Las Vegas — Nationwide's biannual meeting and convention, which opened here Sunday at Caesar's Palace, is a bittersweet affair as the industry's biggest buying group bids farewell to a fallen leader and looks ahead to a challenging though promising future.
The PrimeTime! convention kicked off with a moving tribute to president and group co-founder Lee Guttman, 65, who died suddenly of a heart attack two weeks prior to the show.
Senior management scrambled to fill holes in the itinerary where Guttman was to deliver his traditional pep rally and rant against complacency in the face of big box competition, and stressed the status quo in calming dealer and vendor concerns over succession.
'Lee knew that success comes from trust, relationships and making everyone win,' director Ed Kelly assured attendees, 'and we will lead using the same principles.'
Under the succession plan, which had been in the works for a year, Kelly, a fellow co-founder, has assumed the additional title of interim president.
In addition, director Les Kirk was named chief financial officer, and director Robert Weisner will oversee the three-person merchandising team, which had been led by Guttman.
Kelly, whose term as interim president is open-ended, compared his role to that of senior partner in a law firm now that Guttman is gone.
'As you develop people and work your plan, at some point someone will replace me,' he told TWICE .
The group — which has been renamed Nationwide Marketing Group from Nationwide Television & Appliance Associates to better reflect its myriad member services — also plans to expand the merchandising team and other areas where needed.
'We can't fill Lee's shoes; he was a unique and special person,' Kelly said.
'But we're thankful for the vendor and member support, and are blessed that the succession plan was in place.'
Also working in Nationwide's favor is its advanced planning, which will carry the group through the transitional period.
'We're so far out in our planning, things are already in motion,' Kelly explained.
Member dealers, many of whom first learned of Guttman's death at the meeting, were shocked and mournful over his passing, but were also confident that the group was bigger than any one individual.
'You're always uncertain about change, but the group's leadership is strong, and the merchandising and vendor contacts were handled by many people on staff,' observed Steve Bell of Archer Home Center in Adel, Iowa.
'I will miss Lee personally, and his unique charisma, but I don't think it will have a big impact on the group as a whole. The group will stay the course.'
Kelly noted that management's first goal, following Guttman's funeral, was to assure that the convention would go forward. 'Once we get back,' he noted, 'we will keep moving on with our plans.'
Those plans include a beefed up marketing effort for the fourth quarter that will encompass extended terms and TV spots and holiday promotions featuring New Age music and marketing group Mannheim Steamroller, plus a national rollout of the group's fledgling e-commerce site BrandsDirect.com (www.BrandsDirect.com).
The site, which has been under development for about 30 months, 'was a bigger project than I anticipated,' Kelly conceded.
But now that it's fully operational, and supported by a newly built call center in Winston-Salem, N.C., where Nationwide maintains executive offices, BrandsDirect will be able to 'drive business back to the local retailer' via ZIP CODE-based referrals, to serve as an important adjunct to sales.
Kelly's other overarching goal is to encourage dealers to trade up their assortments and expand their accessories offerings in order to boost their average tickets.
'Dealers working off commodity goods are going up against the big boys,' he said. 'I ask them, 'Are you selling accessories? Because you could double your bottom line if you work it and are serious about it, like the warranty business.''