As critical liaisons between electrical product manufacturers, channel members and end users, manufacturers’ reps see the industry from a unique vantage point—and they’re not afraid to share their perspectives. From emerging technologies and the Internet of Things (IoT) to online sellers and the recruitment of new talent, executives from some of the nation’s most renowned rep agencies offer their insights into the challenges, opportunities and trends shaping the evolving electrical products industry at a pivotal time in its history.
IMARK NOW: Please share the geographic areas you serve and the key IMARK suppliers you represent.
Bill Devereaux, president, R/B Sales Corp., Marion, Iowa: We serve Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and western Missouri and represent such manufacturers as Acme Electric, Littelfuse, Raco, Southwire and Hubbell’s Bell, Taymac, Wiegmann and Killark lines.
Larry Rodger, president, Synergy Electrical Sales, Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania: Our traditional territory covers eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and all of Delaware, but Synergy recently expanded to include both northern New Jersey and the New York City metro area. IMARK member vendors we represent include Encore Wire, Hammond Manufacturing, Intermatic, Littelfuse, Milbank, Republic Conduit, Sola Hevi-Duty and Universal Lighting Technologies.
Scott Lessing, vice president and managing partner, Ewing-Foley Inc., Cupertino, California: We service nine western states out of offices in the Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Phoenix areas and represent Appleton, Atkore/Cal Pipe brands, GE Lighting, General Cable, nVent/Hoffman, Mersen, Panduit, Prime Conduit and Sola HD.
Jeff Starkman, president, ElectroTech Inc., Minneapolis, Minnesota: Our construction and industrial division serves Minnesota, North and South Dakota and western Wisconsin and our utility division serves Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Montana. Manufacturers we represent include nVent/Erico, NSI Industries, Acuity Brands and Siemens.
Kevin Weber, president, Electrical Materials Inc. (EMI), Sterling Heights, Michigan: EMI serves Michigan and our major IMARK vendor lines include nVent (Caddy, Eritech), GE Lighting, Hubbell Electrical Products, United Technologies (Kidde, Edwards) and Legrand’s Electrical Wiring Systems Division (P&S/OnQ, Wiremold and Cablofil).
IMARK NOW: What do you see as the single greatest area of opportunity for sales growth in the channel?
Rodger: Technology is impacting literally every aspect of our industry, from new product/service development and marketing for both existing and emerging markets to sales prospecting and tracking, product installation and diagnostics. Using, understanding, positioning and even knowing how to defend against these technologies are both opportunities and significant challenges for all involved in the electrical supply chain. As the consumer market has largely evolved from smoke stacks to data centers, pre-fabrication shops and intelligently-controlled spaces, distributors need to adapt to these shifts in market opportunities and the associated new customer demands. Reps and distributors who can quickly adapt and respond in kind will accelerate and separate from those who can’t and manufacturers that can quickly introduce innovation into the marketplace and utilize the strengths of the right distributor and rep partners will also separate from their competition in terms of sales growth and share gain. Because it continues to accelerate and force change, technology in its many usable forms (and those who can adapt and embrace it quickly in our industry) represents the single greatest area of opportunity.
Lessing: In general, distributors and manufacturers’ reps could benefit by thinking more strategically about their customers—e.g., who they are, where they’re trying to sell their products/services, who their competitors are and how they rank among others in the industry. Are their competitors using superior products that we could supply to existing customers? What are the changing dynamics of the customers’ end markets? Do they have green initiatives involving energy-savings solutions or recycling opportunities? Are they pursuing new markets or vacating others? With a deep understanding of the needs and motivations of the best customers, more value will be added to the end customer relationship. Overall, it costs much more to win a new customer than to keep an existing one; while we of course need to continually win new customers, investing in a more strategic understanding of primary existing customers may be the greatest opportunity for overall growth.
Starkman: I think that security—e.g., cameras, intrusion detection and electronic security—will be a big opportunity for distributors as companies make a major push to harden and protect critical assets throughout the grid and industry. In today’s “smart” era, distributors can help support that movement as well as connection to the IoT.
Weber: Certainly the easiest answers are LEDs and controls. Our industry has digested the opportunities for LED lighting fairly successfully thus far, but the real opportunity (and challenge) for distributors is the ability to add more value and provide control systems. This may include complete layouts with sensor coverage, daylighting, dimming and timeclock controls, as well as the ability to commission these systems to be code-compliant. Opportunities are also present for those who find a niche in another existing internal channel—e.g., power, switchgear, lightning protection, etc.—and expand upon that niche to dig deeper. Knowledge is power and becoming the go-to distributor recognized as the local expert enables a distributor to charge for that expertise. Devereaux: The greatest opportunity lies in actively promoting labor-saving products and services. With the decline in skilled labor, it’s imperative to sell products and services that reflect four “S” qualities—safety, simplicity, speed and stability.
IMARK NOW: What do you see as the single greatest threat to the on-going success and viability of the electrical distribution channel?
