49. The Power of a Leading Channel Association for Distributors | Brendan Breen, CEO of ISA

Episode 49

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In this episode of Driven by DCKAP, we’re excited to have Brendan Breen, the CEO of ISA (Industrial Supply Association) as our guest, where we learn about his in-depth experience and dedication to educating and supporting the industrial distribution industry.

Karthik Chidambaram, Founder & CEO of DCKAP, speaks one on one with Brendan about his work-life experience and career journey, how he came to lead ISA, what this organization stands for, and why it’s important for distributors to be members.

Tune in to better understand how to be driven in leadership, the importance of partnership and strategy, and the great value in what a leading channel association can bring to the table.

Books mentioned in this podcast:
“Influencing Powerful People : Engage and Command the Attention of the Decision-Makers to Get What You Need to Succeed” by Dirk Schlimm
“Great CEOs Are Lazy” by Jim Schleckser
“Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

Karthik Chidambaram: Hello, everyone. Welcome to a new episode of DCKAP’s
Driven podcast. We are very excited today because we have a very special
guest. We have with us Brendan Breen, the President and CEO of ISA,
Industrial Supply Association. Brendan, it's awesome and it's a pleasure to
be chatting with you. And welcome to DCKAP’s Driven podcast.

Brendan Breen: Oh, thanks for having me, Karthik. Glad to be here.

Karthik Chidambaram: Brendan, before we get started, I would like to learn a little
more about ISA, for the audience who are not very familiar with what ISA is,
and what it does and why ISA? Can you just tell us a little bit about the
ISA story?

Brendan Breen: Sure. No, this is one of my favorite topics, as you can
imagine. So, it's important, kind of, to remind people that are listening
that ISA has been around for a really long time.

We were actually founded in some name, shape, or form. We've had different
names along the way at the turn of the century in 1902, you know. We were
founded at that time by a group of really pioneering distributors that saw a
need. Think about what was happening in the world at that time, right in the
middle of the Second Industrial Revolution.

There's advancements in transportation, mass production, communication, you
know, distribution really we need to do, modern distribution was really born
right in this age. And so there was a need to create a collaboration between
distributors, but also to create better relationships with their
manufacturer suppliers, partners, in order to navigate these challenging
times together.

And so ISA has been a constant ever since then. Think about what the world
has gone through. You have a Great Depression. Or you have the war effort
for World War II, or you have inflation in the seventies, you have the rise
of e-commerce and the .com era. Now you have COVID-19 and the rise of AI.

ISA has really always been a platform to navigate this, these changes, as a
unified channel. So what makes us really different and what really, you
know, the ‘why ISA’ is that, you know, we have as equal stakeholders,
manufacturers and distributors. There's a lot of interaction that goes on
between those partners.

And oftentimes, from the outside, they can be seen as, you know, on the
opposite sides of the negotiating table. But at ISA, it's really about
strengthening their collaborative efforts in order to better serve a complex
end user, one that's evolving super fast and has different needs. A
distributor trying to do that on their own is fighting, I believe, with one
arm behind their back.

There's a lot of value that manufacturers bring to that equation. And they
can do that by either networking through ISA or leveraging our business
analytics tools that really take in insights from peer driven information,
or we're doing a lot of work in workforce empowerment, building up the
companies to make sure that the longevity is really there.

So the ‘why’ for ISA is this, is the industry for the MROP channel for the
maintenance, repair operations and production channel. We are heavily
weighted in safety and in metalworking. But think about everything that
really ends up in that factory that doesn't end up on the finished product
that heads out the door, our companies are making it or they're distributing
it.

So, you know, we're laser focused on the next 120 years of ISA's history in
this channel, but yeah, it's a good story. I like telling it as you can
tell.

Karthik Chidambaram: Oh, it's amazing. I didn't know ISA existed since, or
it was started like a hundred years ago since 1902. That's amazing.

I'm just curious because you read a lot. Have you guys documented the
history over 100 years of how?

Brendan Breen: Yeah, we- it's, it's actually a very interesting project that
doesn't have a whole lot of documentation, especially when you try to focus
in on what happens at ISA.

And this is just a little anecdote. I found there's a research library. I
think it's in Ohio that has, like, boxes and boxes and boxes of like
proceedings from annual conventions that have existed for 120 years. Board
meetings. And so I might have to make a little pilgrimage out to Ohio to get
access to this, because it's not digitized at this point, but I think it's
a- It would be a fascinating story to tell.

And I think it would reinforce the power of an association, to navigate
these challenges. And what an association can really do, that is, that is
aimed at the right mission, which I believe has never changed since our
founding. And that'll be a fun project.

Karthik Chidambaram: I'm just curious to know your journey with ISA, because
you were the director of operations for ISA for a year and a half.

