Janitorial buying groups are no new concept to the industry. These organizations unite independent distributors into one large organization to give them buying power, discounted pricing and value-added services such as marketing materials and access to national accounts. But one of the biggest and most popular benefits for distributor members continues to be the annual conferences.

While each group may have its unique way of operating, they also have many things in common. Whether through one-on-one meetings or traditional trade show formats, bringing distributors and suppliers together in a focused but fun environment is each group’s goal. During the events, distributors have the opportunity to network with colleagues and suppliers, learn about the latest industry trends, make product purchasing deals and, of course, relax and have some fun with friends.

Industry Networking

The networking opportunities available at buying group conferences are very different than those of standard industry trade shows.

“At a traditional trade show you meet with whomever greets you at the booth,” says Mark Bozich, president of NISSCO, Dulles, Va., who adds that many of those events are primarily for gathering information and business cards.

At janitorial buying groups’ annual conferences, however, final decision-makers at distribution companies are able to meet with national supplier decision-makers. A buying group conference is a different animal altogether, says Bozich; it is three days of executive-only meetings.

“Where else, if you are a distributor, can you have these personal face-to-face meetings with so many national suppliers without any concern of disruption,” asks Zac Haines, executive director of DPA Buying Group, Cincinnati.

Meeting with suppliers at a distributor’s place of business is possible, but not always the most efficient for both sides. Buying group events provide members and suppliers an opportunity to engage each other in a different environment, without the typical distractions an office brings, says Jim Keough, vice-president of marketing at Triple S, Billerica, Mass.

While some groups ensure every supplier meets with every distributor at the event, others operate on a reservation system, and coordinate meetings based on requests.

“We try to engage the members and suppliers that want to be together, and then have the trade show format to walk the floor and see all the different offerings suppliers have,” says Keough.  

NISSCO works with both distributors and suppliers before the show to prepare for the one-on-one planned sessions, which are designed to generate business, says Bozich.

At a buying group’s annual meeting, a lot of work can be done in a short time, and this is a time to get resolution on an issue or discuss something with someone higher up in the sales organization, says Mike Nelson, vice-president of marketing for Pro-Link, Canton, Mass.  

“Networking ranks right up there with food in terms of things distributors like,” Nelson says jokingly. “Distributors can share best practices, and get feedback without fear of giving away secrets.”

Networking also gives distributors the opportunity to bring concerns and needs to the presidents and vice presidents of sales for the supplier companies.

“This is a time to discuss needs, or a certain situation that requires more communication,” says Haines. “This is a time for the manufacturer to try and get your business, and also work with you to fit your customer’s needs.”

The supplier also has the ability to tell their distributors of any timely promotions or show specials. Incentives in the form of cash prizes may even be offered for distributors that place the most and largest volume of orders.  

Educational Benefits

Though many distributors see networking as the main benefit of their janitorial buying group’s annual conference, others are excited about the variety of educational opportunities available to them.

Each of the buying groups brings in keynote speakers and offers break-out sessions to its attendees. Topics should be relevant to a distributor’s day-to-day business, says Keough.

Popular subjects include industry trends, selling tips and green. Many events also have distributors share real-world examples during panel discussions.

Training and verification is vital to the success of all independent distributors, especially with recent certification programs such as ISSA’s Cleaning Industry Management Standard (CIMS) and CIMS I.C.E., says Bozich.
Side sessions provide hands-on opportunities to discuss current business concerns and learn new ways to approach potential problems.

For example, after attending a roundtable discussion at a recent DPA event, one distributor learned the benefit of passing a freight charge on to his customers, and “ended up saving a great deal of money just by talking to other distributors,” explains Haines.

For buying groups that have product lines, this is a prime time to debut new items or share updates with distributors.

“Once you start to have your own brand of product, you have to back that up with training, literature, etc.,” Nelson says.

Many times a high percentage of a distributor’s purchasing is done at the annual meeting, says Nelson. In contrast, most distributors don’t attend larger industry trade shows to sign product order forms.

Social Fun

All buying group leaders interviewed for this article agree that a large attraction for distributors is the social aspect of these conferences. This can be setting up lunch or dinner meetings or planned social gatherings, everything from golf outings to events at aquariums, race tracks and other local attractions.

“A big component of our meeting is recreational activities,” says Keough. “We feel it’s important to build business relationships.”

Many members bring their spouses and families, and either extend the trip or arrive early to spend additional time with their friends.

“It’s a very fraternal organization,” says Nelson.

All buying group executives say that the percentage of members in attendance at the annual meetings and conferences is very high.

Many of the distributor businesses are family-owned and operated themselves, and have seen generations pass at the helm. Independent distributors are the embodiment of the American entrepreneur, and have needs that extend beyond application to things like marketing, distribution, field support and more, says Bozich.

“There is an absolute wealth of knowledge among our members; that’s where the power is,” says Haines. “They can get together and share collective wisdom. They have been through the battles and experienced the ups and downs of the industry. Not only can they learn from each other, but there’s a real friendship in our group.”

Haines adds that all treat each other with respect, are able to pick up where they left off the year before, and continue to build what he has seen to be long-lasting relationships.

Jan/san distributors face a variety of difficult challenges in the day-to-day operations of running a business. But many take solace in the fact that they have a strong partner in their janitorial buying groups. Through annual meetings and trade shows, distributors have opportunities to build better business practices, enjoy camaraderie with industry colleagues and keep abreast of up-and-coming trends.   

Jennifer Bradley is a freelance writer based in East Troy, Wis.