By Afton Spriggs
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Bill Weisberg, CEO of Affiliated Distributors (AD). He took the time to answer my questions about leadership and the future of the electrical industry in part one of the tedmag.com series, “Instant Message” Weisberg is the first in a series of industry executives taking part in this Q&A piece.
Q: Describe your leadership style
A: I’d say my leadership style is collegial and encouraging
and it’s evolved enormously since I started out as a young man in the industry.
In the early days I was very focused on the goal and less on the people that
would help achieve the goal. As I’ve matured in life, I’ve come to realize how
it really is all about the people around you and the relationships. Therefore,
pouring into those folks—the people you work with and the people you do
business with—ultimately is more important than the specific goals you have in
mind. Interestingly enough, this helps you achieve them even better than just
focusing on the goal.
At the most basic level of leadership, people follow you
because they have to. Ultimately, at the highest level, people follow you
because of who you are and what you stand for. As I’ve matured and as our
organization has evolved, it’s gone from being something that was just a
business to something that’s a cause.
Q: What or who inspires you as a leader?
A: I’ve received inspiration from so many truly wonderful
leaders in the industry. Some who recently passed, like Harold Kerman, Bob Lemman, Dick Hurd, for instance. And some who are still with us, like Charles
Collat, Dominic Pileggi and Jim Risk. These leaders really embodied a passion
for their people and their culture. I think what they all have in common is a
tremendous amount of sensitivity to the people around them, a passion for what
they do and strong convictions based on solid industry insight. They’re very
Q: What keeps you up at night?
A: I sleep really well! I have tremendous confidence in our
industry and in the companies that are in our industry. If there’s anything
that worries me the most it’s the climate within which we’re trying to do
business. The political, economic and societal climate—those are big challenges
and they require proactive leadership. There was a time, not many years ago,
when it was sufficient to be a good leader of your own business. But today, you
need to extend your influence into your community, your trade association and
even into the governmental arenas. There’s no business that’s an island. Some
of those macro challenges are significant.
Q: What advice would you give to someone just starting out
in this industry?
A: I think there are two really important pieces of advice
that I would give. One would be to make sure that they truly do treat their
family as their first priority. It’s very common when you start your career to
become obsessed and infatuated with your own advancement. It can be very
gratifying and sometimes the recognition at home is not so tangible. And I’ve
been there—I’ve done it wrong once and I’m trying to do it right the second
time. So I think first and foremost, if you have to make a decision on
something that your business really requires and something your family really
requires, do what your family requires.
The second piece of advice I’d give is to communicate within
the industry itself. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and talk to a
customer, a supplier or an associate. Don’t be afraid to meet people in person
and talk about the tough stuff. I think we have a tendency to avoid difficult
discussions, and that’s a mistake. This is an industry that rewards people who
have honest conversations. Reaching out to folks, even in difficult situations,
and having a candid, honest conversation goes a long way.
Q: What’s the best advice someone has ever given you?
A: To hire good people. People that know me best know that
I’d never amount to anything if I didn’t have good people working for me. I’ve
observed, in all my years, so many companies—great distributors and great
suppliers—and what they all have in common is that they have more than one
really talented person working there. They have a nucleus of management and talent
that’s not limited to one or two people. The electrical distributor that builds
a strong management team is the one that scales new heights year after year.
And the electrical manufacturers that surround themselves with strong people in
all their key spots are the ones that really have an impact and grow their
business in our industry. Those manufacturers that have constant turnover pay a
huge price for it. Distributors that try to keep all of the decisions in the
CEO’s office, and don’t invest in good people, don’t get to the next level.
Q: What is the most shocking thing you’ve ever heard in a
A: I don’t know if I can think of something that shocking,
but I’ll tell you what I look for when I’m interviewing someone. I look for a
person who has passion and an alignment of values and principles. Our business
is all about helping independent distributors and supporting suppliers that
support independents, so it’s truly a cause. So when I’m interviewing I look
for people with whom that cause resonates; I want to understand why they can
relate to that and why that’s important to them.
