1: Talking with Nationwide Marking Group Chief Member Advocate Tom Hickman

Written by Rob Stott

December 18, 2019

independent thinking podcast

In the debut episode of the new Nationwide Marketing Group Podcast, we sit down with President and Chief Member Advocate Tom Hickman to talk about his young tenure, Nationwide’s renewed focus on communications, and more.

Rob Stott: We’re here on the first ever Independent Thinking podcast and this is Rob Stott, your host for the Independent Thinking podcast. And what better way to kick things off than by talking with the Nationwide’s Chief Member Advocate, a guy that I think, at this point, you’ve been my-

Tom Hickman: Muse?

Rob: Going back to what I’ve done before, muse is one way to put it, maybe. But, the guy I’ve interviewed the most in terms of doing podcasts and this is a little bit of a different setting. So, Mr. Tom Hickman, first of all, thank you for taking the time here, before we dive into Teams Summit, here in Houston, and chatting with us for this first ever Independent Thinking podcast.

Tom: Thank you for joining the family.

Rob: So, starting right there, without making it sound like I’m sitting here stroking my own ego a little bit too much, but having me join this team and we go back even a couple months earlier and we’ve got Amy Croom sitting here, Director of Communications for Nationwide. You know this communications team for Nationwide has really been built out, kind of quickly, so what’s the… Not, what, why the emphasis there on communications for Nationwide?

Tom: Yeah, it’s a great question. So for forever, which as long as the company’s been in business, Nationwide has been this kind of quiet partner that helps serve the independent channel. And we, it’s never really about Nationwide, it’s always about our retailers and the name that’s on their door. But you know, as we started to realize that over time, that we needed to kind of get the word out about what we were doing. It was important. We were running into members and vendors that were going, “You guys do so much and there’s so many things that you do that we don’t know about.” So we looked at this, as one way to be able to kind of build that message out. Was to be able to have a communications team that told our story externally a little more.

Tom: And you’ll see a lot of ways we’ll do that. You’ll see a new website launch, you’ll see a lot more communication from us, and quite frankly internally. And so we had always had, I think an incredible brand, we didn’t spend a lot of time talking about that brand and quite frankly, we didn’t spend a lot of time standing on a soapbox about the independent retailer. Now we did have, your platform at Dealerscope, which was incredible, but we didn’t have the talent that we needed, quite frankly, inside the building to, to build that out.

And so Amy was the first big piece of that. Helped us with some brand messaging story earlier, a few years ago, and did an incredible job. Truly understood what we were trying to do, got us thinking differently about our brand and the way we need to talk about our brand and the market, and then obviously our time with you. So it just seemed like a natural thing for us to do. Amy got here and we knew we needed, we started telling the story, people were responding to it. I mean, you’ve seen our social presence is heightened unbelievably, the amount of interaction we’re getting at Facebook and LinkedIn and so you can’t have too much of a good thing. So we convinced you to come to work here and we’re thankful. So, kind of a long answer to a short question, but that was kind of how it all started.

Rob: You didn’t, you didn’t have to try too hard. I mean, obviously having covered this space for a while and being at PrimeTime shows and kind of interacting with you guys, it was, the seamless, most seamless jump I could ever think of. But you know, kind of following up on that though, without asking so much of why I’m here, but what is it that you hope to see us accomplish as we sort of build out this a talking machine for Nationwide? And kind of the different channels that were going out. Obviously a new podcast that we’re starting here, but you know, what’s it that you hope we accomplish for Nationwide?

Tom: Yeah. I think the easiest thing would be, there are so many, my brain initially goes to our members, right? Because that’s what our business is about and there’s so many incredible stories out there that aren’t being told. And not just told for the sake of being told and to recognize our members, but for other members to hear what other members are doing to make themselves successful and kind of propagate that story out into the membership and things that are working, things that, innovative things that our retailers are doing. I mean, we’re opening stores left and right, our dealers are thriving right now, there’s a bunch of great stuff going on and inside our network. And so, we need to talk about those kinds of things.

And the other thing is, is that you open magazines and you work for one and I think you probably did the best job of everybody, but when you look across the media network, is everything in the world you could want to read about Amazon. Everything in the world you could want to read about Best Buy and Depot and Lowe’s. But in fact the matter is, is that the independent dealer network has more stores in all those places combined, is responsible for as much, if not more volume is all that combined and quite frankly, responsible for a better product mix, a better retail experience and much more innovation. And so I think it needs a voice.