And then you left them and then you started working with Nuclear Materials
Management, Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, and then you were
also an Executive Director at Indoor Air Quality Association, IAQA, and then
you came back to ISA and now you're the CEO. Tell us about your ISA story.

Brendan Breen: Yeah, so my ISA story. So, my whole career has been working
with mission driven organizations and typically trade associations or
individual membership associations. You know, and I love working in these
groups. Not just because it- typically you're on a small staff that allows
you to have your hands in a whole lot of different things.

So you might do a lot of marketing one day or sales another day or IT or HR.
You get to do a little bit of all of this when you work on such a small
team. But, my ISA journey, really, what was compelling for me with ISA is
that, you know, all of these organizations I've worked with have a mission
and have a purpose and have a focus for the future.

But I think ISA is incredibly well positioned. I think it, not only does it
have a phenomenal group of members and board of directors and history, but
it also has the strength of vision and to remain important. No matter what
is thrown at it. So no matter how this world changes, our products are going
to need to be made and sold. And there is always going to be a need for
collaboration.

So, I think our mission is the right one. And it’s the reason why I came
back, is I’ve felt that I could have a long career working with the
Industrial Supply Association. I think that it's got longevity written all
over it.

It's financially well positioned. It's got a, like I said, a good board that
supports a lot of, you know, new initiatives. And that's encouraging. And
right now, I think we're in a moment where coming out of COVID 19, everyone
was really scratching their head and questioning whether associations would
continue to provide value.

And I'm happy to say we are, we are growing. We're on an upswing and there's
a lot of momentum building and that's really stuff that is coming from our
new initiatives, not just people coming back to what we've always done, but
they're doing that and they're engaging with our stuff involving next gen
leaders or, um, educational platforms.

I mean, things like this are stuff that we've never really done before, and
it's, I think it's striking a chord with what people are needing for the
future.

Karthik Chidambaram: And who funds ISA? Is it, I mean, because I've seen
your events are really big and it offers a lot of value. So is it mostly the
events you run and the membership fee?

Is that what funds the ISA organization, or who's involved and how do you
get funding?

Brendan Breen: Yes, so, very similar to most associations. We don't solicit
outside funding, you know, there's no grants or anything like that. We are
entirely member and event driven. So the revenue that we get from our
membership through membership dues, as well as our events, are what float
all the operations of ISA. And we're a lean organization.

We have seven employees, and when you think about what we can accomplish
with our seven employees plus a nice group of volunteers that assist, you
know, it's truly amazing how we're able to accomplish so much. I mean a lot
of that is because of the phenomenal team I have working for me.

I mean, they are truly incredible individuals that are experts at what they
do. But you know, it's a- we managed to do a lot with a modest budget, and
it's entirely member driven.

Karthik Chidambaram: Awesome. And you talked about MROP, maintenance, repair
and operations. Can you tell us a little more about the MROP market and how
big is the MROP market?

Brendan Breen: It's a good question. I would say, you know, it is hard to
define the edges of this market because there's a lot of products that are
sold into different types of end users. There's a lot of products that are
sold through different verticals of distribution. And so it's difficult to
define that, but we've worked with some economists to try to scope that out
and it's somewhere between 200 and 300 billion dollars, as far as our
industry that that flows through, if we're talking specifically about the US
market.

So that puts it up there, in terms of major market, but think about, you
know, heavy manufacturing, meaning like aerospace or automotive or even
construction to some realm. We are the providers of all of the metal
working. We are the providers of all the safety equipment and all the safety
apparel and PPE.

You know, we have members who are serving in JanSan and we even have
electrical. I mean, so it really depends on how you're defining our product
scope. But, you know, I think that the answer there is it's a large, large
industry. And our members are, you know, they're growing. This is a positive
time to be in this business.

Karthik Chidambaram: In talking about repair. I've seen a lot of
distributors offer repairs to their customers and some distributors decide
to stay away from it. Hey, I don't want to get into the repair business.

Do you have any thoughts there, with where distribution is heading? How
critical is repair? Let's say I buy a product from a distributor and it
doesn't work. Do I have to rely on the distributor to repair it or should I
go somewhere else? What are your thoughts there?

Brendan Breen: I mean, I think that what we're seeing is distributors
getting more and more close to the customer. I mean, they are shifting from
being product, you know, specifically just product focus or logistics focus
to being solutions providers. I think that they're driving a lot of value
there.

I mean, if you look at any distributor's P and L statement, if you ever get
a chance to look at one, the margins are razor thin. I mean, they are not
massive margins. And so by providing these services, in repair or in other
areas, you know, training development, things like that, they're creating a
lot more stickiness with their customers.

And so, yes, I am seeing that they are getting in on the shop floor to make
sure that their customer sees value from them beyond just product or
logistics. I think that there's a lot of room to satisfy the customer,
especially when you look at the major disruptors and how you can
differentiate against them.

