More electrical distributors are looking outside the electrical industry for advice on running their businesses.

As electrical distributors search for ideas to help them compete more profitably in this increasingly competitive business, many are looking outside the electrical-wholesaling industry for new answers to some of the age-old questions of distribution.

When you get right down to it, it doesn't matter if you are moving boxes of electrical fittings, plumbing valves or medical supplies. The electrical-wholesaling industry definitely has its own nuances, but you can learn a lot from other companies in other distribution businesses or in entirely different business arenas about core areas such as accounting, warehousing, personnel management and marketing.

Many of the business basics that control any distributor's destiny are the same as the principles that govern the profitability of other companies. It doesn't matter if you are a national chain or a smaller family-owned distributorship - you can still learn from other businesses. Here are a few ideas that distributors of all sizes can use to inject some new thinking into their operations:

- Build a board of directors. You don't have to be a Fortune 500 company to enjoy the benefits of a board of directors. Although tales of boardroom clashes and takeovers are the stuff of business legend, the basic function of a board of directors can apply to any electrical distributor. A board of directors can provide your company with the combined business wisdom that would take you or your employees years to develop.

In a company profile in next month's issue, you will learn how one wire distributor, Omni Cable Corp., West Chester, Pa., uses its board of directors to fine-tune its focus. Omni Cable's board of directors includes a succession planning expert, the retired CEO of a national chain, a manufacturer of products from the periphery of the electrical market and a retired executive from the banking and finance industry.

Omni's board serves as a sounding board for new initiatives that the distributor has under consideration and offers advice and constructive criticism in many areas of operation. One suggestion that the board of directors offered was for the company's president to get additional exposure to the business world outside the electrical industry by serving on a board of directors.

- Join the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors (NAW). I am always amazed that few electrical supply houses know distributors in their own backyards if they are from outside the electrical industry. The National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors (NAW), Washington, D.C., can help you get to know some of these crosstown companies, as well as other distributors from across North America.

Every time I attend a NAW meeting I come away all revved up about the opportunities electrical distributors have at NAW events to network with all sorts of distributors. Although electrical distributors make up a large portion of the NAW membership, relatively few are very active in the association. That's a shame.

Along with offering distributors a chance to shape legislation on Capitol Hill because of its proven track record as one of Washington's most effective lobbyists, NAW offers distributors a perspective that they cannot get from any other trade association.

- Hire a consultant. We have all sat through more than our share of presentations at industry events where a consultant with little or no familiarity with the electrical business blathers on for an hour or so in generalities that don't apply to electrical firms. If some distributors' opinions of consultants have been shaped by those negative experiences, that's unfortunate because the electrical business has some very good consultants well-grounded in the distribution industry.

The phrase "think outside the box" is pretty tired by now. However, I would like to use it one more time for the purposes of this editorial because it pretty well describes how getting input from outside the electrical business can help distributors perform their most basic function - moving boxes through the supply chain.