Lessing: I think that our biggest challenge is attracting and retaining good people while at the same time providing the tools for them to be successful. Critical skills include digital prowess, drive and motivation, product and application knowledge and strategic planning capabilities (e.g., planning, execution and follow-through). It will be people who drive the success of the electrical distribution channel.
Starkman: The biggest threat is commoditization of normal stock-and-flow product, including everything from wiring devices and fuses to load centers and cable, by online sellers like Amazon, which supplies products versus knowledge.
Weber: The biggest challenge is finding talented new people who are interested in this career path. We need to sell our overall industry to the next generation. While it’s a great industry to be in, we lack the sizzle, look, feel and relaxed, high-tech atmosphere of Silicon Valley-style companies like Google and Apple. The Amazon threat appears to be a real one as well, but it boils down to service. If our industry can provide a friendly, simple-to-use ordering and information system as well as best-in-class service including same-day deliveries along with all of the added value (knowledge, brands and services) that we currently offer, the threat becomes diminished. Finally, consolidation represents another real threat because it changes the dynamic of the industry. Many family businesses that worked successfully for 100 years based on their local market knowledge and presence can change overnight and become very corporate. While this could offer long-term growth for the business and any employees who might enjoy the opportunities for advancement that a larger organization can provide, it makes it a bit more difficult to interact with key decision-makers in another geographical area as the local rep.
Devereaux: Price in the digital age is the threat, which is why manufacturers, distributors and agents can’t rely on price as their advantage. This is where the value differentiators of labor and safety will shine as the real winners in the near future.
Rodger: While it represents a great opportunity for the industry, technology will also challenge distribution in two very specific ways. The first is in the area of e-commerce. End users need to be able to interact seamlessly and quickly with distribution across every aspect of the supply chain, from quotes to viewing product availability in real time to placing orders and tracking shipments, and this process needs to be competitive with large online retailers. The next threat will be to members of the sales force— whether a distributor or a rep agent salesperson—who can’t adapt to the changing pace at which business is being conducted or transition from “product generalists” to subject matter experts and reliable sources of education. Customers requiring design and installation services need more help than ever as technology and innovation make products more complicated. Those who can provide answers as opposed to simply asking for orders are being rewarded— so much so that old-guard salespeople are becoming less necessary and even a burden on their organizations.
IMARK NOW: Given customers’ ability to gather so much information from the internet, as well as the apparent growing preference for electronic communications, in what ways do you see the nature of the outside sales rep changing in the future?
Starkman: I see the need for outside sales reps and distributor salespeople to be much more consultative. They will have to be experts who offer solutions as opposed to material logistics. They need to offer a holistic package that delivers some kind of advantage to owners, contractors and engineers.
Weber: They must add value in some way—whether by executing lighting rebates with the local utility, providing control layouts, selling and commissioning systems or learning and introducing new products and technologies to their customer base—to keep them on the cutting-edge and competitive in an ever-changing market. Customers are interested in learning new technologies, particularly ones that save labor, and will respond with loyalty and orders.
Devereaux: Outside salespeople will need to utilize the digital world to increase their presence. They’ll need to use social media to reach their customers and hold virtual meetings. They’ll need to be aware of the wants and needs of the customer(s) and advise on products and services that may not have a strong market or online presence yet. Overall, outside salespeople will have to differentiate and not squander their time fighting a price war.
Rodger: As we continue to migrate toward complete pricing transparency, outside sales reps need to continue to add value outside of price and arm themselves with the tools necessary to communicate their value beyond the simple bottom-line cost of a good. Ours is no longer a “counter day with a box of doughnuts” industry. Effective rep firms and distributor organizations need to be fielding specialists, as opposed to generalists, who are recognized in their markets as local, reliable, knowledgeable sources of both information and services. These attributes transcend what customers can find through an online purchase experience or Google search. Distributors and in some cases reps who can offer enhanced services in the form of design work, programming and start-up of technical products, pre-fabrication support, kitting and logistics are changing the game in terms of adding customer value that online retailers simply can’t provide.
Lessing: Salespeople need to continue to leverage one of the biggest advantages they have over online buying options, which is the customer relationship. At the same time, the trick is to marry this personal and professional relationship with the fact that customers have 24/7 access to product specifications and prices. According to IMpower Solutions, a company that helps businesses text with customers using their existing business phone systems, 97 percent of mobile phone owners text, 98 percent of texts are opened, 90 percent of texts are opened within three to five minutes and nine out of 10 customers want to text businesses. Texting, apparently, is just one example of a personal (digital) preference that online resellers, at least today, can’t support and which outside salespeople need to figure out how to monetize.
IMARK NOW: What are the attributes of distributors with whom your company has the most effective and profitable relationships?