So if you're looking at, you know, the Amazons or, you know, even Joro or
some of these, I mean, those are not hands on the shop floor methods of
go-to market. They are a price or a logistics play And so the value that a
distributor can bring, and being close to the customer, and having a face to
face interaction, that's a huge differentiator where I see distribution,
especially in our channel holding on to a lot of market share.

I mean if you look at the fractured nature of our channel. It's, if you take
that piece of the pie, that 200 billion, only about 25 percent of it comes
from the publicly traded companies, the very large, everything else is, you
know, maybe a hundred million dollars or less. So you have a lot of players
in the market that are still scratching an itch that is needing to be
scratched.

And I don't see that going away very soon. I think that the nature of the
products that we're serving and the nature of the complexity around our end
users’ needs requires somebody to be there. Somebody to be a solution to a
problem that you have, as opposed to just a good buying experience online.

Karthik Chidambaram: Yeah, offering solutions makes a lot of sense.

I'm just curious, right? So, let's say when you talk about distribution,
even when we work with our customers, I usually see our customers located in
places like Ohio or Tennessee and things like that, but then, or states like
that, but then I don't really see a lot of distributors in places like,
let's say, San Francisco or New York.

Is that right? Or what do people in San Francisco and New York do? So what
are your thoughts there?

Brendan Breen: I mean, I think it's, there's distributors everywhere. I
think that if we were to do a heat map of where our distributors are
located, we probably have less distributors on the West Coast than we do on
the East Coast.

I think there's a lot of, maybe there's more consolidation on the West
Coast. I don't know that I have a great answer for the ‘why’ there, but it
just sort of is, you know, less focus on maybe the small natured or the
local market distributors. It is a little bit more spread out on the West
Coast too, in terms of the proximity to factories and things like that.

So, yeah, I don't have an exact scientific answer to why, I just know that
it exists. There's more, if I look at my members, they exist, and a little
bit more density east of the Mississippi, for sure.

Karthik Chidambaram: Oh, great. And do distributors ask you for advice? I'm
sure they do. You know, what kind of, what's a typical conversation like
between you and let's say a distributor or somebody who's running a large
distribution or a manufacturing company?

What is a typical conversation like? Do they call you?

Brendan Breen: Yeah, no, I talked to member companies all the time and I
think it's- I get to play a really, what I really love to do, is connect
people. You know, I'm not by any means a deep expert in a ton of different
topics. I think that I like to think of myself as an expert in leadership
and a good outside of the box thinker.

But my background in history is not in the industrial channel. And so what I
do get the opportunity to do is talk to a lot of people, which kind of gives
me a unique perspective on issues. So the number one question I always get
is, well, what are you hearing about the market or what are you hearing
about next quarter?

And I get to aggregate a lot of conversations that way to get a feeling for
what's coming. But, the rest is somebody calling me and saying, ‘Hey, do you
know anybody’ who's looking for, I have an open position or I'm looking for
representation from a rep agency in this market. Can you recommend anybody
or, you know, I'm trying to get distribution in this market. Do you know
anybody that I can talk to?

I mean, I get those questions all the time So I think that's who ISA is, in
general, is we are a connector of this channel and people come to ISA in
order to be connected into this industry. There are other groups that do
this, but they narrow the scope of who can belong. We really believe that if
you are making a product in our space or you are a distributor of a product
in our space, or an IMR, you belong in ISA. Because you belong in this
industry.

So we don't restrict on ownership structure, publicly traded, independently
owned family business, large, small- we believe that everybody belongs here
and everybody plays a role somewhere. So it's just, ISA can be a good
connector that way.

Karthik Chidambaram: Yeah. You talked about Channel and I was also on the
ISA website and I was reading about Channel 2.0, which essentially says a
new standard of expectations, helping all stakeholders here, distributors,
manufacturers, and IMRs create better strategic value for each other while
satisfying the end users evolving needs. So can you talk us through Channel
2.0 and-

Brendan Breen: Yes, so Channel 2.0 was a strategic framework. It was just as
a way of explaining, you know, how we see the channel collaborating
together. I think it all starts as it should with the end user and so what
we've created is we call them compasses for each of the stakeholders of the
channel, from end user to distributor to manufacturer to IMR. And in each
compass, the middle wheel is the driver of change. And then the outer part
of the wheel is the capabilities needed to satisfy that.

And so what we want to show is that when the end user does something, say
they are moving more into a need to have a quicker buying process or a more
frictionless buying process, and the capabilities needed there is a, you
know, a better B2B e-commerce website to function that way. That will flow
down through the channel and everybody's compass.

