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Nationwide Marketing Group Content Director Doug Marsh dug up some unique facts and key dates throughout the history of the buying group, which is preparing for its 50th anniversary in 2021.

Rob Stott: We are back on the Independent Thinking podcast and right now a bit of a different podcast. One that is born out of one of my first official meetings that I got to attend as a member of the Nationwide Marketing Group family. Diving into the history of the company and the buying group here.

To do that we’ve got Doug Marsh who is the Content Director for Nationwide and the guy I’ve gotten to work closely with my first couple of months here. So Doug, first of all, appreciate you taking some time and doing research. I know you’ve been doing a lot of research for this. Homework ahead of this podcast.

Doug Marsh: Absolutely. But no, it’s been fun to go dive deeper into where the company comes from and see exactly. We use the term rooted in retail and that’s truly what we are. Member first organization rooted in retail and that’s where we come from.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. I very much look forward to having this conversation and spending some moments with you going into the past and history of Nationwide and learning about where we came from and how we got to where we are today. But before we do that, tell us a little bit about you. Your current role. Like I said, Content Director and what your time at Nationwide has been like.

Doug Marsh: Yeah. So currently Content Director. But the running joke is, I will be pretty much everything by the time I leave Nationwide. I have been here for 20 years almost. In March, it will be my 20th anniversary and I started simply in member services. We’re all member services, but it’s rooted in member services and working on the electronics side of things.

So I handled big vendors like Toshiba and RCA while helping the members be able to order. It started right then. What I essentially worked on was a part that allowed our members to buy these big-name companies at volumes that were a little smaller. They did not have to buy full trucks. They were able to buy small things because we were combining all the orders together.

So right from the get-go, one of the first things I did was handling this, that it was really cool to be able to help out the members in this sense. It’s the little guy versus the big guy. So right from the get-go, that’s what I was working on. My background is in writing and I had worked for US Airways.

I was writing customer letters, all day and I sat beside a guy who eventually had left to come to Nationwide as well. His name was Bob Swift and he would be the Director of Operations for Nationwide for 15, 16 years before he retired. He brought me over and I worked with him for a long time.

My Nationwide connection was him, working together at US Airways. But it’s been a pretty amazing ride. For everything from like I say, member services to now content. But we dabbled in the development of digital marketing. We’ve done regular marketing. We’ve worked in operations. We’ve done a little bit of everything. It’s been a really cool 20 years.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. Certainly, something I think you can kind of say that about anyone at Nationwide it seems like is one of my early impressions. Is that there’s a lot of talented people that can do a lot of different things. So, I mean, just think about the 20 years that you’ve been involved in working with Nationwide, to see it grow to where it is today. It’s something that we’ll certainly be talking about here. But what’s your impression of how the company has changed just in your time being here?

Doug Marsh: To try to put the perspective into it. The first show I went to, I was a mid-20-year-old kid and I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. It was 50,000 square feet of stuff.

Rob Stott: Wow.

Doug Marsh: We’ll be going to show here in Houston here very soon and we’re going to have almost 200,000 square feet or whatever it is. It’s just so many more attendees and so many more products. It’s amazing. That’s where I put it into perspective when I first started. How incredible it was and how our new normal is now quadruple what it was.

The team that we put together over the last 20 years is incredible. We’re growing and utilizing people in the industry. Utilizing retailers. Getting younger with yourself. Seeing this team continue to grow and advance and to be so focused on our members every day. It’s a great team and it’s really been interesting to see the change in the 20 years.

Rob Stott: Do you have a sense of what number employee you were and kind of where it is today? How much the company has actually grown?

Doug Marsh: It’s interesting. We were in multiple offices back then. So we had 12 to 15 in the Winston office. But there were also six or seven in the Pittsburgh office. So we weren’t set up necessarily under one roof like we are now. But I have to think they had been growing before I got there. But it seems like a lot of the really strong growth has happened since. So I won’t say I was one of the first, but I was probably a mid-pack person.

