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"The more resources we can bring to the table to offset what they've lost in their individual companies, the less pain they're going to be in, in the future."

 Editor’s note: With 2008 sales of $6.9 billion generated by an integrated network of more than 600 branches, 18 distribution centers, and multiple Web sites, Chicago-based W.W. Grainger Inc. is a leading supplier of safety and facilities maintenance products, serving businesses and institutions in the United States, Canada, Mexico, China, and Panama. Mary Beth Parker, the company's occupational health & safety marketing manager, says in addition to providing products, Grainger provides customers with technical assistance, training, and other resources such as free, on-the-job webinars and the company's new Occupational Health and Safety Catalog, a nearly 900-page publication arranged by OSHA standards and designed for compliance assistance. Customers seek such resources now more than ever, says Robb Kristopher, Grainger's director of strategic brand communications. Parker and Kristopher talked with the OH&S managing editor in an April 10, 2009, interview. Excerpts from the conversation follow:

OH&S: The scope and design of your new Occupational Health and Safety Catalog are impressive. The cover declares Grainger is "North America's largest supplier of safety products." From that vantage point, what trends are you seeing in today's safety industry?

Mary Beth Parker: Even prior to the recession, we were seeing a trend in the industry requiring more safety experts to be generalists instead of specialists. In years past, companies may have had separate positions focused on industrial hygiene, safety, ergonomics, security, and emergency preparedness. Those responsibilities are consolidating today. In some cases, one person has all those roles, and sometimes it's even someone outside of safety, such as HR, who has taken on the responsibility. This trend has led to customers relying on their distribution partners for more expertise, including compliance information, product application, best practices, and training. Over the years, we've heard from our customers that, really, the biggest thing they are struggling with is the issue of expertise, and so the more things we can do to help our customers understand the issues facing them and how to solve those problems, that's really what our goal is in this marketplace.

What impact have you seen from the economic recession?

Parker: Many companies are looking to trim costs in new ways. They are looking at areas such as maintenance, repair, and operating supplies—MRO—with a more strategic eye and consolidating vendors to drive down process costs. With safety, it can be a bit more challenging because you need to strike a balance of having the right products in stock while not wasting resources—money and space—or stocking too much inventory that may sit idle on the shelves. Now more than ever, businesses need to invest in the right product for the application in order to improve productivity, protect employees, and hold down costs associated with workplace accidents. In addition, employees need the appropriate training on how to use the equipment properly and how to maintain the proper level of stock.

For a couple of years now, we have had an inventory management program in place, and we've actually expanded our offering there to include doing first aid replenishment. We'll actually go in and manage a customer's first aid supplies and make sure they have what they need. If somebody gets injured, they're going to have the right equipment to do first aid immediately. It's the same thing with eyewash and other supplies that they're going to need.

But in the midst of these tough economic times, are you seeing companies' cutbacks affecting their ability to order even what they need?

Parker: Well, we know for a fact that because there are less people in the workforce, there's going to be less of a need for personal protective equipment, but what that does not take away from is the need to make sure they have the right equipment. As Grainger, our resources allow us to make sure that whoever is in their workplace is actually doing their job as efficiently as possible, because we have the suppliers that can go in and do an audit for them, for instance; they will go in and look at the gloves the customer is using in a particular situation and say, "Well, if you just switched over to this glove, you could do it a lot faster, and you could decrease any hand injuries that might be happening," or maybe it's an ergonomic issue that they might be dealing with. Regardless of what's happening as a result of the recession, we've got the supplier resources and other resources to make sure that they are doing their job as safely as possible. There is, as you know, a good return on investment from having the right safety product, not only in keeping workers safe, but in a lot of respects, in also keeping them productive. Safety pays.

Grainger works with tens of thousands of customers in different industries, in different businesses, and in different geographies, and by doing that, we're able to aggregate all the best practices that we know from working with these different key safety and health professionals, and we're able to bring that information to our customers.

Because the companies that buy the supplies are having to cut back, has Grainger itself had to cut back?

Robb Kristopher: Grainger has made a conscious decision to not cut back on our inventory levels or our customer-facing personnel because we recognize that in this tough time our customers need us now more than ever, and they're relying on us more. As Mary Beth mentioned regarding our inventory, we've actually doubled the size of our safety offering because customers have a need to have the appropriate inventory on hand, but they also need access to the other inventory, and if they're spending a lot of time and energy shopping around, trying to find different products that they may need, that's a lot of time that they could be spending on their core business.

So we've actually made investments in inventory and in service so that they can consolidate their spending and actually drive down costs and be more productive in this recessionary time. In this way, we actually become a more valued partner because we're able to help them become more efficient.

Parker: The more resources we can bring to the table to kind of offset what they've lost in their individual companies, the less pain they're going to be in, in the future.

Kristopher: It's a great way to build long-term relationships, too. If you're there for them in the tough times and in the good times, you can really earn their business and their trust.

Let's talk about the good times to come. Do you see indications of recovery, either internationally or domestically?

Parker: Honestly, we are not spending a lot of time thinking about the effects of the recession. As I said, we are really focusing our efforts, regardless, on making sure that the customer experience is the most relevant, making sure they have the resources and the information that they need to really mitigate risk and stay in business as much as possible as they are faced with having to cut costs and maintain their facilities in the leaner environment. The more Grainger can do to make sure they survive the recession as our customers, the more we're going to be successful later on.

I think some of the great things that are going to happen in the future [are centered] around the regulatory environment and the focus on safety that is going to happen as a result of the new Obama administration. I think the attention in recent years has been on compliance assistance, and that has almost made it easier for customers because they've had the resources from OSHA to help them understand what they've needed to do to stay in compliance. But if OSHA changes to be more focused on regulation and more focused on developing standards, that obviously is going to have an impact on our customers, which just leads back to the fact that they're going to need a lot more resources to help them stay in touch with what's happening in the marketplace. That Occupational Health and Safety Catalog is going to help them make sure that they're in compliance with OSHA standards—and that they're reducing the risks and actually decreasing their injury and illness rates, which is going to make them more profitable as a company.

It's an impressive resource. I like the star of "Dirty Jobs" pictured there on the cover.

Parker: That's our partnership with Mike Rowe. Mike has also kind of joined the cause with our customers. There's a lack of technical expertise out in the marketplace, and a lot of those positions are not being filled today. There have been a lot of people going to the technical schools, and so part of what we're doing with Mike Rowe is creating awareness of that group and hopefully helping people understand that being in facilities maintenance, being an engineer, is not a bad role to get into. It's a valued position.

We will be attending ASSE [June 28-30 in San Antonio] as an exhibitor, and we will definitely have those catalogs available. So if customers want to get a copy of it, all they need do is come to our booth, and we will be more than happy to let them have that resource.

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