So all of a sudden now the distributor needs to say, ‘okay, I need to be
more robust in my B2B e-commerce’. What are the capabilities needed for me?
I'm going to need better content, rich data from my manufacturer. I'm also
going to need specialties, or a specialist on my staff, or partners to help
me with the functionality of my e-commerce website, that now we'll focus
down into the manufacturer, that now needs to provide that, but also, you
know, make sure that they are capturing that and maybe providing training or
whatever that goes along with it.

So what it really is, is that waterfall effect for every single thing that
the end user is needing as they evolve through the channel. And that again
is aimed at not just giving a road map for how you can solve a problem, it's
also to understate or to to underline the importance of collaboration all
the way through the channel in order to solve the end user’s problem, that
it's not just up to the distributor to make sure the end user happy is
happy. Manufacturers can play a role. The IMRs can play a role. Everybody
can enhance the experience for the end user if they're aligned and if
they're working together.

So it's a way of seeing beyond the four walls of your company and saying,
All right, what is the perspective of my channel partners? What's the
perspective of those that are below me in the chain? You know, how can I put
myself in their shoes? And better understand how to work with them as
opposed to just negotiate against them or point fingers. So I think it's a
way of getting strategic alignment as it's stated in kind of its mission.

Karthik Chidambaram: Yeah, I love the word, channel. It really helps connect
people and do a lot of things.

But I'm just curious, right? Let's say a new industry is getting started and
there is no channel out there. Well, we're talking about distribution and
you already have the channels established, so it's easy. I wouldn't say it's
easy, but then, you know, you have the pieces of the puzzle and you can get
that together.

But then let's say a completely new industry is getting started. Somebody is
coming up with a disruptive innovation and there's no channel. How do you
end up creating the channel, or do you have any thoughts there or how does
that evolve?

Brendan Breen: Yeah. I mean, I'm not sure. I mean, our business has been
around for a very long time. We're a very mature, you know, industry that
doesn't necessarily make sweeping changes or think in a startup mindset.

But, you know, I would assume that you would apply these same principles.
You would- you could look at Channel 2.0, which is, you know, vertical
agnostic. It could be electrical. It could be pipe valves and fitting. It
could be HVAC. It could be food.

It's still the same principles, for the most part. So I think that you would
look to these ‘nuts and bolts’ and say, you know, how can we take some of
these concepts and this framework and apply it in? I mean, I would assume
that when you're starting out a new channel, it's a little bit of winging
it. But this might give you a little bit more structure, to say ‘how can we
mature at a maybe faster pace and apply some of these principles’, so that
our distribution networks can meet the needs of those end users that would
probably not have too much patience.

They would probably say, ‘all right, if a new market's here, I need my
products and I need it now.’ If a channel can't develop, I'm going to go to
Amazon or I'm going to go somewhere else and buy it direct. And again, I
think that there's a miss there. There's a missed opportunity to provide
increased value to that end user and, and help them be a solutions provider
so that they can focus on their customers, not on their supply chain.

Karthik Chidambaram: Yeah. They say great companies are built on great
ecosystems and great channels. And I was wondering about this, like for
instance, you look at companies like Apple or, in the software industry,
companies like Apple or Oracle or Salesforce, they have built great channels
and they have great channel partners and they have a great ecosystem around
it.

And I'm just thinking out loud, hey, what came before that, right? So maybe
HP. So they copied from HP and what came before HP, maybe HP copied from the
distribution channel or how the distributors work. So it's been going on for
ages. Yeah, so it's really interesting, thinking about this.

Brendan Breen: Yeah, I mean, I think that what it comes down to is
partnership, you know, is seeing your suppliers and seeing those that play a
role as partners as opposed to just suppliers, you know, it's- there are
businesses that have to run on both sides.

And if both can align and figure out how to make sure that one plus one
equals three, then you're better serving the end user and you have a lot
more likelihood of serving that end user for a longer time. So I think it's
really about that mindset of not just you know squeezing every dollar you
can out of your supply chain. It's partnerships.

Karthik Chidambaram: Absolutely. And it's about what you give and not what
you get, you know, very well said.

So I'm just talking about digital transformation, I'm just curious to know
your views on how digital transformation has impacted the industrial
distribution community of industrial distribution companies.

This is my thought process, and I would love to get your views on it. You
can tell me if I'm right or wrong. So I feel the distributors are a little
slow when it comes to adopting digital transformation. Let's say an
e-commerce or integration. Hey, you've got to get all your systems
integrated so you can get better efficiency for your customers.

Is that a right observation? Are they a little slow to adapt? And what are
you seeing? And what is ISA doing in this regard?

Brendan Breen: Yeah, I mean, I wouldn't disagree with that. That we're a
little slow. I mean, there are some that are pushing faster than others, but
as on the whole, I think that it is- We're behind other other industries and
the complexity and leveraging the power of digital.

