Ian Heller Strategy

51. Strategies for Success in Business | Ian Heller, Distribution Strategy Group

Episode 51

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Strategies for Success in Business | Ian Heller, Distribution Strategy Group

Success is the main objective for many business owners, careers climbers, and even in our personal lives. But what does strategizing for success in business look like? What is the purpose of having a well defined strategy, and why do we need it?

In this episode of Driven by DCKAP, Karthik Chidambaram, Founder & CEO of DCKAP, sits down with Ian Heller, Co-Founder & Chief Strategy Officer of Distribution Strategy Group to talk about the importance and effectiveness of strategy, and how execution is even more important than having a well defined strategy. Tune in to find out more about Ian’s business model, how he defines strategy and helps distribution businesses navigate the road to the future, how his background helps fuel his drive for success, and more.


Karthik Chidambaram: Hello, everyone. I'm really excited today because we
have with us a very special guest, and we're going to be talking strategy.

Everybody wants a great strategy for their business, and everybody wants to
grow their business. So who better to talk about strategy than Ian Heller,
Chief Strategy Officer and Co-Founder of Distribution Strategy Group.

Ian, thank you so much for joining, and it's an honor and pleasure to have
you join the Driven by DCKAP podcast.

Ian Heller: Well, thank you for including me, Karthik. I'm really excited to
be here.

Karthik Chidambaram: Thank you, Ian.

Ian, I just want to get started with the basics. Let's say I'm going to
college doing my bachelor's in Strategy 101.

What is strategy, and how do you define strategy, and why is strategy

Ian Heller: Yeah, well, strategy is a long term plan to differentiate your
firm from everybody else. I think it was Peter Drucker who said ‘the purpose
of strategy is to avoid competition’, you know, so that means
differentiation, right?

You do something better and different than what other people do. And so
strategy is a long term plan to accomplish that. But it comes to life when
you figure out, okay, what are my core competencies going to be? How am I
going to be, you know, what industry am I in? What core competencies am I
going to develop?

And then what are the programs I will develop within those core
competencies, right? So those are. The growth initiatives, the
differentiation initiatives, which may be anywhere from, you know,
developing software to special distribution. It might be service
capabilities. It might be product lines that others don't carry.

It might be the level of service. Customer experience is often, you know, a
real differentiator for distributors. And then it's all the supporting
things you have to do to make that happen. And so that is what's the
financial plan. What are the financial goals? What's the budget that we're
going to spend to make these things come true?

How are we going to test them? You know if you ever read the innovator's
dilemma, he talks about how you can't really test programs in an operating
environment. If you really have to create a separate environment because if
you try to test new initiatives and with the people who run the regular p
and l, they tend to view them as distractions and they snuff them out.

So you have to test some things in more of a lab environment. And then
what's the, what's the HR plan? What's the- what's the talent plan to get,
you know, get things in place. So I think it's a combination- answering your
core competency strategy is answering your core competency questions.

It's putting together a long term differentiation plan. It's creating the
initiatives that result in that differentiation, and then figuring out how
you support them with money and people.

Karthik Chidambaram: I can relate to what you said because this is a mistake
we have done in the past. Let's say you run an experiment and you got to do
it in parallel or have another team do it.

Because if it gets involved in your P&L, then the experiment gets
affected, but also the P&L gets affected because. The focus is not
there, you know, so I could really relate to that. It's really great.

And you talked about Peter Drucker- and what about his famous quote ‘culture
eats strategy for breakfast.’ What are your thoughts on that?

Ian Heller: Yeah, I think there's a lot of truth to that, but I think you
can overdo that. And here's what I mean. For a while, there was a meme going
around LinkedIn, and it said something like, you know, Blockbuster wasn't
killed by Netflix, it was killed by late fees, and taxis weren't killed by
rude behavior.

Or they weren't killed by Uber, they were killed by rude behavior, et
cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And that was, it was the most nonsensical post
because Blockbuster was not going to survive then renting media to anybody,
no matter what they did, no matter what their policies were. That became
technologically outmoded.

Uber is just a better solution for short distance transportation than taxis
are. So yeah, I mean, culture can eat strategy for breakfast. But culture
can get destroyed by technology, technology innovations, too. I mean, Kodak
may have had a phenomenal culture and the entire city of Rochester, New York
was, it seemed like it was employed, built, you know, making film in these
gigantic factories.