Rob Stott: Gotcha. That’s awesome. So, looking at that though, we’re going back even further I know. You mentioned 20 years. Nationwide itself goes back to 1971. We talk about the history and sort of the idea that sparked this. We’ll talk a little bit about Team Summit, which is like I said, the first event that I got to attend officially as a member of Nationwide.

I’m sorry, I shouldn’t say a member. A team member, a staff person, an employee of Nationwide. Team summit I know has its own history and is something that members wouldn’t be familiar with, but is the six months in between PrimeTime. So our Fall and Spring, we’ll call it, summit. So where-

Doug Marsh: Yes, these planning sessions, where we essentially get together to come up with the ways that we’re going to move forward. We bring in all the regions, bring in all the MSMs and talk about how we’re going to help the member going forward for those months. One of the really cool things we did this past year, was we launched a new website.

The website, it talked about all of our services and our benefits and such like that. But we had a small section on our story and had done some research to find out how we build that story. But in the Team Summit we put that on a timeline type chart and showed the whole company of how these seven individuals who were all retailers themselves had come together in 1971, as you talked about.

How nearly 50 years later we were all sitting there still talking about how we’re helping members. The same things that they were talking about 50 years earlier. We come up a little bit different now, but seeing that timeline really put it into perspective and really got us going with our history and where we come from.

Rob Stott: Yeah, it’s crazy to see it all laid out. I know as a matter of fact it’s only, I think you look at it three slides on the deck for what was team summit and that particular discussion that we had at that time. But I know there’s so much more to it that we could really dive into.

Flushing it out was sort of what sparked this and had us interested in discussing kind of this history of Nationwide. So I mean you mentioned that the seven members got together in 1971. Also, something that stuck out that you said earlier, Pittsburgh. No Pittsburgh office anymore, but I know that’s where-

Doug Marsh: No Pittsburgh office anymore.

Rob Stott: That is where one of the original members was from.

Doug Marsh: Yes. Yes. Our co-founder, Lee Guttman had run retail stores and had been just huge in the community. He was one of the original group of seven that came forth. We had Ed Kelly, who was from our area here in North Carolina, along with his brother-in-law Robert Weisner, who had run stores as well.

So as original members, they’d come together to start this new, the word buying group I don’t even think it existed at the time. But essentially that’s what they were doing. I had seen a quote from Robert who talked about the early days and said that the reason they had gotten together was to buy better.

They wanted to compete with their big box of the day, which was Sears and Montgomery Ward. They had come together as this group of a seven to get that buying power and compete with the big guys. It starts small like that and then they grew from there.

Rob Stott: Yeah. I mean grew. Just the juxtaposition of seven versus 5,300 that we’re talking about today. I can’t imagine what’s in their minds if they had that kind of growth and that size in their minds. But I’m sure it’s astonishing to see just in not even 50 years. Just over 45, I think it would be at the time of the Mega merger. But growth has to start somewhere. I know in those early years, they started with seven, but barely by a decade later, I think they had tripled in size, almost quadrupled in size?

Doug Marsh: They had. They had. So they list 1971 is that starting point and through the 70s they started to grow a little bit. But some of the early wins for them were to get vendor partners. One of the first, I think it was in the mid-’70s was Frigidaire.

Was the first vendor partner who comes on with the, they called Nationwide Television and Appliance Associates at that time. Then in the mid-’70s Zenith came on board. So now they had appliances and they had TV. So by the turn of the end of the decade, I think in 1980 they had grown to 30 members.

Rob Stott: Wow. At the time, I mean you’re talking about some early appliance and electronics companies there. I mean, now you look at Nationwide today it’s furniture, it’s bedding, it’s appliances and electronics. Was furniture and bedding part of the discussion at the beginning or were these guys appliance and electronics retailers?