That said, I mean, I think it's- you can't open up a trade publication or
anything without seeing the first 10 articles being about digital
transformation. It's top of mind for people. I think people are exploring it
more and more every day. I think the challenge is bandwidth for a lot of
companies.

I think a lot of companies are, you know, operating on, again, razor thin
margins and looking at the investment needed both in time and money in order
to explore this. And they're seeing, I could stop what I'm doing, and
explore how to spin up my e-commerce website, or I can meet with my four
customers today. And I think that that's a hard thing to weigh.

You know, and so that's probably not helping with the pace of acceleration
around what our industry needs to do. But it's top of mind. I mean, they are
all more and more. Everybody is paying attention to and implementing. I
mean, I look at this from who is playing at ISA, from A. both a member point
of view, but also a what we call service provider point of view. Companies
that are tech companies are coming to our events more and more to talk about
their services.

Experts in this field are coming more and more, and finding a lot more
engagement from our members because of their appetite, is probably a little
bit, um, more every year. Everybody is now understanding that some of these
solutions have gone down in terms of complexity and implementation time. And
that makes them more palatable.

You know, I think before it was like, when you thought about when you
thought about new technology you considered, like your ERP, and your ERP
implementation, can be years. And companies to take that on, it's a
necessity, but it's also extraordinarily painful.

You know, and as much as I love the ERP companies, there's not a whole lot
they can do to make that less painful. It's disruptive, but some of these
plug and play solutions, some of these things like, you know, leveraging
automation or AI. It's- we're talking months or even weeks of spin up time
to get them up and running, and that's attractive.

And so I think that as the ability for our distributors and manufacturers
and just the companies in ISA to be able to recognize the value and the
ability for their companies to take advantage of these things, the pace will
quicken, but it will quicken for everybody, too.

So it's definitely a catch up game, Karthik. I think that, you know, we're
playing catch up to our customer, which is not a great position to be in,
but just know that more and more companies are jumping in as much as they
possibly can, because it is, it's table stakes now for, for what you need to
do to satisfy a modern end user.

Karthik Chidambaram: Oh, that's a great observation, Brendan and I can
relate to that. And I totally agree with that as well, because the time of
implementation is drastically reduced right now and people are expecting
faster results and the good news is the technology companies are also
adapting to that.

Hey, you know, if you're going to say it's going to take 12 months to
implement or a year and a half to implement. People are not ready for it.
Hey, no, we need faster results and automation really helps here. Yeah, it's
a great observation. I agree with that.

And, just moving on, we see some manufacturers getting into distribution and
distributors getting into manufacturing. So there's a blend right there. So
what are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities you're seeing in
the industrial distribution market today?

Brendan Breen: Well, I mean, that's definitely a challenge right now. That
puts a, it puts a- I don't want, maybe ‘strain’ isn't the right word, but it
puts some complexity in the relationship between manufacturers and
distributors. And not every distributor is capable of doing that. But some
are. And I think that, you know, oftentimes those private label products
that come through are not, you know, of the same quality or they're not of
the same, they're not from, you know, they're brought in from overseas.

And so it just challenges the relationship in it. And I think ultimately it
challenges the industry. It challenges our ability to provide significant
value to the end user or to find, you know, for the end user to say, this is
my trusted source for high quality and well delivered products. You know,
otherwise we run the risk of either disintermediation or completely going
around our channel and going from an e-tailer. So, you know that that's a
challenge that I think needs to be figured out.

I can't stand here and tell a distributor that I think that what they're
doing is bad in all cases, because every case is a little bit different, but
I think that, you know, it is something to play to your strengths. And I
think we all need to be looking at that.

Even ISA needs to say, you know, what do we do and what can we do, and be
the best at, you know, should I try and add remittances and a rebate program
into what we do? No, that's not what we do. That's never what we've done. So
we're going to stay in our lane. And sometimes that's the best way to win is
to stay in your lane and to do what you do best.

There's a reason why these other networks exist. There's a reason why
distributors are really good at what they do. And maybe we need to
understand the value, the real value that distributors provide beyond just
relationships with the customer or break bulk. You know, it's more than
that. And manufacturers on the other side need to, you know, reiterate why
their products are the superior product. They need to be, you know, doing a
really good job with providing marketing and training and providing the
right assets and the right ways for their products to be sold to
distributors.

So again, it all gets back to partnership. It all gets back to saying our
best method is by collaborating closely with our suppliers and making sure
that if we work in the right way, one plus one can equal three.

Karthik Chidambaram: Yeah. Collaboration is the name of the game.

So just shifting gears a little bit, Brendan. So your father was a high
school principal and I think you also went to the same high school where
your dad taught. So how was that right experience, you know, what are the
pros and cons of going to the same high school where your dad teaches, about
your early years growing up? And how is that impacting your role as a CEO
today?

