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Hearth & Home February 2017

Well, It Depends!

By Bill Sendelback

It’s a decades old question: Which are best, Independent Reps or Factory Salespeople?

To be successful, every company that offers a product or service needs a sales force to sell its offerings. Decades ago when hearth products became mainstream (late ’70s-early ’80s), wood stove manufacturers such as Bob Fisher of Fisher Stoves, Vern Crowley of The Earth Stove, Dan Henry and Alan Trusler of Aladdin Steel, and even Kurt Rumens of Lopi, sold their products direct to dealers, sometimes from the back of their trucks. But as all of these companies grew beyond their local roots, they needed salespeople to expand their horizons.

Most began with independent, commissioned manufacturers representatives; even today, most hearth products manufacturers still use reps. But as some grew larger, and with the consolidation of manufacturers, a few moved to an employee factory sales force. Today, some manufacturers use a combination of reps and factory salespeople.

So which type of sales force is best in today’s hearth products market? Well, it depends…

Like many larger hearth products manufacturers, Innovative Hearth Products (IHP) uses a combination of independent manufacturers representatives and factory salespeople. “FMI used reps, and Lennox used factory salesmen, so when the two became IHP, we retained some of the best reps and some of the best factory people,” explains Glenn Thomson, executive vice president of Sales and Marketing. “It all has to do with the talent of the individual, and putting the right person into the right place. In our experience, we don’t find reps to be any less dedicated to us than factory people. We do, however, require that reps not sell competing products.”

Jøtul North America also relies on a combination of reps and factory salespeople. “We pick the best rep or factory guy who will do the best job for us in each individual territory,” says Jim Merkel, National Sales manager. “It’s not whether it’s a rep or factory person, it’s the quality of the individual that matters to us.”

Merkel points out that the roster of reps selling Jøtul is “extremely stable. We have reps that have been with us for 32 years, now in their second generation, with many selling Jøtul for more than 20 years and the newest selling for us for 15 years.” Merkel adds that Jøtul’s manufacturers reps offer long relationships with customers, and the advantage of that consistency “is huge.” Jøtul also requires that its reps sell only Jøtul as their stove line.

Napoleon Fireplaces is another large manufacturer relying on both reps and factory salespeople, but leans toward factory salespeople, says John Czerwonka, vice president of Hearth Sales. “We are very strong about factory salespeople because we offer such a broad line of products and brands. We need someone who lives and breathes Napoleon. So we use about 80% factory salespeople and 20% reps.

“There are a lot of good reps,” he says, “and if you have great products, it attracts good reps. For us, it depends on the individual market, but we want to be the major manufacturer sold by each of our reps. We have been very fortunate with both our reps and our factory people.”

To improve its sales efforts, Napoleon conducts frequent customer surveys. “We want to know what the customer expects,” says Czerwonka. “The surveys give us a report card on the product and technical knowledge, and the value to that customer, of our sales force, and it helps us understand the needs of our customers.”

R H Peterson Co. began in the early 1950s with manufacturers reps and has stuck with that philosophy ever since, according to Jerry Scott, senior vice president of Sales. “We think we have the finest reps; some organizations are now in their third generation. It’s not just their product knowledge that makes these reps important to Peterson. It’s their knowledge and relationship with our company and their territory. Financially it is very clean for us since we have a set commission rate, so the more they sell, the more they make.”

Scott admits that with a factory employee, the manufacturer commands the salesperson’s full attention and has full control. But he points out that a good rep carries other products that give them more time and importance with the customer. “Salespeople are a great vehicle to get field communications back to the company,” he says. “With our reps, we think we get a truer picture of the market, the territory and the customer. We are committed to independent reps. This commitment has yielded not just strong business relationships, but strong personal relationships. We really are family.”

Travis Industries, another large manufacturer, uses independent manufacturers reps. “Way back when we started, we sold only through distributors, so we had no outside salespeople,” explains Perry Ranes, National Sales director. “But we have evolved to now having partnered with really good, loyal reps. Most have been with us at least 20 years, and some for more than 25 years.

“It’s unbelievable what our reps do for us. They are hands-on people – much more than just order takers. They help our dealers and truly talk on behalf of those dealers. We’ve developed honest and truthful personal relationships and friendships with our reps. They take care of our business because it’s also their business.”

Travis likes the idea that its reps sell other hearth products, but they require that their reps not sell competitive products. “Other non-competitive lines put more in their sales bag that makes them more important to our dealers.”

Customers, whether distributors or dealers, say that it’s the individual that matters, and not whether that individual is a rep or a factory salesperson. As might be expected, some customers suggest they don’t need either.

As companies have consolidated, more and more of them have switched from reps to factory salespeople, according to Steve Hall, president of Fireside Distributors, an East Coast two-step distributor headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina. “With these now-larger lines of products, factory salespeople allow those companies more control of their sales efforts. But I’m not thrilled with all this consolidation. I’d like more choices in manufacturers, not fewer.”

