Incoming Ingram Micro VP Paul Hager: ‘Time To Reinvent Distribution’s Role’

“This is the time to reinvent distribution’s role and really influence and really advocate for our partners—because they need help. It’s not sales help. They’ve sold it. They need help now executing it,’ Ingram Micro’s incoming vice president of services, Paul Hager, tells CRN.

Before he’s even stepped into his new role as vice president of services for the U.S. at Ingram Micro, Paul Hager already has ideas for his earliest days at the distributor and what an effective distributor looks like in today’s channel.

Alhough specifics will come after he’s adjusted to the new role, Hager echoes a sentiment Ingram Micro has expressed since at least its Cloud Summit 2022 event in May—the Irvine, Calif.-based distributor is investing in new tools and services at a time when distribution has taken on new importance for the vendor-partner relationship.

“This is the time to reinvent distribution’s role and really influence and really advocate for our partners— because they need help,” Hager told CRN in an interview. “It’s not sales help. They’ve sold it. They need help now executing it. And where are the resources going to come from when talent is so tight to find? When the demands for digital transformation aren’t just about moving Office 365 mailboxes anymore—it’s really, ‘Transform my business.’”


Hager, director of solutions at MSP Elevity IT, will join Ingram Micro in September. He said he wants his appointment to tell MSPs that Ingram Micro is serious about rising to the challenge.

For Microsoft partners, for example, distributors have been a resource during the adoption of the vendor’s New Commerce Experience partner program changes rolled out this year and for preparing for upcoming Partner Capability Scores launching in October.

Ingram Micro named Paul Bay CEO in January. Bay has spoken about the distributor’s investment in new tools, including the new XVantage web portal, a portal more akin to a “digital twin” of various offerings from the distributor, according to Sanjib Sahoo, Ingram Micro’s executive vice president and global chief digital officer.

Hager wants Ingram Micro and distribution to act as a resource at a time when being an MSP means exploring multiple vendor partnerships, for example, a time with worker scarcity and needing to promise higher wages to land top talent.

“I have a little bit of fear and trepidation about, well, how expensive would it be to have an AWS architect, a Google architect, a Microsoft architect, with all the certifications I’d have to pay for?” Hager said. “Oh my gosh, that’d be a lot. That’s an opportunity. And that’s opportunity where distribution and others, from a training, enablement, empowerment standpoint can help.”

Here’s what else Hager had to say to CRN.

What’s top of mind once you’re in the new job?

Coming from the partner side—I’ve owned and operated and sold MSPs before—goal No. 1 is to just get my arms around my friends in distribution.

I’ve had the honor and privilege of getting to know Ingram from the customer perspective for well over 10 years. I was the past president of the SMB Alliance community. And so I’ve got pretty good knowledge from the customer side. Now it’s time to get behind the curtain and really understand the inner workings of the organization and really work with Kirk [Robinson, Ingram Micro executive vice president and president of North America] and setting that strategy.

Them bringing me on is a clear indication that they’re ready to listen and we’re going to shake some stuff up, and we’re going to make a difference. And because that’s what I want to do. I took the role to make a difference in the industry to my peers, the people that I sat alongside and built my MSP with that are still doing their thing, running their VAR, running their MSP successfully.

I took the role to help them and give them even more voice and I think it just shows Ingram’s commitment to the partner to bring a partner in there and do it.

We’ve got some ideas, but I want to hit the ground running. And I think we can start to share what the plan will look like once I get a few weeks done.

Is this an important time for distributors in the channel?

Yes, I would agree. It’s a very important time for distributors in the channel to keep their ear even closer to the ground for the needs of the partner. And they have a space here. They have a really critical supportive role as the pace of change in the industry changes.

Distribution can help be that space between the giants like Microsoft on a change like NCE and the partner—helping them understand, train it, enable it and provide additional resources to do it.

So I do think it’s a critical time for distribution to have more resources. And then there is a talent gap across the board.

I still am, for a few more days, in the shoes of somebody trying to fill so many roles with so much competition for talent. Ingram plays a critical role and can take their size and their scale to really advocate for partners. And they have resources. As I’ve learned, that might be the best-kept secret is how many services, resources Ingram really has. How many organizations they’ve acquired over the years. And I think it’s a critical time for them to bring that expertise to bear and really help partners execute.

Why have you worked with Ingram for so long?

Through all the acquisitions and mergers, we always bring it back home to Ingram. Sometimes through my M&A, I’ve met organizations that are like, ‘Why do you have that relationship with distribution? Distribution is just whom I buy stuff from. I go and I get quotes and I compare them and whoever’s cheapest is, I think, where my office manager buys it from.’

