For as long as she can remember, Mallory Nichols has enjoyed innovating and talking strategy. She didn’t think twice about earning a business degree after high school, which she did at Auburn University in Alabama, focusing on small business and entrepreneurship. But joining her family’s company was never the endgame.
“It’s interesting because my mom used to suggest I go into sales because she thought I was smart, competitive, and good with people,” shares Nichols. “And I figured business and sales go hand-in-hand, so it made sense to me. I knew I’d go into business. But not because I planned to join Advance.”
Advance Components was built by her grandfather, Doug Berry, in 1972. The Texas-based company is a master stocking distributor of specialty fastening products and just celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. In 2006, Berry’s health began to fail, and he asked his daughters — Nichols’ mother, Suzy Cravens, and her aunt, Pam Berry — to take over the company.
Neither had experience in the fastener industry, but they agreed and began the sharp learning curve as owners of the fastener business. Gary Cravens, Nichols’ father, also joined and is the current company president.
“I think my parents wanted me to have my own experiences with opportunities to make my own career choices, so we never really discussed the family business, even after I graduated,” she said. “If I did end up there, it would be something that I eventually came to on my own.”
Experience is exactly what Nichols got. After university, she spent a couple of years in IT recruiting for high-tech businesses, including Fortune 500 companies. Then, she changed paths and went into software sales.
“I both loved and hated this type of sales,” she laughs. “I truly loved how fast-paced the job was, and especially enjoyed meeting new people. And I loved the competition but hated the pressure. Over time, I could see how this type of never-ending hustle would lead to burnout.”
At about the time Nichols moved into sales, her father approached her about considering a future with Advance Components.
“He told me that I didn’t have to decide right away, but that it was something to consider over the next few years if it interested me,” she shares. “You know, the fastener business takes time to learn, and my dad wanted to plan ahead so he could, at least, partially retire at a certain point. So, he said we could keep the business in the family for another 50 years…if I wanted to be a part of it.”
Eventually, Nichols decided that was exactly what she wanted. About two years after that initial chat with her father, the ideal position opened at Advance for inside sales. Nichols was ready for it.
“I think the timing worked out perfectly,” she says. “It was important for me to first get a solid foundation of working out in the world and in businesses without my parents at the helm.”
The opportunity with Advance allowed Nichols to expand her skill set. The role involved far fewer sales pitches, focusing more on account maintenance and operations. It also meant learning about an entirely new industry.
“To be honest, at first it was a bit of a culture shock,” she admits. “I was used to high-pressure sales where I could barely trust co-workers not to steal my accounts. The fastener industry was so open and friendly in comparison. And there was so much to learn! In fact, I’ve been here five-and-a-half years now, and I’m still learning every day.”
Nichols spent the first part of her time with Advance gaining an understanding of the business, its competitive edge, the demands of the industry, and the challenges manufacturers face, as well as how the different sectors within the world of fastening work together.
“We offer an interesting niche at Advance Components as we represent domestic manufacturers and most of our parts are highly engineered fasteners and receiving parts. So, we are a true master stocking distributor,” she explains. “This means we don’t service VMIs or end-users but sell to other distributors and then service those endpoints.”
Advance Components is unique in that the company services both small-volume orders of highly engineered parts and covers blanket orders. This means it will bring in a large order of some hundred-thousand parts or more and release them in small amounts, so a distributor does not need to house them in their own warehouse.
“I consider us the little worker bees of the industry,” she laughs. “We do all of the work most suppliers and distributors don’t want to do. We take on the pain points for others by stocking parts and having them readily available when needed so that distributors can buy them in smaller amounts.”
Today, Nichols’ role has changed, and she currently serves as the Vice President of Business Development for Advance.
“I’ve been given the chance to dust off my old sales jacket, so to speak, which I used to wear cold calling and hunting down new business and new opportunities. It’s great I get to do that again, but from a place where I’m much more comfortable and extremely proud of what we offer.”
The position coincided with Nichols going back to school for her MBA, which she has halfway completed. Since joining Advance Components, Nichols has also fully immersed in the fastener industry, serving as the president of the Young Fastener Professionals (YFP) program. YFP provides support, education, and mentorship to young fastener professionals.
She’s also on the board for the Women in the Fastener Industry (WIFI) and is responsible for its marketing and social media. WIFI provides opportunities for women at all levels of experience in the fastener industry to connect, network, and learn.
“When I decided to join my family’s fastener business, I decided to fully become a part of the fastener industry, as well. I feel it’s the best way to learn and become successful,” Nichols says. “I also think these organizations are vital for connecting the industry. I mean take WIFI, for example, which gives much-needed visibility to women and a place to feel supported.”
After more than five years with Advance Components, Nichols is still as eager as her first day with the company.
“We’ve been focusing on growing the business in a much more streamlined and efficient way, so it’s exciting to strategize the best technology and automation solutions to do so — which is also greatly supporting the roles of our employees,” she says. Advance has a tight-knit crew, with just over 30 employees.
“We have the best team,” Nichols adds. “They all feel like family, and that’s a good thing in business. I definitely made the right career choice.”