And they had Kodak softball teams and healthcare providers and daycare. I
mean, you know, no. Those people could look at those millions of square feet
of plants making film and never imagine it going away, but the world's
finest culture wasn't going to protect Kodak from digital photography,
right? So I think, yeah, culture can eat strategy for breakfast, but
innovation can eat culture if you fall behind.

Karthik Chidambaram: No, certainly. And you've got to keep reinventing
yourself and also don't do the same good thing for too long, even if you are
very good at it. Yeah, totally makes sense. And even the culture needs to
keep evolving, you know, just can’t be stagnant. Can totally relate to that.

And everybody wants to be strategic. Everybody wants to be strategic. And
how do you deploy- How do you know that the strategy you deploy is working?
Sometimes it takes time to see the light. How do you deal with that?

Ian Heller: Yeah, well, there's no guarantee, right? I mean, you have to,
you have to test some things, you know, I think if you are in a company that
is willing to invest in innovation, then they know they're going to be some
failures along the way, right?

There are no, there are no, there are no guarantees. I think, again, if you
get the experiment out of the operating P& L and you get it into a more
of a laboratory environment and let it run parallel with business for a
while and you don't measure it strictly on the financials it produces on its
own, but more on sort of a pro forma.

It's like, well. Yeah, this experiment's not profitable, but you know,
that's because we're not over our fixed costs. And if we scaled it up, we
would be, you know, so I think it takes some iterations of analysis to
figure out if an innovation is going to be successful, but ultimately you
have to have some measurements around these things and you can't give tests

To run, but it's easy to be impatient and not give them enough time to at
least see if it's going to work. Also have to have the right people working
on it, you know, but I think set realistic objectives, they can be
challenging, but realistic, and then evaluate along the way and realize that
almost no new idea is perfect the way it's born.

And you're probably gonna have to adapt it to the real world in order to
make it work in the long run.

Karthik Chidambaram: I think this is some great execution advice. Whatever
experiment you're on, keep it. outside of your operating P&L and the
people matter. So, why do companies come to you, Ian? Why do companies come
to your company?

And what are the typical problems they come for and how do you help them?

Ian Heller: So, we, I mean, if you think about what we do, most of it is we
provide thought leadership and analytics. So the thought leadership takes
the form of webinars and discussion panels between technology leaders or
between distribution executives. We did an event in the fall called applied
AI for distributors. We're doing another one in June.

And, we're, we'll have, you know, 300 thought leaders from across
distribution and from technology companies. We'll be discussing, how do you
apply artificial intelligence into a distribution company? And then we have
three analytics products. One sort of helps you understand your end market

One measures customer net promoter score and one measures employee
engagement, right? So these are everything we do is sort of designed to
help. Executives run better companies and get better outcomes by providing
the best expertise we possibly can. We do a little bit of consulting. We
used to be a consulting company.

Now it's a relatively small part of our revenue. And it tends to be around
strategic planning or marketing planning. So we do some keynote speeches and
some custom engagements. But anyway, that's the short answer to what we do
for a living.

Karthik Chidambaram: Awesome. And you talked about artificial intelligence
or AI, and it's actually overused in today's market.

They always keep talking about AI. Can you share a couple of use cases where
AI has been effectively used and deployed? By distributors and how it's
changing the course of their business.

Ian Heller: Yeah So I think you know a couple of good examples are around
recommender engines, right? so if you're trying to figure out what to Buy
online or if you're if you're placing an online order and you get
recommended something that's very useful to you or if you're on a phone call
with the customer service rep and they recommend something that you may have
forgotten, that's related to what you need.

I think that's a useful case. I'm seeing AI used in working capital
application or management, particularly inventory. You know, I remember
years ago when I was at Grainger, we used to have a saying that there are
two kinds of inventory forecasts, wrong ones and lucky ones. And, you know,
I think what we've learned since then is that applying AI in the right way
to inventory can make you luckier in your inventory forecast.

Karthik Chidambaram: So, essentially a recommendation engine and inventory
forecast in terms of forecasting the inventory.

Ian Heller: But there's a lot more. I mean, I can, I've seen AI applied to
AR so that it helps you understand where you need to make a phone call to
someone who owes you money versus where you can just send emails.

