Preferred Sales has its eyes focused on the future.

The staff at Preferred Sales has more than 175 years of industry experience. Photo by Mike Miazga

The Hermitage/Sharon corridor on Interstate 80 in northwestern Pennsylvania is a crossroads for the past and the future. The massive Sharon Steel mill once employed more than 10,000 people. In current day, Sharon Steel is now a mini mill. The surrounding area also features various pipe manufacturers and the Marcellus Shale phenomenon, one of the key drivers in the current natural gas boom in this country.

Sharon also was the stomping grounds of the lateJames Winner Jr., the inventor of the popular 1990s auto security device “The Club.” One of the few legitimately free golf courses in the world calls Sharon home and the original Quaker Steak & Lube eatery sits nearby.

And farther back from Sharon on a main corridor off Interstate 80 sits 2012 Supply House Times’ Manufacturers Rep of the YearPreferred Sales Inc., a textbook example of how the intersection of history and the future has created sustained success for a company and the many trading partners it serves.

Pictured here: (from left): PSI’s Alan Guidish, Michelle Lewnes-Dadas, Peter Lewnes, Carol Thomas, Bill Curry, Lori O’Millian and Ken Davis combined have more than 175 years of industry experience.

Lewnes and daughter, Michelle, embrace the latest technology, whether it’s the newest computer software or the use of iPhones and iPads. Photo by Julie Morocco Photography

Past, present and future

PSI, a longstanding and active member in the Association of Independent Manufacturers Representatives, is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2012 with limited fanfare. But behind the scenes, the company, which does business in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, northern Kentucky and western New York, and represents some of the industry’s premier manufacturers, has been fast at work ensuring a smooth transition occurs at the top of its management group.

PSI CEOPeter Lewnesand two previous partners in 1978 purchased the company, which was founded in 1962 in Columbus, Ohio, and moved it to its current location in Hermitage in 1984. A 7,000-sq.-ft. office expansion of the facility occurred in 1991. Over the years, PSI has merged several small- to mid-sized rep firms.

The company’s gold milestone this year coincides with a decision of critical importance - the proper execution of a succession plan once Lewnes formally retires. Lewnes has scaled back his workload in recent times, but remains a vital presence in the company.

“In today’s industry a major concern is succession,” Lewnes says. “Another concern is the actual implementation of the succession.”

PSI has no such concerns. Not only does it have a succession plan in place, it has one hammered out for the following generation. Current PSI PresidentAlan Guidishhas taken over the presidency from Lewnes. Guidish, who has been with the company for 22 years, will be succeeded whenever he steps down by Lewnes’ 33-year-old daughter,Michelle Lewnes-Dadas, a PSI vice president.

Guidish is only the fourth president in PSI’s 50-year history, and none of the four have come from direct bloodlines, something highly unusual in today’s industry. Guidish also is AIM/R’s president-elect and will take the reins at its September meeting in Boston.

“Four presidents in 50 years is pretty good,” says Lewnes, also a past AIM/R president. “I have these wonderful people I work with. I have my daughter and this is the guy (pointing to Guidish) we all turn to when we need to get things done. It’s truly a team effort.”

The quick-witted Lewnes recalls how Guidish’s appointment as company president came about under unique circumstances.

“Eight years ago the company met in a remote cabin in the mountain woods in Ohio,” he explains. “I said, ‘Guys, we brought you here because we were in a car accident and we all died yesterday. You have to pick a new president. Have a nice day.’ And then I left the cabin. From what I was told, the discussion was spirited and Alan was chosen to be PSI’s future president. It’s kind of an unusual way to do it. Alan was absolutely the right choice.”

What is not unusual is the progressive thinking PSI employs in preparing the entire organization for the future. While the company features integral longtime employees in key positions, it also has an equal number of younger professionals making major contributions throughout the organization.

“We have brought in young blood. We have a succession culture here,” says Lewnes-Dadas, a Miami (Ohio) University graduate who worked in the management consulting field before joining her father’s company more than nine years ago. “A lot of people started out at PSI in their 20s and now are in their 30s, which is a rarity in the rep industry.”

