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Client Success Story: Uni-Select

Uni-Select, a publicly traded company acquires large private company: How to meld 2 worlds.

Uni-Select is a large Canadian distributor that owned a $120 million U.S. operation and that, in November 2004, acquired Middle Atlantic Warehouse Distributors Inc. (MAWDI), a private company with revenues of $350M also located in the States. Can you sense there might have been a few communication and integration issues to be worked through while melding these two organizations together?

Guy Archambault, VP of corporate development for Uni-Select and Gary Kremer Uni-Select USA’s Senior VP, found themselves charged with bringing these two U.S. management teams together within the context of a Strategic Planning exercise. There seemed to be a slight problem, however; as would be expected, both teams were accustomed to doing things a certain way-their own!

Uni-Select (and its subsidiary Palmar, Inc) is headquartered in Montreal and is Canada’s second largest distributor of automotive replacement parts, equipment, tools and accessories. Through Uni-Select USA, Inc., the company also provides service to customers in the United States where it is the 8th largest distributor.

What challenge(s) was Uni-Select facing at the time that caused you to contact Leadership Strategies?

“A strategic plan that encompasses the specific challenges of each geographical location is pivotal to the overall success of our company. About 3 years ago I (Guy) began looking at the various strategic plans that Uni-Select was implementing and found that there seemed to be an overall lack of standardization to them. It was determined that in order to be more effective, the Board needed to be working with and making decisions based on a uniform set of criteria laid out within a more standardized format. With this major acquisition in the U.S. we were bringing together two fairly large, yet separate management teams. Since the acquired company’s team was less familiar with a ‘formal’ Strategic Planning process, it was of the utmost importance that this process be taken seriously and that it play an important role in the integration of the two business entities.

The context of a strategic planning exercise was an excellent opportunity to get the two management teams to work together and to meld. During the initial phase of the integration it appeared that communication efforts between the two management teams were subdued. It was therefore very important for Uni-Select to make sure the project would be a collaborative process between the members of the group. Uni-Select needed someone to orchestrate a corporate retreat that could bring the key people affected by this acquisition to the table in order to thoroughly discuss the ensuing issues and create solutions together. It was paramount that we create an environment that facilitated a high level of communication in order to gather everyone’s input and have their ideas brought out into the open and discussed.”

What steps did you take to achieve this goal?

“Armed with these objectives, we began researching a number of facilitators in the U.S. We took into account the locations of each Uni-Select division in order to determine where this retreat should occur since people would be flying in from multiple sites. We settled on the southeast region of U.S. and from there began looking into facilitation experts in the area. Michael Wilkinson and Leadership Strategies name kept coming up. We considered 6 different candidates, made a short list of 3, then flew down and met with each one face to face. When Michael walked in we were very impressed with his presentation. When we began our conversation, we could immediately see there was something quite different about him.”

What stood out about Michael Wilkinson and Leadership Strategies?

“What stood out most were Michael’s communication skills and his flexibility in being willing to adapt his process to our needs. Having a process was important to our project but so was flexibility. Specifically, we needed someone who had a process but was adaptable enough to match their course of action with the one that Uni-Select already had in place. Our company had been implementing strategic plans for a long time (in fact our CEO used to teach strategic planning at the MBA level) and these plans were and are a cornerstone of the company’s success. It was important that the deliverable be something that was easy to interpret, look at and follow. Another concern was the fact that Uni-Select was a publicly traded company while MAWDI had been privately held which meant for one thing, implementing and getting used to a higher level of reporting and accountability to satisfy the public markets need for constant information on the company’s performance. We needed our new partners to embrace their new environment and collaborate with us in responding to a set of requirements not typically found in the private companies. Everyone agreed that Michael Wilkinson and Leadership Strategies had top notch processes to eliminate conflict, keep things moving, assure that consensus was achieved and produce a plan where everyone around the table had buy-in.”

Anything else?

“We liked the way Michael was organized and the methods he used for leading the meeting. This methodology was clearly important because while MAWDI’s team was not accustomed to doing formal strategic planning, Uni-Select’s other U.S. division was. We needed someone with a process who could start at point “A”, have a build out process for the plan, be able to bring out issues and finally assemble it all together at the end. Not only this, but the finished product had to be easy to interpret, communicate, monitor and follow. Michael delivered beyond our expectations. We were quite impressed.”

Any hurdles that needed overcoming in bringing the two teams together?

“While there were no outward animosities we did have to overcome some initial skepticism regarding the session. Questions like ‘Why do we need to do a strategic plan?’ and ‘Will we really get something viable at the end of this process?’ or ‘Will this be just another document that we spend a lot of time on and then just sits as an ornament on someone’s desk?’ were in the air. These were genuine concerns and we couldn’t afford for these scenarios to be the end result.”

How was this overcome?

“It was overcome over time using the process and letting Michael do his thing! Michael is a facilitator who has a knack for making certain that everyone talks and participates in the process. He has a lot of content and what’s unique about him is the way he makes the process move forward efficiently. This is vital because whenever you have 15 very operational senior managers sitting around a table it becomes exceedingly important they all feel like they are getting somewhere and building something. It is imperative because you have an expensive resource! Minutes count to make sure we get from ‘point A to point Z’ and not run out of time at mid point. It’s also important the discussion be productive and that it also actually lands somewhere!

People without realizing it were bringing out the essential issues and the process itself was well established. Uni-Select’s senior management stood up at the beginning of the session and demonstrated their commitment to supporting the process by validating the meeting. The fact that Uni-Select was a publicly traded company whose processes were quite different from the newly acquired privately held one was brought to light. The tone was established by discussing the importance of the strategic plan and its eventual implementation moving forward, right down to its processes and financial objectives. Senior management also declared what the benchmarks were, why it was important to achieve them and then empowered the group to go to work and come up with the plan.”

What were the results?

“The feedback from the management team was very positive. At the onset, we established a boiler plate document of what needed to be addressed within the strategic plan. It had lots of information dealing with topics we needed the U.S. division to look at from the start. In other words, it was important for them to be able to determine their starting point by taking a look at their company from the 50,000 foot level on various issues.

The results took a lot of hard work but in the end we came out with a strategic plan that worked for all parties involved. In fact, we were so satisfied with the results that we hired Michael and Leadership Strategies again to facilitate the Canadian strategic planning session.”

That’s music to Leadership Strategies ears because at the end of the day, our goal is to help clients solve business problems in order to successfully grow their business.

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