Person of the Year - David Nicholson

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David NicholsonThere's a reason why David Nicholson, this year's Counselor Person of the Year and president of Top 40 supplier Polyconcept North America (PCNA), has been described as Draper-esque. Not since Mad Men's guarded creative genius first sashayed across TV screens have we witnessed such an enigma wrapped in a mystery. No fewer than five heads of Top 40 distributor companies – all of whom do business with PCNA and have spent time with Nicholson socially – claim not to know what he's really like.

Well, here's what we do know: Without Nicholson, PCNA would not be looked to by clients and competitors alike as the gold standard of sales, service and innovation. "David's leadership style is best described as an even-keel demeanor backed by a rational approach to issues and opportunities," says Craig Callaway, CEO of eCompanyStore (asi/185782). "In the south, we would say he is 'buttoned-up,' but don't let that mild-mannered persona fool you – on the golf course he is a fierce competitor."

David Nicholson started at Pittsburgh-based Leed's Business Accessories 20 years ago as an import specialist, handling product sourcing and development. He worked his way through the management ranks of Leed's and as it was acquired by one of the largest global suppliers, Polyconcept, in 2005, became a member of the executive management team. Now, at the age of 43, he is responsible for the company's entire North American business.

"David is unflappable as a leader and believe me, I've tried to get him rattled a few times in our 20-year history," says Michael Bernstein, CEO and chairman of the board of Polyconcept. "He brings a calm and steady force to bear on the organization and instills a great deal of confidence in the teams around him. David's clear and consistent leadership has kept PCNA on a very even keel, in spite of the economic turbulence or other issues that inevitably face any leader."

With Nicholson at the helm, PCNA has won an unprecedented number of Counselor Distributor Choice awards (more than five a year for the past seven years) for service and product development and saw sales grow 5.1% from 2011 to 2012, making it a $443 million entity.

"David is very low-key, but he's managed the explosive growth of one of the pre-eminent companies in the industry," says Craig Nadel, president of Counselor Top 40 distributor Jack Nadel International (asi/279600). "There's no doubt that PCNA is very good at innovating and trying new things, like getting into apparel with Trimark. Without question, under David's leadership, they do drive the industry."

The company's position as a market leader is due to a myriad of factors, the first of which is its willingness to take risks, like its foray into apparel. Through its acquisition of Trimark (asi/92122) in 2011, this traditional hard-goods supplier is branching out and creating a potential one-size-really-does-fit-all model for other suppliers to try to follow.

"Now that Trimark is part of the PCNA group, we're fully getting our foothold into the apparel space, and that was certainly a key part of the growth," Nicholson says. "Interestingly, what was a historically big drive in 2010 and 2011 was Bullet. But Bullet didn't grow in 2012, and what was strategically important was that we had some other areas of business – Leed's and JournalBooks being key parts of that – that were able to pick up and continue to maintain growth."

And as with any company that grows through acquisition, that growth can often come with challenges, like the implementation of a new ERP system at Bullet in 2012. "Bullet is doing much better from a service and fulfillment standpoint now that they have completed two major things," Nicholson says. "One was the new ERP system; the second was to move into the new facility. The company is performing far better than they ever have, and we're now seeing a significant jump in their business."

Nicholson points to Bullet's ERP issues as a mistake he's learned from during his tenure with PCNA. "If I look back at what happened last year with Bullet, I would say I and my team were slow to recognize the depth of the problem," he says candidly. "And I think that's certainly a good example where I felt my leadership wasn't as strong as it could've been. That's one thing I would've done differently – I should've been more transparent in our communication. Customers deserve to know when something isn't working."

Shunning the Status Quo

"We have this expression here at PCNA, when we start talking about last year's results or something we've done well: 'Yeah, that was great, but what's next? It's not the most stress-free environment to work in, but it keeps pushing us ahead," Nicholson says, as he discusses a new, paradigm-shifting PCNA project.

"We just started, a year ago, a major technology initiative," Nicholson says. "This will be across all of PCNA and will be completely rebuilding a new platform for our e-commerce and digital experience – everything from our website to all of the electronic tools that we provide. It's something I think is extremely important for our future and absolutely critical to PCNA's strategy, because it will be the first time we have a true, cross-PCNA platform for our customers to access our products. So today, if a customer wants to look at a Bullet product, they have to go to the Bullet site, and to Leed's and JournalBooks… soon, it will all be integrated."

Because here's the thing, Nicholson maintains: The distributors they're thinking about as they're building this aren't today's distributors – it's the next generation. "We pulled out a completely separate team made up of a younger group and actually a number of people who were not traditionally IT but were more creative. We really needed to think differently," he says.

To be sure, adaptability is a trait Nicholson considers to be a crucial element to the company's future success. "We talk a lot about the need for change and understand that if we want to continue to stay a market leader, we'll have to adapt and push into some new areas which really aren't comfortable for us," he says. "Time will tell how well we do at it, but at least historically I think we've been pretty good at not assuming that our success will continue just by doing a lot of the same things."

And what does he think of the comparisons to Don Draper, Mad Men's mysterious cipher? He chuckles. "As long as the company continues to perform in a way that serves our clients well, I'm OK with that." – MB