Soon after John Stegeman was named president of White Cap Construction Supply in 2010, he interviewed me for his open vice president of marketing role. Due to a mix-up, we were waiting for each other in different rooms of parent company HD Supply’s corporate offices and by the time that was straightened out, we only had 15 minutes together.
The short timeframe was merciful because John wasn’t sure a marketing consultant with no experience in construction supplies was the right person for the job. His skepticism was obvious, and I didn’t want to work for someone who wasn’t confident in me, so I called the recruiter on the way to the airport and said, “Thanks for the interest, but this clearly isn’t a good fit.”
Two weeks later, I interviewed with John again, and this time it went a little better so when I got the offer, I accepted it.
I’m so glad I did.
John turned out to be a great boss for me and even though we had nothing in common outside of work, he didn’t care and neither did I.
And the business success – wow, what a ride. White Cap did $852 million in sales in 2010 with a negative EBITDA. In 2017, my last year there, the company racked up nearly $2.3 billion in sales with a double-digit EBITDA, and almost all the growth was organic. Since then, White Cap has made many acquisitions, is probably closing in on $6 billion, and I bet the EBITDA continues to improve. Quite a legacy for John, who is retiring effective Jan. 28, 2024, from his position as CEO.
But it’s also a legacy for Alan Sollenberger, who has been second-in-command and John’s righthand person for the whole trip. Alan was CFO when I started, was promoted to COO and then president, and now the board has chosen him to succeed John. They couldn’t have made a better choice. And I say that as someone who probably argued with Alan more than anyone in my seven years there.
I argued with John, too. I remember once that my wife Penny and I had dinner with John and his wife, Cindy. John pointed at me and told Penny: “You know what I love about Ian? He’s more willing to disagree with me than anyone else on the senior team!” Honestly, I would bet Alan tied me for that honor because he’s very outspoken, too. But I like that the three of us argued like crazy over business issues but managed to do great things together anyway. It’s the sign of a great management team, and I was honored to contribute, in a small way, to White Cap’s success.
Absolutely no one who knows White Cap is surprised that Alan is succeeding John as CEO. While they have different styles, both of them have that crucial characteristic of knowing their strengths and weaknesses and surrounding themselves with leaders who can fill in the gaps. I don’t think White Cap will miss a beat due to the transition, and if Alan needs advice, John won’t be far away as he’s remaining on the Board of Directors while Alan is joining it.
White Cap employees focus intently on delivering exceptional customer service. Lots of distributors do that; the White Cap difference is the company’s determination to get senior executives into the field on a regular basis. John made sales calls, worked in branches, and rode in delivery trucks more than any CEO I’ve ever known. Alan and the rest of the leadership team is in the field a lot, too, and this behavior brings enormous benefits – senior executives know exactly what’s happening, know which corporate departments are responsive and helpful, and how well the company is performing in the eyes of customers.
I’ve always believed that a distributor’s brand is defined not by the marketing department but by how well it performs at the point where employees and customers interact: at the counter, on the phone, at training events, during sales calls, etc. Senior executives should monitor those touchpoints continuously but many of them don’t. White Cap does, and that drives performance and a culture of exceptional service that grows wallet share and market share.
I left White Cap six years ago, so I no longer know all of the players. But I know many of them, and it’s an exceptional group of leaders running a great company. I want to thank John for his leadership and support while I worked for him and wish him all the best as he moves towards what I know will be a very busy and well-deserved retirement. I want to congratulate Alan as he takes the reins; I’m excited to see what he and the team accomplish from here. I know it’ll be impressive.
A few years ago, when White Cap was spun out of HD Supply, the company hired Distribution Strategy Group to lead a branding exercise that included developing a new tagline. We came up with, “Building Trust on Every Job,” and that’s exactly what John made sure the company does – everyday. Alan and his team will continue that legacy and he’ll put his own imprint on the company he has helped lead so effectively for 14 years. I know it’ll be a fun ride for White Cap employees, suppliers and customers, and it’ll be fun to watch for me.
Ian Heller is the Founder and Chief Strategist for Distribution Strategy Group. He has more than 30 years of experience executing marketing and e-business strategy in the wholesale distribution industry, starting as a truck unloader at a Grainger branch while in college. He’s since held executive roles at GE Capital, Corporate Express, Newark Electronics and HD Supply. Ian has written and spoken extensively on the impact of digital disruption on distributors, and would love to start that conversation with you, your team or group. Reach out today at email@example.com.