That’s one description of distribution. And that’s never been me. I’ve seen the value in building a partnership and a strategic partnership.

I was reminiscing with some of my staff. … I‘ve been in the foxhole for 10 years and I can still remember the biggest seven-figure deal, one of the bigger seven-figure deals that we ever sold. And Ingram’s financing made that possible.

I have these memories of when our business really needed it, they were there as a strategic partner in whatever that meant. Maybe that meant enablement. Maybe that meant financing. And so that’s what’s kept me loyal—all the stuff that’s above and beyond.

That’s more than, yes, they have reliably made sure our laptops have arrived on time for our customers. … At the start of our Microsoft journey ... I said, ‘Look, Microsoft is going to be where the money’s going to be at. And we need to stop doing third-party hosted email.’

We need to go the Microsoft path because we can sell it now. Ingram started that. There wasn’t a tier-one CSP [cloud solution provider] at the time, or at least not that was available to an MSP at the moment.

And so they gave us that start. And we built a whole book of business around it and grew it to a substantial business that had an impact on my exit.

So I can look back to these critical moments where Ingram partnership in cloud and financing in relationships made a difference to our business.

Is it a good time to have a channel partner business?

There’s always a great time to be in the channel. I think partners will be here because the gap between what technology is and how to make it meaningfully transform your business is always going to be very wide.

And so there will always be a great time for channel partners. It is also very challenging from that resource piece, that services piece, which is what I’ve been talking to Kirk a lot about over the last month and a half.

This is the time to reinvent distribution’s role and really influence and really advocate for our partners— because they need help. It’s not sales help. They’ve sold it. They need help now executing it. And where are the resources going to come from when talent is so tight to find? When the demands for digital transformation aren’t just about moving Office 365 mailboxes anymore—it’s really, ‘Transform my business.’

How do I build a house without interacting with humans anymore because COVID’s changed the world? Every partner has the relationship with the end user, which is so critical.

They have the big ‘T’—trust—do they have someone that’s going to have their back to help them ultimately execute for that? And I believe Ingram will. And we’re going to make sure they have the services available so that those partners can execute, win those deals and be a differentiator.

Anyone who says distribution is just where I get my laptops from, I’ll sit down with them and I’ll tell them about why I made that strategic decision and why I believe so much in it that I picked my family up from Wisconsin and moved to California.

What’s your advice for being an effective MSP nowadays?

My advice is to be really focused on your differentiator and your technology stack and to build a really good set of processes around how you pick what your stack looks like.

And then go to market with great strength and vigor around that solution offering. Certainly, sell it as you. This is your offering. This is—insert MSP’s name—offering. No bronze package. No silver. No gold. … Build a really good process and have confidence behind the way it looks like.

And then, go find the top 25 percent of the top 25 percent of customers that are willing to pay that win-win price for what you’re offering.

There’s a lot of small businesses or even larger businesses that are not digitally mature and aren’t going to buy what they need to buy in order to protect themselves in the modern era.

And MSPs need to have confidence in their offering. They need to have a good enough one, but then the confidence in their offering to say, ‘You either take my offering, or you can go work with an immature partner that is going to sell you an inferior solution and let me know—after the breach event—how that worked out for you.’

And then move on to the next one. And be confident that there are enough win-win, technology-forward customers out there for you. … Own what you are and then go have confidence to win it.

And maybe that is the next challenge … you’ve got to have enough at the top of your funnel to have that level of confidence. You’ve got to be investing and leaning into marketing enough … invest in marketing.

Do partners need to explore having multiple vendor practices?

You should form some internal committee, whether that committee is you and two other people or 20 folks.

You should have a committee to be looking at and evaluating new technology—not always just the bleeding edge, evaluate whether they’ve got maturity.

One of my signs of maturity when interacting with new vendor partners is, ‘Are they through distribution? Are they vetted through a distributor in great shape or form?’

Or when they’re like, ‘Yeah, Bob still sends the invoice out. But don’t worry, we’re gonna secure all your customer networks with this new tool.’ Time to pump the brakes because there’s a lot of that. … The Microsoft friend in me would have answered this question I think a few years ago a little bit differently. I think you should have a Microsoft partnership. Maybe that’s a specific statement, not a general one.

I think the world is becoming inherently more multi-cloud. Whether you run a practice that eventually touches K-12, which brings in Google. Or brings you to a larger enterprise, which brings in more of an IBM feel that you have to interact with. Or you meet somebody who’s heavy into development and you’re not, AWS is probably going to be in that.

