41. Facing Industry Challenges Head On to Improve Distribution | Eric Hoplin, President & CEO of NAW

Episode 41

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The National Association of Wholesaler Distributors (NAW) is a top American trade association that represents dynamic companies in the wholesale distribution industry. In this compelling conversation, President & CEO of NAW, Eric Hoplin, sits down with the Founder & CEO of DCKAP, Karthik Chidambaram, to discuss his role in leadership and how exactly his organization helps support and improve the distribution industry.

From his primary goal of ​​building the next generation trade association, to his loaded travel schedule meeting with members, and his lobbying for governmental support and legislative actions that will help the distribution industry thrive, Eric provides deep insights that give a clear picture of just how pertinent an organization like NAW is for the industry. Distributors are building great companies that keep the supply chain moving and the economy growing, and having this kind of representation is vital to ensuring they continue to thrive and succeed.


Karthik Chidambaram: Hello everyone! Welcome to a new episode of the DCKAP Driven podcast.

We are very excited to have with us, a very special guest, Eric Hoplin, the CEO of NAW, the National Association of Wholesale Distributors. Eric also serves as the president of the NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence, President of NAW Service Corporation, and treasurer of the NAW Political Action Committee.

So, Eric, you do a lot of different things. Thank you so much for joining us at the Driven show.

Eric Hoplin: Hello, Karthik, I'm glad to be here. Thanks so much for having me.

Karthik Chidambaram: Awesome. Great. Thank you again.

So, Eric, for the audience who are not very familiar with NAW, what NAW does, can you tell us a little bit about your organization and what it does?

Eric Hoplin: Sure. NAW is the National Association of Wholesaler Distributors. We represent all of the most forward looking and dynamic companies in the wholesale distribution industry. So, we account for about 30,000 companies and altogether make up about one third of the American economy.

These, our distributors, are moving everything through the supply chain. Everything from medical equipment and lumber, and MRO, to food, and everything you can imagine in between.

And what NAW does is we focus on four main things to help the industry. We educate, we collaborate, we innovate, and we advocate. And so within each of those buckets, which we can get into if you want Karthik, but there's lots of ways that we can help the members of NAW strengthen their companies, and make sure they're providing the best value possible to their customers.

Karthik Chidambaram: No, that's great. It makes a lot of sense for a distributor or for a wholesaler out there to be a part of the NAW. It makes a lot of sense for a distributor or a wholesaler to be a part of NAW. So thanks for that, Eric.

Eric, you have been the CEO of NAW for the last three years or so. What have been some of your big learnings being the CEO of NAW?

Eric Hoplin: Well, I think learning number one is, what an incredible industry this is. I've had the privilege of traveling to nearly all 50 states. I visited hundreds of distribution companies across the country, and these people are the salt of the earth. They're entrepreneurs that are putting their head down that are building great companies, keeping our supply chain moving, keeping our economy moving. And many of them feel like they're, they're creating the American dream for their employees. And so it's really a privilege and an honor to represent them.

You know, in terms of challenge, one of the challenges that we had is, [when] I came in as CEO of NAW, one of the charges that the board of directors gave me is they wanted to make sure we were building the next generation trade association, a trade association that was equipped to help the industry take a large step into the future, and to make sure that we're serving our customers and economy as well as we always have, but even better.

And so that's what we've been focused on. And so one of the challenges we've had is we've been growing so much as we're building new programs that were focused on those four buckets I told you about. But in particular on the ‘innovate bucket’ is companies are just running to sign up. And one of the challenges you have is, when so many new people and companies are getting involved with a group like ours, is for a while we were working really hard to scale our programs to make sure that we were able to meet demand. And so that was one of the big challenges we have.

Seems like a good challenge though, with lots of people, lots of companies want to engage. It means you're going down the right path. And I'm pretty confident now we've got the right team in place. So we've got the right programs and products in place that we're serving all the needs of the members, but we're continuing to grow. In fact, we've almost doubled in size since I came on as CEO just three years ago. So we're on a good path. And I think the members are pretty thrilled with where we're headed.

Karthik Chidambaram: Building the next generation trade association. I really love that, Eric.

And Eric, you know, you also talked about travel. So you travel a lot. And even as we are speaking today, you're in New York, and it's amazing how much travel that you do. So what tips or advice would you give for people out there who travel as much as you do? And how do you manage travel? I mean, how do you, how are you able to travel so much?

Eric Hoplin: Well, first of all, it's, I think it's really important to spend time with my members and to get to know them. You know, for example, just yesterday I had the opportunity to visit one of the largest roofing distributors in the country.

