Dedicated to improving its business and helping its customers, this firm sells with passion and intensity.

What does it take for a manufacturers rep firm to double the size of its business in three and a half years? Passion and intensity. A clear idea of the company's purpose and direction. The right people. A willingness to make changes. All of these factors have contributed to the success of J & K Sales Associates, a division of KASA Industries Ltd., based in Manchester, N.H., selected as Supply House Times 2002 Manufacturers Rep Of The Year - Shelf Category.

Karl Grabowski, president and principal owner of the company, says the secret to its success is a continuous focus on its core beliefs.

On the first page of the company's line card are eight statements under the heading, "This We Believe."

"Everything that we do, everything that we are and will be, springs from these principles," Grabowski says.

He points out three of the eight bullet points that he says are "absolutely critical to our philosophy and how we go to market." One is: "In striving to attract, retain, motivate and most importantly, train, train, and then train some more, the best people we can find in our industry."

"Everything springs from that," Grabowski says. "That is our greatest strength. Our ability to create value for our manufacturers and our customers is absolutely dependent on the quality of our people. We spend a lot of time and effort on hiring, training and motivating our people."

The second principle is: "In continuously promoting our product lines in the secondary market to create contractor demand and engineering specifications for our customers and our principals."

"This is our most over-riding and critically important function," Grabowski says. "It is why we are in business. Distributors don't want what they have in their own buildings, never mind what we want to sell them. Manufacturers don't care what we did for them five years ago or even five minutes ago, but they care intensely about what new products we are driving into the market right now. By continually creating contractor identity and engineering specifications around our products, we assure our position in the channel. This ability is our only real tangible asset."

Distributor trade shows, state PHCC meetings, ASPE shows, wholesaler counter days, and contractor and engineer training seminars are J & K's lifelines, says Mark A. Sandman, vice president/general manager. "That is our way to get in front of the end-users. That is the best use of our time. Everyone here is trained to demonstrate and talk about our products."

The third key factor in the company's business philosophy is a "single-minded commitment to continuously identify the worst aspects of our business and endlessly strive to turn these weaknesses into our strengths."

"We have to be brutally honest as to what we do well and what we don't. We are continually working on a laundry list of weak areas of our business," Grabowski says.

One area that J & K targeted for improvement was technology. "About five years ago we were not too happy with how we were handling technology. We were just mediocre. Since then we have tried to streamline our office procedures and communication systems internally. We are one of the few rep firms in the United States that uses digital transcription systems for internal and external correspondence."

The digital transcription equipment is tied to a dedicated phone line and turns any cell phone into a dictaphone. When a salesperson finishes a sales call and the customer is waiting for a proposal, he or she can work on the deal in the car while still parked in the customer's lot and send a proposal to the customer before leaving the premises.

Another project J & K has undertaken is desktop publishing. All of the company's employees have studied desktop publishing with the goal of creating a quarterly eight-page newsletter. Inspired by the instant recognition of the package design of consumer products such as Ritz crackers, J & K has created a distinctive look for both its newsletter and its Jak-Pak Warehouse Distribution Program.

More recently the rep firm has tackled the piles of catalogs, sales sheets, price sheets and other paper from manufacturers stored in its literature "library-room" and around the office. Now all of that information is posted on its Intranet.

"Every desktop in this office can access the Intranet," Grabowski says. "Any piece of paper a manufacturer has ever sent us can be accessed within seconds and faxed or e-mailed to someone else. We're within a few months of completion on this project. We're making sure our information is uniform, up-to-date and correct."

The Intranet will be used for submittals, new product information and price sheets. One person is assigned to input all of the data, says Jeff Young, director of technical services. "There is no limit as to how much information you can throw on this page," he says.

"This makes us faster and more professional," says Grabowski. "We can keep our outside salespeople selling and it makes our inside sales and technical people incredibly more productive. They don't have to walk around the office looking for binders to get the information they need."

J & K doesn't want to do technology for technology's sake, he says. "We look at it as one more arrow in our quiver to drive product identity and specification at the contractor and engineer level into quantifiable business we can push through distribution."

Warehousing To Gain Market Share

J & K first expanded its warehousing capabilities in 1990 and has double its former warehouse space in its new headquarters facility.

"We don't view warehousing as an ultra-profitable business venture, but more as a way to overcome marketing objections and to gain market share with specific product lines," Grabowski says. For example, one of its manufacturers was acquired by another company and moved to Texas. With the longer lead time required for shipping from Dallas, J & K knew that it would not be able to maintain its position in the market place without local distribution, so it decided to warehouse that line. With other lines, J & K is able to save its customers expensive freight charges by carrying the product in its warehouse.

"We are not in the warehouse business for the sake of being in it," Grabowski says. "It is a tool to allow us to gain penetration with our product lines in specific situations."

With that being said Sandman adds, "We are proud of our warehouse business. We offer same day/next day service."

