Some companies have a small-business, family-like culture. Some companies have data, analytics and resources like that of a corporate entity. And some companies have both.
That is certainly the case for Supply House Times' 2022 Manufacturers’ Rep of the Year: Coppell, Texas-based Southwest Sales.
Founded in 2000, Southwest Sales is led by a duo whose relationship has been through it all – Steve Elis, principal and CEO, and Kevin Taylor, principal and COO. Elis and Taylor each have 40 years of experience working in the plumbing and HVAC industries — both starting driving trucks and/or sweeping floors for a distributor in Arlington, Texas in the early 1980s. Prior to working together at Southwest Sales, the two also worked together as a team with large plumbing manufactures. For three years, they were working against each other for competing manufacturers before realizing that they were much more effective and successful on the same team.
The decades of experience coupled with differing strengths has built a leadership foundation which has created a dream team at Southwest Sales.
“Our strengths and weaknesses complement each other,” Elis says. “We’ve built a foundation of extreme trust, and it seems that wherever the two of us end up together, we find a great deal of success.”
In addition to trust, a common passion for the industry and competitive drive are what Taylor says brought the two together. “While working together at a family-owned plumbing supply house, we realized we were both extremely passionate, hard-working and competitive,” he says. “We realized early on that it was in our best interest to align our competitive natures rather than deploy them against each other.”
Today, Elis’ efforts are focused around finance, employee ownership, operations and strategic planning while — since 2019 — Taylor has taken the reigns of the rep business as president. “He is an incredible strategist when it comes to deploying assets and coordinating the implementation of strategies that result in increased sales, market share and margin,” Elis points out. “One distributor customer said it best: ‘No one knows all aspects of the supply chain and roles of each customer — plumber, builder or supplier — like Kevin does.’”
The remainder of the Principal team consists of Emily McDonald, vice president, director of builder sales and decorative products, Justin Pfeifer, vice president, central Texas and Houston manager, Ryan Wilkinson, vice president, north Texas manager, and Justin Elis, chief financial officer.
These folks aren’t only Principals, but owners of Southwest Sales — as are every single one of the company’s approximately 60 team members — 40 outside sales and 20 inside.
In 2014, Southwest made the switch to become employee owned. Each of the Principals agree this decision has been the most vital turning point, propelling the company to the success it enjoys today.
Southwest Sales has grown from built-from-scratch rep firm to one with an impressive line card of 17 major manufacturers spanning the residential and commercial plumbing, decorative products and lighting markets. For many of these manufacturers, when measured in revenue or units, Southwest Sales is their largest rep firm.
When talking to the employee team, passion and accountability are two of the most common adjectives used to describe the company. Being employee owned is the fuel that drives the deep enthusiasm for doing their best and the undeniable accountability you’ll find throughout every level at Southwest Sales.
“When people understand what employee ownership means, they’re driven to work harder because they understand it’s for their retirement, their bottom line, etc.,” McDonald says. “Our people truly take on an ownership mentality because we are an ESOP, and they take that mindset out into the various fields they serve, which is recognized and appreciated by our customers.”
To amplify its ownership and family-like culture, Southwest Sales has internal committees to keep the team informed, connected and motivated — a Culture Club, a Growth Team, a Strategy Team, an ESOP Communication Committee and it holds Town Hall meetings. These venues not only allow associates to express ideas and concerns, but also allow Southwest Sales to capture different points of view and implement prudent strategies that have been thoroughly considered by a large group of industry professionals.
Wilkinson notes that developing the ownership perspective McDonald mentions above is critical to the company culture. “We’ve got something really special here with the ESOP,” he says. “It has transcended into this level of peer accountability and peer motivation that is unmatched. No team member is left behind, and at the same time, every team member expects the best out of their peers.”
At any company, no one has more skin in the game than the owner. Justin Elis notes that at Southwest Sales, the ownership culture means every team member is a stakeholder. “The impact of driving value at our company is very tangible,” he says. “Our people directly see the value they add to the company with each sale. This type of financial transparency and accountability foster the environment where we all uphold and expect a certain standard of performance.”