Doug Marsh: I think they’re strictly appliance and electronics. The furniture would come much later along with some of the other services. But when they began, they began as strictly appliance electronics folks. Yep.

Rob Stott: So I know on our timeline, I’m looking at it. I got it in front of me here. We should be able to share when we post the podcast up. But between 1980 when they hit 30 members and it’s kind of funny that it’s the next big marker on this timeline. But the first PrimeTime is 13 years after that in ’93. So a big 13 year gap there. I mean, growth, I’m sure is part of that, adding vendors. But what sort of stuff happened in between 1980 and in that first PrimeTime?

Doug Marsh: Yeah, so the eighties saw them continue to grow in members. They continued to bring on new vendors in the early ’80s. They brought in RCA. Then a big one in ’82, they brought in GE along with Frigidaire, are still partners with Nationwide today. So as the decade continued, they still were focused on appliances, electronics.

As the ’80s ended, they had brought on a new partner in Whirlpool who is still a big partner-

Rob Stott: Familiar names.

Doug Marsh: Yeah, exactly. With us today. So what the 80s saw was they saw them both growing in membership, but they also saw them growing in vendor partners. So I think that ties in. A strong vendor partner increases and makes members better as well.

Rob Stott: Gotcha. Then we get to PrimeTime. 1993 the first PrimeTime happens. Tell us a little bit about that or what you were able to dig up on that first PrimeTime.

Doug Marsh: Yeah. So essentially what was happening. They were having shows and on the “our story” portion of the website, we were able to find some just amazing pictures from the ’70s and ’80s and such. So there are shows before then. But essentially the two major groups, Nationwide TV and Appliance was the major group.

Doug Marsh: But Mr. Kelly had a secondary group here in the South that was a member of Nationwide called SEBA. What those two had combined to become one, one Nationwide. They decided that since they had combined, it was time to combine their shows as well. They had come together as one and now it was time for them to come together as one in the show.

The first PrimeTime, we got some amazing pictures from it as well on the website. It was huge. Brought in all sorts of sales training, but also product. It really, I want to say it was ahead of its time. But it really was great to get everybody together like that and to think about anything that you do that’s still going on.

I mean, we still host PrimeTime very similarly. It’s still about bringing everybody together. See all these great new lines and learn new things and all that good stuff. So yeah, it was a big deal for the group at that time. I’ve got to think, it really helped the two of them push even further to grow the membership as well.

Rob Stott: Well any sense of numbers from that first PrimeTime or anything like that or even where it was hosted?

Doug Marsh: Yeah, it was in Orlando, I think-

Rob Stott: I know you mentioned 50,000. Roughly 50,000 square feet of exhibit space.

Doug Marsh: Yes. The first joint meeting, as they came together was in Orlando. But the first PrimeTime was in New Orleans where we just were.

Rob Stott: All right.

Doug Marsh: Yes. So the 1993 PrimeTime is at the New Orleans Convention Center. Not 100% sure how many attended, but it was definitely a big deal for all of them. I know our friends at Sterling still put our show together today. They were there for that first show. I’ve talked a little bit about it and how they were able to pull it through.

The shows are amazingly well-run today and it’s because of all the experience that they had from these previous shows. So to take something this massive and I know it was difficult. But they were able to do it well and here we are today still going.

Rob Stott: It’s crazy and you think about it, they’re coming up on almost 30 years of doing this show. That’s incredible. I mean you talk about a well-oiled machine and to have the same kind of organizers with you the whole time and just learning from it and growing together. I’m sure it’s been quite the partnership and experience for Nationwide and Sterling there over the years in PrimeTime.

Doug Marsh: But when you go to the PrimeTime show now, it is such a well-oiled machine. You find out why. Because they’ve been doing it for so long. They’ve seen everything.

Rob Stott: That’s crazy. That’s crazy. I know also you talk about PrimeTime, a great time for those two organizations to combine in ’93 and have that show. Then also just seeing even today. You get all the different portions of Nationwide from the different regions and coming together and just meeting everyone and seeing everyone. All around a great time. A great experience.