I've seen it in delivery routing, right? Where you figure out the most
efficient delivery route for your trucks, which is, you see it in
warehouses, they've got security systems that will tell you whether or not a
driver on a forklift is wearing a seatbelt the way that they're supposed to,
it detects fraud, there are, there are drones that fly around account
inventory in certain situations that are all AI enabled, I actually just
published a column, which I, I argue that AI has more potential in
distribution than in retail.

And the reason is that distribution is a lot harder and a lot more complex
than retail. And until now, there haven't been technology solutions
available for some of the harder problems that distributors face. And AI is
actually providing those solutions. So I think it's a, you know, from demand
generation to financial settlement, to collecting rebates from your
suppliers or AI applications across the range.

Karthik Chidambaram: So this is very interesting, and yeah, it can
definitely be applied in delivery and a lot of other use cases you've talked
about. Do you see distributors actively using this in the business or how
much adoption, how much AI adoption are you seeing?

Ian Heller: Very little so far, but it's growing. What I'm seeing is
distributors under pressure to apply AI.

So they're getting questions from their boards of directors or their, you
know, PE owners or the public markets if they're a big public company
asking. Hey, what are you doing with AI? I mean, people don't even really
know what they're asking. In many cases, they don't, you know, they, they
don't really know the difference between advanced technology and AI, even
though they are different.

But they, they know, wow, my, I've got my money in this company and they
should be using AI to get some kind of an advantage and I keep reading about
it and seeing it on 60 Minutes. So that's really where the pressure is
coming from, right? Plus, you know, the executives themselves. Read about AI
and feel like there's something they can do with it.

But I think, you know, the actual implementation is really primarily coming
from vendors. They already have who are putting AI into their existing
products or, you know, smaller technology companies that are. are catching
the attention of distributors and getting implemented in certain, in
certain, in certain cases.

So I think it's, I think it's coming, but it's, there's a long, long way to

Karthik Chidambaram: Yeah. Can you talk about an example where you applied
strategy to a distributor and it really worked and it changed the course of
their business?

Ian Heller: Yeah, so I was thinking about this because you had suggested
this question in advance and I think, you know, I've done a lot of
strategies for a lot of distributors and I don't really want to take credit
for somebody else's work because it's one thing to put together the plan.

It's another to execute it, right? But you know, when I was, for example,
when I was at Whitecap Construction Supply, when I got there, we were 857
million. When I left, we were, I don't know, two and a half billion or
something. And that was in seven years, right? So there were a lot of people
that drove that growth.

I mean, the sales reps, regional vice presidents, district sales managers,
branch managers. So I just had a small part to play, but the part that I did
play was Rapidly expanding the customer base by being paranoid, if you will,
obsessed with customer acquisition, retention, and wallet share growth of
existing customers, which is something that they'd never looked at before,

When I went there, the customer count was declining year over year and had
been for five years. This was in 2010, I guess. And so by putting those
metrics in place and aggressively marketing to new customers, and we did it
in a number of ways through a number of channels. But what I call the golden
rule of marketing is.

The more frequently distributor marketing, the more, the more frequently you
put relevant offers in front of targeted customers, the more frequently
they'll buy from you. So if I put something interesting in front of a
customer on a regular basis, they'll buy from me more frequently than if I
don't do that.

And that works to acquire new customers. It keeps customers from leaving you
and it gets your existing customers to buy more often. And we saw this
enormous turnaround. And number of customers and purchase frequency and
retain improvements and retention. And that's an area where marketing helped
the salespeople and the other individuals in the company grow the business.

Totally. And strategy

Karthik Chidambaram: is teamwork and makes a lot of sense even for us as a
company, which is relating to what you said for us to just focus on the
distribution market was a strategy by itself and it's paid or it's paying
rich dividends and we came to that working just by teamwork. Right? So we
keep discussing and.

People get together and then you execute, you win on some, you lose on some,
and then it works. And if it doesn't work, you just pull back.

Ian Heller: But I have a question for you, Karthik, if I may, um, you work
across the enterprise for distributors, right? From ERP to e commerce to CRM
to analytics. I mean, you. You see where you're, you're working with
distributors on technology implementations and selections much more than I

Where do you see them applying AI?

Karthik Chidambaram: Where do you see them applying AI?

Ian Heller: Where do I see AI being applied? And where's the, where's the

Karthik Chidambaram: Yeah, totally. I think the big potential, the big
potential is making systems talk to each other and using AI for that. Yeah,
the biggest problem distributors have today is the systems don't talk to
each other, and when the data is not moved from one system to another, then
it is a challenge, and you're not able to provide that great experience for
your customers.

