Sometimes all it takes is a leap of faith. Or as industry veteran Bob Wanberg puts it, “You take a deep breath and jump in.”
That’s exactly what Forest Lake, Minn.-based Bongard Corp. has done in recent years. Through succession planning, strategic acquisitions and a commitment to its A-list staff, Bongard has enjoyed growth and increased revenues all while continuing to provide next-level customer service to its 15 industry lines it represents across five states.
Bongard’s mission statement says in part: “Our sales agency is committed to providing unwavering quality and service that exceeds our customers’ expectations. We continually look for ways to improve quality and add value to our services.”
For its recent efforts, Bongard Corp. is the 2017 Supply House Times Manufacturers Representative of the Year.
“There is something special here that you don’t find in a lot of places,” says Bongard founder Ron Bongard, the company’s CFO and part of its outside sales team.
Where it all started
Bongard broke into the business at age 25, working for a Luger Services, a small rep firm in Minneapolis. “We covered Minnesota, the Dakotas, the northern half of Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska, and had some really good lines,” he explains. “I decided I needed to leave the agency when our largest manufacturer made it known it was going factory-direct and would hire its own salesperson. I went to Al Luger and told him I think I have to leave, but didn’t know how soon I was going to do it. My future was cloudy there.”
Luger wanted to help Bongard stay in the business and gave him several lines, which led to Bongard Corp. being born in 1975. “He was hugely helpful in starting this business,” Bongard says. “Starting a rep business with no lines is difficult. I had one child and one on the way and had meager savings. The knowledge I gained from Al was extremely helpful. There are some very basic similarities with the agency today to the Luger agency, centered around the area of the importance of customer service.”
Bongard Corp. has continued to grow throughout the years, while recently undergoing an ownership change. Pete Mayer, Bongard’s son in law, purchased the agency and now represents the next generation as its owner and CEO. Mayer directs a sales team of 12 that drives sales for its lines throughout Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
“This young man is one of a kind,” Bongard says of his son in law. “Pete is a great motivator. He enjoys helping the team grow personally and professionally as they work toward their goals.”
Bongard’s succession plan was completed in 2013 and Mayer gives major credit to the company’s founder for setting the firm up for the recent success it has enjoyed.
“Ron is a huge mentor and a great friend,” says Mayer, who has been with Bongard for 18 years. “He has provided guidance and has let me make the decisions. He’s always been there to back me up. I put a lot of pressure on myself to meet Ron’s expectations. The only way I can let Ron down is not being out there moving the company philosophy forward.”
Meeting of the minds
As Mayer points out, half of Bongard’s staff has been with the firm for more than 10 years where the average age is 42, while the other half has been onboard for less than a year. Mayer is committed to having a blend of youth and experience on staff. “We constantly are developing new team members,” he says. “You strive to have a team that draws from experience and is motivated by today’s opportunities.”
Four people on the Bongard staff have experience running rep agencies, including Bongard, Mayer, Wanberg, the company’s business-development manager and outside sales team member, and Brian Nielson, who also works in outside sales. Wanberg and Nielson have a combined 68 years of industry experience.
Bongard Corp. purchased both of Wanberg’s and Nielson’s rep agencies, bringing a wealth of knowledge and experience into the firm. Nielson brings a particular HVAC focus to the table, a market Bongard has plans to expand into in the future.
“It was a transitional time for my agency,” Nielson explains. “As far as agencies in this market, it was a very short list for me. I called Pete to see if there was a good fit. I joined last year and it’s been quite a learning curve. My agency was lean and mean and now I’m here at a full-service agency with an incredible staff that is second to none.”
Wanberg is a case study to the firm’s commitment to provide over-the-top service to its customers and the manufacturers it represents. “Bob travels from southeast Wisconsin to northwest North Dakota,” Bongard says. “He’s out there helping the guys grow the business and he’s been extremely effective at it. It takes a special person to do that job and he excels at it. A lot of guys don’t like doing that pioneering work.”
Wanberg adds: “This is my biggest passion. I’m helping us look for new markets for our manufacturers. We want our customers to win.”
Nielson notes a setup such as Wanberg’s isn’t seen too often in the industry. “A lot of times you won’t see that type of investment. To have one person be able to do that is a major asset,” he says.
The outside sales team also features Mayer’s younger brother, Mark, who is Bongard’s sales manager and has been instrumental in the opening of the company’s Wisconsin office. Mark Mayer started out as a summer college intern and then moved to North Dakota outside sales. He’s been with the company full-time for 10 years and is heavily involved with ASPE and the company’s dealings with engineers and architects. Mark Mayer also is in the midst of obtaining his CPMR certification and will become the fourth Bongard employee to earn the designation.
