Inventory Manager, Van Meter Inc.
By Joe Nowlan
By his own admission, Kevin Foht's knowledge of the electrical industry was pretty minimal going into it.
"I really didn't know a lot about it. My path to the electrical distribution world wasn't as direct as it was for some," he said.
His initial career couldn't have been further removed from electrical. Kevin started out as a respiratory therapist. Why respiratory therapy?
"My wife is a nurse. We were dating when I decided to go into that. As I was talking to her and learning more about the medical field I found out more about respiratory therapy," Kevin explained. "I got more and more interested in it and decided to give that a try. It is something I still love. I don't practice anymore. It is one of those things that at the time I was interested in."
Kevin went back to school at Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He majored in business with a minor in finance. A classmate there worked at Van Meter as a pricing manager.
"We did a project and worked well together. He basically asked if I would have any interest in coming to work for Van Meter. After he talked to me about Van Meter and its culture, I could tell his passion for what he did and how he enjoyed working here," Kevin said. "That's what got me here to this point. I applied for the position and have loved it ever since."
Kevin admits that his was a fairly unusual if not radical career change, from respiratory therapy to electrical distribution. When he started at Van Meter he was 27 years old.
At Van Meter, he learned the business from the inside out. He started as a pricing analyst on national accounts, he said, before moving to branch inventory.
"We work on the hub and spoke model of distribution. They wanted to create a role here for somebody who would help manage inventory levels throughout all of our branches. That was the role I took next," Kevin explained.
It turned out to be an invaluable learning experience.
"I really learned a lot about the business," he said. "You are dealing with vendors. You are dealing with inventory settings and understanding how our inventory distribution happens. I was able to build a lot of relationships with our sales team members outside of Cedar Rapids. That really helped me to grow."
Kevin and his wife Laurel have three children: Makayla, who is nine years old; Isaac, who is five; and Jada, who is two.
"I have coached softball and baseball. My daughter is on a traveling team now and I have coached her for about three years of softball. This is my son's first year of baseball. I try to coach whatever sports my kids are in," Kevin said.
What additional spare time he has is devoted to some home repair projects.
"I just got done remodeling a bathroom in my basement. I don't tend to hire anyone to get anything done," he explained. "I usually do it myself here at home. But for the most part my hobbies right now are my kids."
Q. What advice do you have for other young professionals in the electrical industry?
A. Be open. Be willing to learn. There are people who have been in this industry a long time. There are a lot of people who have a great amount of knowledge. Soak that up because there are going to be a lot of retirements. A lot of people are leaving the distribution world in the next five years or so. Soak up that knowledge while you can. There's only so much you can learn through books and through school and analytics. But you can learn lot from other people and their previous experiences with how things have been done in the past.
Another thing I have always tried to do is stay open with your career path. I think some people may say, "I want to do sales." Or, "I want to do operations or inventory." They kind of bucket themselves from the start. I think you have to be open to just accepting whatever challenges or opportunities may come your way. Be willing to learn all parts of the business and not just one part of it. That will take you far. Understand distribution as a whole and not just one piece of it.
Q. What do you think is the biggest opportunity within the electrical industry?
A. There is a lot out there. We've grown a lot from an industrial [company]. I would say 10 years ago, or less than 10 years ago, we were more of an industrial-electrical distributor. We actually changed our name. We were Van Meter industrial and we changed it to Van Meter Inc. because we have been able to diversify and continue to support from industrial to contractor to OEM. Now [we're diversifying] into solar, utility—we continue to add more and more to what we sell and what we do. I think that continues to be the opportunity.
We have continued to find a way to diversify and get into other markets to help us grow our profitability. I think that continues to be a big opportunity. If you have a really good distribution model and you are really good at warehousing and are good at all of those core fundamentals. There's always going to be a lot of competition and you always have to find a way to service a customer better than the next distributor. And we have done a very good job with that.
Joe Nowlan is a Boston-based freelance writer/editor and author. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.