ORLANDO, FLA. — Contractors learned about building sustainable, green products and technologies, and economic and business challenges during seminars and networking sessions at Grainger’s 2010 Total MRO Solutions National Customer Show here in January. Contractors also had the opportunity to visit Grainger suppliers during the trade show to learn about programs, services and products available through Grainger.
The event opened with an address by James T. Ryan, chairman, president and CEO of Grainger, and presentations about the economy by guest speakers Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist, and David Manthey, a senior analyst at Baird, a wealth management, capital markets, asset management and private equity firm.
Both Gault and Manthey spoke about the U.S. economic forecast and what can be expected this year. Gault and Manthey told attendees to expect the economic recovery to be subdued. Gault said manufacturing indicators are improving and the inventory-to-sales ratio is now approaching normal levels. But despite this positive news, Gault said construction would continue to lag in 2010 since there is no demand for more retail and office space since the construction boom, and the worst sector at this time is non-residential construction.
When Ryan spoke, he noted how companies are looking to Grainger to help them reduce the cost of maintaining and operating their facilities, and how sustainability and the construction trades can play a key role in economic recovery.
“For the economy in general, skilled labor and the trades can be economic drivers,” said Ryan. “Not enough people are thinking about the trades as a viable career option. Our vision is to create an environment that makes the training and advancement of the skilled trades a priority.”
Since 2006, Grainger and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) have worked to provide more students access to skilled-trades jobs and technical education.
Ryan also noted sustainability is an important issue that Grainger customers are looking for help with.
In order to offer more green services and products, Grainger is focusing on E-commerce and specialty catalogs, including a green product catalog, featuring approximately 5,000 products.
“E-commerce is driving sustainable interest,” explained Michael A. Pulick, president of Grainger U.S. “People are starting to understand the resources they use for their business. Our best customers want both a cost savings and a good feeling for using sustainable products.
“We are faced with the same sustainability issues as our customers,” added Pulick. “Our focus has been on products and showcasing those products. We continue to identify ways to help our customers achieve their sustainability goals.”
Contractors attending the Green Facilities seminar learned about present and future sustainable building plans for the Scottsdale Unified School District in Arizona.
R.C. Lawler, manager of consulting services at Grainger,reviewed the economic, environmental and social benefits of building green and its return on investment — greening a facility can improve occupant comfort, increase efficiencies and stretch operating budgets.
The seminar also focused on energy, waste, air and water reduction being interrelated, thus, changes in any of these areas can provide economic, environmental and social benefits. It was emphasized that even simple changes in process and investment in sustainable products can help green facilities and maintain, repair and operate a business at a lower incremental cost.
“Energy is the largest opportunity as it accounts for 79% of [Scottsdale schools] $7 million utility budget,” said Lawler. “Green schools use 50% less energy and two projects in the school district use solar. The results of these solar projects are still coming in, but so far results are positive, and the district is looking into doing more solar projects.”
During a networking session for contractors, participants shared business challenges faced in 2009 and what challenges they are facing this year.
Rebecca Jenkins,contracts manager of national agreements at Emcor Group Inc., Fort Wayne, Ind., and John Baker, vice president of Suter Services, a residential, commercial and industrial HVAC company in Sioux City, Iowa, opened the session by sharing challenges they continue to face.
“Industry will be flat through 2010, and though some markets are seeing a slow uptick, the demand for commercial, residential construction is still lagging,” said Jenkins. “Company diversification has been very helpful to get through the down time.”
Finding out how service trucks are dispatched and how much inventory is stocked in the warehouse and on the truck are just a few of the ways contractors can examine how their business functions and figure out ways to cut overhead, according to Jenkins.
Lack of qualified trade professionals was another concern contractors discussed during the session.
“The issue is it’s hard to find qualified labor,” explained Baker. “The talent pool has shrunk. I talk to high schools about this, but counselors are only pushing four year colleges.”
Baker told contractors about the program Suter University, created by Suter Services to train its technicians. Suter Services worked with Western Iowa Tech Community College to create Train-the-Trainer, one aspect of the program. The college worked with the company’s senior technicians to develop a curriculum focused on teaching and training skills. The entire program is more than 600 hours and takes employees approximately 30 months to complete.
Courses are taught in a traditional classroom and online format with on-the-job learning, focusing on advanced HVACR principles to educate technicians on residential, commercial and refrigeration equipment, and energy management systems. Technicians also learn soft skills by taking courses in customer service and interpersonal communications.
According to Baker, the program is successful for a number of reasons: it helps increase the knowledge, skills and abilities of company technicians, and it’s very cost effective, helping the company develop employees in a timely and consistent manner.
“Consistency amongst our technicians is a crucial piece to building a strong customer base and a profitable service department,” said Baker. “The aspect of the program that I am very proud of is that this program is recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor as a certified training program.”
Other topics discussed during the session were healthcare costs for employees, migrating to a specialty area to diversify business and increase sales, and pursuing the government sector and the solar business.
“The contractor networking session was educational because in those types of forums I always learn something from another contractor that may help our business and this session was no different,” said Baker.
Throughout the three-day event, the Grainger tradeshow showcased more than 60 suppliers featuring sustainable products.
According to John McDermott, Grainger’s senior director of business issues, the event gives contractors the opportunity to see products in person after participating in networking sessions and peer-to-peer discussions about best practices.
“This gives customers an opportunity to talk to others in a session and understand their own issues are not unique — they are common,” said McDermott. “Then the customers can look for a solution at the trade show.”
Grainger’s Web site was showcased at the company’s sustainability booth. On the Web site, customers can search green products and filter them by brand and other specifics. Thousands of green products are available online at this time, and Grainger’s green product catalog will be available this May, featuring approximately 5,000green products. On the Web site, there is also a rebate finder, so customers can search for state specific rebates.
“Grainger has solutions, and is prepared to give customers what their customers are asking for,” said Jeff Rehm, Grainger’s sustainability manager. “The Web site makes it easier to find green products.”
Grainger has been a member of the U.S. Green Building Council since 2007 and is an Energy Star and WaterSense partner. The company also partners with a variety of companies, including American Standard, Fluke, Bradley and Sloan, among others, that offer training and audits to help green facilities across the U.S.