“Tempted by a robust Riverside, California home construction market in 1989, my wife Beverly and I set out to pursue the American Dream. We were convinced that by working hard, we could parlay a whole bunch of nothing into a little bit of something and were willing to risk all we owned,”
The above passage comes from a book called “Never Really Normal,” authored by Sig Schmalhofer, founder of California-based rep firm Signature Sales. The book tells the story of Schmalhofer’s ongoing desire to be an entrepreneur, outlining the history of his gutsy endeavors through good times and bad. Anyone interested in being an entrepreneur – or anyone just looking for an inspiring American Dream story – should give it a read.
After enduring several trying years during the early 1990s housing crash as owners of Cross Roads Pipe & Supply, Schmalhofer and his wife decided to sell his first plumbing supply business, not knowing that the next adventure would be one people write about 30 years later.
In 1993, an industry friend at Bradford White Water Heaters reached out to Schmalhofer with an offer he couldn’t refuse. Bob Carnevale, then President of Bradford White, had set out to introduce Bradford White to the West Coast market, and Schmalhofer was his first choice to cover the Southern California and Southern Nevada markets. Schmalhofer sold his wholesale business to and took on the challenge to represent Bradford White in a market where they had no presence.
A year later, Schmalhofer brought in a partner, Ron Bradford, and the two entrepreneurs hit the ground running with Signature Sales. “My dad started with an office in our dining room, a minivan and no customers,” says Katie Hubach, second-generation partner at Signature Sales. “It took a good year to get the business off of the ground.”
The Northridge earthquake of 1994 created a significant shortage of water heaters, setting up Signature Sales to fill the need with Bradford White water heaters.
Jim McGoldrick, vice president, sales at Bradford White says that while all of the company's reps are like extended family to Bradford White, no other agency personifies this more than Signature Sales.
“Our connection is deeply rooted and rich with history. We have a great appreciation and understanding of the genesis of the Signature Sales story which can’t be told without highlighting the courage, spirit and resolve of Sig and Bev Schmalhofer back in 1993,” he says. “Despite all of the head winds they faced, their commitment and determination never wavered, which makes their story extraordinary and a true American success story. It is no doubt a tough act to follow, but Nick, Katie and Jeremy have now taken the reigns and have done an incredible job as the successors.”
Today, the 30-year-old rep firm has more than 65 employees and represents 25 manufacturers in the states of California, Nevada, Hawaii and Arizona.
FAMILY TO ITS CORE
Schmalhofer and his wife called their family the “Fab Five.”
“We called ourselves the Fab Five: My wife Beverly, our three kids and me – a guy who sold water heaters, faucets and toilets for a living. We didn’t believe we were fabulous, but friends, neighbors and teachers likened us to TV’s ‘Ozzie and Harriet,” Schmalhofer says in his book.
Throughout the book you can tell the Schmalhofers always put their family first, and never let even the toughest of times burden their children. That commitment to family is still what drives Signature Sales today.
“It’s a huge blessing all these years later to be able to say that we have remained a family-driven business,” says Nick Schmalhofer, president of Signature Sales. “It’s incredible to watch our family grow along with the families of our employees.”
Hubach agrees, noting that seeing the growing Signature Sales family brings a deep sense of responsibility. “We look around the room at our annual Christmas party and feel so honored that these families trust us to do the right thing and keep the business strong,” she says. “It makes us even more motivated to ensure Signature Sales is positioned favorably for the future so these families can thrive.”
Tom Heffernan, outside salesmen at Signature Sales points out that the level of mutual respect is evident throughout the entire company. “Our founders, Ron and Sig, were two well-respected industry veterans who set the standard for Signature Sales and the second generation has carried on those family values,” he says. “The ownership truly takes care of their employees and have instilled in every team member that we treat customers with respect and we earn their respect in return.”
Signature Sales also puts a huge emphasis on teamwork. “We have a highly competitive group of outside salespeople” says Jeremy Crane, VP of sales. “But they’re going out every day trying to win for Signature Sales, not for themselves.”
Nick Schmalhofer agrees, pointing out that new employees will feel that teamwork culture right away. “When we have new employees join us they notice that everyone is pulling for them,” he says. “Our people aren’t protecting their own territory, they’re generous, helpful and willing to do whatever needs to be done for the benefit of the entire team.”
One of Signature Sales' outside salespeople, Kirk Livernash, says the level of teamwork and trust is unmatched.
"When you are in an environment that is positive, it allows you the freedom to be creative on how you approach each customer you deal with," Livernash says. "Everyone on the team has your back. While dealing with customers, my way may not have been how another would approach a particular sale, but there is mutual trust. We have very good relationships with our customers, and are always striving to make the relationships even better."
TURNING POINTS AND CHALLENGES
Growing from a two-man show to a team of more than 60 means there have certainly been some notable turning points throughout Signature Sales’ history. The company completed its first merger in 1998 with Rainbow Sales. “Owners Sharon and Russ Long were incredible mentors to Katie, Jeremy and I,” Nick Schmalhofer says,
The next big turning point for Signature Sales is when it began warehousing in 2011. “We bought a 69,000 square-foot building to support our manufacturers and reduce lead times,” Nick Schmalhofer says. “This allowed our sales team to sell with confidence knowing we have the immediate inventory to back up their sales.”