Weber: Communication, respect of territory/lead generation (both ways) and support across the line card help make for the most effective and profitable relationships. We provide value to the channel and specifications to pull product off their shelves and respect and work more closely with distributors who support us with orders on additional lines for which the discretionary buys go our way (even though there are several options that they may have in addition to those on our line card). It makes it more difficult for us to truly partner with distributors who only buy products or contact us where we’re hard-specified or where we create the demand.
Devereaux: Distributor and rep firm relationships benefit the most when they’re based on mutual trust and respect. Both parties need to help the other have something to gain and something to lose—in other words, compromise. The more they can trust each other and work through difficulties, the more they foster a bond with the potential to create more opportunities for each other.
Rodger: Distributors and rep firms that can consistently invest in evolving technologies and expertise in terms of the right people and then utilize these attributes in tandem will enjoy more success together and with their manufacturer partners. Rep firms can continue to add value by offering subject matter experts and services to their distributor partners. In addition, distribution and rep firms that have successfully attracted and recruited quality younger personnel and established their firms as attractive places to work seem to be the winners in our market. These younger employees are entering the workforce with an incredibly innate understanding of available technologies as well as the enthusiasm and energy to implement them to help their organizations advance and succeed. In addition, distributors who invest in a rep agent’s business through multiple line support would benefit more in terms of the agent’s mindshare, stable of field sales influencers and ability to impact demand creation. Joint sales planning is also a critical component of this, and IMARK offers extensive opportunities for the reps and distributors to collaborate in this arena.
Lessing: I think the most effective and profitable relationships are those that really embrace the IMARK supplier relationship. Online resellers don’t enjoy the IMARK advantage of close partnerships, multiple line selling opportunities, market planning activities and specific growth tools like GainShare and Gateway to Growth. Salespeople should partner with their IMARK supplier reps, not simply because the owner or manager wants them to, but because it can bring real value to the customer. This is especially true of reps who have multiple IMARK lines and who can leverage more potential solutions. In our case, the Ewing-Foley Electrical Division’s top five revenue lines, and eight of the top nine, are IMARK suppliers. Our most profitable relationships are those in which we can jointly market a number of products and solutions to customers with our distributor partners.
Starkman: Distributors with whom we can sit down and plan upcoming business opportunities are good partners. A lot of our distributors ask us to help them get into new business opportunities; those situations where we mutually identify an opportunity and plan how to attack it are almost always successful.
IMARK NOW: Among end users/installers, how important is it for distributors to offer a fully-functioning webstore that accepts purchase orders and allows customers to gather current information on their accounts? Do you see this as a business requirement?
Devereaux: A webstore is a necessary tool because the new buyers are used to making online purchases. Those distributors who offer this option to their customers are at an advantage. The real advantage, however, results from a knowledgeable salesperson using the system to review buying habits and then contacting customers with suggestions that will strengthen their product portfolio and help create net investment benefits for them.
Rodger: It’s critical for distribution to evolve further with e-commerce. As millennials continue to fill the role of customer in all facets of the electrical industry, the means with which they’re accustomed to gaining information and conducting their business or placing orders need to be mirrored by the electrical distribution channel. Distributors who can offer a streamlined e-commerce platform, an educated, technical and reliable salesforce and a suite of services can truly differentiate themselves from large online retailers. Amazon will struggle in its attempts to fulfill a project at any level, whether it’s simply cutting wire or managing a major lighting project with many fixture types. At the end of the day, people and relationships are still the most powerful differentiators, and distributors and rep firms who properly capitalize on those attributes can transcend the offerings of an online store.
Lessing: I recently read an interesting article covering a contractor roundtable at the National Association of Electrical Distributors’ National Conference that influenced my thinking on this topic. A distributor’s or manufacturer’s natural “I’ve got to keep up” reaction may be to “build an app for that.” The panel debated whether company-specific apps and websites were helpful to contractors and the consensus was that they may be good for stock-and-flow reorder and route pickup-type business, but not for large projects. While webstores with shopping carts and account access are important and will continue to get more powerful and less expensive, my gut says that distributors should seek to understand specifically what their customers want to achieve and how they would use these tools to potentially avoid the high cost of trying to build something for everyone.
Starkman: It’s nice to have your own portal, but it will be hard for distributors to build a webstore that competes with an outlet like Amazon. Amazon spent billions to create its site and few distributors have those kinds of resources, except perhaps large national chains that have developed portals for specific customers. Contractors use distributor webstores to some degree, but some find it frustrating to bounce back and forth between different distributor portals. In the end, customers will use the easiest portal they can.
Weber: I think it depends on your overall strategy as a distributor. To maintain a fully-functioning webstore that leverages social media and constant posts, you must hire search engine optimization professionals and provide continuous real-time monitoring and alterations 24/7. This is a major investment and requires management by dedicated personnel. Another option is to provide your current customer base with a functioning webstore that gives them access to local inventory, saved carts, instant ordering, same-day delivery, back-of-house credit information, back orders and order history without having to come into a branch or call a human on the inside.