Members shared best practices for running a modern rep organization.

To many participants, the most absorbing program at the 35th Management Conference of the PHCP industry Association of Independent Manufacturers’ Representatives (AIM/R) was a panel discussion shortly after the opening session featuring a Ferguson executive, a large plumbing contractor and a manufacturer telling what each expects from the reps who call on them. This was not a gripe session, and all spoke respectfully of reps, but none of the participants pulled any punches in stating what they believe reps ought to be providing.

Steve Grosslight, senior vice president and general manager of Ferguson’s Western operations, set the stage by telling the reps forthrightly that “Ferguson will be adding more items to our own brand (PROFLO), yet we are still the largest single customer of most manufacturers … 95% of what we sell are items you represent.”

The ball is in play at this year’s volleyball tournament sponsored by SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES at the AIM/R Conference.

Servicing Ferguson presents a dilemma for many reps, because as Grosslight put it, “You can’t come into Ferguson and write an order.” He noted, however, that Ferguson branch managers still enjoy some leeway to order products that meet local needs. He cited specification sales and product training as functions Ferguson especially looks to reps to provide.

“We need reps to call on our stores, which I realize is not fun to do when you’re not writing an order,” Grosslight told the reps in attendance. He shared with them some of Ferguson’s growth strategy, noting that “we’ll do $11 billion in the U.S. this year, and five years from now will double that. I guarantee it!”

According to Grosslight, Ferguson has grown 34-36% for the last three years, helped in large measure by aggressive acquisitions. He indicated acquisitions are likely to slow down for awhile as the nation’s largest PHCP distributor embarks on a “sweat the bricks” initiative to digest acquired companies and get more out of existing supply houses.

Pete Lewnes at the annual "Town Meeting" session.

Another panelist, Tom Baker, president and CEO of Dynamic Plumbing Co., headquartered in Riverside, CA, gave the reps a long laundry list of services his large residential construction plumbing firm needs from them:

  • Catalog and price sheet updates.
  • “List all the manufacturers you represent - not just one or two lines,” said Baker. He noted that his company recently shifted emphasis from single-family to multi-family and commercial building in response to market conditions. “This opens new product opportunities for you.” He asked to be updated once or twice a year on rep product lines and any changes.
  • List of wholesalers carrying the products, and whether they have them in stock.
  • Jobsite delivery information.
  • Defective materials policies.
  • Information about new projects coming up for bid, including the names of builder purchasing agents.
  • Joint marketing calls on builders.
  • Online submittals.
  • Legal and code issue updates.
  • Gain permission from the GC or owner to call on their superintendents.
  • “Train our plumbers. We are far behind the ball with non-union training,” Baker admitted.
  • Customer service - “if we have a problem with a homeowner, keep on top of this.”
  • “I want to know if your manufacturers will stand behind their products - especially the foreign companies.”
  • “Talk to the right people in our company about rebates. This is a sensitive issue, so don’t spread it around.”
  • “Let me know if we’re being fair with you,” concluded Baker. “I want us to be fair and work with you.”

  • Paul Lunsford at the annual "Town Meeting" session.

    Baker triggered some nervous laughter with his assertion: “I think it will get worse and worse with builders trying to get in everyone’s pocket. They are becoming like an ex-wife!”

    The vendor representative on the panel was Ned Atkins, vice president/commercial sales, wholesale channel for The Keeney Manufacturing Co. His down-to-earth presentation was notable for confronting supply chain difficulties head-on without rancor.

    “Last year, Ferguson bought four of Keeney’s best customers, and PROFLO bothers us,” he stated. “Ferguson is both our biggest customer and largest competitor. These are the realities, and we don’t need you reps to run away from the problem. We need you to help us deal with it,” said Atkins.

    Atkins also addressed the increasing problem of line conflicts due to manufacturer and rep consolidation. “We prefer to partner with people who have complementary lines, but conflicts are all over. What we’re looking for is a way to navigate through the waters.”

    Bill Freeman at the annual "Town Meeting" session.

    Busy Agenda

    Held April 19-21 in Newport Beach, CA, the annual conference attracted 225 attendees. That included representation from 93 of AIM/R’s 318 member companies, an attendance ratio that would be the envy of most trade associations in this or any other industry.

    A distinguishing feature of AIM/R conferences is the group’s penchant for programming in which members share best practices for running a modern rep organization. This year’s meeting featured four such presentations:

    A panel program on “Salesman Compensation” by Mike Parham (Pepco Sales Co., Irving, TX), Kelly Michel (Michel Sales Agency, St. Paul, MN), and Sig Schmalhofer (Signature Sales, Corona, CA).

  •   An engrossing presentation detailing underused features of MS Outlook by Carolyn Crummey, office manager of J & K Sales Associates, Manchester, NH.
  • “Caring for One Another as We Live & Work,” an unusual topic on balancing work and life concerns by Ann Hagensen, manager of Patient & Family Centered Care at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and Health Center, Tacoma, WA, and wife of Tom Hagensen, principal owner of the NorPac Inc. rep agency based in Kent, WA.
  • AIM/R’s legal counsel, Chicago attorney Dan Breederman, offered some free legal advice about avoiding illegal conversations with customers, competitors and manufacturers in a program titled, “Me and My Big Mouth.”

  • Contractor Tom Baker (left) and Ned Atkins of Keeney Manufacturing pulled no punches in telling what they need from reps.

    AIM/R also reprised last year’s popular program by consultant Terry Brock on modern technology that can be employed to good effect in the rep business. Another hired speaker that was exceptionally well received was Patricia Pomerleau of CEOExpress, whose “Entrepreneurs & Technology” presentation featured tips, tricks and Web sites that help cope with the information overload of our modern business culture. Author and motivational speaker Max Brown gave the keynote presentation on the subject of motivating employees.

    A signature event at each year’s AIM/R conference is a “Townhall Meeting” in which members sound off about association business. It was announced at this year’s session that the group has resolved an often-debated controversy by inviting associate member manufacturers to next year’s conference. That will be held May 14-17, 2008, at the Hammock Beach Resort, Palm Coast, FL, near the town of St. Augustine.