And I went through their distribution center, got to meet many of their employees and was recognizing just how powerful their customer service is and what they're doing to help support the local economy. And one of the best parts about that is, as you're walking through a distribution center, and you know, for example, I was talking to some of the people at the front line windows, is all of them were bilingual. Because, for many of their customers, Spanish is their primary language.

And so, you know, learning what they're doing, making sure that they're able to communicate well with their customers or serve their customers is just one example of a thousand of the things that the distributors are doing that you don't find out on Zoom. You don't find out, you know, by reading the papers. You’ve got to go talk to people, and to talk to people, you’ve got to be there. You got to be present. You're putting on the hard hat, you're putting on the yellow vest, and you're walking through some of these areas and getting to know folks.

Who, you know- they get up at four in the morning to be at work at five o'clock at this distribution center because their customers start coming in about five thirty. And, because, you know, if you're roofing in Texas, you don't wanna be roofing at two o'clock when it's 110 degrees. You wanna get up there as early as you can in the morning. And so, they're, those distributors are there too, to do that.

So my point is, I think that travel is really important. You know, for those of your listeners, the folks tuning in here that travel a lot like me, I don't know if I have any great travel hacks, other than, you know, I think health is important. You know, so there was a time where every time I got on an airplane I'd stop and I'd grab a bag of M&Ms and some other unhealthy food in the airport. And so now I tend to pack my food. I drink lots and lots of water. And, I work on the plane. So that way I stay efficient all the way through.

But, finally, I try and stay on the East coast time zone. And so I'm, I may be sort of a bummer of a guest when I'm on the West coast, because I'm going to bed early. But I find if I can keep my body clock on the same time zone, that seems to help.

And the last thing is, I have a beautiful wife and three young boys, and so travel is great, but the best part of travel is heading home and spending time with family. So that's what I'm doing after this call.

Karthik Chidambaram: Oh, that's awesome. And do you also work out or do you go for a run when you travel? Do you have time for that?

Eric Hoplin: Yeah, I should have added that about health. In fact, this morning, I was in the gym and so where, wherever I'm in the country, I work out five days a week, uh, just to keep myself, you know, as fit as possible, I guess.

And so I've got a trainer who's fantastic, who seems to Zoom in from wherever she is, whenever I need it. But, that helps keep me focused and thankfully for my wife, we do it together. And so she keeps me grounded and she makes sure that I get out of bed. Even when it's really early sometimes on the west coast.

Karthik Chidambaram: Well, that's great. And family really helps in these situations. And it's awesome to work out with your wife, right? I mean, I'm sure that's a lot of fun.

Eric, the distributor you are visiting, were they based in Dallas? I'm just curious.

Eric Hoplin: I know. Well, I have visited that roofing distributor you're talking about based in Dallas this year, in fact. Uh, but no, I was visiting one that was based in Herndon, Virginia.

Karthik Chidambaram: Awesome. You know, I was just curious because we do work with SRS distribution, you know, they're also one of the largest roofing distributors in the country.

Eric Hoplin: So, I love SRS and that whole team. I was visiting Beacon yesterday. And, in fact, it was just a couple of weeks ago, I was in Wisconsin with our friends from ABC. So, three of the largest roofing distributors are all, all fantastic. And all, all three are NAW members and are very active with us.

Karthik Chidambaram: That's awesome. Thank you for sharing. Eric.

Eric, you created a digital warehouse at NAW. Can you talk about, what is the digital warehouse and how does that help distributors?

Eric Hoplin: Sure. You know, one of the hallmarks of NAW that we've always done so well is we do research studies, we do reports, benchmarking, and analytics that we share with our members.

But, you know, there was a time where what we would do is we would commission a report, we'd research it for a year, somebody would write a book, take them about a year, then we'd market the book for a year. And, you know, the trends and the things in the economy are just moving so much faster, we've had to sort of ditch that approach. And, so now we are doing the same sort of analytic work, the same sort of research, engaging experts from across the country and across the economy and distribution, but we're delivering the product in different ways.

Sometimes it's a webinar. Sometimes a podcast. Sometimes it's a white paper. Sometimes a PowerPoint presentation. And everything in between. Sometimes it's a book, if we've got enough content. But what we want to do is we want to make that accessible for all of our members. And so that's the point of the digital warehouse, is we're putting all of our digital content, very rich content, online.

So our members, if they're facing a challenge, they can access it rather from, uh, from their desk. And, and one of the other things we're doing is, we haven't, we're working on it now, but a preview of coming attractions is, we're taking all of the content from from our books that we've written over the last couple years that are so rich and can help distributors in many ways from M and A, to pricing strategies and all the top tips you really want.

