Wolff Bros.' salespeople are well equipped for the job.

To the sales team at Wolff Bros. Supply, adding value to the corporation is as important as adding value to the customer. Salespeople must contribute to the company's success by being as productive as they can.

But salespeople also need a good support system behind them. And Wolff Bros. provides that, says George Wolff, vice president/sales.

"It's our responsibility to give the sales force basic support," he explains. "We have to make sure that the inventory is on hand, we have the inside sales support, the delivery systems are in place, the computer systems have the latest information and the quotations people are available. After such a support network is in place, salespeople can't afford to be unsuccessful because they could hold the whole organization back."

Providing the best tools to do a job more efficiently is also important. Wolff Bros. developed a laptop program for its outside salespeople; after a salesperson has been with the wholesaler for a year, he is eligible for a loan from the company to purchase a laptop to replace his PC. After the salesperson has been with the company for four years, the loan is forgiven. However, if a salesperson quits before the four years, he has to pay back a portion of the loan.

The program encourages the field sales staff to use a laptop to become more productive, Wolff says. The laptops can be used on the road with customers or from home. Salespeople can dial into the company's AS-400 mainframe and check inventory or a customer's order. He says one-third to one-half of the company's 25 outside salespeople are using laptops.

"I always tell my salespeople that my whole purpose in life is to take their 'legitimate' excuses away," he notes. "If I give them the resources they need to do their jobs, then they'd better perform. This industry's too competitive to believe otherwise. You have to be tough, you have to be efficient. And going forward, you'd better be more efficient and find ways to improve your business or you're not going to be around."

Management's biggest challenge

To encourage outside salespeople to perform at their peak, the company pays them on 100% commission. The company considered a base salary plus commission compensation program, Wolff says, but decided to go with the 100% commission approach.

"I believe it's a good motivator," he says. "If a field salesperson can't make it on a commission basis, then we don't want him anyway. He needs to make a contribution to the business."

During a transition period, salespeople are paid a base salary as they learn the policies and procedures of the company. After a year or two of working counter and inside sales, they are moved to outside sales on a straight-commission basis.

The company tries to give each salesperson the opportunity to advance to the next level, Wolff says, even if corporate isn't sure the person and the position are a good fit.

"No matter what business you're in, getting the right people in the right job is management's biggest challenge," he says. "If you can get the right people in the right spot, things run smoother. And when you identify people who aren't in the right spot, you've got to make some tough decisions."

Wolff Bros. provides ongoing training for its salespeople through weekly meetings at the branches. Salespeople are also sent out to various manufacturer facilities for product training or to computer retail stores for hardware and software training.

The bottom line for Wolff Bros. is that salespeople achieve a balance between their responsibilities to the customer and the business so that both entities benefit from the relationship.

A valuable function

Wolff Bros. is long-time member of Affiliated Distributors, a marketing group with divisions in electrical, industrial and PVF; the addition of a plumbing division is effective Jan. 1, 2001. The marketing programs that the distributor sets up each year through A-D have been very beneficial to the company, Wolff says. However, the company does have its own advertising department, so it has the resources to generate agreements with marketing partners outside A-D's membership, such as A.O. Smith.

Wolff considers the branch managers at the company's four major locations ¿ Medina, Akron, Sandusky and Wooster ¿ and the firm's product managers in electrical, HVAC, plumbing, data communications and kitchen cabinetry as his marketing managers. Each is responsible for developing each location or division and growing that business.

As to complaints by manufacturers that wholesale distributors don't add value to the supply chain, he says that if those vendors could carry out the distribution function better and less expensively than Wolff Bros. does, they would have done it long ago.

"We don't exist because manufacturers are nice people and they want to give distributors a slice of their profits," he says. "We exist because we perform a valuable function. But just like people, there are great distributors, mediocre distributors and terrible distributors. Manufacturers need to distinguish between the good and the bad. And at Wolff Bros., we think we're one of the good ones."