Mike Smeed has been with Bongard for four years and came to the company with experience as a plumbing contractor, a vocation he practiced for 20 years. “Having Mike’s experience has helped us with our relationships with contractors,” Pete Mayer says. “He’s done an excellent job with remodelers and builders.”
Smeed adds: “I’m very fortunate to have landed at this agency. There are a lot of great agencies out there, but I feel like I landed at the best. I feel like a lot of people would love to have my job.”
Jeff “Ace” Vollmer, another industry veteran, joined the company at the same time Wanberg did. He works out of the Milwaukee area and has deep relationships with distributors Bongard works with. One of the company’s newest team members is Max Woodrich, a recent South Dakota State graduate who has been with the company for a year and handles outside sales in North and South Dakota. Mark Mayer points to Vollmer and Woodrich living in their respective territories as a major bonus for the company. “This allows us to call on contractors, engineers and builders in those areas on a day-to-day-basis,” he says.
“Very few agencies find a cross-section of experience and product knowledge like we have here,” Nielson says. “That allows us to focus on sales and doing the best job we can serving our markets.”
The recent influx of talent means Bongard can provide greater coverage to its territories. “We have more people and that means smaller, more focused territories,” Wanberg explains. “Now we have more people and more experience and that’s huge for us. Passion is a huge part of this company. Passion is ageless.”
To a person, Bongard’s outside sales staff says growth and sustained success doesn’t happen without the presence of the company’s revered inside sales staff.
That group includes Office Manager Kathy Schug, the longest-tenured employee at Bongard, along with Bob Bongard (Ron’s son and a 23-year company veteran) and newcomers Ryan Varva and Steve Johnson, who each have been with the firm for a year. Schug started with the company in 1988, while Bob Bongard joined in 1992. Johnson has 21 years of rep experience as well as a deep knowledge of plumbing showrooms. Varva previously worked in product development and testing for a manufacturer.
“The outside and inside people are mutually important,” Schug says. “The outside guys are the face of Bongard and the face of our manufacturers we represent. We’re the people who handle the quotes and orders and take care of any problems. We’re the hands-on technical people so our outside guys can go out and sell. Customers trust us and know they can come to us.”
Varva adds: “This is the type of company where everybody helps each other out.”
Johnson is appreciative of the infrastructure support the inside team receives. “Pete invests in this company, especially on the technology side,” he explains. “We have great computer systems, new high-speed internet and other great tools. If we have a suggestion, he listens.”
Pete Mayer doesn’t mince words when talking about the folks who work on the second floor of the company’s headquarters, which also includes 17,500 square feet in warehousing space.
“Our inside sales staff is the backbone of this agency,” he says. “Our customers are asking for answers in various forms now whether it’s text, email or on the phone. I am amazed how quickly they respond and how strategic they are. They make great decisions and help solve problems for our customers. I can’t tell you how many times I’m in a meeting or on calls and it starts with the customer telling us how great our inside sales team is. They put us in a fabulous position and that allows us to focus on selling products instead of solving problems.”
Ron Bongard adds: “The people upstairs (inside sales) are responsible for us keeping the doors open. We know how important they are.”
Taking care of business
Bongard has represented nine of its lines for more than 10 years with Cresline, Oatey, Elkay, Norwesco, B-Line Systems and Berry Plastics clocking in at more than 20 years of company representation.
“We want to make sure the people on our team are reinforcing things such as our customer commitment, culture, teamwork and work ethic,” Pete Mayer says. “We take that very seriously. When we look for manufacturer partners, we look at the same types of things, how they go to market and their support of the customer. If a manufacturer gives someone their word, it has to be their bond. Customers want to work with manufacturers that take care of them. We’re protective of that. We look for strong partners in the supply chain. We have passed up opportunities because they were not a fit with our culture.”
Guardian Equipment, which manufacturers emergency eyewash and shower equipment, enjoys a close working relationship with the Bongard staff. “The plumbing industry is about relationships,” Guardian’s Travis McKnight says. “Bongard has spent years building a reputation for honesty and reliability. If they say they are going to do something, they do it. They have been Guardian’s eyes and ears in their respective territories and have done a great job calling on distributors, contractors, engineers, architects and end users.”
Bongard has been a Liberty Pumps rep for a little less than a year. Liberty Vice President of Sales Chuck Schwabe has been impressed with what he’s seen in a short amount of time. “Bongard invested in a display trailer that takes Liberty products directly to a customer’s place of business,” he said. “The live product demos are one of the best ways to grow our business.”
Pete Mayer notes Bongard is equally focused on its relationships with the wholesale distribution channel. “Distributors are extremely important and are our lifeblood,” he says. “All our sales efforts are driven through distributors and pulled through contractors, builders, specifying engineers or kitchen and bath designers. Our distributors drive those products through. Distributors are facing some threats and concerns in the supply chain and that has created good opportunities for rep agencies. We will continue to work with our distributor partners. They are the ones keeping our products in the channel.”