And we're working on digitizing those books into a searchable database that we’ll include on our digital warehouse. So, if you think about it, if you're sitting at your desk, you're facing a problem that’s a pricing strategy. You go on to the NAWs Digital Warehouse, you type in what you're looking for, and suddenly it's gonna be, you're gonna get access to the best information from the distribution industry.

And so that's one of the coming attractions we've got. But we're just trying to create a hub where it's easy to access, for our members to find the information they need to help them run their business.

Karthik Chidambaram: Yeah, I can see how that can be very valuable for distributors out there. I mean, it looks like a great initiative. So, thank you, Eric.

Eric, so NAW serves as an important collective voice for the 8.2 trillion dollar distribution industry in Washington, D.C. And can you talk about NAW's policy work and lobbying efforts? I've always wondered, how do you lobby?

Eric Hoplin: Oh, how do you lobby? Look, here's the, there's a couple- I don't know if I want to, I'm thinking about it. Do I want to give all the secrets away of ‘how do you lobby?’

No, I'll share this, is some people think about lobbying as, you know, these, you know, terrible people and D.C. is the swamp and all of that. But think about if you're a member of Congress, and I think about my home member of Congress from rural Minnesota, her name is Michelle Fischbach, you know, she represents roughly a third of the geographic size of Minnesota. And, you know, lots of small towns like the one I came from, population 7,000, and she's got to know everything about the businesses in that huge district.

She's got to understand what's happening with farming, because farming is a big issue. She's got to understand global issues and trade. There's a thousand issues that her constituents care about and that matter in the country, and no one person can be an expert in all of those things. And so, the key to being good at lobbying is really to be good at education. Because, at the end of the day, if a member of Congress doesn't know what distributors do, doesn't know how maybe the rules they're putting in place might impact those distributors and therefore might impact those employees and therefore might impact the broader economy.

If they don't know, you know, they're going to do things that could potentially actually be harmful when they think they're doing good. And so really, the role of lobbying is spending time getting to know people and educating them on the things that matter most for our industry, our economy and our employees, and our customers.

So, NAW is the voice of the wholesale distribution industry in Washington. And, you know, there's been many times where some issues have come up that were gonna have a dramatic impact on our industry. You know, I think about one is, there was a bill, last, or about a year and a half ago, called the Build Back Better Bill. And when it was first written, it was a seven trillion dollar remaking of the American economy. And, as part of that, we were going to see massive tax increases on all distributors, on all of their customers, on all of their suppliers, and it was going to have an enormous financial impact on the economy.

And so we went to work, to start educating lawmakers about those impacts. In fact, we brought CEOs from distribution companies in Wisconsin, for example, out to Washington D.C., met with lawmakers, talked about how these massive tax increases would impact their business and the economy. And lawmakers ultimately listened, and, you know, we had initially defeated the bill, went from 7 trillion down to zero.

I think they ended up passing something, you know, under a billion, which, you know, is still a lot of money, but it didn't contain the massive tax increases our members were facing. And so, we called that a win. So, that's an example of the sort of things that we help shield our members from.

Karthik Chidambaram: Oh, that’s very interesting. So it's always about educating the elected representatives. That's really well said.

But what if a government changes? I mean, that's something we always see, right? So, okay, you know, you do all the work, you work hard, get things you want, and then there is a regime change. How do you deal with that?

Eric Hoplin: Yeah, sure. It's a constant change because it's not just government shifting, it's people shifting. And it's not just members of Congress shifting, it's their staff that are shifting. And so, one of the things that you want to do is you want to have good relationships with everybody. But it's a constant effort because as you get a new member of Congress, you have to go educate them about distribution.

And a couple of years down the road, you spend time with their chief of staff, and their chief of staff leaves or their legislative assistant leaves, you gotta go spend time with the new legislative assistant. You know, I think people might be shocked if you walk through the halls of Congress, you know the people staffing these offices, they’re in their early twenties. These people are, you know, planning the regulatory and legislative framework for the nation. And staffers don't get enough credit. They do an awful lot of work.

And, you know, they don't come out of college or high school, wherever they're coming from, knowing everything there is to know about the distribution industry. So, we spend a lot of time with them and helping them understand who we are and how the things impact us. And so one of the ways we succeed with a change in government is we don't take a partisan position. We're not a Republican organization. We're not a Democratic organization. We're a pro-business organization. And so, we build relationships on both sides of the aisle, with folks that will support pro-business issues. And that's how we can be effective in either environment.

I will say, in this current political environment, you know, the Biden administration, has taken a view of the economy, of the industry, of unionization that really is contrary to, I think, a lot of the interest in the needs of the distribution industry. So, you know, we’re ramping things up on the regulatory side, more so than we might in a Republican administration. So there are different tactics and approaches you might take, depending on what angle the government is taking as it tries to regulate and legislate the things that matter to the industry.