Fast forward to 2017 and the Signature Sales team was prepping for another merger – its largest one yet with Howard C. Fletcher Co. This added more than 20 new salespeople to the Signature Sales team.
“Merging two large companies always has its challenges, but overall this process was pretty seamless,” Nick Schmalhofer explains. “As soon as I met Todd Winchester, who was Howard C. Fletcher’s president and is now our sales manager, I had a great feeling. Our cultures align perfectly and we compliment each other’s strengths and weaknesses, so becoming one company made us both stronger.”
The merger with Howard C. Fletcher nearly doubled Signature Sales’ line card and expanded its geographic coverage to new states.
“Aside from a few retirements, all of the employees that came over during the merger are still with us,” Nick Schmalhofer says. “That speaks to the synergy between the two companies and the strength of our culture.”
The merger really does seem meant to be – just as the companies were struggling to find a new building large enough to house its new larger team, a location became available right in the middle of the two company’s current locations.
“We don’t do mergers often because we are so protective of our culture,” Hubach says. “But although we had been competitors for years, it was clear that this was going to be a great fit. We definitely had our challenges logistically but overall it’s been incredibly smooth and beneficial.”
Having this new stronger, larger team has helped Signature Sales face the challenges of today’s marketplace. Winchester says online retail, government regulation and manufacturer consolidation are some of the toughest challenges facing reps today.
“In California we are greatly impacted by ever-changing government regulations, especially in the water heating space,” he says. “So as a rep, it’s our job to be aware these things a year or two in advance and prepare our contractor and wholesale partners. That’s where constant training and education comes in.”
Another prominent challenge facing reps today is the management of data and data sources from numerous manufacturers. Signature Sales utilizes RepFabric to organize its data. According to Aaron Saunders, operations manager, adopting new technology is vital, but reps can’t lose their personal touch while doing so.
“There is so much technology today made to make our lives easier as reps,” he says. “But in using it, there is always the risk of losing your personal touch as a partner, which for is critical to us. We still spend a ton of time on the phone having those personal conversations, but we have a phone system that collects data from those calls that helps us perform better. It’s all about taking advantage of this technology without losing your identity.”
On the marketing technology front, Signature Sales has invested in Bran Marketing, a digital marketing firm targeted toward manufacturers’ reps, to handle social media.
“In the past we shied away from social media a little bit, but since hiring Bran Marketing I’ve been out in the field and heard people mention our posts – even if they didn’t like it or comment on it, they’re seeing it and paying attention,” Hubach explains.
ALWAYS GETTING STRONGER
No matter what type of chaos is facing Signature Sales – a huge merger, disrupted supply chain or COVID-19, the company is committed to coming out stronger than it was before.
“I’m incredibly proud of us as a company that throughout all of the unknowns over the past few years we were able to stick together, communicate and grow closer as a family through it all,” Winchester says.
Manufacturer partners can vouch for Signature Sales' ability to create a winning solution for all parties involved. “The Signature Sales team is humble, fearless and share a sense of gratitude for the good things that have come their way,” says Rex Baer, executive vice president of Sioux Chief. “Sig and Ron created a rep agency built on integrity, honesty, hard work and staying hungry. Nick, Katie, Jeremy and the entire Signature team continue to operate in this same manner. They are confident in their abilities and work to create a winning situation for their manufacturers, wholesalers, contractors and engineers.”
The Signature Sales executive team all agree they have the best people in the business on their team. According to Crane, he’s most proud of the inside and outside teams. “We have the best in the business in my opinion,” he says. “We have a diverse and knowledgeable inside and outside team that never stop working to make the customers’ lives easier.”
Hubach agrees, adding that as a second-generation leader, it’s rewarding to watch team members grow. “We love seeing how people grow within the company. We’ve got one person who started here in the warehouse when he was 17. He moved into inside sales and now outside sales; so we’ve been able to watch him move out of his parent’s house, buy his own home and have two children. It’s incredible to see our team grow both professionally and personally.”
Signature Sales' employees can tell how much the leadership team truly cares. "They have created an environment to help us grow and given us the tools to help us learn," says Sarah Hooper, outside sales. "They care about us, our families, our customers and the manufacturers we represent. When you work for a company that truly cares about you, you want to work hard for them because you truly care about them."
Winchester says he’s most proud of the fact that Signature Sales has always managed to grow during times of uncertainty. “In times of distress and down markets – like when COVID first hit - when our competitors were laying people off, we hired more outside sales people,” he says. “We went for it and we ended up with some great talent. I’m proud of the aggressiveness shown amongst our leadership during times where it would be easy to scale back.”
Nick Schmalhofer summarizes the above point well, saying “Where there is panic there is opportunity.”
“One more thing I can add is that I’m truly proud of how many referrals we get both from our customers and our employees,” he says. “It shows that we’ve earned their trust and respect, which at the end of the day is everything to us.”