Mark Helms, senior builder account manager at Southwest agrees wholeheartedly, saying after being with the company more than 15 years, he’s seen it get better and better each year. “Because we are all owners, there is a built in level of accountability and responsibility,” he says. “There is an intense desire to succeed because we don’t want to let our fellow owners down. The brands that we represent are benefactors of this passion, and the circle of success keeps feeding itself.”
This ownership mentality means that Southwest Sales takes a team approach to sales, rather than succumbing to distraction created by internal competition.
“I love that we take a team approach to everything,” says Heather Tiso, senior architectural and design specifications manager. “Rather than being in competition with each other, we are all working together to grow all of our lines. We can partner with other colleagues from different teams, bringing collaborative expertise to the table, to grow sales or win projects.”
The enthusiasm from within Southwest Sales floods to its external operations and partnerships.
“Our passion is definitely what makes us stand out,” says Tiffany Casey, senior builder account manager. “We love construction, we love distribution, and you can see that in our actions every single day.”
Casey adds that her favorite thing about Southwest Sales is the people who build the team — from the Principal level all the way throughout the entire company.
“Our Principal team leads by example. They are in the trenches every day with us and share the same intense desire to succeed that we do,” she says. “We hold each other accountable and we have fun together. We are like family. You want to work hard and succeed for people you like and respect, and that’s definitely the case here.”
Southwest Sales' manufacturer partners can vouch for the high-quality people the company employs. President of Delta Faucet Co., Ken Roberts, says, “Southwest Sales holds deep relationships with customers and a strong focus on attracting and developing the next generation of talent. Their business acumen, systems and strategy are all strong, but how they work with people inside and outside their organization is what makes them stand out.”
Simply put, Steve Elis summarizes the choice to become an ESOP as “game-changing.”
“Every dollar earned either goes to employee’s pockets now, or it is held and invested for their retirement; it’s a very tangible, motivating value,” he explains.
To ensure top-tier accountability, Southwest Sales is also extremely transparent with its financials.
“When we have a great month, everyone is excited. When we have a down month, everyone is scratching their heads trying to figure out how to be better,” Steve Elis says. “Embracing the ownership culture means everyone is collectively working together for the same goal.”
Everything is bigger in Texas and there is no exception when it comes to the number of people that Southwest Sales has on the street. Between the corporate Coppell, Texas office which holds 21 inside/administrative team members and 17 outside sales team members, the Houston office with 10 outside sales team members and Austin/San Antonio with nine outside team members, Southwest Sales is able to overwhelm the state with the number of people and coverage they are able to provide to customers and to manufacturers.
McDonald shares that “We are blessed to be in Texas and our goal is to provide an aligned statewide strategy where we can provide consistent messaging, service, and experiences whether you are in Dallas, Tyler or The Valley.”
Another major ways manufacturers’ reps roles have evolved over the years is the level of data, analytics and reporting that is expected of them. Southwest Sales has taken this task head-on, providing resources both internally and to manufacturer partners, mirroring that of a Fortune-500 company rather than the small-to-mid-size company it actually is.
Throughout the past couple of chaotic supply chain years, Taylor points to Southwest Sales’ alignment with the contractor as a huge benefit to distributors and manufacturers.
“We went from doing what we were built to do — to create customer demand for our manufacturers and distributors — to becoming an interface between our manufacturer, distributor and their customers (the contractor),” he explains. “We focused on obtaining and reporting critical inventory levels on a daily basis. Since we are strongly aligned with the contractor, we were able to provide real-time, on-the-ground information about what product was needed and where.”
Taylor adds that shortening the communication time between distributors and their customers added remarkable value throughout the supply chain. “We turned a really big issue into a tremendous opportunity,” he says.