One of those key company veterans is Vice PresidentBill Curry, PSI’s Region 4 manager. Curry’s territory encompasses parts of Pennsylvania (including Pittsburgh), West Virginia and western New York.

“I was hired by Pete in 1982,” says Curry, whose daughter,Wendy, also works in inside sales for the company. “He started coaching me. I’m at a point in my career now where I’m getting to coach and talk with a lot of our young people. Pete was a big influence on me in terms of coaching. Now it’s my turn.”

Region 2 Vice PresidentKen Davisjoined PSI in 2000. He covers central Ohio (Columbus and Cincinnati), western West Virginia and northern Kentucky. Davis is attracted to a PSI company culture where everybody’s voice matters.

“You feel valued as an employee,” he says. “It’s very family-oriented around here. We all go through different things in life and everybody is here to support each other. It’s a unique place to work.”

Lori O’MillianandCarol Thomasare two other longtime office employees. Thomas has been with PSI for 23 years, while O’Millian recently celebrated her 20th anniversary.

“I like how the company always is strategizing,” says O’Millian, who manages PSI’s headquarters office. “We look at the bigger picture and how we can better ourselves with customers and manufacturers.

PSI has a multi-generational succession plan in place. Guidish (right) has taken over as president, while Lewnes’ daughter, Michelle, will succeed Guidish whenever he steps down. Photo by Julie Morocco Photography

Not afraid to use it

Personnel isn’t the only thing PSI has a succession plan in place for. The company embraces the latest technology, whether it’s the newest computer software or the use of iPhones and iPads.

On the software front, the company uses IS Quote, a state-of-the-art job-tracking system that generates data aimed at making life easier on both ends of the sales spectrum. “We quote a job, load in the information, relay it to the customer and hit print,” Guidish explains.

TeleNotes, a detailed customer relationship management package, helps the entire organization stay in the loop on a daily basis with what is occurring in the field. An in-house daily newsletter is sent out to all employees updating a variety of different company initiatives and activities.

“The biggest challenge is managing the amount of information that comes across on a daily basis,” Guidish says. “The newsletter recaps everything that has gone down that day. If Bill Curry quotes a job in Pittsburgh, it’s on the report for all to see.”

Lewnes-Dadas emphasizes the CRM system’s advantages stretch beyond just standard updates. “You can break things down individually and see where something needs a little more attention in a particular area,” she says. “It’s a great way to keep organized.”

Lewnes recalls things being different 30 years ago when desk phones and faxes being the “in” things. These days, he says it’s advisable to let go of the past and embrace the future.

“Most companies die because they get in a comfort zone,” he says. “You have to be progressive. We have to add value to the whole process. Our job is to produce. We have to help our wholesalers, yet our manufacturers are asking us to do more.

Where do we see our competition? Look at the young man waiting tables at a restaurant, that’s the future competition. His IT skills will smoke most people. You have to be careful to not let technology outdate you. You have to be out there and aware of what is going on. Technology, while an invaluable tool, is still a sales support system. Sales remain the name of the game.”

Thomas, PSI’s senior inside salesperson, has seen the evolution of technology up close in her 23 years with the company.

“When I started here I didn’t know what a spreadsheet was,” she says. “When we got individual scanners on our desks, we thought we were really something. The technology today gives you instant access to information. Customers love it. It helps us handle customer requirements in a more timely manner.”

PSI is in the process of outfitting all its field personnel with iPads. It keeps no paper catalogs on inside sales desks. All information is uploaded electronically to an in-house intranet for easy access.

“Outdated information is very dangerous in the marketplace,” says Lewnes-Dadas, the company’s Region 3 vice president (her territory is northern Ohio, including Cleveland). “This way, information can be quickly found.”

Lewnes treats IT-related matters as one of the company’s top priorities. “IT isn’t one of those things we stumble on as a line item in the budget,” he says. “We put technology on the budget. Everything here is a process. We all strive for the same sort of vision. What do we want to accomplish six, 12, 18 months down the road? You can’t just wake up and say let’s go do something. Organization is key, but vision is part of our culture. Culture for our company is critical.”