Doug Marsh: It is. Great networking experience. But one of the things that you asked about was furniture. As we get to ’93, they start realizing they’ve been an organization now for a little over 20 years and it was started for buying power. What they found was that the evolution of that was great, but now they needed to evolve even further.

That’s when you start seeing some of these other services come in that we still talk about today. Like training or great financing or adding new categories like furniture. So, the ’90s and into the early 2000s saw a lot of that innovation come through as well.

Rob Stott: Gotcha. One I know in particular, we talked about it ahead of the call. Some of the programs and stuff that experiment with and things like that. Tell listeners about the one in particular that we talked about that had something to do with appliances.

Doug Marsh: Yeah. So as we sit here in 2020, the internet and e-commerce are just so ingrained in our culture. I joined in 2000 and I can remember one of the early projects that Nationwide had taken on, was essentially an early version of appliances online. To where we actually had a website. To where we would take orders and send them directly to our members in that area.

So it was very both cutting edge and manual. Because it was way ahead of its time. It was a lot of manual process. But to be able to take online orders in I think ’03, ’04, ’05, way before the explosion of e-Commerce was a pretty amazing thing. It was a service that, really, I can say, was ahead of its time.

Rob Stott: Well to Nationwide’s credit, I don’t think anyone has figured out the online ordering of appliances yet. So you talk about ahead of its time, today I think it would still be ahead of its time. But the one thing it sounds like, and that I kind of related it to. You think about the way it was run where an order would come in and you guys would take it and then shop for that appliance at a retailer who makes sense for that customer. It kind of sounds like the grocery delivery of today. So you’re talking about a service that you were working on in the early 2000s to one like a DoorDash or almost like an Uber Eats kind of deal. Where you’re getting food delivered to you for appliances. So.

Doug Marsh: For appliances. We were running Uber appliance early on.

Rob Stott: That’s crazy. I mean the idea is there. So like it wasn’t wrong.

Doug Marsh: No, it was great. It did very well. I think at that time we probably were ready to move forward thinking that e-commerce is coming. There’s probably a better way to do this. But I think you could still operate this probably today.

Rob Stott: I know there’s a lot more advancement on the e-Commerce side. But before we hop to that, I know one marker that’s labeled 1999 that had a major impact on Nationwide and that’s the addition of Prime Media.

Doug Marsh: Absolutely. Yeah. The partnership with Prime Media. The Prime Media studios outside of Atlanta in Kennesaw. It was amazing because they brought in this very high tech ability to do commercials for the day. They were on the cutting edge of shooting HD before HD was big.

But they allowed our members to be able to get into the game, make really professional commercials and that looked great. 20 years later that partnership is still amazing and they still do such quality work. It was huge. You talk about, hey we have a studio that our vendors use to shoot product in. That’s just an amazing thing to have part of your-

Rob Stott: It really leans in on the marketing side of what Nationwide Marketing Group is. Not to skip ahead of it or anything, but kind of lends perfectly to what is the next big thing that happens for Nationwide, which is the rebrand.

Doug Marsh: Yes. Yeah. Eventually, as we added new services and added new categories and now we had furniture and all this good stuff. The founders who were still there they brought Les Kirk in who had been a retailer as well. But Robert Weisner and Ed Kelly and Lee Guttman were still all there. Had decided we weren’t a Nationwide TV and Appliance anymore because we did a lot more.

So Nationwide Marketing Group was born. Technically late ’02. Publicly ’03 at the PrimeTime there in ’03. It was a big deal because we had transitioned into so much more than just even appliance. We still do TV and appliance really well, but we also did furniture and we did finance and we did sales training and we could make commercials for you. We could do all this other amazing stuff. So Nationwide Marketing Group is formed then and still going strong. Still innovating. Still coming up with new stuff today.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. Then we come to another gap here in the timeline for those fallen underneath here on the Nationwide website. The new Nationwide website, by the way, that you referenced at the top here. So what happens with Nationwide between that rebrand and then there’s another big partnership in 2013 that we can talk about with Independent We Stand.