Rob: That’s fair.

Tom: And I think that you and Amy are going to do a great job doing that.

Rob: We hope so. But kind of, we’ve spent the first little bit here talking about what you hope for us and building out this communication team and what our goals are early on here, but I want to kind of flip the tables now and talk about you. I know when one of the first podcasts we did, was around the time when you had just become Chief Member Advocate and assumed a new role for you here at Nationwide. I think that was maybe two years ago, at this point?

Tom: It’d be two years in January.

Rob: Okay. So when you think about your time-

Tom: It’s like 25 dog years.

Rob: Right? It feels like a long time, but it’s crazy to see sort of the changes that have already happened. And one of things I think about is the transparency and openness, you throwing your number up onto the board at PrimeTime and just being accessible. And you were always accessible to us, from a Dealerscope perspective, but when you, crazy to think maybe only two years in, but when you start to think about a legacy and kind of the impact you want to leave and have. What is it that you kind of think about in that regard and you hope to accomplish in your time here?

Tom: That’s a great question. So I think, it’s pretty easy for me. I’m of, kind of the Teddy Roosevelt school of management. It’s like, just hire great people and get out of their way, kind of thing. And so I joke about building the perfect brain, but that’s really, I think what we’re trying to do. If you look around the business, I think the independent retailer deserves the best network to help them, as possible, that’s our job. So, I will put our merchant teams and Doug Reedy and Derek Mattela, up against anybody in the business. I’ll put our communications team up against anybody in the business. I’ll put a marketing team up against anybody in the business. I think the way we look at it, our field team is world-class in terms of coming from retail, understanding retail.

So I think in its simplest form, I’m here, my job is to build expertise on behalf of the independent retailer, right? So if there’s a problem that has to be solved, there is only one, Dev Mukherjee in the world, there is only one Jen Danko. And you think of Jim Kane and Jennie Gilbert and the digital problem is, at retail is significant, and it requires expertise and world-class people to solve them. And so I think our independent retailers deserve the best in the business and so, part of my job, is to go find those people and bring them into the business.

And so if you look at Lee McDonald for example, we knew we needed to build a platform for connected home and he was the right person to go get AT&T and you look at YouTube, right? I mean, who’s the best person, who are the best people to tell the independent retailer story? And so we firmly believe that you and Amy are the best we’ve come across in the business. So sometimes that scares our partners because you end up coming here from our partners. But our ultimate job is to serve independent retailers and I believe they deserve the best. And so if, if anything, I think I would love to be known as people saying, “The K, he put together a hell of a team.” You know?

Rob: That’s a great way of kind of summing it up and I know that’s a lot of what we’re doing for members and clearly a major part of what’s going on here. I think another part too that you, not that you skipped over it necessarily, but that you didn’t mention, was the service side of things. And kind of almost hand in hand, I think from the time you became Chief Member Advocate and it was around the same time that the “No Child Hungry” partnership-

Tom: That’s right. They were launched simultaneously. Yeah.

Rob: So I mean now, almost two years, to the time when that was launched and we’re coming off just a couple of days after here, as we sit here recording this. The one millionth meal being packed for No Child Hungry, so when you think about that and kind of everything that’s been accomplished in the less than two years, that that partnership’s been been happening and had been going on. I mean what’s the reaction to that?

Tom: Yeah, it’s interesting to me. I didn’t, I wasn’t, I didn’t really think about it when it was happening because there was so much else going on. It was really important to us and I felt a tremendous amount of energy and change around it, with our organization. When we got together, I had never seen, I’d seen the power of the network in other parts of the business. Obviously, in vendor meetings where you’re representing a lot of retailers and in member meetings, you stare out across the faces. But it was the first time that I’d really seen the power of the network, to create change for someone other than ourselves. Which is, it’s interesting to watch people when they’re doing something for someone else.

And so, it was the first time that I’d seen the network come together, members, vendors, employees, people, I mean from, all, there were hotel people that were putting meals together. So that was, it was incredibly powerful to watch and then it just became part of our DNA. I mean, I’m sitting here staring at a table, four tables full of toys and so I think it’s interesting that every time we come together now, for us it’s just like having a drink at the bar after a meeting. Right? We do something for others to give back locally.

