STAFDA dealers keep the faith

Last year, the Specialty Tools & Fasteners Distributors Association (STAFDA) thrust itself into the political realm, booking and delivering the controversial and confrontational Sarah Palin as its keynote speaker for its annual convention. This year, the speaker selection is less partisan and more personal.

Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger — the pilot who coolly landed his packed jumbo jet in the icy Hudson River two years ago — will talk about peak performance in difficult situations, among other topics, during the 35th Annual Convention & Trade Show Nov. 14 at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio.

A kinder, gentler convention? Not really.

“He talks about leadership that transforms, and that’s why we thought he would be an appropriate speaker and topic for this year’s program,” said Georgia Foley, STAFDA’s executive director.

This year’s business climate resembles that of last year, and the content of the three-day STAFDA convention in San Antonio will again hit some of the major notes for success — technology, operations and strategic planning.

“The economy is still bad, but we’re getting back on track with education,” Foley told Home Channel News. “Our offering is pretty broad-based and trying to hit something for everybody. People are continuing to search for what’s new and innovative in the markets, and a lot of them have refocused on education.”

One of the new twists to the curriculum this year in San Antonio is “The Future of Green,” a presentation on green building and construction. “Even if our distributors still don’t do anything with it, they still need to know what’s going on and be aware of it, so that when they do talk to their contractor customers, they know what they’re talking about,” Foley said.

Attendance is tracking ahead of 2010’s event in Phoenix, and booth sales are up about 5% compared with last year.

As for STAFDA membership, that is holding steady. And there are signs that the challengers of recruiting and maintaining in a poor economy have passed through the low point. Hard-hit states of California, Arizona and Florida are areas where members are reinstating with STAFDA — a clear positive sign, she said.

Amid the challenges, the makeup of the typical STAFDA house is changing. It’s getting smarter, leaner and more sophisticated, she said. Years ago, many STAFDA members saw the Internet as a threat to their business.

“In many ways, it’s a totally different animal than three to five year ago,” Foley said. “STAFDA houses cut personnel, they got a lot more tech savvy.

Members are also savvy with communication tools. One example: STAFDA’s president Mike Kangas, of Alaska Industrial Hardware in Anchorage, Alaska, is replacing his staff’s laptops with iPads.

“Certainly, technology has played a big role in the way our distributors go to market,” Foley said.

Members are looking for products, for knowledge, and maybe even inspiration. And the show is prepared to deliver, Foley said. STAFDA board member Dan Steier of Duo-Fast Northeast recommended pilot Sully — key figure of  “The Miracle on the Hudson” — and the idea stuck.

“We have been heavy with the political and economics the last couple of years, but we haven’t had somebody motivating and uplifting since Chris Gardner in 2007 in Nashville,” Foley said.

An uplifting message might be just what the doctor ordered for the “cautiously optimistic” distributors.

“They’ve done their slashing and burning of inventory and personnel to get themselves to be lean and mean machines,” Foley said. “But STAFDA guys are entrepreneurs. That’s something that’s just instilled in them, and they’ll continue to fight forward. STAFDA guys are positive about the future, and they’re hoping that the light at the end of tunnel is coming sooner rather than later.”