You talked about product recommendations, or you talked about AI being
applied in delivery. For all this to work, for AI to work, the systems need
to talk to each other, and once the system talks to each other, once the
data is integrated, You have access to a lot of data. I mean, for AI to
work, the primary thing, as you know, is data.

And the data is right now in different systems. And the distributors where
the systems talk to each other, they're able to apply AI really effectively.
And that's what we are focusing on.

Ian Heller: Right. So with the system, so you'll, you'll help advise them on
which systems to choose, but then integrating that data and preparing it for
the application of generative AI or more narrow AI solutions.

That's part of what you do.

Karthik Chidambaram: Correct. Yeah, we have an integration. We offer an
integration platform for distributor called the DCKAP Integrator.

Ian Heller: Right. Got it. Interesting. Okay, so, so I know this is you're
supposed to be interviewing me, but I just can't help but ask you a couple
questions. So if I'm running a distributor and I want to apply an LLM on top
of my data, then you guys could help me figure out which systems to choose.

And then you've got a layer that would help integrate that data that would
prepare it for the implementation of an LLM by LLM.

Karthik Chidambaram: What do you mean by LLM learning?

Ian Heller: Large learning model.

Karthik Chidambaram: A chat GPT? Yeah, yeah, totally. Yeah, yeah. So, yeah,
I mean, so that is provided by another provider, right? So let's say the
chat GPT kind or LLM is provided by another provider.

And for that LLM to work or for that chat GPT kind of a solution to work,
you need data. Yeah. And you need that data to be passed into an LLM. So we
provide the integration middleware bridge that passes on the data from ERP
or e-commerce into LLM or any system for that matter. That's interesting.

Ian Heller: Okay. Got it. Got it. All right.

Thanks for answering my questions. I'll let you ask me. Yeah, I interview a
lot of people. So it's hard for me to give up that role.

Karthik Chidambaram: So, sure, sure. Totally. Yeah, totally. And I mean,
great question. So, yeah, we talked about a strategy that worked and you
talked about strategy being teamwork and yeah. It makes a lot of sense.

Tell us something where a strategy you deployed and it failed miserably.

Ian Heller: I don't know. I don't think we have enough time to go through
all those.

Karthik Chidambaram: Just tell me one.

Ian Heller: Yes, I was thinking about this too. I mean, I think, you know, I
don't, I mean, I don't know that I've done one that's outright failed.

I've recommended things that didn't work or have missed things that, you
know, I mean, I like to think of myself as a strategist and kind of a
futurist and I see what's coming. But I'll tell you, when I was at Grainger,
you know, I think I left Granger in 1998 and somewhere around then I worked
for this guy named Don Belinsky. He was a senior VP.

And I also worked for Wes Clark. I had this dual reporting to these
presidents, group presidents had totally different responsibilities and Wes
ran the whole branch network, which is, and I had, you know, started as a
truck unloader and it was a branch manager. And so, you know, that was my

Don had this crazy idea where he'd get these third party sellers to sell on
Granger. com and, and basically what he dreamed up was Amazon business 20
years before Amazon business. And I thought he was nuts. I thought, there's
no way anyone's ever going to do that. Now that initiative didn't work, but
it wasn't, it was an execution failure related to the technology, not being

You couldn't move product data around and it wasn't standardized. And, you
know, you, you, you, there weren't fast enough connections to do efficient
shopping with that many skews, but it was a brilliant idea. And Don was way
ahead of the curve and I missed it completely.

I didn't understand it. And so my perspective is. You know, you can't have
too many of those misses if you want to consider yourself a strategist in
your career. And, you know, I guess I was right from the standpoint that the
world wasn't ready for it. But I thought the idea was bad. I didn't think it
would fail on execution.

I thought it was a bad idea. Turns out it was a brilliant idea that the
world wasn't ready for yet. And so I got to tell you, whenever I start
feeling a little bit too smart about my successes, I think about that and
realize. Oh my gosh, that was one of the biggest trends in the history of
e-commerce. And I thought it was a dumb idea when I heard about it and, you
know, hopefully I'm smarter than I was back then.