Dedicated To Selling

Manufacturers are moving toward outsourcing critical functions such as technical support, marketing, customer service, distribution and training. Meanwhile, wholesalers are overwhelmed with the thousands of items they have to carry, sell and try to create inventory turns. They don't have time to pioneer new product lines, Grabowski says.

"The hard reality is that someone still has to get in the car and drive to see customers," he says. "Someone has to introduce, sell and train customers on new products. Nothing happens until someone sells someone. Our business has grown every year since we started. We have added new employees every 12 to 18 months.

"We have doubled the size of our business in the last three and a half years without making an acquisition and without adding a major product line," he continues. "We did it by selling what we had. We have taken on a lot of lines with no market identity, no market penetration and built them into market leaders. That goes to our most important function: to create identity and specifications."

Rep firms that accept this role in the supply chain and embrace it as an opportunity rather than a threat will not only survive, but prosper, he says.

Hiring, Training And Motivating At J & K Sales Associates

A bad hire can mean the kiss of death to a small rep firm, says Karl Grabowski, president and principal owner of J & K Sales Associates. It can cost a firm as much as $150,000 in total overhead to hire and train an outside salesperson and it will probably be six months before the company learns it made a mistake. That could mean a loss of $75,000. In order to avoid this type of error, J & K casts a wide net when seeking people.

"We'll go online, to local colleges and U.S. government military placement offices, we'll run ads in trade journals and local newspapers," Grabowski says. "We may cap out at 500 resumes. One individual in our company will winnow that down to 200 resumes. After extensive phone screening, we'll narrow the list down to 30 people to interview in our office."

The interview is done in two parts, conducted by Grabowski or Mark A. Sandman, vice president/general manager.

"We want to see if they will fit into our organization," Sandman says. "We'll put 30 people through this process and get down to three or four candidates."

The second part of the interview is "high stress" to see how a potential outside salesperson reacts under pressure.

"We want to see if they can control the environment in the room and take command of a stressful situation," Sandman says.

The final three or four candidates undergo personality profile testing. For outside salespeople J & K seeks ego strength, empathy and the ability to learn. For an inside salesperson, the company looks for extremely high levels of accommodation, intelligence, empathy, and the ability to multi-task.

After being hired, the new employee undergoes training, but at J & K, that is an evolutionary process and continues through the individual's career, Grabowski says. Both inside and outside salespeople are trained. Often it involves visiting a manufacturer's factory for on-site training. In addition to professional and in-house training, all of the salespeople are sent to the major trade shows so they can learn about the state of the industry and see what the competition is doing, he says.

J & K will not put an untrained salesperson alone on the street, Grabowski says. "We hired a new outside salesperson in February. He has a six-year background in industrial tool sales and five years experience in commissioned brokerage sales. He will not be placed in a territory to make calls by himself until July 1."

The company's key people are trained as business unit managers rather than employees. "We reject the cult of personality model that many rep firms employ, where the company founder is the best salesman and the most dynamic personality," Grabowski says. "Our agency is an entity, not based on the personality or attributes of any one individual."

The company manages by exception, he says. "We define our culture, train our people and agree on our procedures and then assume that everything is going swell until someone something proves differently. We, then, focus all our energies to not only fix the problem, but use the event as an opportunity to make our business better."

SIDEBAR: Company Overview

Headquarters: Manchester, N.H. General office: 5,400 sq. ft.; warehouse: 13,800 sq. ft.; 50-seat customer training facility.
Annual sales: $25.5 million
Employees: 17
Top management: Karl Grabowski, president; Mark Sandman, vice president/general manager; Jeff Young, director/technical services;
Carolyn Crummey, operations manager; Gary Cronis, warehouse/purchasing manager.
Territory: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut.
Product categories carried: 30% industrial plastic pipe, valves and fittings; 25% tools for plumbing, mechanical, HVAC and refrigeration contractors; 25% residential/commercial behind-the-wall specialties; 10% thermal insulations/venting; 10% residential/commercial pump systems.
Market segments served: wholesale plumbing, PVF, industrial plastics, waterworks, HVAC, refrigeration, fire protection, turf and irrigation.
Computer system: PC-based combination NT/UNIX network; agency-created Contact Management Software Communication System;
Intranet Information System.
Web site:

J & K Sales Associates Lines Represented:
Legend Valve & Fitting
Dearborn Brass Co.
Stanley Tools
NDS (National Diversified Sales)
General Pipe Cleaners/General Wire Spring
Mill-Rose Co.
American Saw & Mfg.
Spears Mfg. Co.
Harvel Plastics, Inc.
Litchfield International

Jak-Pak Warehouse Distribution Program Lines Offered:
Victor/Turbo Torch
Simpson Dura-Vent
Versapak By Stuff Sorter
Hydromatic Pumps
Jackel Eco-Systems