Brendan Breen: Sure. Wow. Okay. We're going to go deep here. So, yeah, my
dad was my principal and- sorry dad if you're listening. He was my principal
for high school. I went to a catholic high school in Lawrenceville, New
Jersey, where I live now. And, you know, he was really well liked, really
well liked by the students and I would say that it was- So that wasn't an
issue.

He wasn't, you know, people weren't coming to me saying that ‘your dad's a
disciplinarian’ or anything like that. He was really well liked, so that was
easy, but, you know, let's just say I made him pay for it a little bit. I
was not always- I was a good student, but not always the most well behaved.
And so I put him in some tight spots.

But as far as how that's kind of formed the way I look at things, I mean,
both of my parents were educators. They were, you know- And one of my
sisters is now in a similar role that my dad had. So I think that being an
educator is a really good lesson in multitasking. It's a really good lesson
in seeing the bigger picture and more important than anything.

I think it's found its way to me in the fact that it's purely mission
driven. You know, educating the youth of America or of their student body.
What a noble calling, you know, what a noble thing to do.

And there's a real passion for the work that they did in their jobs, both my
parents and my sister. And I think that, you know, learning from that is
saying what you can do can serve a higher calling than just making money.
You know, anyone who knows an educator knows that they're not in it for the
money.

But it's something that I think has really left an impression on me, that if
you believe in the work that you do, and you believe that it's serving
something that is beyond just a paycheck, it can be really formative, and
really rewarding. And so I got this, I got to watch that firsthand. And you
know, we were comfortable in our lives, with that, but I never felt that
there was a trade off.

I got a dad who loved his job and a mom who loved their job and seeing that
left me saying, I want that, you know, and so now I'm happy to say I have
it. And I get to carry the lessons I learned about leadership and about
multitasking and about, you know, just being genuinely well respected by
those you serve as a way that I hope to live up to.

Karthik Chidambaram: Oh, it's great. Great to learn from parents and kids
always learn from their parents, the dad and mom. So it's awesome. Brendan.

The theme of this podcast is Driven. So my question to you is how are you
driven? And also when I was watching some of your interviews, one thing I
observed is you are a great listener. So can you share your leadership
philosophy and how it influences your approach to employees and members?

Brendan Breen: You know, I think that leadership for me is a learning
journey for sure. I probably will always consider myself a new leader, no
matter how long I've been in a leadership role. I think it's the mindset of
saying ‘I don't have all the answers. I don't have everything figured out’.
And so tap into those that are experts in their area or anybody, you know,
everybody can provide a perspective that can lead to a good idea.

And so, you know, when I look at what drives me in terms of leadership, it's
that ability to be a sponge and to kind of open up my eyes and ears to the
world around me and look for that diamond in the rough in terms of an idea
that's going to be transformative for ISA.

So as much as, you know, it might, in this modern day, when people talk
about work-life balance and the lines being very blurred between those two,
you know, I don't think I ever stop thinking about ISA, but it's not
draining. You know, it's more of like, what can I apply from, you know,
hanging out with my little kids.

I've got a five year old and a two year old, and another baby born in seven
days from now. And what can I learn from that, that I can apply to, you
know, the way that I interact with my team or my members. I mean, there's
something to be gleaned from every experience that can help you do your job
more.

And so, you know, I also think no matter what higher grade people, I mean,
you've got to have a team that is working with you on these initiatives so
that you can, you know, free up your mind to think about other things, so
that you can rely on them to do the work that needs to be done and to grow
in their own way. So that you don't have to do everything.

I think that that was a big lesson for me, immediately, was I can't do
everything. And so you have to start letting go and let people, you know,
surprise you with how well they do things and that they can do things even
better than you can, which I think is probably the most rewarding feeling,
is when you see somebody that works for you do something way better than you
ever could.

Karthik Chidambaram: Well, three kids is a blessing and congratulations,
Brendan, on that. And yeah, and also delegating, right? So I've seen this
quite a bit as well. So I have the same feeling, right? So where, hey, you
know what? Sometimes people can do better than you and then just let them do
it.

But let's say when you're trying to do the same thing, it gets messed up. So
it's better to just hire great people and leave them alone. Yeah, really
well said. I can totally relate to that.

So, Brendan, the world is changing. So what advice would you give to the
executive leadership at the industrial distribution companies or to the
member companies of ISA?

Brendan Breen: I think number one advice is just recognize that you don't
have all the answers, and that there's opportunities to learn everywhere.
There's opportunities to learn from each other, from experts, from people
that are way outside of our field. But be open to what opportunity is out
there. Be vulnerable. Share a little bit more than maybe you're comfortable
with, because I think that if you can do that, then others will too.

