How to Start a Wholesale Distribution Business

How to Start a Wholesale Distribution Business
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Editor's note: This article was excerpted from our Wholesale Business Distribution start-up guide, available from Entrepreneur Bookstore.

So you want to start a wholesale distributorship. Whether you're currently a white-collar professional, a manager worried about being downsized, or bored with your current job, this may be the right business for you. Much like the merchant traders of the 18th century, you'll be trading goods for profit. And while the romantic notion of standing on a dock in the dead of night haggling over a tea shipment may be a bit far-fetched, the modern-day wholesale distributor evolved from those hardy traders who bought and sold goods hundreds of years ago.

The Distributor's Role

As you probably know, manufacturers produce products and retailers sell them to end users. A can of motor oil, for example, is manufactured and packaged, then sold to automobile owners through retail outlets and/or repair shops. In between, however, there are a few key operators-also known as distributors-that serve to move the product from manufacturer to market. Some are retail distributors, the kind that sell directly to consumers (end users). Others are known as merchant wholesale distributors; they buy products from the manufacturer or other source, then move them from their warehouses to companies that either want to resell the products to end users or use them in their own operations.

According to U.S. Industry and Trade Outlook, published by The McGraw-Hill Companies and the U.S. Department of Commerce/International Trade Administration, wholesale trade includes establishments that sell products to retailers, merchants, contractors and/or industrial, institutional and commercial users. Wholesale distribution firms, which sell both durable goods (furniture, office equipment, industrial supplies and other goods that can be used repeatedly) and nondurable goods (printing and writing paper, groceries, chemicals and periodicals), don't sell to ultimate household consumers.

Three types of operations can perform the functions of wholesale trade: wholesale distributors; manufacturers' sales branches and offices; and agents, brokers and commission agents. As a wholesale distributor, you will probably run an independently owned and operated firm that buys and sells products of which you have taken ownership. Generally, such operations are run from one or more warehouses where inventory goods are received and later shipped to customers.

Put simply, as the owner of a wholesale distributorship, you will be buying goods to sell at a profit, much like a retailer would. The only difference is that you'll be working in a business-to-business realm by selling to retail companies and other wholesale firms like your own, and not to the buying public. This is, however, somewhat of a traditional definition. For example, companies like Sam's Club and BJ's Warehouse have been using warehouse membership clubs, where consumers are able to buy at what appear to be wholesale prices, for some time now, thus blurring the lines. However, the traditional wholesale distributor is still the one who buys "from the source" and sells to a reseller.

Getting Into the Game
Today, total U.S. wholesale distributor sales are approximately $3.2 trillion. Since 1987, wholesale distributors' share of U.S. private industry gross domestic product (GDP) has remained steady at 7 percent, with segments ranging from grocery and food-service distributors (which make up 13 percent of the total, or $424.7 billion in revenues) to furniture and home furnishings wholesalers (comprising 2 percent of the total, or $48.7 billion in revenues). That's a big chunk of change, and one that you can tap into.

The field of wholesale distribution is a true buying and selling game-one that requires good negotiation skills, a nose for sniffing out the next "hot" item in your particular category, and keen salesmanship. The idea is to buy the product at a low price, then make a profit by tacking on a dollar amount that still makes the deal attractive to your customer.

Experts agree that to succeed in the wholesale distribution business, an individual should possess a varied job background. Most experts feel a sales background is necessary, as are the "people skills" that go with being an outside salesperson who hits the streets and/or picks up the phone and goes on a cold-calling spree to search for new customers.

In addition to sales skills, the owner of a new wholesale distribution company will need the operational skills necessary for running such a company. For example, finance and business management skills and experience are necessary, as is the ability to handle the "back end" (those activities that go on behind the scenes, like warehouse setup and organization, shipping and receiving, customer service, etc.). Of course, these back-end functions can also be handled by employees with experience in these areas if your budget allows.

"Operating very efficiently and turning your inventory over quickly are the keys to making money," says Adam Fein, president of Pembroke Consulting Inc., a Philadelphia strategic consulting firm. "It's a service business that deals with business customers, as opposed to general consumers. The startup entrepreneur must be able to understand customer needs and learn how to serve them well."

According to Fein, hundreds of new wholesale distribution businesses are started every year, typically by ex-salespeople from larger distributors who break out on their own with a few clients in tow. "Whether they can grow the firm and really become a long-term entity is the much more difficult guess," says Fein. "Success in wholesale distribution involves moving from a customer service/sales orientation to the operational process of managing a very complex business."

Setting Up Shop
When it comes to setting up shop, your needs will vary according to what type of product you choose to specialize in. Someone could conceivably run a successful wholesale distribution business from their basement, but storage needs would eventually hamper the company's success. "If you're running a distribution company from home, then you're much more of a broker than a distributor," says Fein, noting that while a distributor takes title and legal ownership of the products, a broker simply facilitates the transfer of products. "However, through the use of the internet, there are some very interesting alternatives to becoming a distributor [who takes] physical possession of the product."

According to Fein, wholesale distribution companies are frequently started in areas where land is not too expensive and where buying or renting warehouse space is affordable. "Generally, wholesale distributors are not located in downtown shopping areas, but off the beaten path," says Fein. "If, for example, you're serving building or electrical contractors, you'll need to choose a location in close proximity to them in order to be accessible as they go about their jobs."

State of the Industry
Upon opening the doors of your wholesale distribution business, you will certainly find yourself in good company. To date, there are approximately 300,000 distributors in the United States, representing $3.2 trillion in annual revenues. Wholesale distribution contributes 7 percent to the value of the nation's private industry GDP, and most distribution channels are still highly fragmented and comprise many small, privately held companies. "My research shows that there are only 2,000 distributors in the United States with revenues greater than $100 million," comments Fein.

And that's not all: Every year, U.S. retail cash registers and online merchants ring up about $3.6 trillion in sales, and of that, about a quarter comes from general merchandise, apparel and furniture sales (GAF). This is a positive for wholesale distributors, who rely heavily on retailers as customers. To measure the scope of GAF, try to imagine every consumer item sold, then remove the cars, building materials and food. The rest, including computers, clothing, sports equipment and other items, fall into the GAF total. Such goods come directly from manufacturers or through wholesalers and brokers. Then they are sold in department, high-volume and specialty stores-all of which will make up your client base once you open the doors of your wholesale distribution firm.

All this is good news for the startup entrepreneur looking to launch a wholesale distribution company. However, there are a few dangers that you should be aware of. For starters, consolidation is rampant in this industry. Some sectors are contracting more quickly than others. For example, pharmaceutical wholesaling has consolidated more than just about any other sector, according to Fein. Since 1975, mergers and acquisitions have reduced the number of U.S. companies in that sector from 200 to about 50. And the largest four companies control more than 80 percent of the distribution market.

To combat the consolidation trend, many independent distributors are turning to the specialty market. "Many entrepreneurs are finding success by picking up the golden crumbs that are left on the table by the national companies," Fein says. "As distribution has evolved from a local to a regional to a national business, the national companies [can't or don't want to] cost-effectively service certain types of customers. Often, small customers get left behind or are just not [profitable] for the large distributors to serve."

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