Going the extra mile

Having the right people in place with the right tools ensures superior customer service for the manufacturers PSI represents.

“PSI is always looking for ways to do something better,”Bradford WhiteVice President of SalesJim McGoldrickstates. “Being a rep, they have the unenviable position of managing customers and manufacturers. I don’t know if there is an agency out there that does it better than those guys.”

PSI makes sure its field personnel are trained to the highest degree possible. “With the exception of CPMR, there is no school out there that teaches one to be a manufacturers rep,” Guidish says. “My mother still has no idea what I do. It’s extremely important to us to help people and educate them on the entire sales process.”

“Continuous sales training is one of the tools we give to salespeople to help them be successful,” adds Lewnes-Dadas, who helped create AIM/R’s Leaders of Tomorrow young executives group.

Even PSI’s hiring practices are forward thinking. It employs a consulting firm that uses a profile questionnaire to help identify prospective employees. Lewnes points out the last several company hires had no industry field experience.

“The first six months you will pay the price,” he says. “Then they start exhibiting traits they showed on their profile and make tremendous progress. We’re looking for energy, character and a deep desire to excel. It takes a special breed of person to be a rep agent.”

The company also offers jobsite training to secondary market customers. It recently conducted an Uponor commercial training course, as well as a seminar on water-heating troubleshooting basics for contractors in Ohio. A remodel of its current headquarters includes plans for a dedicated onsite training room.

“We spend more than half our time in the secondary markets,” Guidish explains. “It’s where you need to be if you want to drive business. Bill Curry might be onsite with a contractor to make sure the installation of a fire suppression system goes smoothly, and the next day he may be at a pump start-up. We believe in driving business through the entire supply chain.”

That includes forging close relationships with wholesalers in the territories it covers. “Our wholesalers are our lifeblood,” Lewnes-Dadas says. “We have to make sure they are successful in marketing our products through the chain. As much work as we do in the secondary markets, nothing happens without the support of our wholesalers. The ability to partner with them enables all to succeed.”

UponorDirector of Sales-MidwestTom Stewartis impressed with the comprehensive nature of PSI’s business model. “PSI has a systematic approach to the market,” he says. “They use some productivity tools that are not widely used at the rep level. They embrace the contractor as the end user and they certainly do a good job supporting wholesale distribution. They are very aggressive in their pull-through sales strategies. They are cutting edge and on the other hand they know where their bread is buttered. They do a very good job of standard support and service through the wholesale distribution network and they reach out to the contractor and pull business through their wholesale contacts.”

Ready for action

Lewnes admits the company had to tighten its belt several years ago when the economy went into a tailspin. “It was a matter of how long could you hold your breath,” he says.

But both Guidish and Lewnes-Dadas credit Lewnes for sensing disaster before it hit with full force. “Pete made the decisions early and fast,” Lewnes-Dadas says. “He had the vision to see things happening early. He called the shots perfectly.”

During the downturn, PSI ventured into new territory, specifically the HVAC industry. “We had a willingness to take on products,” Guidish says. “You have to have a game plan. What is the value you bring to the party? We came ready with a plan.”

PSI’s plan includes a blanket approach to the supply chain. “We’re interested in all segments of distribution and all aspects of the supply chain,” Lewnes-Dadas says. “We want to get in front of people from top management, to the builder to the facility maintenance person. Our goal is to have everybody work together to pull product through so we all are successful.”

Lewnes sees bright days ahead for the 50-year-old company. His optimism stems not only from market trends he is seeing, but also from the PSI team currently in place.

“We think the next several years in the industry are going to be surprisingly strong,” he says. “Our goal is to have the right organization with the right people in place. We feel comfortable we have done that. Alan carries the same core values I have and he will pass those onto Michelle. We are extremely bullish about the future.”

Preferred Sales Inc.’s Lines

AK Industries
Bradford White Corp.
Heritage Plastics
Red-White Valve
Worthington Cylinders