But, you know, Don Belinsky, you know, well, he's never going to go in any
books as a leading thinker about online commerce. But the reality is he had
these ideas long before anybody else did, at least that I know of. And I'm
sure there were others at Grainger, but that's the one where it's like, ‘oh
my gosh.’ I just didn't see it.

And, you know, that really humbles me because it was such a big idea and I
missed it entirely. So that's a different answer than the question you asked
for, but that's the one that really jumps out in my history.

Karthik Chidambaram: Oh, that's a great answer and it's a humbling
experience. So thanks for sharing that, Ian. That means a lot.

You touched upon e-commerce a little bit and how do you recommend
distributors measure the ROI, the return on investment of their e-commerce
platforms beyond just shopping cart sales, taking into account the role of
digital interaction in keeping and winning customers?

Ian Heller: Yeah. So I think the worst thing that's happened to distributors
e-commerce is these experts, so called experts, coming in saying that you
should build your B2B website like a B2C site, and measure it the same way
that has been so destructive to investment in e-commerce capabilities for
distributors, because it's completely wrong, right? So distributors are
doing what retailers do.

Here's my ROI model. So I'm going to take my costs, which I know they're
precise. I know how much I'm spending. I know what my payroll is, et cetera.
They're pretty robust, pretty complete. And then, I'm going to take, I'm
going to divide that into my shopping cart sales, which is the measly, is
the most ridiculous way to account for the value of your website, because in
B2B is not B2C.

We have, our customers have, much more complex needs, right? So they might
be on your website all the time getting valuable information about their
historical purchases or getting training or doing all kinds of things that
make them want to buy from you more often and make them addicted to your
company and never buy online.

Well, that doesn't mean your website's not adding value. It means you're not
capturing that value. And the second thing is professional buyers don't for
the most part buy through a shopping cart I mean the other e procurement
platforms and for small stuff they do that. But you look at the average
distributor their customers are buying with po's that they're either calling
in or they're emailing in and they're leaving the shopping cart out of it
entirely even if the purchase was generated by the shopping, by the website.

And so I think there are two things that distributors should do. So, here's
the quick answer, the short answer to your question after the long answer.
Two things they should do. The first thing that distributors should do is
they should look at the correlation between how much customers use the
website and how much they buy overall.

So, we've run that on distributors before, and I found a 99 percent
correlation. I mean, nothing's ever 99%. As you know, Karthik, we found a 99
percent correlation between how engaged customers are, how engaged customers
are on your website and how much they buy overall. So if they're on your
website all the time, they buy more, even if they're not buying through the

That's one thing. The second thing is. I think distributors should call 50
customers a month who didn't buy on the web and say, ‘Hey, did you use our
website in the course of placing that order?’ And whatever that percentage
is, give the attribution to the website for those orders extrapolated across
your firm.

Now you've got a real number for your ROI model. You do those two
measurements, and it's easy. Just call, and by the way, you don't call the
customer and just tell them. Hey, did you just ask them if they use the web?
You say, ‘Hey, this is a customer service call. How was your experience with
us? I'm not trying to sell you anything.’

I mean, how many of us would not be delighted to get a call like that from a
supplier? And you engage them in a conversation, you know, and then you ask
them as part of this customer service follow up, did you use the website?
And if they say yes, then do a little research. How'd you like it? What
other websites do you buy from? What would you like to have on our website
that we don't offer? Right?

So, take those 50 calls or 100, or whatever, and have an intern do them or
even better have senior executives do them since they probably don't get
enough customer contact. Calculate your ROI that way and then correlate
engagement on your website to overall sales.

And I think what distributors are going to find is that their websites are
producing six to eight times more revenue than they know. And it's going to
fundamentally change the investment profile for them. They're going to spend
a lot more on digital capabilities once they realize how important these
capabilities really are to customers.

Karthik Chidambaram: Oh, well said, Ian. So just don't measure the orders
being placed, but measure the engagement and correlate that to the total
orders customers place. On different platforms. And if they are not placing
orders on the e-commerce website, call the customer and see how you can help
them. Yeah. Great advice.

So you focus a lot on research and development and you track what's
happening in the industry. So what are the top three must do action items
every distributor should know?

Ian Heller: Well, you know, I looked at that question. It's a little hard
because there's, you know, there are many different types of distributors. I
think distributors need to stay up to speed on AI and they have to know what
it is and how they might apply it.

They have to understand it. They need to build AI talent onto their teams.
So I think, you know, not getting behind on AI is one. I think two, they
really need to understand the role of digital in their environment because
they don't, you know, in the conversation that we just had, many of them
don't anyway.

