Industrial Distribution magazine recently released its annual list of the largest suppliers to the industrial marketplace.

2010 was an interesting year for most of the industrial distribution space, as many struggled mightily to dust off the muck the recession left and move forward with their businesses still intact. Some of them did more than that, expanding fearlessly into new markets and attacking acquisition opportunities full-force. But for most, the mood was somewhat cautious, as evidenced by the many companies that either maintained last year’s numbers or grew in small, sustainable ways.

Economic Indicators
While the industrial marketplace has certainly come a long way since the 2008-2009 time period, caution dominates the discussion for some really good reasons. While manufacturing has expanded for the 26th consecutive month, the industry is still dealing with many conflicting stats. Nonetheless, says Bradley J. Holcomb, CPSM, C.P.M., Chair of the ISM Manufacturing Business Survey Committee, “We are still in growth mode with the debt crisis being resolved... and customer inventories are down.” In contrast, the effects of fluctuating stats, and the still-needling fear of the potential for a double dip recession, will likely hold businesses hostage. Likewise, until there is more clear resolution on key federal issues relating to taxation, health care, and energy policy, we’re likely to see some continued stagnation.

Critical Issues
One of the biggest issues seen in the market this past year, once again, has been a trend towards distributors attempting to help their customers get their arms around MRO spend and management. “Barnes Distribution ‘lives’ in this space and we can tell you manufacturers or facility managers can spend 50 percent of their time managing consumable MRO products, which is usually 10 percent or less of their spend,” Tom Fodell, president of Barnes Distribution told ID earlier this year. “Until we meet with the customer and explain the benefits of vendor managed inventory, it is difficult to differentiate ourselves from other MRO suppliers.”

For Ben Mondics, President & COO of Applied Industrial Technologies, without an understanding of this overall value proposition, the customer might misunderstand what the industry has to offer. “Today we aren’t just selling parts; we’re offering some of the best technical advice in the industry,” Mondics told Industrial Distribution. “In fact, we understand our customers’ problems and needs sometimes more clearly than the customers knows themselves.”

One of the other big issues facing the industry, says Grainger’s Jim Ryan, is the shortage in human capital, an issue that could hinder growth for distributors. “There is increased competition in attracting talent,” he says. This, coupled with an overall decline in the attractiveness of trade careers, has Ryan concerned that the industrial market will face a knowledge gap on all points of the supply chain—manufacturers included. “These roles offer more than a job,” Ryan explains. “They are well-paying, fulfilling career opportunities and are critical to the long term health of our infrastructure and business.”

Notes On The Report
This year’s Big 50 list serves as an accumulation of the top companies in this sector, from number one global industrial giant, Wolseley, all the way down to the number 50 company—JGB Enterprises of Liverpool, NY. There were several companies ID was unable to reach, most notably McMaster Carr. This notoriously tight-lipped company is estimated to have landed somewhere in the top 15.