Janelle Grim, Central regional sales manager at Fluidmaster, notes since Bongard started repping her company’s products, market penetration in their respective territories has greatly increased. “They have a strong sense of fully understanding their manufacturers’ needs and focus,” she says. “It’s clear that is the Bongard culture. They care about not only the manufacturers’ business, but what is right for the distributor. They saw a need on both sides and took the necessary steps to grow Fluidmaster within their markets.”
Thermadyne-Turbo Torch West Sales Director Jerry Arnold reports Bongard’s efforts also have led to healthy volume and market-share growth with the company’s products. “What they do is not rocket science. It’s basic blocking and tackling in this business environment,” he says. “They have built great relationships upstream and downstream that make for a successful business. Their brute perseverance and commitment to doing the job has yielded performance beyond expectations.”
Mark Mayer states another differentiator for Bongard is its customer commitment throughout the sales process. “We focus on service after the sale and making sure we are training people on the products we represent,” he says. “We have very good hunters and very good farmers where our people are creating new opportunities and then coming back and providing that critical service, training and pull-through.”
And those Bongard-repped products have been placed in recent times in numerous high-profile Twin Cities projects including the new Minnesota Vikings stadium and the ongoing construction of the state-of-the-art Athletes Village on the campus of the University of Minnesota.
“The Bongard team goes one step further creating new ways to drive business,” says Pamela Hamilton, director of national accounts at Elkay. “They are very connected and integrated with Elkay as a partner, providing a great balance between Elkay and our wholesaler/distributor customers. We polled many different functional areas within Elkay, and without exception, all hold Bongard in the highest regard and consider them extensions of Elkay.”
InSinkErator Director of Sales-East Rebecca Falish adds: “Bongard epitomizes what you want in a rep agency. I always tell people we should thank Pete and Mark’s parents because they instilled integrity, dedication and respect that makes them such an A-team agency. They take their character and breed it within their agency.”
|BONGARD CORP. AT A GLANCE|
|Location: Forest Lake Park, Minn.|
|Territories: Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin and the UP of Michigan.|
|Key management: Pete Mayer (owner, CEO and outside sales), Ron Bongard (founder, CFO, outside sales), Mark Mayer (sales manager, outside sales) Sales staff: 12 (8 outside sales, 4 inside sales)|
|Warehouse facility: 17,500 square feet with 1 acre of fenced outside storage.|
|Lines represented (15): Berry Plastics, B-Line Systems, Cresline, Easy Heat, Elkay Mfg. Co., Fluidmaster, InSinkErator, Legend Valve (as of 6-1), Liberty Pumps, Mansfield Plumbing Products, Mason Industries, Metal Fab, Norwesco, Oatey Supply Chain Services, Turbo Torch.|
|Industry association memberships: AIM/R, ASPE, Plumbing Heating/Cooling Manufacturers Club, PHCC, NKBA, NARI, MWDA, ASA, Builders Association of Twin Cities, Builders Exchange|
Positioned for continued success
Pete Mayer says Bongard will continue on its growth path, particularly with its ability to harvest the knowledge of the subject-matter experts it has on staff. “Brian (Nielson) has HVAC relationships that have allowed us to grow deeper into that segment without straining our core business,” he says. “That’s a segment we intend to grow over time. Piping products and finished plumbing is in our DNA and our core focus. However, we want to provide service to markets that are important to our customers. Having that expertise and experience in multiple categories provides the framework for future growth.”
Oatey Supply Chain Services Midwest Regional Sales Manager Mason Oatey also has seen Bongard Corp. work its magic in very short order. “In less than a year, Bongard has assisted Oatey in finding new opportunities within markets we already have a strong presence in,” he says. “Additionally, the ‘feet on the street’ approach from the team at Bongard in Minnesota and South Dakota has benefitted Oatey by improving the company’s ability to build demand with wholesalers and contractors alike.”
Bongard’s growth also centers on its deep involvement in many industry organizations, including AIM/R (where Pete Mayer is on the board of directors) and ASA (Mayer is on the Plumbing Advisory Council there).
“The networking, education and best practices aspects with these organizations are great,” Pete Mayer says. “The industry has been very good to us and we want to give back in whatever way we can.”
In a constantly changing business environment, Pete Mayer feels there is no better time to be a PHCP-PVF rep. “We are getting asked to do a lot of different things by manufacturers and customers,” he says. “We must adapt and become more efficient and make sure our services increase. We welcome the opportunity to add value to the supply chain.”
This article was originally titled “All in” in the June 2017 print edition of Supply House Times.