Karthik Chidambaram: No, it makes a lot of sense Eric. And also, this really is very clear on why an organization like NAW is really needed and why distributors need to be a part of it. Yeah. Love it. Thank you.

And, I mean, I just want to talk a little bit about manufacturing, and we talk about creating more manufacturing jobs domestically here in the US, whatever is going on across the world. I mean, how do you see the future of manufacturing evolving? What are your thoughts there?

Eric Hoplin: Yeah, so manufacturing, we are, they're great partners with distributors, so they are our suppliers of the things that we distribute, and oftentimes we distribute things to them: components and parts that they need to manufacture things. So, it's a virtuous circle, and so we've got, we have great relationships.

So what happens to the manufacturing industry is really important to us. And you talk about some of the global trends. You know, one of the issues that we're thinking about and that we've had some concern [about] is the security of the supply chain. I think a lot of us were alarmed in the early days of the pandemic where many of the materials that we bought, owned, and it's secured, and we're told were on ships heading our way, suddenly the Chinese government intervened and those ships turned around.

And so we were very concerned about, about that. And so, one of the trends that I think you're seeing is, you know, many manufacturers are starting to onshore or reshore some of their production. And so they're moving to places like Malaysia and Thailand and Vietnam and, you know, closer to home a lot is moving up. To Brazil and Mexico and whatever we can encourage to come here to the United States, we do.

And so as, as distributors, we're trying to support that. And so we're looking for suppliers that have their base, have their manufacturing facilities, in a diverse array of places, you know, particularly outside of China because we see that there's some potential instability there in the future. And so we just want to make sure that our sources of supply coming from our manufacturing partners are diverse. And so that way, when the American people need the materials that we provide, they're going to be there when they need it.

Karthik Chidambaram: Oh, great. Thank you, Eric. And talking about manufacturing, just shifting a little bit from manufacturing. I want to talk about compensation.

So recently, there was a strike, which was called off between UPS and Teamsters. And you also voiced your views around that. And I mean, I work in the tech industry, and sometimes I always feel that people in tech may be a little overpaid compared to the other industries.

And where do you think this is headed? I mean, what do you see as the future of compensation or wages for the non-tech industries? And what is NAW doing in this regard?

Eric Hoplin: Well, first of all, you know, a lot of folks that are coming out of college who have a technical background, they're looking to work for Google, and they're looking to work for Facebook and Apple, and places like that. Great companies. Don't, don't get me wrong. You know them well with your background in tech. But one of the messages I'm trying to communicate to those folks is there are incredible technology opportunities within distribution.

I was in a distribution center in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, rural Minnesota, just a couple of weeks ago. And if you were walking through there and seeing the technology that is moving, the small electronic components that are so essential to all of the electronics we have across the nation, the algorithms that they use, the robotics that they used, all of the technology and fuse throughout the entire distribution center was created and supported by their technicians.

And so there are huge opportunities outside of Silicon Valley. Where distribution companies are using technology, leveraging technologies in an increasingly exciting, fascinating way. So, first thing I'd say is technology jobs just aren't in Silicon Valley and Austin, other places, but they're spread throughout the country and they're embedded in distribution. But people don’t often think of that first, is thought number one.

But moving, you know, besides and beyond the folks that work in technology, one of the things that just strikes me most is, as I mentioned, I go to, you know, hundreds of distribution centers, you know, you wouldn't believe the number of people that I've met who started, they're, they're driving a truck, or they're loading a truck or they're driving a forklift. They're in the warehouse who are very proudly telling me, I'm a millionaire today because I work in this distribution, this company, and because what our companies do is they really focus on providing great jobs and great opportunities and great benefits and great pay.

And they know that if they're investing in their employees, and they're succeeding, they're putting them on that path to the American dream. They're going to be happy. They're going to be satisfied. They're going to be loyal. They're going to work hard. And so I think there's incredible career opportunities, whether you're in technology where they're in the warehouse and everything in between within distribution companies.

But there is a worker shortage. Every single distributor in America is looking for more talent, looking for more help and because we're growing and because I think folks come to realize that supply chain is so important to the country. Yeah. And that's why we're encouraging more people who care about that to come check out a distributor and get involved with one of our companies.

Karthik Chidambaram: Yeah, I mean, really well said. So you think it's actually more on the positive end. So it's not something we should really worry about too much. Is that what I'm hearing?