And so leverage your peer network, leverage your trade association, to be
able to help you there. But I think it's recognizing our vulnerabilities and
recognizing our opportunities and being open to both. I think if you can do
that, you're much more likely to find the solution that's going to ensure
your longevity and your relevance in this channel.

Karthik Chidambaram: No, great advice, Brandon. I'm just curious to know
some of your failures, right? Maybe at ISA or even outside of ISA. Can you
talk about some of your failures and what you learned from them?

Brendan Breen: So, I'll say this. I think I learned very early on that I am
a person who needs motivation and I need to believe in what I'm doing in
order to succeed.

And so very early on in my college career, I kind of was rudderless. I went
to the University of Vermont. And if you did not want to do work, there was
plenty of distraction available. So I quickly, you know, realized I didn't
have a purpose for why I was there. I was not self motivated in a way, to
just say I wanted to get good grades. And that's really kind of transferred
into me saying, I don't just want to make more money. I need a purpose for
why I'm doing this.

And so, you know, student, you know, college for me was not something that
came naturally. I needed to work on it. So that's probably the first big
failure for me, is to say, I needed to fall on my face and pick myself up
myself. My parents weren't going to teach me how to do it. You know, my
friends weren't going to show me, this is why you need to do it.

I needed to be- I needed to motivate myself. And I did figure it out, why I
wanted to do it, switch my major over to business and never look back. So
that's probably the first big life lesson for me in terms of failure.

And then, you know, I think more recently is, you know, stepping into this
leadership role at ISA, not having a real grasp on the power of letting go.
I think that I felt a tremendous amount of pressure and still, you know,
feel pressure. But I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to have everything
be perfect because I felt under a microscope. And so I was hesitant to let
things go.

And I think that ultimately led to me being a little bit more unhappy. It
ended up, you know, hurting the performance, I think. I think that, you
know, maybe that might not have been seen, but I felt it for sure. And I
think that my team was a little unsure of what was going on.

And so, you know, that taught me that I needed to let go. I needed to trust
the people that I had working for me and trust my own vision, and just move
forward. And so again, that leader's journey, for me, has been important to
understand that it's not just about having all the right answers. It's about
sometimes taking a step back and trusting that others will be able to handle
things. And again, back to what I said before, maybe do it better than you
could have.

So those are just two examples, I guess.

Karthik Chidambaram: And you talked about distraction. I'm just curious. I'm
sure all of us get distracted, and then you get distracted. And then how do
you get back on track? Is there anything you do?

Brendan Breen: So for me, it was- And now I'm really oversharing here for
me. It's kind of like a mantra, of going towards something that either is
moving away from something negative or moving towards something positive.

And so for the college example, and I'll just share this. I had taken a year
off after that, for my first year, and tried to assess things, and I went
and started working at restaurants. And that was a good experience. I liked
working in restaurants, and I think it's, again, been part of my journey,
and so it's led me there.

But what I did is I kind of looked around at those that were maybe a little
bit older than me still doing that, and I kind of said, ‘that's not what I
want for myself’. It might be great for them, but, you know. So my mantra
was, you don't want to be working at a restaurant when you're 30, you know.

And so, every day when I got up at eight to go to class, I told myself that,
and I reminded myself when somebody would say, ‘hey, do you want to go out
tonight?’ I would say, I don't want to be working in a restaurant when I'm
30. So I think that it's like a mantra thing now, really. It's more about
maintaining the happiness I have. You want to be a happy person. And right
now, the balance I have between life and work and family and everything like
that is a really great fit.

And so it's like, how do I continue to do what I'm doing right now? How do I
continue to work with great people to, you know, be able to spend a lot of
time with my family? I get to work from home, you know, and so I get to see
them. How do I keep this great feeling going? So it's, again, it's kind of a
mantra thing when it gets hard.

And when it's straining, you know, I remind myself, you've got a really good
thing going, keep it going. It's kind of my motivation.

Karthik Chidambaram: Thanks, Brendan.

You read a lot and I would like to end with this question. What book are you
reading right now?

Brendan Breen: Yeah, so I knew this one was coming. So, you know, it's
sometimes when you catch somebody that isn't reading a book, they scramble
and grab something off their desk. But, two things actually. One, I have an
executive coach, who if anybody is in a similar role to me or in any role, I
highly recommend an executive coach. This is a- It's lonely sometimes to be
at the top of your organization and even your board of directors, they're
technically your boss or your employees, they work for you. And so you don't
really have a good, vulnerable place to go. Executive coaches do that. But
his name is Dirk Schlimm. He wrote a book that's called ‘Influencing
Powerful People’.

