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Court Carruthers is senior vice-president at W. W. Grainger Inc. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Court Carruthers is senior vice-president at W. W. Grainger Inc. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

At the Top

Striving to create an undisputed market leader Add to ...

At 37, Court Carruthers is one of the new leaders of Canadian business - and he's been making his mark at one of its old mainstays. Over the past few years, Mr. Carruthers has been driving culture change at Acklands-Grainger Inc., a 121-year-old distributor of industrial supplies. Founded by Winnipeg carriage maker Dudley Ackland in 1889, it collects $750-million in annual sales from 65,000 business customers. It has 165 outlets, and lists about 100,000 items in its door-stopper of a catalogue -everything from bolts to hammers to toilet paper. After serving as president of Acklands-Grainger, Mr. Carruthers is now a senior executive for Chicago-based parent W. W. Grainger Inc. with responsibility for non-U.S. operations, including Canada.

What's your biggest-selling item?

If you think through the H1N1 crisis, respirator masks have been a hot item over the past year. But our No. 1 selling product line is usually hand tools manufactured under our own brand.

It shows Acklands-Grainger is a mirror of the Canadian economy. How is that economy doing?

We do cover most industry segments and most customer sizes, from small contractors to the biggest companies - and in every geography. We had a strong finish last year and are off to a good start this year.

So there is cautious optimism but there is also a little bit of two steps forward, one step back. We see much more activity than we saw last year, but I wouldn't say it's unbridled enthusiasm yet. For example, you might see a number of projects in the oil sands and then one or two companies say they are slowing down.

Where are you from?

I was born in Saskatoon in a third-generation Saskatchewan family. Part of the family was with the CPR, and part in farming. But I grew up in Innisfail, Alta., and moved to Edmonton as a teenager, and did high school and university there.

My dad has always been an entrepreneur and when we moved to Alberta he owned a construction company. We moved there in the heart of the boom in the late 1970s, so we have seen many booms and busts.

Was there something that drew you into business?

My dad and I spent lots of time talking about business. As a true entrepreneur, he has never worked for anyone else in his life, and I grew up seeing all that - the good and the bad, the successes and failures.

I've always been interested in how businesses and economies operate. I love talking to people who run completely different businesses in different sectors. My wife describes me as a business nerd. I take that as a compliment.

After working at other companies, what brought you to Acklands-Grainger?

There is an amazing opportunity to create an undisputed market leader. You have 121 years of history, a fantastic infrastructure, and we are significantly larger than the next competitor. We have a blue chip customer list, an unlimited product offering and, at the same time, just a 7- to 8-per-cent market share. These kind of factors coming together are rare in a career. I was drawn by this chance to aggressively grow a business, and create something special.

Who are your competitors?

There are a mix of mom-and-pop players, some regional players and some specialists that might be national companies but only compete in one product segment. ...

There is a long-term market share/growth opportunity that we are pursuing, both organically and through selective acquisitions. But we really think organic growth is the main driver, because it allows us to ensure we create that fantastic customer experience. In a tough economy in 2009, we built nine new stores, added a West Coast distribution centre and 15,000 new products.

So what was the company doing wrong in the past?

If we look at the transformation over the past three or four years, it was really about making sure we set the customer first. Everyone in the company either serves the customer or serves someone who does. The biggest change was making sure that for every single person - whether they work in a branch or IT or finance - their job is to make a customer's life better. That was there before, but it might not have been our No. 1 focus.

But isn't this a conservative "old economy" company?

We have a mix of folks and it is not uncommon to have second, third and even fourth-generation employees from the same family. We've got a great mix of history and success, but also people who bring new ideas.

There is a lot to be said for experience in this business. We have 110,000 products in stock and we sold 250,000 products last year. You cannot be an expert in every product - it is absolutely impossible. But we do have technical experts in very specific areas such as safety products, welding products and fasteners. We also have a catalogue that weighs 8½ pounds, the largest catalogue printed in Canada.

Why not scrap the catalogue and just publish online?

The Web is a critical part of our business and has been rapidly growing even in the downturn. Everything is available on the Web, but think about some of our customers. If you are underground in a mine, if you are working at an oil rig, if you are offshore, if you are in your truck driving around doing maintenance, the Web may not be the right solution. So that's where the book comes in handy.

When you think about the book, how people use it is to figure out what they need. Something breaks, they have it in their hand and they have to figure out what it is. ... Or we'll frequently have people bring something into a branch, put it on the counter, and say, 'I don't know what this is, but it broke and I need another one. Do you know what it is?' It is a very common occurrence and that goes back to deep product knowledge and folks who grew up knowing the business.

How do you, as a young manager, communicate to this older culture?

When I had the chance to become president of the Canadian business in 2006, I had already spent four years in the business in a number of roles. I was intimate with so many facets of the business and I knew a lot of people. I was just tapping into what was latent motivation for success, and so we started painting a picture of what could be - this massive, successful, strong, historical organization that wasn't yet meeting its full potential. We really tapped into existing enthusiasm, and we reorganized the business around the customer.

What is the toughest thing you've had to learn?

Your strengths, if overused, can become a weakness. I am very competitive, whether it is about our business being successful or playing sports with my wife or friends. I am driven to win. But as you mature more, you learn how to modulate that so it is used in the right frequency. That's something I haven't fully figured out. It can happen that I am too aggressive. I so much want our company and our teams to win.


Court Carruthers

TITLE: Senior vice-president, W.W. Grainger Inc.; president, Grainger International, based in Richmond Hill, Ont.

Born: 1972 in Saskatoon

Education: Bachelor of commerce, University of Alberta

MBA, Queen's University, Kingston, Ont.

Career highlights:

  • Worked for Purolator Courier, moving from sales representative in Western Canada to vice-president, field sales
  • Joined Veredex Logistics as senior vice-president, business development for North America
  • Served as a vice-president of Dynamex Inc.
  • Joined Acklands-Grainger in 2002 to run Canadian sales Rose to president in 2006
  • Became senior vice-president, W.W. Grainger, in 2007, and president of international operations in 2009


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