Supply House Times recently caught up with Winsupply Vice President of Vendor Relations Eddie Gibbs to talk about the national distributor’s relationship with its manufacturers representatives. Winsupply, which now has nearly 600 locations around the country, takes a proactive approach with its reps (it works with about 1,000 reps), going so far as to hold successful Rep Summit and Rep Council events where Winsupply executives and local company presidents have the opportunity to talk to their reps about a wide-variety of industry and market-specific topics, such as the communication chain between distributor, rep and manufacturer. Gibbs will be speaking on this very topic at the AIM/R 46th annual conference, Sept. 12-15, 2019, in Napa, California.
How high is the value Winsupply places on manufacturers reps?
EG: With the inception of our Rep Council (which has about 20-22 members on it) a little more than four years ago our thinking around reps has changed. Before that, like a lot of distributors we had some thoughts about reps that were not on the positive side. But during one of these Rep Council meetings, Bill Freeman (of Orlando-based rep Spirit Group) said, “We are just like you.” That was stunning. We had an epiphany there in 2014. Reps are small businesspeople. Our local owners are small businesspeople and the contractors, for the most part, are the same. It seemed like we had an awful lot in common and we should try to take advantage of that, especially with all the changes in the market and the ones to come in the future.
Quite frankly, even if we did not have the ownership structure we have, a rep could have told me that same thing 25 years ago when I worked at Hughes Supply and it would have been eye-opening. Reps maybe have been looked at negatively by distributors, but our Rep Council has changed that thought pattern. We involve the reps more. One thing we picked up very quickly is the reps are closer to the marketplace than the vendor executives calling on Winsupply at the parent company level.
We have 20 or more national account managers from vendors. We had them in and asked who was supposed to keep the reps in the know about what is going on at Winsupply. They didn’t have a good answer. Now, we’ve developed a website just for reps and have developed ways to get feedback with the Rep Council and through the rep summits. The whole mystique surrounding reps has changed at Winsupply. We promote the fact they are a key ingredient for the success of our local companies and a key ingredient in the success of our vendors.
How does Winsupply best utilize rep agencies?
EG: Reps are out there to create brand awareness and create value for their products and vendors in the market. The rep is out there when a new product or line comes out. Distributors still look at the rep as their main place to get market intelligence. I’m not discounting contractors, but the rep is in the same market and can provide an awful lot of market intelligence.
We’ve also encouraged both the local company presidents and reps to be inquisitive about each other’s businesses. Mr. Rep, where do you fit in with our local company’s business? Mr. Local President, have you asked your rep where you fit in the rep’s business and in his vendor’s business? If you do business together it’s important to understand where each company fits. Our guys look at a rep as a neutral, trustworthy consultant. If you have that as a cornerstone, then you can have that discussion about where you fit in each other’s business. In both instances, both parties benefit and long-term for the rep, it benefits his vendor.
In your opinion, how do you see the rep function evolving?
EG: Reps have to help distributors sell something on purpose by making them whiz kids when it comes to knowledge about the product. Make them the go-to “Shell Answer Man” for contractors to add value in their markets in the future. A vendor can’t do that via a website. They have to provide market intelligence and do face-to-face training with a contractor’s techs and distributors and their salespeople. They have to obsess about doing it. How can they train one more person to become as effective and efficient as possible so the product becomes even more user-friendly? The more you know about it the more likely you will use it.
This article was originally titled “Being proactive with your reps makes a difference” in the June 2018 print edition of Supply House Times.