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Mentors Can Be Great Keys to Success

It was 1979. As an industry rookie, I was attending my second annual NHRAW convention, having joined the family business at Brauer Supply Co. in St. Louis, MO, the year before. I was still feeling my way, both in my own company and in the association. I had the chance to meet seasoned executives from across the country and to take part in discussions about issues affecting the industry and the many member companies that would eventually, 20 years later, join with others from ARWI to form our present-day Heating, Air-conditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI).

Still feeling like a bit of an outsider, I decided to attend some of the committee meetings. I had a special interest in government regulation, so I walked into a meeting of the Government Relations Committee, where that group's chairperson David Gleason sat around a table with a number of like-minded people. They were talking heatedly about a couple of regulatory proposals which threatened to inundate small wholesalers with paperwork. Dave wasted no time in putting me to work, appointing me as vice chairperson and asking me to make the Committee's report to the convention for him.

He introduced me to the officers and many of his contemporaries in the association and helped make me feel that I was instantly a valued, contributing member of NHRAW. But it didn't stop there. Dave took considerable time to talk informally with me about my ideas and goals for my own company and sometimes just the bigger picture of life. He gave me his perspective as owner-president of Burns Supply in New York City and talked about how he had handled various situations I was just encountering in my own career. Later, as he became president of NHRAW, sold his company to a national wholesaler where he became national training director and then set up his own training and consulting company (Systematic Selling Inc.), he would bounce ideas off of my Midwestern ears to see “how it would play in Peoria.” I looked forward to each trade association gathering, where I would have the chance to sit down with my mentor Dave and share the excitement of new programs I was undertaking or unburden myself of some problem I was encountering. Dave, too, took pride in watching me move into industry leadership positions and helped me gain the backing of the association's “old guard” when we took the momentous but needed step of consolidating NHRAW and ARWI in 2001.

This informal mentoring relationship was one of the greatest things the trade association brought to me. It is not unique. I have talked to many of my contemporaries about similar supportive friendships that have helped them to grow and be successful in their careers. This is why the recent proposal of the Executive Development Committee of HARDI to consider a formalized mentoring program is so timely and needed. Not everyone is lucky enough to “fall into” such a relationship and not everyone can devote the time over years which an informal mentor-mentee relationship might entail. Following the lead of many companies and organizations that set up formal parameters, HARDI can provide a real service to its members through such a program. This is a logical outgrowth of HARDI's “Market Center Distribution” concept that calls for the association to help member companies sharpen their “core competencies.”

Here are some things to consider:

  1. Who could be mentors?

    Persons participating must be willing to devote a specified minimum amount of time. Perhaps this would entail an initial meeting over lunch at a convention followed by quarterly telephone conferences and a follow-up summation at the next convention.

  2. Who can be mentees?

    While the traditional model is for a senior person to mentor a junior manager (think Aristotle and Alexander the Great), age is not a factor. Someone who is seeking guidance in a given area can pair up with someone with expertise in that area. Clearly new distribution executives and those new to the association can benefit. Of course, it is important that the partners not be direct geographic competitors. Beyond that, the parties should have enough in common that they face similar challenges and opportunities, though different styles and backgrounds can provide the needed diversity of solutions which make the program valuable.

  3. What training will be needed?

    The Executive Development Committee can provide handout material and a brief orientation session for participants.

  4. Time frames?

    Formal programs have a beginning and an end, with a maximum length of one year (convention to convention). The parties may continue informal mentoring beyond that, if they wish.

  5. Agree upon goals up front and write them down.

    Ask a fundamental question: What do the parties expect from each other?

  6. Confidentiality is paramount.

    The parties must feel free to confide in each other. This is another reason why the pair must not be competitors or operating in the same geographic market.

  7. The association should give recognition to those mentors who give of their time and effort.

    If the parties felt it appropriate, the program could include a visit, or brief internship, at the mentor's company to observe how another company approaches the challenges of 21st-century distribution. Perhaps exchanges of junior-level executives/managers for short assignments between noncompeting wholesalers would be beneficial.

HARDI, as the sponsoring association of the program, will need to assign a program coordinator from its staff who will take applications from those seeking a mentor, establish training meetings, assign partners, check on continued progress under the mentoring agreements and intervene to reassign people if the relationships are not proceeding according to plan. Responsibility must flow to the Executive Development Committee or other specified entity in the association to monitor the continued growth of the program.

Russ Geary, of Geary Pacific Supply, serves as chairperson of the Executive Development Committee. He recollects the guiding influence of the late Leo Walsh of Columbus Temperature Control and Jim McNeil of Val Temp Sales, both former association presidents, who helped him as they initiated the Committee. Russ used these two senior execs as “sounding boards” for his ideas. “I believe a formal mentoring program is essential to our association,” said Geary.

This year's HARDI President Mark Faessler of Progress Supply Inc., said that the association's Staff Director Don Frendberg had “modeled” a good mentoring relationship to him as Frendberg shared what has worked well over previous years in the association. It helped bring home to Faessler the value of a good mentoring relationship, which he hopes the new program will provide for interested HARDI members.

Dave Gleason agrees. He says, “Today I feel blessed that I am able to mentor as part of my consulting business.”

Mentoring is not about teaching. It is a relationship designed for both parties to develop their careers and define their goals and aspirations. The person doing the mentoring should benefit from feedback and idea-sharing just as the “protégé or mentee” will benefit from guidance. Discussions can help both parties to identify strategic objectives for their careers and/or companies. This is not about ego, and the mentor should refrain from dominating the conversation with “war stories” about past accomplishments.

Listening is always the key — acting as a sounding board for the person to develop his or her own ideas.

While informal mentoring relationships will continue to develop between HARDI members, the institution of a formal program will make these benefits available to all members who want to get started on this road. It is at the heart of what an association like HARDI can provide. Why not you? Why not now?


Jim Truesdell is president of St. Louis-based Brauer Supply Co. He was president of NHRAW and served as transitional president of HARDI after co-chairing the consolidation committee that formed the new association. Jim is also the author of HARDI's publication Market Center Distribution: What It Means; What It Takes. Contact him at 314/534-7150 or [email protected].

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