I think that's two. And then three, is nail the basics. You still have to be
a distributor. And I see a lot of distributors trying to not be distributors
anymore. And what I mean by that is I don't want to carry inventory. I want
to do these mini branches. You know why? Because I don't have to put
inventory in them.

Distributors carry inventory. They learn how to manage it well. They learn
how to match the needs with their stocking decisions. They Get all the
supplier capabilities. They can and put them in front of their customers.
They employ great sales forces. They obsess about customer experience and

There are no magic strategies. You can put in place, as a distributor, that
relieves you of the responsibilities of doing those things well. And it's
easy to take your eye off the ball and not focus on the basics because
you're distracted by something else. Like AI. It's a, it's do the basics and
do this other stuff, not do the basics or this other stuff.

Karthik Chidambaram: Yeah. Top three to do things- Nail the basics, digital
and AI. Yeah. I like that, Ian. Thanks.

So, you know, switching back to strategy again, let's say I'm not a
distributor. And how do you want to apply strategy to their career? How can
someone apply strategy to their careers?

Ian Heller: So, like, a personal career strategy or how to use how to become
a strategist as part of your career?

Karthik Chidambaram: Now, how do you apply strategy, right? Not to become a
strategist. Let's say, you know, I'm working at a distributor and I'm doing
some work. How can I be strategic so that I can advance my career?

Ian Heller: Got it. Okay. So you, look, I think, you know, I started off as
a truck Grainger branch, right, and left there is the VP of Marketing.

And I've done that job at three other big publicly held distributors. And
what I've seen is that the people who get promoted, nail their jobs. So
they're really, really good. I mean, if you're the one in charge of
inventory management, you do a really good job with inventory management.
But the second thing you need to do is you need to get involved in strategic
initiatives, right?

Now, almost always distributors, you know, if they're going, ‘hey, we're
thinking about expanding into telesales, or we're thinking about doing job
site branches, or we're thinking about putting a vending machine and bin
replenishment part’, whatever those strategic initiatives are, you need to
get involved in them and don't be too skeptical upfront because the world is

Those Kodak plants really did get shuttered. They closed down, right? The
world is changing. And so you need to help your company explore things for
the future. And that means in addition to doing your regular job, When new
ideas come along, you are an excited and fully engaged participant, and you
help them figure out how to make them work, right?

So it may be something like, ‘hey, there's a new ERP coming’. Well, don't be
the cynic who's criticizing it and talking about how the old ERP was better
than a new one, right? I mean, you need to be the one who's embracing and
making change happen. Not be the, you know, the, the skeptic behind the
scenes. It's really easy to be cynical and I hate cynicism.

I think it's poison in an environment, and eventually it'd be poison for
your career. I think, you know, like you don't need to be naive to be
optimistic, but I think, you know, to be excited to engage in new ideas, be
known as a person who helps them succeed. And that, you know, that doesn't
mean you're not candid with management.

I mean, if the new IP is not working, then you're there saying, here's
what's not working, but you're there, also, to help them find solutions, not
just pointing fingers. And I use ERPs because it's such a controversial
implementation, but it applies to everything. And I think, you know, the
spirit of ‘the will to win’, the optimism, the enthusiasm, the excitement.
It's hard being a cynic who knows better than everybody else. It is the
Monday morning quarterback who says, ‘wow, I would have done it
differently’. That's cheap and easy, and it doesn't help anybody.

Karthik Chidambaram: Yeah, get out of your comfort zone, try new things,
experiment and be a part of the strategic initiatives in the company..

So Ian, I'm just curious to know how were you as a kid or your early days
growing up, and how do you think your past contributes to where you are

Ian Heller: Yeah, so I moved a lot. So, I was born in Canada. My parents are
from Germany and England, and we moved every few years. My dad was a
minister most of my life, but my last name begins with the word hell. And I
was usually the newest kid in town, in a small town. So, you know, I had
this- I scrapped a lot, right?

So, I think, you know, I'm pretty outgoing. Some of that's related to the
fact that I had to change friends every four years, friend groups every four
years. I think it, you know, I'm very comfortable in new situations and that
probably is because I did it so much when I was growing up.