Doug Marsh: Yeah, yeah. No, the 2000s. I don’t even know what they’re called. But the 2000 to 2010 area continued growth. By that point in time, I just want to back up just a touch. Because as Nationwide grew, we began taking new organizations as well who were coming into the Nationwide family. We do a lot of that in the 2000s as well.

So in the ’90s, we brought on what would become Nationwide West in the mid-90s. Then we brought on United Stores as a partner as well ’98 I believe. So growing there. Then eventually we brought on what was Key America Midwest at the time in the late ’90s, early 2000s and became Nations Brand Direct, which is now Nationwide East.

But continuing to grow in these region offices, these associate groups just to make us stronger. So we do that and that’s where we get to today. So in the early 2000s we have another very big a partnership in ’02 when Nationwide Southwest, Dennis’s group comes in. So, that growth there in that roughly seven to eight years is amazing how Nationwide was able to grow and partner with these other incredible member organizations, to become this one massive group.

So, we have that in the early 2000s as we start and as we develop in the 2000s we were innovating in all sorts of cool stuff. Like we talked about the brandsdirect.com website. Flat panels were coming in. So we were in that world of plasmas and all that good stuff and got into digital cameras and all this as the digital world exploded.

In ’05 we continued our strategic partnership in furniture and group even more so that in ’06 we added a rental section. Mr. Kelly, one of our founders was heavily rooted in a rental business here. He ran a huge ren-to-own organization here in North Carolina and Virginia and stuff. So in ’06, we bring on RentDirect Nationwide and started our rental program. It took off as well.

At the same time we started bringing in Specialty Electronics, which we still have today as HTSN. So, yeah, through that time we were doing a lot of good stuff. Continuing to grow. Getting involved in digital in that early section as well with some companies too.

Start learning about how to utilize the digital properties. As we ended the early 2000 decade, we brought in another partner in Nationwide Florida. So roughly 2011 I believe, we brought them in. So we now had what was that Nationwide umbrella as I call it, complete for that time.

Rob Stott: Wow. So I mean growth has been the mindset of the organization clearly since the beginning. I mean to start at seven and just to see where it’s come in that time it’s been barely 30 years. So I mean it’s impressive to see. It’s clear too that it’s beyond just the membership side of things. It’s also the vendor partners that have been added throughout the years. Then you talk about some of the, not member or vendor, but sort of industry partners and that kind of brings you to 2013.

Doug Marsh: Yeah. Well, 2013 is highlighted there because it was our biggest show at the time.

Rob Stott: Gotcha. Okay.

Doug Marsh: The independent show there, I think our slogan was “Independent, Strong, Proud, United.” Had well over 4,000 attendees at that show and at that time. I believe that was our largest attended show. So it was kind of like a benchmark of just a little bit further than you had come. You’d grown a little bit more and a little bit more and a little bit more. The highlight of that was like I said, that was our biggest show at the time. Then just a few years later we would-

Rob Stott: The big merger. The big partner. The big addition.

Doug Marsh: Exactly. So in 2017 the team combined with Mega, a great organization, really strong in the furniture world as well, and to come together as one was huge. Became essentially the largest buying organization in the country because of it. They had incredible staff that came over. You had our team and you were talking about where the team comes from early.

Well it ballooned pretty quick there and it ballooned really strong. So that change obviously increased membership. But it also increased the ability for us to help members because of the staff is just so strong. So member-focused. So passionate about the independent retailer. So it was a great thing for both companies.

Rob Stott: You talk about size. I know one of the cool things to hear is that yeah, we’re an organization of independent retailers. But when you talk about Nationwide Marketing Group, I mean the 5300 members and 14,000 plus storefronts, it’s larger than some of the big box stores. You could take a couple of names and combine them and it’s still not as big as what Nationwide represents.

