By Jean Whatley
Ah, millennials. Can’t live with them (because they tend to leave), can’t succeed without them (because they have the brains you need). As maligned, misunderstood and stereotyped as they may be, millennials play an increasingly vital role in positioning distributors squarely at the intersection of lighting and connectivity. It’s forward thinking companies who know this, according to Chris Brown, veteran lighting expert and CEO of Wiedenbach-Brown.
“There’s a general stereotype of millennials that they’re going to leave you in two years and move on to something better. My point is, yeah, maybe they are, but if you have an opportunity to learn from them and teach them, and that’s as long as you get to keep them, then just realize it’s a new fact of life. People don’t stick around,” says Brown. “However, if you create a great culture, a great work environment and a fun place to be, you’re more likely to keep them.”
It’s good business sense to retain those younger hires to stay relevant to your customers, who, like so many in the lighting industry, are trying to wrap their heads around the latest disruptors. IoT (or the Internet of Things), PoE (Power over Ethernet), and the Digital Ceiling (in which networked LED systems become the aggregator for all the other networks in a given space), are chief among the cadre of new technology.
“We’re in a little bit of a unique situation because the connected enterprise is a major focus for Rockwell Automation,” says Brian Bytnar, Chief Development Officer at Van Meter, which partnered with Rockwell in 1984 to provide automation products and solutions to businesses. “We are absolutely getting close to our customers and encouraging them to look at ways to kind of “future proof” their business as it pertains to lighting upgrades and the potential that connected lighting and the IoT can bring to them going forward. I’m not saying we have it all figured out yet, but it’s kind of in our DNA. The digital world is going to continue to have a heavy impact on that space moving forward.”
And it will be millennials who will do the heavy lifting. “Especially with new technologies,” according to Brian Rooney, Branch Manager for Crescent Electric, who at 28 can speak with some authority. “They’re just naturally suited to do that.”
But companies who want to build that next generation of expertise have to be intentional about recruiting, training and sustaining that segment of their workforce. Rooney says companies need to invest earnestly in leadership development and education, not just whip up a PowerPoint to check off a box. “Leadership development is huge. There are a lot of companies like Crescent that offer leadership training. In my branch, we have informal mentorships, just getting people involved with people who have more experience than them. At that point, it’s more about the personal relationship with the mentor. It’s about taking interest in people, not because they work at the same company or because their boss told them to, but because they genuinely want to see that person succeed in their career.”
“What we’re trying to do with our millennials is, if you come to Van Meter you have a core function of distribution, like operations, finance, sales, HR or IT. What we try to do, independent of that core function, is to give our employees the opportunity to collaborate and be part of projects, like research, leadership development, continuous improvement processes, and employee ownership. Although your job might be account manager, or inside sales or technical expert or operations lead, we are providing an environment for those individuals to get further immersed in the business.”
Once an employer gets them in the door, who best to train them? Brown says, “use every training resource you can, internal, manufacturers, the outside consultants, the people who come in and do consulting, do everything you can to bring your team up to the speed.”
Rooney contends it’s also incumbent upon the individual. “Frankly, I think a lot of individuals, younger folks, need to go out on their own, do research and stay up to date on it. As someone who might be a little more technically adept than some other people in the company, I think you owe it to the organization to make sure you’re helping stay on top of those kinds of things,” he says. “Waiting for a manufacturer to call you or waiting for your boss to tell you about the latest developments, it might be too late then. You might have already missed the boat, might have already missed an order or an opportunity.”
There is a delicate balance between investing too much time plus financial and human resources on technology, which might be hot one day and obsolete the next, and attending to the distributors’ sweet spot: being a provider of product and solutions.
“We have people on staff that are lighting professionals and then we’re hoping to support them with people who understand networking and infrastructure and the technology side of the biz as well,” says Bytnar. “If we can create that type of team, we should be able to compete day in and day out with the larger tech companies that are certainly eying this space.”
The direction for achieving this balance has to come from the top. “The people who are running those initiatives related to these new technologies in your company have to be the champions,” says Rooney. “There’s a lot of companies doing SWOT analysis, trying to figure out where we’re strong, where we’re weak with these new technologies. But being the trusted advisor to the customer, that’s the electrical distributors’ bread and butter forever. Most of the companies out there that are successful distributors know how to do that very well today. It’s just a matter of staying on top of changes and adapting, with the new technology. You adapt or you die.”Tagged with best practices