Smith shares how his company now goes “through the pump and up to the cloud and back.”

Founded in 1930, Mayer has emerged as a large nationwide wholesale distributor. The company is known for its lighting, but has ventured more into connected solutions.

Last year, the company dropped “Electric” from its name. It was a big risk, especially since the website is still

“The risk is people may lose sight of who you are and may begin to think you have lost your way,” Mayer president James W. “Wes” Smith said. “You really have to focus on telling that story.”

Smith and Mayer combined with Schneider Electric for an “EcoStruxure Road Show” recently in Birmingham, Alabama. The companies presented to customers on the benefits of a connected plant, among other things.

Smith has been the president of Mayer for the past 10 years and has been with the company for 32 years, starting as a part-time employee while in college.

P&S: How did the transformation from Mayer Electric to just Mayer come about?

Smith: It really came about with a business need. When we looked at the future and said how do we become relevant and take advantage of the dramatic transformation in technology, which is transforming the construction market, too. We said, you know what, we have to disproportionally invest in that part of the business to be. We said the investment needs to come in the investor part of our business. That strategy really started in 2014. Since then we’ve added over 80 people to our company with unique expertise around controls, drives, industrial automation; the natural progression on that is that it all runs on software—devices collect data—and we’re going to be in the software business. We’re a mid-market company. You take the average participant in our event today, and I think there’s an absolute opportunity for them to be looking for partners. Sometimes it’s hard to get out of the office and talk to real customers. When you do, you’re going to find it affirming or not. I found here [at the EcoStruxure Road Show] that it was affirming. I listened to customers talking to us as being that partner and not just a piping wire company, and that’s extraordinary to me.

P&S: What were the risks involved?

Smith: Anytime you take a brand and you start monkeying with a brand, you’re creating ambiguity for somebody who has known you for a long time. If your organization is spread out, that ambiguity going from this to that has to be explained by people. And the more decentralized that is, the more variation you may get in the story. The hard work is telling that story and telling it again and again with that consistency.

P&S: How does Mayer connect with pumps now after the change?

Smith: Obviously everything from the power pole up to the pump, the power infrastructure, we certainly do. When you get to that, smart pumps, smart drives, flow control, the data and the analytics that can come with that, it’s a much different relationship with those devices today. Historically, we went up to the pump, and that was it. Now we go through the pump and up to the cloud and back.

P&S: With smart pumps and smart drives, what do you think future is?

Smith: That’s a hard question. I’ll answer it from the perspective that I’m preparing to have all our leadership in to talk about our continuing transformation. One of the first things I’ll share with them is that there’s not a destination. It’s a journey. I have no idea what the next iteration around the corner [will be]. What we, as stewards of our companies, have to be is much more inquisitive and flexible than we’ve ever been before. The things that come along are going to boggle our minds and be exponential. Trying to peek around the corner and say, ‘I’m going to prepare for that’ might be helpful, but building an organization that is adaptable and flexible and a culture in our company that experimentation and application of new technologies that is safe … the winners are those who are going to build that into the fabric of their company. I can’t tell you what is coming tomorrow. I can tell you it will be faster, it will be smarter and it will be different than it is today.

P&S: How does your company approach workforce training and the skills gap, while keeping younger workers motivated?

Smith: It’s something I spend many, many hours thinking about and dealing with. For us, it’s a dramatic change. The historical pathway to success is start at the bottom, work your way up, learn the product, and you’ll eventually have enough knowledge to be relevant. That’s still relevant today, but when you look, we don’t have a big enough pipeline for that to pop out and for people to get it to maintain a consistent, steady and knowledgeable workforce. It’s still a pathway, but we’ve had to go out and look for a new input into that workforce and recruit in places we’ve never recruited before. We’ve never recruited STEM graduates. The person running our lighting and control group is a physics major.

If you had said five years ago you’re [going to] hire physics, environmental science and energy science majors, I’d have said you’ve lost your mind. But that is a pipeline and those are highly educated people. They have needs and desires in life and it’s a lot more compressed. I was willing to spend 32 years to get where I am. To be where they want to be, they want to be there tomorrow. How do you fulfill that, but at the same time ensure they have the relevant knowledge in a dramatically changed world? Another thing we’ve had to do that we have never had before is a learning culture. I’d go to a couple of lunch and learns. That’s necessary, but in no way sufficient. We spend extraordinary sums of money for people to go to factory schools, but in learning, you dump about 90 percent of what you’re exposed to on the way out the door. We spend money moving people to classes, feeding them, housing them and getting them back in hopes of getting one-tenth of what they learned. There are tools today where, how do you incorporate YouTube videos instead of the factory school? If you didn’t remember it, watch it again. Watch it before you go into the pulp and paper mill or wastewater treatment plant to refresh yourself with what’s relevant for who you’re about to meet with. That’s a different culture of learning than this industry has historically followed.

The question on workforce begins to touch on almost every business system we have because all those business systems revolve around their people.

P&S: Do you listen to podcasts?

Smith: I’m pretty diverse. One day I might listen to a podcast on the microbiome and infections that are becoming resistant to the treatments today and old technologies being resurrected to fight those. IT’s fascinating. The next day, I might listen to a podcast on how to interact and motivate millennials, and the next day, I might listen to a podcast on sensor technology, the internet of things and how to automate when something needs maintenance.