatively new to the acquisition game.
You may think that you have as much in common with distributors as Felix does to Oscar. But the truth is that you are both partners in the electrical construction marketplace, and, like Felix and Oscar, you must learn to live together.