Eric Hoplin: Well, I will tell you, candidly talking to some of the CEOs and distributors, you know, technology folks are expensive, and definitely more so than many others in their enterprise. And that's a concern. So, you know, as a country, one of the things we need to focus on is education. And so we've gotta be producing more people with these technical skills and capabilities. Because as the economy continues to evolve, and you know, artificial intelligence and, you know, generative AI, and quantum computing and all the things that we're expecting to be an essential part of our economy in the next, you know, 5, 10, 15, 30, 50 years, is we need great talent that understands how to harness that technology, embedded, integrated into our industry and our companies to better serve our customers.

And so we need people to do that. And I suspect every industry needs people to do that. And so the best way to do that is, let's create more and more people who can do that. And when we've got a larger group of people who can do that successfully and well, you know, maybe some of that wage pressure goes down because there's an abundance. Right now, there's a scarcity of people who've got those skills and those capabilities, and that's why they can command a premium on the wage market.

Karthik Chidambaram: Talking about talent, especially after COVID, or after the pandemic, work, especially on tech, right, work can be done from anywhere in the world. And that's actually made the world, I would say, a lot more smaller.

How do you think that's going to impact the U.S. and the American jobs? What are your views there?

Eric Hoplin: Well, I think that there's challenges and opportunities there. You know, certainly as companies are going to be able to, you know, find some cost savings with some support overseas. And so that's one benefit that could accrue to it is some of the companies.

But also, you know, I think there's gonna be an important lane for technology to play, as we need fewer people in the warehouses as they're becoming much more efficient that we're leveraging robotics and AI to be able to move a lot of the things through the warehouse, which is where a major source of labor is.

But I will say that, you know, I don't really see a future where we don't need people in our businesses. You know, for example, you know, I mentioned I was at this roofing distributor just yesterday. And, you know, they're loading these, you know, heavy shingles on a truck that's headed onto a job site.

And, you know, in some cases, they're maneuvering this, you know, one by one, pack by pack, or when they're moving siding, they're sliding them in one by one. That's a guy physically picking it up and moving it. And there's not a robot that's going to be able to do that. The things that they're, that we just need human labor to do, is you're interfacing with people, which is what so many of our distributors do.

You've got to get to know people. You gotta understand their businesses. You gotta understand their concerns, their needs, and figure out how we can best serve them. And it's certain technology can be an aid in that. But we need people present and engaged to build those relationships to serve our customers.

And so I think people continue to be the most important part of a distribution business. So that's what all of my CEOs tell me is their people are the most important, people are the most important part of their company, rather. And so how do we figure out how to continue to recruit top talent? I think it's going to be an ongoing challenge for our industry, and I expect all industries, but being able to offshore, some of that might be one of, one of the answers. Technology might be one of the answers. But at the end of the day, investing in great people is always going to be the number one answer, I think, for us moving forward.

Karthik Chidambaram: Very well said, Eric. I love that. And also being there makes a lot of difference. Yeah, it's very interesting.

Now, talking about wholesalers or small and independent wholesalers. How do you see them competing in the age of Amazon? And what are your thoughts there?

Eric Hoplin: Yeah, so a couple of things that I would say is first on Amazon, you know, Amazon- People may not know this, but, you know, a lot of the practices that they have really are anti competitive and unfair.

They're, through their marketplace, you know, a number of our members are smaller members, and medium and maybe a couple of large members, will also sell on Amazon some of their products. And what Amazon does is, makes them give all of their data about these products. And they've got to sign over all of this.

Amazon collects all of the data. Amazon analyzes all of the data. And if products are selling particularly well, A couple months later, what we find is products that are Amazon branded that are exactly the same using the exact specs and the data they forced us to give them show up on their platform on no matter what we do, no matter what price point we move our products to, the Amazon price is always lower on our products are buried in the search feed and Amazons are featured. And then surprise, surprise, our products stop selling. Theirs becomes the top of the category.

And then Amazon gives us a nasty phone call and says, ‘Hey, send your trucks and your people over here to pick up all of this inventory. We don't want it anymore.’ It's your own cost. And so, look, we have, we just think this is anti-competitive and anti-fair when their marketplace, you know, accounts for about half of the e-commerce that's happening in this space. You know, there really should be a divide between those two businesses. You know, if Amazon wants to sell components of things and manufacture and sell it on their platform, that's fine. Okay. But to force us to give them all the data and all the specs and be able to analyze all the sales to do that. I think that's unfair.

So, when you ask, how do we- how do small businesses compete in the age of Amazon? I think the first one is we've got to talk to Amazon about their business practices. Let's have a fair playing field, I think is number one. And by the way, we're working to address that with Congress in Washington. I think we're seeing a lot of success. The Europeans have already regulated a lot of this. And the FTC here in Washington is looking at this seriously as well.

