Q&A: Will Oberton

Fastenal CEO Will Oberton talks 2014 goals and achieving work-life balance

Oberton stresses entrepreneurship, balance and controlling clutter at work and at play
2014-02-09T06:30:00Z Fastenal CEO Will Oberton talks 2014 goals and achieving work-life balanceNathan Hansen Daily News Winona Daily News

Will Oberton doesn't like clutter -- mental or physical.

The CEO of Fastenal usually keeps his office neat and organized to avoid distractions, and has developed a strong ethic for exercise because it helps keep his mind clear and focused.

It's an insight into how Oberton leads his company, and to his strategy in 2014, which Oberton has described as a move to clear the clutter and get back to basics. It may prove to be a pivotal year for the company: After years of growth that outpaced other major manufacturers, Fastenal slowed down in 2013, and made the unusual move late last year of warning investors prior to releasing fourth-quarter numbers that the company wasn't going to meet expectations.

Oberton worked his way up in the company dating back to 1980 and took on the role of CEO in 2002. He said his entrepreneurial spirit, work ethic and his devotion to family have shaped his decisions at Fastenal for more than a decade, and will help him shape the strategy for 2014 and beyond.

The Daily News sat down with Oberton this week to talk about work, family and the future of Fastenal. The interview has been edited for clarity.

What sums up 2013 for you and for Fastenal?

It was a very challenging year. And I think two things really kind of frame the year.

One is that in 2012, the second half of the year we made a decision to really slow down our hiring. And that prevented us from growing at the rate that we wanted to.

The other is that it has been a difficult manufacturing economy. When I look at the performance of our customers and the performance of our competitors along with ours, it tells me it was a difficult environment.

Is there anything in 2013 you would have changed?

I would have started hiring sooner. We started accelerating our hiring in June. If I would have done that in January, I think the second half of the year would have looked different.

What is your vision and strategy for the company in 2014?

Our strategy is really pretty simple. We are going to continue to add people in our stores to create more selling energy. We are going to stay very focused on hitting our growth goals.

It's not a lot of new things this year. But we will grow the business profitably. And if we get any help from the economy, I think we will have a very good year. If we don't get any help from the economy, I think we will still have a good year.

What are issues, challenges or trends you are keeping an eye on?

The big one is the manufacturing economy. (This week) the Industrial Supply Management report came out with a huge drop from where it was in December. And so that makes you worry. If it's correct it's going to be a little more headwind.

How can Fastenal adapt to that?

We can't accept the fact that the economy isn't growing. We just have to go out and take share.

We have been outgrowing the economy for basically every year of our existence. We are just not outgrowing it enough right now.

So if there isn't more business, the only way you grow is to take business from someone else, and bring better value to clients and customers.

Why have the vending machines been so successful?

It's a better way to deliver product. It's more efficient because we know what the customer is using. And we can deliver just what they need when they need it.

The analogy I use is if my grocer paid very close attention to my Cheerios and milk and bread, they would know that every seven days they could deliver that to my house and I would use it. I wouldn't have to go to the store, and they would know what to deliver. It becomes very smooth when you understand what you need to do.

What is the future for vending? Has it reached saturation?

Not even close. Not even close. I think we aren't even at 10 percent of the potential. And this will probably change and grow as we see more things. The sky is basically the limit.

What's the next big idea, product or service coming from Fastenal in 2014?

Like I said earlier, it's going to be sticking to the basics this year. We need to get our growth back. And the easiest way to do it is to remove the clutter. And a lot of times clutter is clutter of the mind.

We are going to keep it very, very straightforward, profitable growth. And that is the mantra to our employees. And it's going to be kind of boring old Fastenal.

We just have to stay very focused. The easiest way to do that is not introduce distractions.

What is Fastenal's longer-term strategy?

We will continue to expand our international business. We will continue to work hard developing broader product lines.

In the last five years, we have been far more aggressive in selling industrial cutting tools. We have become better in safety products and personal protection items.

As we broaden and deeper our products, it creates greater opportunity in every market. Take the Winona market as an example. When we went from fasteners to all these other products, it allowed that store to grow much more rapidly.

What are some long-term trends Fastenal will need to watch?

We have to stay very focused on what the web does. And how it changes our customer habits. We have a good team watching that, understanding it and building our systems.

It's a game-changer. People's habits are different. We need to adapt or adjust our business to take advantage of what that means. And we are not sure what that means today.

The other is the technology inside the plant with vending and automated replenishment systems. Because both of those, web and vending are more efficient when they are done well. And efficiency is going to be key to profitability and growth.

Why is work-life balance so important to you? And how do you balance family, self and running Fastenal?

First you have to prioritize and decide what you really want to do.

It's easier now, but years ago, I said it was really simple for me. I want to do very well at work, I want to be a good father, and I want to be a good husband.

And everything else got slid out. I worked and I hung out with my family. And the other thing I realized was that I needed to work out to get my head clear. And so I found out exercise was the way to make me think better, make me feel better, and so I became a runner, then a biker and a cross-country skier.

And in my spare time I prioritized around my family. I coached soccer for nine years. I didn't know much about soccer, but I knew kids. And I figured it out. It was real simple. I wanted to hang out with my daughters.

My kids weren't going to wait for me. I couldn't delay my career, and I couldn't delay my family.

I also realized that putting in long hours doesn't necessarily mean you are doing a better job. I'm very focused on working at work. Not that I am so good at it, but if I'm here eight hours, I'm going to try and get nine hours done. And I am not afraid to take off early.

Any final thoughts on the company and the future?

I think 2014 will turn out to be a good year. Maybe not a great year. If the economy were to turn positive, we have the potential for a very good year.

I will bet on Fastenal for the long run. No question about it. Because the market is so good, we have a great team and we are very motivated.

That's one of the positives of having some bad quarters. You become very motivated. There is a positive in everything.

Copyright 2015 Winona Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(2) Comments

  1. epeterson12
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    epeterson12 - May 23, 2014 11:04 am
    Great article! Thank you for sharing.
  2. epeterson12
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    epeterson12 - May 23, 2014 11:00 am
    Good read. This was extremely well written.
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