Dale Field, director of sales at Rheem says Southwest Sales’ connection with the contractor is a key benefit to Rheem. “Southwest continues to invest in additional resources to support the Rheem brand,” he says. “They also have a strong focus on the downstream customer to generate demand and pull through back to Rheem’s distribution base.”
Southwest Sales has invested heavily in analytics and data to better support its customers. “Parts of the industry are still catching up technology-wise,” Pfeifer says. “Our team embraces technology by using our CRM, Power BI and other analytical tools to provide our customers with data they may bot have the capacity to produce on their end.”
Pfiefer adds that the sales strategy has shifted from systematically making sales calls to now using detailed analytics to drive behaviors, and most importantly, deliver a successful outcome.
“We’re in a unique position to be able to provide manufacturers and distributors with data and analytics in a much more efficient and granular view than many of them can generate within their own organizations,” he says.
Internally, analytics are used to support the ever-important accountability mentioned earlier.
“We’ve also been very intentional about using analytics to align desired behavior with incentive compensation,” Justin Elis says. “We measure our sales peoples’ performance based on metrics such as call coverage, sales performance, and then award incentive compensation and auto allowance based on these metrics. These things have made our employees more aligned with management objectives and it’s another way to boost motivation throughout the team.”
Just like with fitness, salespeople need measurements to objectively understand their performance. This year, Southwest Sales is deploying a sales dashboard for its sales associates which will give a quick snapshot of how each person or team is performing compared to the expectations that are set both internally and externally.
“As a rep, the expectations our manufacturers have of us are constantly climbing,” Steve Elis notes. “If we are going to meet those expectations, we have to analyze KPIs all the way down to the street level, and this dashboard is going to help us measure performance in real time.”
With all of the data and analytics tools Southwest Sales utilizes, clarity and transparency are the end goal.
“We take all of these tools — Power BI, Rep Fabric and others — and share them with our manufactures and employees,” McDonald says. “We offer complete transparency so at any given time a manufacturer can see that our goals and performance directly align with their own.”
To help maintain its momentum and create a strategic plan for each year, Southwest Sales creates a theme to help deliver actions based on its strategic direction. For 2020 the theme was “Survive or thrive?” As supply chains struggled, 2021’s theme was “Just keep swimming.” And for 2022, the team is working to “Cowboy up” as price increases hit and manufacturers begin to walk away from unprofitable business.
In addition to “Cowboying up,” Steve Elis says some goals for the year ahead are geographic expansion, leadership development, and facetiously, “world domination in the state of Texas.”
Even with big plans and goals ahead, the team takes time to reflect and note how far they’ve come.
There’s much to be proud of, but for Steve Elis, it’s ultimately about the value Southwest Sales beings to its employee owners. “I’m the most proud of the fact that what we do every day supports 60 different families,” he says. “Having employee ownership is truly life-changing, and it has enhanced every aspect of how we run our business.”
Taylor points out that the company has created true succession, which is something to be immensely proud of. “This leadership team — Justin Pfeifer, Justin Elis, Emily and Ryan — are doing things that Steve and I used to collectively do together, and they’re doing them in more innovated and efficient ways,” he says. “I’m proud that a couple of guys who used to work in a warehouse have created a sustainable business that is set up to succeed for years to come.”
Justin Elis is the newest member of the Principal leadership team, but he can already see the fire and passion each team member embodies daily, which has let to sales growth every single year since the Great Recession. “I’m so impressed that everyone in this organization get up every day with an appetite and desire to compete and win.”
With a constant focus on relationships, Wilkinson points to the company’s moral standard as something he takes pride in. “The values that we share are incredibly important,” he says. “We hold ourselves accountable more than any other company I’ve ever encountered. We stick to our commitments, and that builds our strong relationships.”
McDonald emphasizes the multi-layered family she’s gained from working at Southwest Sales. “I’m proud of how we operate as a family inside or organization and how we treat our manufacturers and partners out in the field like family as well,” she says. “We’ve created an amazing life for ourselves, and now we’re able to create it for 60 more people.”
All images by Daniel Motta Photography.