Gettysburg, Waterloo and Automation: High-Tech Distribution at a Crossroads

June 10, 2011
Historians tell us momentous battles often happen at a crossroads. A recent visit to Gettysburg drove home the point

Historians tell us momentous battles often happen at a crossroads. A recent visit to Gettysburg drove home the point — the town square is intersected by four highways. What’s more, in Civil War times the town had eight major roads coming in from all directions. Now take a look at Napoleon’s Waterloo — it was conveniently located at the intersection of the Brussels-Namur Roads — a crossroads. Battles and crossroads go together like Napoleon and shoe lifts.

If you listen carefully you can hear the drumbeat of encroaching armies. Off down distant roads you hear the rattle of sabers and shuffling of infantry. A big battle is brewing. And understanding the opposition’s approach is critical to your own survival. Here’s a report from the front.

The automation space historically was held by a combination of electrical distributors and high-tech specialty houses. But over the past few years there has been an increasing push from power transmission and fluid power distributors — especially in the motion control space.

Customers continue to grow increasingly dependent on their distributor partners for technical solutions. Customer concerns with “lines-of-trade” are a moot point — to them a solution is a solution whether it comes from someone with roots in electrical products, power transmission products, hydraulics or wire and cable. But the solution must come with a rock-solid technical basis.

For the past couple of decades, technical prowess has been the automation industry’s barrier to entry. Salespeople didn’t have to be engineers, but it sure helped. Add product specialists, application engineers and highly trained inside salespeople and you understand why the market was relatively exclusive just a few years ago.

But the drum-beat continues. The products have gotten easier to apply — this helps solve some of the problems. Leading-edge companies have discovered how to effectively deploy specialists and others have made strategic acquisitions to improve their position in the automation world.

Anixter (and a couple others) appears to be executing a flanking move — positioning themselves to end-around this long-standing technical barrier through alliances with control systems integrators. Control systems integrators provide expertise for hire. They act as the surrogate engineering arm for customers large and small. Some have ongoing customer relationships dating back into the 1980s. Most do business with a local automation distributor — but the relationship hasn’t been a bed of roses.

Distributors and systems integrators sometimes find themselves working at cross-purposes. The lines of demarcation have gone from black-and-white to gray and blurry. In a good number of situations the systems integrator and distributor aren’t all that friendly. Along comes Anixter.

Anixter has been pushing into the automation market for the past couple of years, but for the most part their sales force lacks the automation technical credentials to attract customer attention. The company has joined the Control Systems Integrators Association (CSIA), and building a relationship with these technology services companies opens doors for Anixter at a whole bunch of accounts. They are making headway — recently the CSIA awarded Anixter its 2011 “Partner of the Year” award. Let’s review who else has won this same award.

2007 – Siemens

2008 – Rockwell Automation

2009 – Schneider Electric

2010 – Invensys/Wonderware

From where I sit, this moves the award from long-time, rock-solid, world-class technical providers to a newcomer with a game-changing plan.

If I were a distributor (and I still consider myself to be one), I would be asking myself, “How do I relate to my customers?” Does my organization …

  • Provide “branded” support — so the customer knows it came from us as opposed to a supply partner?
  • Document and measure the value we provide to our customers?
  • Do I maintain a relationship with system integrators in my territory?
  • Are we prepared to go head to head with an Anixter/systems integrator combo?

“Anixter’s support for CSIA and its mission to raise the bar for control system integrators, primarily through best practices and CSIA certification, has been exemplary,” said Robert Lowe, CSIA executive director, in a press release announcing Anixter’s award. “Anixter is a major supporter of our annual executive conference and its staff members have been actively involved with the partner committee helping drive strong integrator and vendor relationships.”

The drums are getting closer. Automation distributors need to find their positions.

—Frank Hurtte

Hurtte is president and founding partner of River Heights Consulting, Davenport, Iowa. You can reach him at [email protected] or 563-514-1104 to discuss specialty distribution or his extensive ukulele collection.