Reps often go in kicking and screaming, but they end up better business owners.

In 1997, Elkay Manufacturing Co.'s management met to discuss new ways to increase the training of its sales representatives. After much deliberation, the company chose to use the Manufacturers Representative Educational Research Foundation (MRERF) and its Certified Professional Manufacturers Representative (CPMR) program to educate its reps.

"We felt it was important for all our reps to be trained properly," says Bill Blaine, Elkay's vice president of sales. "The more knowledge the rep has, the more successful we'll all be."

In order to complete the three-year program, a principal must go to either Indiana University (summer session) or Arizona State University (winter session) and take 8-9 courses sponsored by MRERF involving practices such as customer service, strategic planning, profit analysis, technology resources, legal issues and succession planning. Each course is customized to the needs of rep firm owners. Each session lasts one week and is concluded by an exam and group project, which the rep has to pass to continue forward in the education process. After completing the three-year program, the rep is designated as a CPMR. Elkay now requires that all of its reps obtain certification.

"When we started this, we said to remain an Elkay representative, you must complete the entire program in the following six years," says Blaine. "And to show we were serious, we offered to pay the registration fees for the representative to attend."

That six-year deadline will pass later this year, and Blaine says that 80% of the company's reps have already completed the class, and he expects to have 100% by the deadline. The program has been so successful for Elkay that many rep firms have asked to send a second and even third principal to the classes. Now Elkay is willing to pay half of the tuition for a second rep to attend.

"When they finish three years of this, they can write their own business plan and have a better understanding of how to succeed," says Blaine. "Our feeling is that 'all boats rise on a rising tide.'"

Keeping Up With The Times

Steve Stickler, president of Stickler & Associates Inc. and third generation rep of Elkay, attended the CPMR classes in Arizona. Stickler's grandfather, Byron, started Stickler & Associates in 1931 and was an Elkay rep, so Stickler's company has a long-running relationship with the folks at Elkay.

"These classes were very beneficial to me," says Stickler. "The way my grandpa did business is different from the way my father did business and now different from the way I do it. The classes were a way to keep up with the times."

According to Stickler, who finished the CPMR courses earlier this year, the main objective of the classes is to teach each representative management skills.

"In a nutshell, every principal of a rep firm generally starts in the stock room, outside sales or in some kind of entry position," says Stickler. "Once you become owner or sales manager or vice president, the skills you learned as a salesperson aren't the same as the ones you need to run a business."

While he attended many sales-oriented classes, Stickler also participated in business classes to help learn accounting, communication and other important managerial aspects of the job. The classes were very timely to him, as he had just recently become the principal of his grandfather's company.

"I learned that business, even in the plumbing and heating industry, is changing," he says. "We have to keep evolving and changing the way we do business - otherwise we'll be left behind in the dust."

Stickler says that he applied what he has learned in the classes to improve the way he handles business. He was impressed that Elkay took these classes so seriously that it was willing to pay his fees to attend. Stickler notes that while talking to other attendees from different industries he found that they were "blown away" by the fact that Elkay was sending its reps and paying for it while they were there on their own dime.

"They want us to be successful business people because it will help us all," says Stickler. "The companies we represent are treated more like a family than a number and by educating ourselves, we're truly improving the way we handle business."

A Positive Experience

Another Elkay rep who was pleased with the CPMR program is Dave Lovell, principal of The Lovell Co. in Salt Lake City. He attended the program at Indiana University and became CPMR certified in 2002.

"I was suspect at first," says Lovell. "Usually when anyone says that you have to do something, you always have questions in your mind. That's human nature."

Lovell, who has been an Elkay rep for 30 years, had previously known about the program and, even before the Elkay mandate, had considered taking it for his own benefit. His questions aside, he signed up to comply with the company.

"You do things for years and you think you are doing the right procedures, but you never have anyone telling you it's the right way to do them," says Lovell. "The best thing for me was that the CPMR program confirmed that what we do here at our company and how we handle business is correct."

Now Lovell speaks highly about CPMR.

"Afterward, when I saw my peers I told them it was a great program," notes Lovell. "It was truly a positive experience."