Doug Marsh: Exactly. That’s when you put into perspective how strong the organization is, is that when we all get together we are bigger than the big box. You can combine several big boxes and we have more locations than they do. So much strength. Strength in numbers. But it is impressive, the organization with the membership that has come from this merger.

Rob Stott: Yeah. You talk about the scale and things that have happened since then. That happened in 2017 and I feel like we could have an entirely separate episode for the time between 2017 and 2019 just what happened. I mean you look at the timeline has this exponential growth line happening and you see some of the logos and names that are on there.

I mean Site on Time comes on. Retailer Web Services, Ad Rocket. There’s the Google partnerships and we’ve seen how that has grown. I mean No Child Hungry, Epic Protect. Just a lot has been happening. Is it all because of the scale do you think? Or is it just a mindset change for Nationwide?

Doug Marsh: It’s probably a little bit of both. The scale definitely does help us. It allows us to be able to get in front of folks like Google. We’ve always had member first ideals. I mean the original founders were all retailers and they would always ask is it best for the retailers and best for the member. So we’ve always done that. Today it’s still that same mantra, is member first.

Like partnering with Google, it’s important, but it’s because it helps bring more traffic to our members. That’s why we do these things. It’s great to get involved in digital marketing. But we’re involved in digital market because it helps our members. So it’s just keeping that same original intent. That same mindset that the founders have has really helped us move forward.

Rob Stott: Yeah. It’s cool to see. I mean you could even take that mantra and I think, only because we’re on a podcast right now, you could talk about this podcast and it’s finding ways to share stories that again, you’re sharing members’ stories and talking to members.

So it’s cool to see that sort of theme and mission permeate everything that Nationwide does. I know it’s only three slides, but it’s kind of crazy to see how quickly that kind of thing can come together and create a culture in a way of doing things that has been successful for nearly 50 years here.

Doug Marsh: Yes, it has and will continue to be successful. We’ll continue to work every day for the member to help them to continue to compete. We have a, gosh, it was a decade ago, Prime Media made an amazing video that showed at PrimeTime, that essentially talked about the spirit of the independent.

How they always count us out and we always come back. It’s an amazing video of some of the folks maybe are newer or didn’t see that it’s still out there, they’ll still get it for you. But it really puts into perspective what we all do. It’s a very worthy company and very worthy cause to be a part of the independent retail.

Rob Stott: Only a few months in. I feel that. It’s crazy. But true. This timeline, it ends in 2019 clearly going to be moving forward for years to come. Looking forward to seeing what else can we add over time. How that “our story” page expands on the new website and all that kind of stuff. So it’s fun to be a part of and certainly something I look forward to watching continue grow.

Doug Marsh: Absolutely. I’m glad you are a part of it now. As I say, that website was amazing when we put it out. I can’t wait to see what it looks like in a year-

Rob Stott: It’s going to be fun.

Doug Marsh: … as we continue to add new stuff and continue to grow. The original seven were innovators and we keep that same innovating spirit and independent retail will continue to be strong and grow.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. Well, it was fun walking down a little bit of memory lane and getting a bit of a history lesson as well here on Nationwide. Like I said, this was as beneficial for me, I think. Being someone that’s new and yeah, I’ve covered Nationwide from a distance, in a previous life.

But to kind of hear it and get the run through with you, Doug has been fun and something I hope everyone else, our listeners can appreciate. Now can we add Nationwide historian to your title? Is that something you think we could…

Doug Marsh: I would love to do that. I’ll work on a new signature line in the business part.

Rob Stott: Awesome. Cool. I appreciate you. Like I said at the top, taking the time to dig through this and find out a little bit more and get yourself all caught up too on some of this history. So it’s something that was cool to sit back and listen to and get a little bit of learning on.

Doug Marsh: Yep. Well, thank you very much. It was a lot of fun to do.