November/December  2003

Distribution Channels
Inner Workings of the Millwork Industry

Supply-Chain Leadership
It’s All About the Customer

by Allen Dyer

Throughout this year, the subject matter of this column has focused on our ever-changing millwork supply chains. The functional turf of manufacturers and distributors seems ever in flux, driven by factors we’ve explored throughout the year—industry consolidation, the application of technology, the impact of imports and the deflation of prices.

In the future, it is likely these and other factors will influence even more how we take our products and services to market, begging our continued attention to supply-chain dynamics.

One Friend’s Point
Yet, one distributor friend pointed out to me that his dealer customers' interest in supply chain management was pretty shallow: Their concept of the value added to the supply chain by his company seemed limited to today's delivery, and some help maintaining their stock bins. While it has been entertaining to sit back and think about the dynamics of our industry from the 30,000 feet perspective, his point was valid.

Maintaining Positive Relationships
A good, long-term, supply-chain strategy alone does not win the hearts of many customers. The maintenance of positive personal and business relationships with our customers remains a critical factor to our success. We can’t overlook the real-world challenges of meeting the daily demands of our customers who aren’t interested in our supply-chain strategy if our last delivery was late.

So, my friend’s observation is correct, and I readily admit to the sin of sometimes getting caught up in pushing toward tomorrow’s solution at the expense of today’s customer service. 

Yet it clearly takes a balance of short-term tactical operating focus and long-term strategic supply-chain planning to make sure our customers receive our best effort today and in the future. Alone, neither is adequate, and in the application of both, our impetus really is all about the customer. 

Position in the Supply Chain
Generally, the nearer our functional position in the supply chain is to the end customer, the less importance we ascribe to supply-chain strategy and leadership. As an example, builders and consumers tend to reward suppliers mainly on their ability to meet today’s need adequately (an exception being large production builders, who are becoming very aware of strategic supply-chain management). 

One step farther away from the end user, dealers may see some value in aligning with suppliers they believe have the ability to meet both today’s needs and keep them in a competitive supply chain over the long term. 

However, most of the supply-chain leadership function remains in the hands of distributors and manufacturers. They must deal with the challenges of long lead times, changing building codes or fluctuating foreign exchange rates, even when our customer seems to worry only about today’s delivery.

Supply-chain leadership is just as much an added-value function as manufacturing or logistics services, and, as a manufacturer or distributor, our clients rely on us and pay us to position them properly over the long term. So, at our level, supply-chain management is indeed all about the customer.

Taking A Broader Perspective
I have no formal training, nor do I even offer original thoughts on the science and theory of supply-chain structure and management—I consider myself fortunate if I am able only to make observations and glean a few applicable ideas from others’ studies and experience. 

However, if sharing my thoughts regarding our millwork supply chains has had any significant value, I hope it lies in the encouraging of more of our millwork industry to take a broader perspective of how we manufacture, move and add value to our products and services as they travel toward their ultimate destination—the end user. 

That broad perspective can help us be quicker to discover, consider and embrace new ideas and alternate models that may be more appropriate and effective in addressing issues pressing upon our industry today.

If our primary interest really is our customers, we must not only meet their needs on a daily basis, but we must also strive to improve the effectiveness of our supply chains over the long term. It really is all about the customer. 

Allen Dyer is president of ECMD Inc., a building products manufacturing and distribution company headquartered in North Wilkesboro, N.C., with production operations that include EastCoast Mouldings, Crown Heritage Stairs and A&H Windows.


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