So look, we'd rather Amazon just fix its practices, make it more fair. But if the government has to intervene, you know, maybe that's the next step. But the other thing I'll tell you is, you know, beyond, you know, government intervention here with Amazon in particular, is what sets apart distributors, is customer service, is something you can't get from an online platform.

Yeah, you get some efficiency there, and that's important to some customers. But understanding people, understanding their businesses, understanding their needs, working on Christmas and other holidays when you need to and delivering that product and being reliable is I think it's going to win out every day. And so those smaller and midsize distributors have to really hone in on customer service.

And then the final thing is, you know, for distributors that can afford it, is we're encouraging everybody to continue to invest in new technology. Because if you think about it, that is how you've done business for a long time as the generations move forward, you know, people are used to engaging with Amazon. You go in, you look at it, you scroll through, you click a button and it shows up at your doorstep and you can track it the whole way. And so there are great vendors and companies and distribution right now that can do all of that, just like Amazon. And some of that technology is important, but customer expectations are changing and they're changing rapidly.

And so we wanna be on the cutting edge of that customer service. But, we don't have to have all of the technology Amazon has, we never will have all of that technology, but some of those core things that, in the B2B space, that customers have picked up and expect from their B2C experiences, I think are important for us to integrate more and more within distribution.

Karthik Chidambaram: Very interesting, Eric. So regulation is something which is very important. That's something NAW is working on. And also you talked about tech and I'm actually excited because that's exactly the space we work on. And that's the problem we solve in terms of seamless operations needs, seamless integration. And the reason Amazon is able to do so well is because they have the systems integrated and talking to each other. And distributors can also shamelessly copy that from Amazon.

Yes, Amazon's getting the data. Yeah. So it's really interesting. And I also read this book, The Everything Store by Brad Stone on how Amazon runs its business. And maybe I think that's a good book for distributors to read as well.

Eric Hoplin: Yeah. Give the call out one more time. I want to, want to jot that down. Which, what's the book?

Karthik Chidambaram: Oh, it's called the Everything Store by Brad Stone. Yeah. And we'll put the link on the podcast or show notes as well.

Eric Hoplin: I'll check that out tonight. I tend to be reading about five books at a time. So once I finish my next one, I'll add that to the rotation.

Karthik Chidambaram: Absolutely. Thank you, Eric.

And so, I think you talked about many key initiatives NAW is working on. And actually, this also gives a clear indication of why distributors need to be a part of NAW and distribution contributes to about a third of our GDP.

So, what can distributors do to attract talent? Because distributors not only compete with other distributors, but they also compete with other industries. Like, for instance, you talked about, there's actually work outside of Google or Amazon or Facebook, but then how can distributors attract that talent, how can they get it?

Eric Hoplin: Yeah, so we talked about it in a couple ways, but number one is mission. I think people are excited about the mission of distributors when they hear about it. We're moving everything through the supply chain. So, if you want to be part of that, if you want to be part of the interwoven fabric of the American economy, the distribution industry is where it's at. So I think mission is number one.

Number two is culture. It is- these companies are fantastic. You know, they're based in great places around the country. And so they've got an ethic of working hard, putting their head down, making things great for their employees and for their customers. And so I think the culture of distribution companies are really one of the things that are very attractive.

They're very entrepreneurial. And so if you've got an issue, you've got an idea, everybody wants to hear how we can better serve the customers. And so it's not, you know, they're not these big corporate behemoths that have a cookie cutter approach to everything. And so I think, you know, people who thrive in that sort of environment thrive with us.

And then as we talked about, you know, I think the wages are incredible. You know, I mentioned that the distributors are so focused on helping their employees succeed in life because, as I said, they know that they're happy and successful. They're gonna be happy employees, loyal employees.

And, you know, one thing that I hear all the time when I visit distributors is that they want to help create the American dream for their employees. I visited one distributor down in Dallas about a year ago, and I walked in and they have on the wall in the foyer when you first walk in what they call the ‘American Dream Wall’, and they had a framed photo of every single one of their employees and next to it was listed what their American dream was.

And so I was looking at these these photos, and I was looking at these dreams and it was everything from ‘I want to visit every national park’, to, you know, ‘I want my kids to be the first in our family to go to college’ or ‘I want to buy a house for my parents’ Uh, and so you looked at all of the different dreams and and I asked the CEO who was with me, I said, you know, what are those check marks?

He said well, those are all the dreams that have been achieved. And as I talked to him and I said, well, how do you help them achieve their dreams? He said, you know, ‘we sit down with every single employee and we talk about financial planning. We talk about investing in the future. We talk about how do you save for education?’ And then we work through our compensation plans to make sure that we're supporting that. And, you know, I'm listening to the CEO, I'm thinking they start with asking these employees, ‘what's your dream?’ And then they back up through, well, how can our company help you get there? And let's tailor an approach that to help you do that is, you know, that's the sort of companies that the distributors are.