Q: What would you consider your biggest success?
A: Definitely my children. I’m blessed to have eight
children. I have three daughters who are young professionals that are just
wonderful. I have five young children, nine-years-old and younger. Being
fortunate enough to raise and enjoy those kids is far and away my biggest
From a business perspective, the thing I’m proudest of is
the contribution we make to independents—to help keep strong independents
independent. We do good things for really good people. We all spend so much
time at work, so I think it’s important to feel gratified about what you do.
These are great companies and they’d survive with or without us, but they’re
companies that we’ve really helped get through hard times and helped them get
to the next level. I’ve given talks in tough years that I know have helped give
people some encouragement when they needed it. I feel good about some of the
contributions we’ve made in those areas.
Q: What would you consider your biggest failure and what did
you learn from it?
A: I’ve had a lot of failures. What every one of those
failures has in common was the failure to listen to other people around me. I
was too stubborn, too convinced that I had the answer. As I trace back over the
course of my career to those business instances that were embarrassing and
problematic, I can see clearly that had I just reached out to some folks and
said, okay, tell me what you really think, they would have told me…and I didn’t
do it. So, I’ve learned to ask. I’ve learned to bring people in to make sure
that we’re proceeding with lots of discussion. That’s not to say that we’re not
going to make mistakes—we will. And it’s also not to say that we’re going to
talk about things forever, because there’s a time for talking and there’s a
time for doing. But, I think I’ve learned to be more humble and less arrogant.
I think that’s critical for sustainable success in this industry or any
Q: Finish this sentence for me: If I wasn’t in the
electrical industry, I’d be…
A: Unemployed, probably! I’ve been in the electrical
industry a long time, so it’s hard to know what I would have done if I hadn’t
gotten into it. I suspect that if I wasn’t working at Affiliated Distributors
that I’d be looking for some way to make a difference in my community.
Opportunities, either through non-profits or through ministry work, would be
something that I would gravitate toward. I would find a part of our society
that resonated with me most and I would serve it. Right now, my wife and I are
very involved in foster care and doing things to prevent child trafficking. If
I wasn’t working, I would be pouring myself into that, or something like it,
Q: Where do you see the industry going in the next five
A: Five years isn’t that far away. I think there are going
to be incremental changes. I think the industry is going to get younger. I
believe that we’re going to see the next generation of leadership rising up
into senior management positions within the next five to eight years. When you
look around, you can see those transitions taking place in the corner offices.
Already we see in our distributor community that the next generation is
beginning to take on those managerial roles, and I think that’s a wonderful
thing. We have one member that is a sixth generation company, and it’s a
beautiful thing. A big part of what we’re working on is to make sure we engage,
connect with and help those folks as they’re making their way into the
I think good companies are going to get stronger in the next
five years. I believe that you’re going to see a continued shift in business,
where the stronger independents and some of the stronger chains are going to do
better than those that are a little bit more passive. But, I don’t think there
is going to be monumental change over the next five years.
Bio: Bill Weisberg joined Affiliated Distributors (AD) in 1984 and became CEO in 1991. He
is a passionate champion of independent distribution. Mr. Weisberg’s steady
hand has led AD through three industry start-ups, five mergers with
member-owned cooperatives and numerous business cycles. Under Mr. Weisberg’s
leadership AD launched best-practice Networks, introduced innovative marketing
programs to spur member and supplier growth, created the industry’s first
national accounts program for independents, and pioneered the early adoption of
internet technology in 1996 to facilitate group communications. In 1999 Bill
founded supplyFORCE, a national accounts company
that enables AD members to collaboratively bid, service and fulfill MRO and
Integrated Supply contracts for multiple location MRO customers. Mr.
Weisberg is the proud parent of eight children and is a graduate of Central
High School in Philadelphia, Pa. You can follow Bill’s Blog here or connect with him on Twitter @BillWeisberg.