An eclectic group of distributors, reps and manufacturers attended an Executive Leadership Conference sponsored by the Midwest Distributors Association (MwDA) on May 3-4.

Mitch Harper addresses an eclectic group of MwDA participants.


An eclectic group of distributors, reps and manufacturers attended an Executive Leadership Conference sponsored by the Midwest Distributors Association(MwDA) in Oak Brook, IL (suburban Chicago) on May 3-4. Featured speakers included Elkay COOStephen Rogers;Bryan Shirley, President & CEO of the Manufacturers’ Agents National Association and Executive Director of our industry’s AIM/R organization for independent reps; and distribution author/instructorMitch Harper.

Elkay COO Stephen Rogers.

Also, attendees heard a captivating presentation on local and national politics from luncheon speaker Paul Green, political analyst from WGN Radio in Chicago and a political science professor at Chicago’s Roosevelt University.

Shirley’s presentation focused on the problems and challenges faced by independent reps and their manufacturers. According to Shirley, the number one reason for hiring independent reps is “relationships and knowledge of the customers.” He cited data showing that the average tenure of direct factory sales reps in the field was 26 months, after which they tend to get promoted or transferred, taking with them hard-won relationships and market knowledge. “Sales is still a contact sport,” he mused.

Bryan Shirley: “Sales is still a contact sport.”

Shirley sought to dispel the myth that independent reps constitute an additional channel member. Rather, reps are an extension of the manufacturer no different than a direct sales force. He contended that when problems erupt between manufacturers and reps half the time the root cause is unclear expectations. “Deliver bad news before good news,” he advised manufacturers and reps.

Harper, who retired from the business world at age 37 after succeeding in a couple of industrial distribution ventures, occupied the lion’s share of the educational program with a wide-ranging presentation centered around the theme of aligning sales goals, strategy and tactics. His entertaining, homespun demeanor made the hours go by quickly with insights about various facets of the supply chain.

 “What’s valuable to one person or company may not be valuable to another,” he said at one point. “Price may be all there is at times.”

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