See My Interview w/Nationwide President Tom Hickman
In the days leading up to the recent CEDIA Expo in Dallas, Nationwide Marketing Group, one of the largest buying groups in the U.S., announced that former ProSource VP Andy Orozco would be joining Nationwide as its Senior Vice President of Custom Integration. That news grabbed my attention as it came less than a year after Nationwide’s acquisition of one of the top custom integration buying groups, Azione Unlimited, back in October 2021.
Clearly, something big is going on at Nationwide…
It seems as though the custom integration (CI)-focused buying group world has been fairly stable for several years now. The well-known three predominant buying groups in CI include Home Technology Specialists of America (HTSA), somewhat of a specialty player with around 100 members, including both pure-play and hybrid dealers; Azione Unlimited, founded by Richard Glikes, the ex-HTSA executive director with more of a pure-play membership of around 300 members; and ProSource, a multi-layered group with around 600 members, including retail dealers, hybrid dealers, and pure-play integration dealers.
But there is a fourth group that also participates in the custom integration channel that hasn’t always commanded the same amount of attention as the others. That group is Home Technology Specialists Nationwide (HTSN), a group of more than 200 participating dealers, with a wider mix of dealer types but that generally serve the smart home market as well. This group is a sub-group of one of the largest buying organizations in America, Nationwide Marketing Group, a massive buying group of over 5,300 dealer members.
My Spidey Senses were Tingling
With Nationwide acquiring Azione Unlimited last year and then hiring Andy Orozco away from ProSource just days before CEDIA Expo, my spidey senses were tingling that something was afoot at the group…potentially something big. So I reached out to Nationwide to explore these recent events and see just what these moves were all about.
Earlier this month, I connected via Zoom with Tom Hickman, Nationwide’s President and Chief Member Advocate, and learned much more about these recent actions taken by the group that are shaking up the status quo in the CI buying group space. I found his perspective to be really interesting, as the group is definitely going after a bigger piece of the custom integration pie – not to mention building upon its unique resources to dominate the luxury home business, inside and out.
That interview is shown below, lightly edited for clarity and space. We started with the most recent news, the hiring of Andy Orozco.
Interview with Tom Hickman, Nationwide President and Chief Member Advocate
STRATA-GEE: Nationwide just recently announced that it has appointed Andy Orozco, formerly of ProSource, as your new Senior Vice President of Custom Integration. Can you share some background on why you created this role at Nationwide and why you chose Andy?
HICKMAN: I’ve known Andy since I was in college and working on the sales floor at Brands Mart (South Florida retailer Brands Mart USA) back in the early-to-mid 90s. At that time, he was our Hitachi sales trainer. I have always had a tremendous amount of respect for him. We see the world in very much the same way.
Then, later, when I was with Toshiba I dealt with him at ProSource and found him to be the consummate professional. Over the years, our roles changed, but we often saw each other at shows and have become good friends. I think we philosophically view the world of buying groups in much the same way. We’re there to serve members and create win-win scenarios for the member, vendor, and the overall group community. And that’s something that Andy has an impeccable reputation for – providing win-win relationships for the ProSource members, and for the vendor community at ProSource.
So when we strategically aligned with Azione Unlimited last year we took a good, hard look at custom integration. [Ed. note: “strategically aligned” means they financially acquired Azione.] You know we are the largest and I believe the best group in every category that we compete in. Our core categories include electronics, furniture, bedding, outdoor and connected home. But integration to us was a place where we were not the market leader. This was mostly due to a lack of focus by the organization.
So we made some strategic choices. We decided if we were going to compete in the space we were going to be number one, and that includes size, that includes vendor roster, and that includes team. With Azione and Richard, we brought in his 200-some dealers, and we have our 200-some HTSN dealers. Richard is busy with his members, and Hank (Alexander, Director of HTSN) is busy with his members, so we needed to expand the team. We asked ourselves what a best-in-class team looks like – and as we scanned the horizon we came to believe that Andy was the best in the business. So we went after him…it’s as simple as that.
STRATA-GEE: Can you say what Andy’s role will entail as part of your newly expanded integration business?