I know things are going to change because I've seen them. I live with
constant change and maybe that's why I'm. Interested in new technologies. I
worked a lot of blue collar jobs. I did a lot of construction and farming
before I went to college. So, I don't know. I think everyone's a product of
their upbringing to a certain degree.

And mine was interesting and diverse and had its own challenges like
everybody else's did. But I think that openness to change, and that
expectation that things are going to change and willingness to, to lead it
if I can, rather than get victimized by it, that probably comes from that

I wish we'd had one home
that I grew up in and every winter we, or every, excuse me, every summer, we
went to the same place on the lake in Wisconsin, you know, or whatever.

I don't think it's, I don't know. I mean, I think, I'm not sure what to make
of these things, Karthik, you know. So, I have five siblings or grew up with
five siblings and, you know, they're not all, it’s not like all of us are
equally outgoing. Right. I mean, some are shyer than others, so I don't know
the degree to which it's nature versus nurture. But yeah, it's not fun to
move. I don't wish that on anybody, but most people do.

Karthik Chidambaram: Yeah, but I also think some people like it. So, for
instance, I have chatted with people where they have moved from one place to
another, and they look back at that time when they were growing up, it was
hard, but then they look back at it like you rightly said, hey, you know, it
helps you be a lot more outgoing and you're able to make friends easily in
your schools.

Ian Heller: I hear you. I mean, when my kids were in high school, I was
working from home and I turned down corporate job offers because I told my
kids I wouldn't move until they got out of high school, and I don't regret

I mean, I think that was better for them. And, so yeah, look, I mean, I
think we adapt and we grow based on whatever challenges life throws at us,
but I don't think, you know, moving all the time is a particular advantage
versus not.

Karthik Chidambaram: Totally. Yeah.

So, during your career, is there anything you would have done differently if
you had a chance? Any notable failures you've learned from or important
lessons learned?

Ian Heller: Yeah, I think, early in my career I was pretty passionate about
things I perceived to be wrong, and I didn't really distinguish between
things that were wrong decisions because I disagreed. Versus things that
were, like, morally wrong. Right.

So, like, I was at Grainger for a long time, for 15 years, right. Grainger's
a very, very ethical company, always has been. I never saw a leader there
that I can recall, ever do anything that was unethical. But man, I
challenged them all the time on their business decisions.

And sometimes I was angry and outraged and, you know, I was young and full
of it. I knew everything, right. Unlike now, where I don't. And, I think,
what I learned is that, early on, you know, maybe don't- Well, I wish I
hadn’t had so much hubris about what I knew, and I just listened and learned
more. And I think you have to distinguish between.

Things that happen that you disagree with versus things that might happen
that are wrong, that are unethical and don't, the first ones don't justify
the same outrage as the second ones. I mean, you know, the, the, the
executives at Grainger at the time were probably a lot better than I gave
them credit for.

And there are very ethical players and just because I disagreed with them, I
would be kind of outraged and I think you need to reserve your outrage. I
mean, I'm not talking about, you know, I'm, you know, I'm talking about, you
know, arguing in a meeting. I'm not talking about threatening anybody, of

But, you know, I think, you know, you need to, you need to. I wish I'd been
more mature, I guess. And, that probably- I mean, I got promoted a lot, but-
it probably cost me a couple of promotions that I would have had if I had
not been so certain of what I knew and maybe was more, a lot more humble
about it.

Karthik Chidambaram: No, totally. No, it's a fine balance. You take the good
and ignore the bad, work on the good and make it better. Yeah. And, what
advice do you have for dealing with stress and building healthy habits?

Ian Heller: Yeah, I'm not a very good person to look to for that. I mean,
you know, I've- my fitness goes like this over the years. I get really fit
for a while, and I'm not fit. And so, I would say the one constant in my
life is I really like to ride motorcycles. I'm not a Harley rider, nothing
against it. I just don't like big, heavy motorcycles. I like light, nimble,
fast. Yeah. You know, more sport bikes.

So, for me, it's an incredible, it's incredibly relaxing and rejuvenating
for me to ride a fast motorcycle through a Canyon. And I live in Colorado,
so I get to do that much of the year. But I think, you know, whatever, you
got to get your head out of your business sometimes and focus on something
else. And you know, I really, you should be getting your cardio in and, and
working out, needing a healthy diet. And I know when I do that, I feel a lot
better. And when I don't, I don't.