So I was, it didn’t really hit… The other day I was at ADL and I ran into someone and they said, “Wow, you guys pack your millionth meal.” And it was, Debbie Schaeffer, from Mrs G. And she said, “I didn’t even think that would be possible.” And so when people start telling you you’re doing things that they don’t think are possible, then that’s, you start to get a little gravity to it. So I kind of reflected on it coming into here and we’ll spend some time doing some give back here, but it’s just, it’s humbling I guess. To say to, when the people of No Child Hungry, say they’ve never seen anything like it and the time that they’ve seen like it… I don’t, I’ve never seen an organization as small as ours, because we are a small organization, put this kind of effort into something. So it’s pretty amazing to watch.

Rob: And I know, you talk about the impact that it can have, not only just on what you’re doing for the kids, from packing meals for them, but also then taking that experience and going and delivering those meals. Whether it’s in the local communities, I know you guys have gone to Haiti — so it’s kind of interesting to see sort of, again, you talk about the change in how you want to sort of change the, not the direction necessarily of Nationwide, but sort of the internal culture and kind of what it’s done for employees, members, everything. And to see that go hand in hand, it’s kind of surreal almost.

Tom: Yeah, well it’s, we’ve always been a servant leadership company, right? For a long time and so this is just one more extension of who we’re serving. Right? So we’re serving our members and we serve our vendors and we have sort of ourselves and our families. And then to reach outside to people that need help, it doesn’t seem that much of a stretch for an organization like ours. I think the other interesting thing, just a little sidebar, is it’s spun off all these other little delightful things that have happened. Amy and Melissa and some of the other team have, and Jen Danko, formed Women in Nationwide, which they probably would have done that by themselves. You know what I mean? I think eventually they would have done that, but if not for the culture here of serving others, and they’re doing a bunch, they did a bunch to serve some other folks that needed some help.

But their inaugural event, you think about what some others in the organization do on their own time, it’s just woven into who we are now. And I don’t even think we think about it anymore, it just happens.

Rob: It’s kind of second nature. It’s — every time I would come to an event, obviously now being at them as a part of the team is going to be amazing. But it was always one of the most impactful things, when you walk away from a PrimeTime or any event that we would have been invited to and just to see all those people come together. And there’s that kind of pride to do that.

Tom: I could tell you, this was our Week of Giving, so several, I think it was over three dozen retailers, had their own No Child Hungry event. And I was at one and we, some of the teams went. And if you think about what we’ve done when we come together, what we could possibly do in those 5,500 communities that we serve and all the people that work at this. It’s really incredible what we could do and what we’re going to try to do, because we will keep trying. It’s pretty amazing.

Rob: Yeah, it’s awesome. And not to just completely change directions but, I don’t know how you put a cap on that kind of a conversation, but clearly something that’ll continue. But one of the big reasons that an organization like Nationwide exists and we’ve kind of hit on it throughout, is to serve members and give them the tools they need to succeed. But when you think about the challenges, I mean we see a lot day to day, in terms of what the independent channel faces. When you think about what the biggest challenge right now, is for independence, what comes to mind? Or what do you think of, in turn, what are we as an organization, doing to help them through that challenge?

Tom: Yeah, I still firmly believe that if you, if you gave every one of our independent’s some truth serum and they asked them, “what really kept them up at night?” It’s getting more customers in their store. I mean, we know the facts are the facts, right? People are shopping at less locations, they’re more educated when they come in, they’re doing a lot more research online. We know our close rate is strong, we just have to get the customers in the store. And I don’t know any better way to do that, then than be where that customer is, when they first start looking online.

Oh. So we continue to invest heavily in making sure that our dealers are top of mind, top of the funnel when people are looking for product. That’s, I still think, the biggest challenge, you know what I mean? It doesn’t take a, it’s not a big stretch to think about, something breaks in your house, right? That happens 62,000 times a day. What’s the first thing you do when something breaks in your house? Right? You reach for your phone, you look for “refrigerators near me” or you look for “washing machine near me.” And so it’s critical that our retailers are as present in that space and in that journey, as any Big Box.

And so it’s not the, certainly not the only thing we’re working on, because there’s a bunch of back-end function that needs to be helped and they still need to buy, right? They still need to have trained salespeople. They still need to be educated. They still need to have the right programs and marketing retail, but right now I would say that’s clearly the biggest challenge and it’s what we’re spending the most energy on. We’re on a multi-year journey here, with a bunch of our partners, to try to drive as many people to the independent channel as we can because ultimately that’s how they’re going to stay in business.

