Keys to being the “Perfect Link” in the Supply Chain

New Research from the National Center for the Middle Market Discovers What Makes Middle Market Companies the Ideal Link in the Supply Chain

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The largest and fastest-growing middle market firms with successful supply chains develop deep, collaborative relationships with their most important customers, according to new research from The National Center for the Middle Market (NCMM).

“To become the perfect link in the supply chain, firms need to narrow their focus to one or two key customers, use third-party logistics providers (3PLs), and consider sharing ideas with peers by joining a supplier council,” according to NCMM Executive Director Thomas A. Stewart. 

Middle market companies occupy a unique position in American business where they are often critical links in the supply chains of other larger companies. Future research needs to be conducted in this area of supply chain management so companies can learn how to properly succeed as a perfect link.

It seems counterintuitive, but the most successful middle market customers minimize diversity in their customer base and instead focus their efforts on a few noteworthy customers. These supply chain links create critically important partnerships, allowing them to make proper adjustments based on customer needs. In fact, the research shows that 34 percent of middle market firms rely heavily on just one or two critical customers compared to only 16 percent who are spread out over many different customers.

“As with customer relationships, supplier relationships are critical,” said NCMM Managing Director Doug Farren. “The best performing middle market companies’ work collaboratively with their top suppliers, often integrate business information systems, and recognize the value of 3PL partners.”

Typically, middle market firms handle supply chain management in-house, but sometimes a third party is needed to enhance a middle market company’s ability to meet customer requirements for speed, accuracy and safety. The research finds that about 53 percent of middle market businesses use 3PL to manage aspects of the supply chain, primarily transportation and warehousing. By enlisting a 3PL partner, a middle market firm can improve service and gain greater visibility in the supply chain.

A growing trend among larger firms in the middle market, along with those that are experiencing growth, has been to join supplier councils. About 40 percent of middle market firms participate in these groups, which help them learn best practices and collaborate on how to solve problems, as well as review metrics and key performance indicators.

Overall, the biggest middle market companies make the most effective supply chain links. However, size isn’t critical. Middle market companies of all shapes and sizes that adopt the practices of top performers stand to benefit by improving service levels and enhancing their value to their most important customers, which can lead to revenue growth. 

Challenges for Supply Chain Management

The most challenging aspect of supply chain management is competition, followed by the need to fulfill customer desires and addressing the intricacies of a complex supply chain. While the larger middle market companies are most likely to be successful suppliers, they also face more intense challenges. In fact, approximately half of businesses with $100 million or more in revenue cite these negotiations as a major challenge.

For additional research data and infographics, including in-depth looks at regional variations, hiring/talent acquisition efforts and other business concerns among middle market companies, visit

About the Survey

The National Center for the Middle Market surveyed 400 C-suite middle market leaders from companies that serve as supply links to other organizations that either sell direct to consumers or that perform additional manufacturing/assembly/distribution processes. All leaders surveyed have direct involvement in managing customer and supplier relationships for their firms. The Center designed the survey to identify supply chain management practices and attitudes, to understand the dynamics of both customer and supplier relationships, and to learn how middle market suppliers approach supply chain risk. We aimed to pinpoint key differences in how the best-performing, fastest-growing suppliers operate in each of these key areas as compared to their slower-growing peers. Respondents completed the 15-minute, self-administered survey online between February 27, 2017 and March 18, 2017. This report was prepared by the National Center for the Middle Market, in association with the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP) and with input from a number of subject matter experts from the Center’s sponsors.