Tribute customer Alex Wheelock of Connector Specialists Inc. was featured in a recent article in Industrial Distribution on future leaders in Industrial Distribution. We've excerpted the article here.
By Joe Nowlan
Associate Editor, Industrial Distribution
Industrial Distribution's annual look at some promising young distribution leaders focuses on four individuals who, with one exception, didn't exactly plan their professional lives with industrial distribution in mind.
Pre-distribution careers in this year's group include a TV sports anchor, an Internet start-up owner and an (almost) school teacher. All four, though, retain the enthusiasm and passion of a newly minted college graduate for their work—despite being steeped in the industry for many years now.
This enthusiasm is not unusual, and may even be essential for successful distributors, says Don Envick, professor of industrial distribution at the University of Nebraska-Kearney. “[Successful distribution professionals] keep their own morale up,” Envick points out. “So they keep themselves and their staff jacked up.”
The four executives profiled this year also display an ongoing curiosity and eagerness for acquiring new skills. “They are constantly learning,” Envick agrees. “They easily adapt and reshape themselves to the new realities.”
Another trait young executives must possess: The ability to use their knowledge to move into new areas. “They are risk-takers, for sure,” Envick says. “Being born into an ambiguous and uncertain world, they're actually comfortable winging it…. [But] they hold themselves personally accountable for outcomes.”
Connector Specialists Inc., St. Rose, La.
Alex Wheelock, Vice President of Connector Specialists Inc., can tell stories of the time he threw passes to Hall of Famer Jerry Rice. He can also tell you what it's like to be on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. In a previous career, the 31-year-old Wheelock was a weekend TV sports anchor after graduating with a bachelor's degree in broadcast communications from Mississippi State University.
A life-long sports fan, it seemed like the ideal job. At first. But the combination of low pay and crazy hours made Wheelock think about another career. At one point, sports itself became more work and less fun.
“The hours were driving me nuts,” he says, referring to the mostly weekend and late-night demands. “I'd get home at night and the last thing I'd want to do was turn on yet another game. Eventually, watching sports became work, like any other job.” He also evaluated his career path. “I didn't feel I was making anyone's life better,” he adds.
Wheelock grew up in the New Orleans area, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. His family was close friends with Edward Sutton and his family, founder of Connector Specialists. Based in St. Rose, La., Connector Specialists is a full-line Parker Fluid connector and automation house, Wheelock explains.
While Wheelock respected the company and Sutton's accomplishments, he didn't see it as a career. But as the appeal of being a sports reporter faded, he began to revise his viewpoint. He'd always had an informal standing offer to work at Connector Specialists and decided to give it a try.
“So I gave in and decided to see what the business was like,” Wheelock says. “I wasn't there for three months before I fell in love with [it]. I've been enjoying it ever since.
“Our motto is 'Your Solutions Partner.' From day one, that was the attraction. Even today, with a lot of my focus on operations and sales issues, the driving motivation is how we can be viewed as not just a vendor to our customers, but as a trusted solutions adviser and partner.”
The vast majority of his customers work in oil and gas exploration, Wheelock says. But neither he nor the company worries about putting too many eggs in that one industry's basket.
“We're kind of unique in that 80 to 85 percent of our business is in oil and gas,” he says. “We've been putting together record months because of what's going on in oil and gas. Much of what we do is in offshore drilling. Those dollars were invested long ago and they don't tend to react to the price fluctuations of the barrel price of oil the way land drilling does.”
Drilling into 6,000 feet of water, offshore oil rigs are expensive propositions, both because of the costs of the parts and machinery as well as insurance costs and other liabilities. “When you're talking about $500,000 a day just to stay up and running, you can't stop because of what they refer to as a 'blip in the radar' with oil prices,” Wheelock says.
Wheelock has stood on the rigs and it left a vivid impression. “To see one, to go out and actually see one of these deep-water, semi-submersible rigs is amazing,” he says. Sutton was among those whom Wheelock considers a mentor in his career. Sutton passed away six years ago and his wife, Joanne Sutton, continues to run Connector Specialists.
“She has always been a mentor to me, too,” he says. “Bill Eaton [former vice president of distribution at Connector Specialists], who was at Parker, was someone I'd turn to for advice and support. He's retired but I still call him sometimes.”
And while he may not have been an actual influence on his career, Wheelock does have that Jerry Rice story. During his sports reporting days, he was the weekend sports anchor and weekday sports reporter at WXVT, a CBS affiliate in Greenville, Miss.
Rice, considered by most football observers to have been the greatest receiver of all time, has family in the Greenville area. “He just happened to be in town visiting and I caught up with him at a high school track and we did a feature with him,” he recalls. “So I got to throw him some passes.”
Rice became a Hall of Fame player in large part because of his remarkable level of focus and motivation. It is a motivation that Wheelock tries to apply to his work in distribution. “The motivation is how we can help the customer better than our competition,” he says.