But the motorcycle is the constant, no matter what. Well, I don't recommend
motorcycling. It's really dangerous. It's probably very foolish. But, you
know, find your thing that you really like to do, and don't neglect it just
because you're busy.

Karthik Chidambaram: Great. So tell us something crazy you've done in your

Ian Heller: Something crazy I've done in my life. Yeah, I've done, I've done
a lot of crazy things. A lot of them on motorcycles. So, I've taken some
crazy chances. I started a company at 57, and I'm 60 now, and we started
this company, at 57, which was, you know- I told my wife at the time, if
this doesn't work out, I'm going to be a Walmart greeter in my twilight

So that was dumb. It's working, but it was dumb at the time. Let's see, what
else? I have left some executive jobs because I just got bored and wanted to
do something else. Some of those decisions probably weren't great, but I
don't really regret them. What else? I don't know. I guess that's it.

Karthik Chidambaram: Ok, what's something that would surprise others? to
know about you?

Ian Heller: That I just wrote a novel, and I'm trying to get it published
and it's really hard to get it published, but it's a fun sort of action
adventure novel with a sci-fi twist. And, actually, one of the world's
largest agencies right now is reading the manuscript, which is kind of a big
deal because it's hard to get the attention of an agent.

And, so I'm hoping to get published this year. That's, that's the thing that
people don't expect, I guess, is especially, you know, I started writing it
right as I started this company. So, you know, I was working a lot of hours,
but it was a labor of love and I'm really proud of it. I think it's a good

Karthik Chidambaram: Good luck with that.

Ian Heller: Thanks.

Karthik Chidambaram: Are there any books you would recommend for
distributors or anyone who wants to be good at strategy?

Ian Heller: Yeah, I'd read ‘Good to Great’. I'd read, what was the sequel?
‘Goodbye Choice’ or something like that. By Jim Collins. The two classics by
Jim Collins.

I would read ‘The Innovator's Dilemma’. I think that's an important book.
And I think, you know, you start with those. There's a bunch of other good
ones out there like ‘Just About Anything’ by Peter Drucker. I think it is
really interesting. But I probably start with those three.

Karthik Chidambaram: And what book are you reading right now?

Ian Heller: Right now I am reading ‘Ghost Fleet;, which is sort of a
futuristic sci-fi novel. It's a bestseller from 2015. So, it's a pretty fun
book. So, I'm trying to read books that are similar to mine so I can talk
about them intelligently with agents. So, yeah, that's- I just started that
one last night.

So what are you reading right now?

Karthik Chidambaram: ‘The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman.

Ian Heller: That's a lot weightier than what I'm reading. How do you like

Karthik Chidambaram: No, it's pretty good. I mean, it talks about the
basics. So now, every time I go out somewhere, this is something Don
recommends in his book. So, let's say you go out somewhere and you see
something, let's say you even see a door, see how it's designed.

Is it easy to push or is it pull? Let's say if you get stuck, right? You try
to pull it, but it pushes or you try to push it and it pulls or something
like that. Then sometimes, you know, oftentimes when we try on a new product
and things do not work, we blame ourselves, but then it's not us, you know,
it's the design. So, hey, this should have been designed better. Yeah, they
did not do it correctly.

So it's a great read. And, you know, I'm learning a lot about design reading
that. So it's very interesting.

Ian Heller: So you'd recommend it to others?

Karthik Chidambaram: Absolutely. I definitely recommend that to others. And,
yeah, especially people in tech or any business for that matter, design is a
part of our everyday life. Yeah. It's a great book. Yeah.

Ian Heller: Yeah. It's interesting because you need design in engineering,
right? Because the engineers tend to not be great at making things easily
usable to make them incredibly, well, fun, incredibly functional, but not
easily usable. And you need both, right?

Karthik Chidambaram: Absolutely. And it's a part of daily life. And next
time you see something which you're not able to figure out, don't blame it
on yourself. Blame it on the designer.

Ian Heller: I'll remember that.

Karthik Chidambaram: Yeah. So, Ian, thank you so much for joining. It's been
great chatting with you on strategy and a lot of other things, and the best
ways to execute. I really love this conversation. Thank you for joining the
Driven by DCKAP podcast. It's an absolute pleasure and honor to have you
join us.

Ian Heller: It was my honor. I really appreciate it. I enjoyed the
conversation and I look forward to the next time we talk.

Karthik Chidambaram: Perfect. So thanks very much.

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Episode 51