And that's one of the reasons that so many people, you know, 7 million plus people, work for distributors, because these are great businesses. These are great people to be a part of great, great companies to be part of. And so I think it's culture. I think it's mission, and I think it's great, great wages and benefits that are ultimately helping so many people achieve their American dream.

Karthik Chidambaram: Oh, great. Mission, purpose, and culture. They make a big difference and there's a lot of opportunity in distribution. Thank you, Eric.

You do a lot of work outside of NAW as well. So, you're on the board of National Mall. Can you tell us about the work you're doing there at National Mall?

Eric Hoplin: Well, for those of you who are paying attention, 2026 is coming up fast, and that is the 250th anniversary of the nation. And so about 33 million people come to the National Mall every year, and we expect that number to skyrocket in 2026. And so one of the things that the trust for the National Mall does, and is doing, is we restore and we preserve the National Mall. So that way future generations can come and enjoy what we call America's front yard, which of course is going to be front and center in 2026.

So NAW and many of our distribution companies are involved with the Trust for the National Mall. There's incredible things that are happening. We just opened a new horse stables facility where the mounted police are. There's a great exhibit about the history of the mounted police at the National Mall, and you can go and pet the horses. It's one of the big projects that we just completed.

All of the turf on the Mall that is new and vibrant over the last couple of years. And there's big sections of the Mall that need to be updated. There's an area called Constitution Gardens. It’s next, or near the Lincoln Memorial. And they put this together during the bicentennial in 1976. And, you know, the pond there is about a foot deep. And so there's no drainage, there's no filtration, and the geese like to go there and use it as the bathroom. And so this is just kind of a sad area in the Mall.

We've got a great vision to remake Constitution Gardens, in a place where those 33 million people can come and take their families and learn about the history of the country and enjoy some time in Washington. So, I would say if anybody is interested in getting involved, it's a great project.

It's gonna be fun to bring the nation together to celebrate the 250th anniversary. So, nationalmall.org is the way to learn more and to get involved. Or send me a note. I'd love to plug you in myself.

Karthik Chidambaram: NationalMall.org. Thank you, Eric.

Eric, how do you manage time? Do you have any productivity hacks?

Eric Hoplin: Oh, boy. Look, I'm a busy guy. As I mentioned, I'm also a father of three boys that keep me running. You know, really, for me, the most important thing is to stay focused on strategic things. And, you know, if you look at my inbox, I get a couple hundred emails every day, you know, streams of calls and other things.

But what I do is, I spend every month, once a month, I try and figure out, ‘okay, what do I want to accomplish this year? And what do I want to accomplish this month?’ And then I sort of measure, you know, ‘how am I doing towards that annual goal? how am I doing towards that monthly goal?’ So I try and spend 70 percent of my time working on those strategic things that are going to add up to what I need to do that month, and that will ultimately add up to what I want to accomplish that year.

And so, sometimes, people could accuse me of being a bad emailer, because if I'm responding to email all day, I'm responding to the thing that matters most to you, and that's probably really important, but if that's the only thing I accomplish in a day, I'm not going to build the next generation trade association.

So, I got to keep- I got to stay disciplined to keep 70 percent of my time focused on those big picture things. And then you hire great talent that can do all of the things that need to be done in a given day to propel the organization forward. And, but someone in the organization has got to keep their eyes on the future. And so that's what I do. So I try to be really disciplined with my time, to stay focused on those goals and the big picture items.

Karthik Chidambaram: Be very disciplined with your time. That's something I learned, Eric.

Eric, the work you're doing is very interesting. Would you ever run for office? I'm just curious.

Eric Hoplin: You know, to be honest, I thought about that for a long time. I got started my career in politics and what motivates me is serving people. And what motivates me is helping others. I'm a guy who, I need a mission. And so when I was young, I thought the only way to do that is by elected office. But a mentor of mine, he was the governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, he put his arm around me one time and he said, ‘You know, Eric, you've got talents and something to give. And guess what? The only way to give is not by running for elected office.’

And so I found trade associations, where I get to spend time with incredible leaders, incredible entrepreneurs, understand their challenges, and I get to figure out ‘how can we, together, as an industry come together and help solve those challenges.?’

That's my way of giving back, doing something that matters to an industry that's important to the country. So I'm perfectly content here. I love being the CEO of NAW. And so, no plans to run for office any time soon. I think I found my mission in life and that's pretty thrilling for me.

Karthik Chidambaram: Awesome. So, Eric, a couple of last questions.

What are your hobbies? What do you do outside work?