Rob: Yeah. And I know obviously, I can go back as recently to New Orleans and seeing the digital services that were promoted and talked about there and just a lot of great things. Not even just from strictly a website perspective, but tying website to the physical world, with things like digital price tags.

Tom: Oh yeah. And web fronts go, I mean, look. The technology roadmap that the teams, that site on time and RWS have put together, are incredibly impressive. The retail landscape is constantly shifting, which means we have to constantly shift and I don’t think there’s a better channel to be nimble, than the independent channel. We can move faster than Big Box, but we have to, it’s our job to provide them the products and services that they need to be relevant. So there’s still all the old school buying going on. There’s all the other stuff going on, aggregate buying and learning and education and all that. But right now, clearly it’s the race for eyeballs on the web is on.

Rob: For sure. And I know, I mean maybe a little bit biased because I have that tech background, but the digital stuff clearly is some of the most exciting, I think that Nationwide’s working on. Take that out of the pic… Hard to do and you don’t want to do it, but take that out of the picture. What’s the-

Tom: Take all the talented people. All the giving… All the digital transformation. Just throw it all out the window? Geeze.

Rob: Just put them on the side for a second. Put them over here in this one silo for a second. What, in your opinion, outside of that, is the most exciting thing that you’re working on right now? That you specifically, not Nationwide as an organization, but you, Mr. Tom Hickman.

Tom: I spoke about it earlier. We’ll have, we’re here at our meeting and we’ll have at least six new faces to the team. The most exciting thing for me, is just introducing people to what we do and bringing them in the company and then watching what happens when you put really, really talented people together, that understand a common purpose and a very noble purpose of serving independent retailers. And then frankly, just watching. Watching the John O’Halloran’s and the Lee McDonald’s and the Rob Stott’s and the Melissa Stenson’s come into the company and create change, is… I mean there’s, I have the best job in the world.

Rob: Well thank you. Sitting here dusting my shoulder off.

Tom: Yeah. No, it’s awesome, man.

Rob: No, but certainly a lot of fun and I know that we’ve got big plans looking at Amy. We’re shaking our heads, we know what’s up-

Tom: I know you will, yeah.

Rob: We know the stuff we plan on doing. So we’re going to have some fun with it-

Tom: I know what I’m doing.

Rob: No one’s arguing that. But last thing I want to ask you, obviously we’re in Houston right now. We’re here for Nationwide’s Teams Summit, looking a couple months ahead and-

Tom: Find all the good restaurants and bars.

Rob: I know, right. Certainly are. A lot to look forward to when we have some more-

Tom: And places to learn and buy.

Rob: Certainly have, doing some groundwork for when we’re back here for double the amount of time that we’re here this time, but thinking about February 2020 and the 9th-12th. What do you have to look forward to and what’s sort of sticking out to you right now, as far as what’s going to be big at PrimeTime?

Tom: Well, I mean, we will continue to unleash some new technology and we’ll do some great things around digital. I’m actually just really excited to be here. I mean, Houston is a first-time city for us, at least as far as I know. It might’ve been, at least certainly in the last 20 years, but anytime we can get a little bit more central in the country, we tend to draw a little better. It’s a great city. It’s, it’s easy to get to. The weather has been, it should be great. It’s, it’s been okay while we’re here. But I think more importantly, we have a world-class convention center, a ton of great hotels, a city that’s kind of welcomed us with open arms because we do bring quite a few people.

So we’ve already got incredible early registration numbers, so we’re going to have a really big show. It’s just, anytime we can go to a new city and see something fresh, we tend to get that city’s best effort and that doesn’t mean, that’s nothing against the New Orleans’ or the Vegas’s or the Orlando’s of the world. It’s just, we’d like to mix things up in case you haven’t noticed at Nationwide, we try to do things a little different every once in a while. So this’ll be, I think it’ll be really good for us.

Rob: Taking me to new locations and I appreciate that. And if nothing else, maybe get to see a Rockets game in February, so I know they’re in town at least one of the nights-

Tom: I think we’re going tomorrow.

Rob: Uh oh. Oh no. Maybe I’ll get on that a little earlier then.

Tom: We’re all going.

Rob: No, that’s awesome. Well, again, appreciate you taking time to chat with us here at Summit and appreciate you bringing me into the family and look forward to seeing what we can accomplish. –

Tom: We’re excited.

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