And I think it's fascinating. He's got a really, really good take on that.
And some good practical lessons that he's learned. And he comes from the Jim
Collins vein, the ‘good to great and built to last’, so he's a student of
that and applies a lot of the same principles, but I think it's really
helped me with my conversations.

I talked to CEOs of major billion dollar companies and those can be
intimidating conversations and the lessons that you learn they’re, you know,
really, I think they're palatable for almost anybody. So, Influencing
Powerful People.

And then the second one is, and the title is I think a little misleading,
it's called ‘Great CEOs are Lazy’. And again, I don't consider myself a lazy
person, but what it's reinforcing for me is some of the things we're talking
about here, of letting go. It is your ability to, you know- they have this
one line in it that always sticks in my head. If somebody that works for you
can do what you do, 70 percent as good for you, 70 percent as good as you
can do it, you let them do it.

And like that just, you know, sticks in my head so well. Cause I'm like, all
right, I don't need to seek perfection. By them doing that 70 percent as
good as I can, I'm now a hundred percent freed up from that time to do
something else that needs to be done. And so it teaches me a lot about how
to sweep in and out of work, that my people that work for me do without
disrupting them to know how to course correct, but then to get out of it.

And I think that that's the key. If you want to work on a small team or even
a larger team, you don't want to micromanage, but you also want to make sure
that everything is moving in the right direction.

So I recommend both of those books. They're a good read and pretty quick
reads

Karthik Chidambaram: Great recommendations. Thank you so much for that.

And I know I said ‘last question’, but I'm going to ask you one more because
this is something a lot of people are curious about. Or maybe I also have
this question. You talked about an ‘executive coach’.

So how did you end up finding your executive coach? Because it's a question
a lot of people have, right? Say, you know, I want to, I've actually read
people, I've read in books saying that, hey, you know what, you got to work
with the executive coach, but how do you go about finding an executive
coach? And how did you find your executive coach?

Brendan Breen: Yeah. So, you know, when it was actually recommended, my
coach was recommended, but my board of directors, when I took this role
suggested that that I seek his executive coach, not because because they all
use executive coaches, not because they felt that I was deficient in an
area, but they- This has been a big help for me, you know, from their
perspective.

And so, you know, they gave me free reign to go seek a couple of different
kinds. And what I quickly found out is it's a huge field that has a lot of
different ways to do it. And so, you know, I got a lot of recommendations. I
did a lot of research and ultimately came to three kinds of finalists that
all did very different things.

I had one that his focus was much more about Brendan's ‘self’, you know, and
a little bit more of like a life coach. And there's a lot of value in
something like that. You know, talking about my own personal goals and the
way I want to spend my mind, my mind share and all kinds of things like
that. Even, like, health was incorporated into that.

The second coach that I was looking at was much more of a communications
coach, which again can touch everything. But the way that we as leaders
communicate to both our stakeholders or to, you know, our teams, whatever,
that needs to be refined.

And then the last coach, the one I ended up really selecting was much more
of a business coach. This is a former business leader, who has written books
and has a little bit more of an academic approach, but I get to talk to him
about specific business problems or even long term things that need to be
done.

And so I ended up selecting him that way. And all three of these came from
recommendations from peer networks. So I reached out to my board, asked if
anybody would refer me. I asked other coaches that I kind of interviewed. Is
there anybody else that I should talk to? And I found that they were all
very receptive to that question.

They have a pretty tight network that says, you know, I might not be the
right one for you, but I think you'd fit really well with this. And so it's-
really what it comes down to more than anything is you’ve got to talk to the
person and you’ve got to like talking to them.

So I look forward to my monthly call or bi monthly call with Dirk, you know,
because I like talking to him. It's not like a therapist. It is much more of
a ‘here’s what's going on in my world’. You know, here are three goals that
I have for this upcoming year. Let's knock all three of them out and let's
progress towards them. But, so you can look at it in a big way, or you can
look at it in a short term issue-resolution type of thing too. But, I don't
know, an incredibly rewarding experience. Highly recommended for anyone
looking.

Karthik Chidambaram: That's a great way to end this conversation, Brendan. I
really enjoyed this chat. And this is the book I'm reading right now. It's
called the ‘Nudge’, by Richard H. Taylor and Cass R. Sunstein. It's a great
book, right? It talks about nudging. How do you nudge people to do things?

And it can be used in a positive way. So, but Brendan, I really enjoyed this
conversation. There was a lot of learning for me. So thanks so much for this
enriching conversation, not just distributors, but anybody watching this
would learn a lot. And thanks for your great tips and great advice. And
thanks for your leadership lessons.

Thanks so much for joining the DCKAP’s Driven podcast. And if you have not
subscribed to our podcast yet, please click the bell icon and click
subscribe. But thanks.

Brendan Breen: Thanks for having me, Karthik. And everyone out there, have a
great day.

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Episode 49