Well, if you as an MSP or you as a partner are trying to grow a practice, you need to be thinking about multi-cloud. The industry is telling us that multi-cloud management is one of those next waves, and I think that is true. I think all cloud is going to win in that. I don’t think that’s a statement that is anti-Microsoft or pro. … It’s pro-cloud. They’re all going to win.

And I think the modern partner needs to start building multi-cloud practices. Or probably already should have some. And this is maybe another place distribution can go. Maybe you core develop your team’s expertise around Microsoft, but lean on distribution services to flesh out your Google strategy when you need it, or your AWS when you need it.

And in that way, you can play in multi-cloud without having to train. And putting my MSP hat back on—I have a little bit of fear and trepidation about, well, how expensive would it be to have an AWS architect, a Google architect, a Microsoft architect, with all the certifications I’d have to pay for?

Oh my gosh, that’d be a lot. That’s an opportunity. And that’s opportunity where distribution and others, from a training, enablement, empowerment standpoint can help. … You should have multi-cloud as an option.

But without question, the differentiator has to continue to be your expertise. And whether you need to partner to get that expertise, or you have it internally, you need to be able to be an expert. And you need to be able to provide really solid advice to your end clients.

This is all about making sure the digital transformation of your end customer is as successful as possible. And understanding more than one vendor is probably going to be important to that journey.

Has peer-to-peer partnership always been important to you?

It’s always kind of been throughout the journey. And if you’re a Microsoft guy, Microsoft has been saying it for years, ‘Find a D365 [Dynamics 365, a Microsoft ERP application suite] partner. Buddy up. Don’t be wide at everything.’ … We’ve used Ingram‘s IM Link [networking platform]. That’s been a part of our story and our journey and our growth, which has been really helpful.

We’ve been on both sides. We both use the tool to get additional, supplemental help. And we’ve been a resource in that program to help others.

A great opportunity and place for distribution that’s got this reach into all these partners. And trust and legal documents, there’s some paperwork advantage to them being a connector to helping two partners work together to go deliver an end solution.

As long as we’re all competing for the top 25 percent of 25 percent of customers, there’s plenty of space for partners to be collaboratively working to achieve an outcome for a client.

There’s also a trust thing—maybe it’s my Midwesterner showing—but meeting people, building trust and knowing that those are the people you’re working with—we were at an Ingram SMB Alliance event where they heard me speak … We asked in that room … ‘How many of you are co-selling and working with another partner that’s also in this room?’ And it was like 85 percent of them. It was overwhelming. That partner-to-partner activity was going on.

What do you hope to see Ingram Micro offer in the future?

As we looked down the horizon—five and 10 years down the road—what’s most important is that Ingram is still there as an advocate for the partner and the channel community.

And that we’re still very well-aligned to what the industry looks like and how we’re helping them succeed in what the industry is looking like. Because it is going to be different. The landscape changes. The only thing constant is change in IT. It’s why we all love this industry.

And what I think what we’re committing to today at Ingram, and in this creation of this role, is what that future looks like. Ingram is going to be there with the right services offerings to make a difference for partners out into their future.

And we’ll provide that translation from the industry. As the industry changes, Ingram is at that table with the largest technology companies, translating that back into the channel community. And we won’t just provide it—you can buy the products from us. But you can buy solutions from us that are fully enabled with services so that as that world changes, we’re going to be there with you to help your business continue to grow and succeed.

What’s your message to vendors on how to work better with Ingram Micro?

I continue to challenge vendors to listen to their partners. Listen to the channel community about what the channel needs.

Vendors are phenomenal at creating the solutions of the future. And without their offerings, and without their support and their research, development, their vision, the industry doesn’t move forward.

Sometimes they get their technology ahead of the enablement. And the enablement that worked for partners five and 10 years ago isn’t the same enablement that partners need today.

And so as that world has changed, their channel needs to continue and to evolve and change. And the partners that I was most strategic with when I was an MSP were the ones that really understood that. That we spent time together in real, meaningful business planning sessions. And they understood our business, we understood theirs, and we could really swim together in the same direction.

And so my challenge to vendors is to continue to listen to the heart of the partner community. It’s really easy to put on your website that you’re 100 percent channel-focused. It’s really hard to deliver on that word, ‘focus.’

What does focus mean? Does focus mean that you’ve got a great program for the two largest VARs in the world, and they’re selling a lot of your stuff. Or does focus mean you have enabled this longtail of the community? Most of this world runs on small businesses, and they’re supported by small-business MSPs.

Have you enabled them and given them the tools and opportunities to take your amazing technology and products and bring them to market and make them be meaningful?