HICKMAN: Sure. Between HTSN and Azione we now have around 500 integration members. [Ed. note: With 500 integrator members, Nationwide is now between four and five times larger than HTSA, twice as large as the formerly independent Azione, and approaching the size of ProSource. They have instantly become a major player in the integration buying group game.] There are a lot of variables in the DNA of the various members of each of these groups – very different personalities, often different line cards, different strategies, and different go-to-market strategies. Really what we’re looking for from Andy is to work with our HTSN members, to work alongside Richard and learn from the Azione members, and then take his own experience at ProSource to really craft over time the best strategy. This is a long game for us.
Andy is uniquely positioned for this role – having worked on the vendor side, and then, being in a member organization [ProSource] and around those members for a long time.
STRATA-GEE: Is it your plan to merge your two custom divisions – HTSN and Azione Unlimited – into one custom integration group?
HICKMAN: We have no intention of merging the two companies. We acquire great companies with great management teams – and then stay out of their way. I’m not saying there won’t be shared activity. I mean, every Azione member today has access to every nationwide business service. And every person in the company is available to be of service to every Azione member.
We didn’t align with Azione to change it. We loved exactly what we saw and that’s why we partnered with them.
STRATA-GEE: Does the diversity of your group, with many members in vastly different businesses (furniture, bedding, outdoor, etc.) make it difficult to manage and to be of service to this newest division, integration?
HICKMAN: Right now, we offer some 200 member services. Many of those services are specifically applicable to a range of business types, including integrators. For example, our luxury appliance dealers are selling to the same luxury customer that Richard’s Azione group is servicing. So, we have a luxury appliance division. We understand the luxury customer and have done a lot of research surrounding the luxury customer’s journey and while the products may be different, the research on luxury customers translates.
Also, I’ve found there’s not an integrator home service provider, rent-to-own dealer, or retail dealer that I’ve met that at some point regardless of their size, doesn’t struggle with some scale or resource issue. And you know, at Nationwide we’re sitting here with 300-plus employees ready to serve our member, whatever their scale or resource problem may be.
With the scale of our organization, there are tremendous benefits we can offer all our members who all have basic business issues to address. Whether it’s HR, accounting, cybersecurity, insurance, property casualty insurance, trucking, I mean, you name it…we address all of those. And, of course, education and training. Every business fundamentally – I don’t care what you’re out there selling or installing – needs back-end operations, HR, human capital, asset management, all those things and all of those are in our suite of goods. So I’m certain we’ll find something that will help just about everyone.
STRATA-GEE: Looking at that last question from a different perspective, do you see some, if you’ll pardon an overused expression, synergy, between your integration category and your other core categories that other groups not participating in those businesses might not see?
HICKMAN: We absolutely do. We know that in certain communities Azione or HTSA or ProSource members are installing a $100,000 AV system for example, and then our members are going in to install at least a $100,000 kitchen to go along with that AV solution. We have the unique opportunity to capture and delight that luxury customer, whether it be at the home building phase – because we have a bunch of designers and architects and design centers in the luxury space – or in a giant remodel phase and keep that customer forever. Our goal is to make sure that the premium customer – whether it be for outdoor, appliance, electronics, or integration – stays in the independent ecosystem and doesn’t bleed out to a big box store.
Our goal is to make sure that the luxury customer is ours…and ours for a lifetime.
STRATA-GEE: Sounds like a worthy goal. Any final thoughts you’d like to add?
HICKMAN: I’d like to think we’ve thought this through. We don’t have all the answers, but we certainly know that there will be a race for the home and who’s going to be able to handle a premium customer end-to-end. And it just seems silly to have that premium customer go through what is a suboptimal process to get all their needs met, when we can align all the people they need inside the home, around the home, and outside the home without any of our members needing to change their DNA – just by creating a networked Nationwide community that will enable us to fulfill all the luxury homeowners’ needs.
Learn more about Nationwide Marketing Group by visiting nationwidegroup.org.
See all about HTSN, Nationwide’s custom integration division, at nationwidegroup.org/htsn.
What to know more about Nationwide’s newest acquisition, Azione Unlimited? Visit them at azioneunlimited.com.