Eric Hoplin: Well, I love to golf. And I've got three three young boys who are fantastic golfers, who are quickly becoming better golfers than their dad. So golfing, golfing is big.

I was a musical theater kid when I was in high school. I was the Minnesota state champion twice, as a singer. And so today I love opera. I love musicals. I love all classical music. I love all of that. And I'm thankful my family tolerates it. So, they come along with me to those things. So I love the Kennedy Center in D.C. and of course Broadway here in New York and the Metropolitan Opera. So all of that.

And then I'm an avid reader. I like to keep my head in all different genres and things going on. And books are a great way to transport you there. So, those are, those are some of the things that keep me busy outside of NAW.

Karthik Chidambaram: Well, that's my next and last question. We always like to end with this. You mentioned that you're reading five different books. What are some of the books you're reading right now?

Eric Hoplin: Oh boy. Okay, look, I could give you many, but I'll give you two because they're different genres. So a friend of mine, this guy named Peter Schweitzer, and he's written many New York Times bestselling books. And he turned me on to this book about Winston Churchill recently. It's called Churchill Style, it's Churchill Style, and it's the art of being Winston Churchill, written by a guy named Barry Singer, who owns- dedicated a bookshop dedicated to Winston Churchill here in New York.

And you know, I love Winston Churchill, and everybody knows all the great things that he did. But there's so little that was written about how he lived, who he was as a person. And, you know, just one quick story from the book that just jumped out at me is, it was talking about when, during World War I and he was serving in the trenches. And you always think of the horror of the trenches and the confined spaces and the bombs coming and all that.

But, you know, you read about what Winston Churchill brought along to the trench, you know, he brought a staff member with him, he brought trunks and trunks of clothes, he even brought his own personal bathtub. And so, you know, just interesting to transport yourself back into that time and into his life and see, you know, how he did all of that.

The other book that I'm reading right now is called 2034. It's written by a guy named Admiral James Stavridis, who is the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. And it's a fictional book, but it talks about conflict with, between the U.S. and China and India in the year 2034. And while it's fiction, what it's designed to do is to paint a picture of what could happen to the world and what could happen to America, if we don't take very seriously our relationship with China.

Nobody wants to lead to a conflict. Conflict is not inevitable. And so I think that this is a very prosaic book that I think anybody who's thinking about the future should read. To think about what is the future we want to avoid and what are the steps and the things we all need to be doing now in real time to make sure that we build a constructive, cooperative relationship with the Chinese, and with the Indian government, for now and long into the future.

Karthik Chidambaram: Yeah, 2034 is something I need to check out as well.

Let me show you something. Give me a second.

Eric Hoplin: Yeah.

Karthik Chidambaram: I mean, talking about Winston Churchill, I don't know if you read this book. I mean, I really enjoyed reading this book as well. Um, the Splendid and the Vile. Yeah, Erik Larson.

So that was a really good book where, I mean, this is one of my first Winston Churchill books I read, where it talks about how he managed World War II. I really enjoyed reading this, actually. So it was a good book.

Eric Hoplin: Oh, fantastic. I'll definitely check it out. I was just in London with my wife and kids a month or two ago, and we went through the Churchill cabinet war rooms. And, you know, if you haven't been there, I mean, it's one of my favorite places in London.

I've been a number of times, but to bring my kids. You know, in the nerve center where he commanded World War II, I mean, he's taken in those dark days early in the war where, you know, the Nazis had taken over most of Europe. The United States was isolationists and it was Britain against this onslaught of fascism.

And think about his bravery in the face of the most terrible odds. You know, if it weren't for, you know, Winston Churchill and the people he led, who knows what would happen to the rest of the world. So, I think he's someone I certainly admire a great deal, as I know many, many people do. But that's why I wanted to kind of learn more about the personal side is, you know, it's not the great lion you see giving the amazing speech in the House of Commons, there was a person there too. So that's one of the reasons I like this book called Churchill Style.

Karthik Chidambaram: That's great. Thank you Eric.

And, do you also listen to audiobooks or is it mostly reading?

Eric Hoplin: Oh, yeah. My head is in audiobooks and podcasts all the time. It's one of the things I do when I travel. I'm walking through the airport, I got my AirPods in and I'm listening to something interesting, hopefully.

Karthik Chidambaram: Eric, I really enjoyed this conversation. I'm sure the audience are gonna enjoy this as well. So, thank you so much for joining the Driven show. Thanks so much for your time and good luck with everything you're doing. And thank you again for this great conversation.

Eric Hoplin: No, you're welcome. It's great to be a guest on the Driven show.

Have me back. I had a great time and I would love to come back whenever it'd be helpful. So thanks so much.

Karthik Chidambaram: Thank you, Eric.

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