It’s the individual that is important to Hall – “finding the right individual who will work with us.” He has made certain his staff know the products Fireside offers; he does not rely on reps or factory people. “Salespeople focus on what they are selling, but it’s important for us to know our products and our markets.” Hall says he doesn’t need either reps or factory salespeople. “In most cases, we work directly with the factory, so we don’t need as much hands-on care. I would prefer cheaper prices.”

It’s not a matter of rep or factory salesperson for Andy Atwood, general manager of L.E. Klein, a South Central two-step distributor based in Carrollton, Texas. “It totally depends on the person. Some reps are phenomenal and some are coupon clippers. And some factory salespeople are great, while others are worthless.”

Atwood thinks reps spend more effort looking out for the customer, while factory salespeople are more tuned to the needs of the manufacturer. “With a rep, it’s more personal than it is with a factory guy,” he says. “Good reps are more knowledgeable about the territory while, with a factory salesperson, it’s all about numbers. For us, reps are best, but sometimes we know more about the products than either one.”

Atwood complains that whether it’s reps or factory salespeople, manufacturers today are giving them less empowerment for solving problems. The number-one expectation Atwood has for any salesperson is to solve product problems.

“Unfortunately,” he says, “we end up handling 98% of the problems.” He expects any salesperson to train his or her people on products and service and to “occasionally” travel the territory.

Trent Scholler, president of MS Distributors, an Upper Midwest one-step and two-step distributor in Toledo, Ohio, agrees that there are both good and bad reps and factory salespeople, and that it depends more on the individual – but he prefers factory salespeople.

“They are more knowledgeable,” he says, “since they have only one manufacturer and one line to know. With a rep, it depends on how important that line is to him. If it’s a ‘tag along’ line, you might not get the attention you need.”

But Scholler is cautious about both. “Sometimes I get an unsettled feeling, worrying that maybe that sales guy’s next call might be on my arch enemy, especially if it’s a rep and that arch enemy sells more of his lines. So he might sell them my line or divulge information about us that he should not divulge.”

Scholler says he doesn’t need a lot of help from either reps or factory salespeople, but he does expect both to introduce new products, solve problems, handle warranty issues and intervene and solve slow shipment problems.

Hearth products retailers are on the front lines, dealing with both reps and factory salespeople, and have even more opinions of both.

“Factory salespeople are worthless, but not just in the hearth industry,” says Scott Ongley, owner of Lisac’s Fireplaces & Stoves in Portland, Oregon. “They are not paid enough, and they have to toe the company line. But a manufacturers rep is a good liaison between the retailer and the manufacturer. A very few factory salespeople are very good, but for most, their only reason for being is that they cost less for the manufacturer.”

Ongley suggests that all salespeople, reps and factory people alike, should have experience working in retail. “Some of these guys simply don’t have the knowledge or experience to teach my people how to sell,” he says.

Ongley wants salespeople of both stripes to keep him and his staff updated on new products and changes to current products, to be able to train his staff and to be able to lend a sales hand during a busy season.

Most of the salespeople who call on Peter Solac, CEO of Woodland Stoves & Fireplaces, Minneapolis, Minnesota, are independent manufacturers reps. “We don’t see many factory people,” he says, “so I can’t say which is best. But either way, it depends on the qualities, abilities and personality of that individual.”

Whether rep or factory salesperson, Solac expects them to be an advocate for him to the manufacturer. “We need them to be on our side,” he says, “to really relate between us and the manufacturer.” He expects any salesperson to show new products, resolve technical issues and handle accounting issues between the dealer and the manufacturer. “Train us, yes. But it’s hard for a rep to train all of our people, so we rely on manufacturers’ seminars.”

Solac would like all salespeople to “really take the time to look at our market and find out if certain products will really work in our particular shop.” He, too, feels that a rep who has more lines tends to be better and have more value to a dealer since he has more lines invested in that dealer.

Manufacturers representatives, such as Bob DeYoung, president of DeYoung Associates, a Pennsylvania-based rep covering the Mid-Atlantic states, see diversity as a big benefit for reps.

“We sell many products from many manufacturers and in many product segments,” he says, “so we know how to sell many products. We have a depth of knowledge of our whole market and our industries. In our case, we have 31 years in the rep business, so we have extensive knowledge of our market, and we have long-term relationships with the customers. But a factory salesperson only has knowledge of the products and categories made by that manufacturer.”

DeYoung says a rep has the flexibility to change something or try something new, while a factory salesperson may not have that empowerment.

Andy Todd, owner of Energy Classics, a Washington state-based rep firm covering the Pacific Northwest, says a big benefit to an independent rep is that they are paid by commission. “If we don’t do our job, and we and our dealers don’t sell our products, we don’t get paid. That keeps us motivated.”

Todd also says that having been in the same marketplace for “a long time,” reps know their territory and have developed long-term relationships with the dealers. Todd began his rep career in 1990 after 10 years selling at the retail level.

Todd says what he enjoys most about being an independent manufacturers rep is his relationships with his dealers. “This allows me to do business with these customers in an honest, upfront way, and be someone my customers and my manufacturers can trust.”

So which is best – rep or factory salesperson? It depends on your perspective as a manufacturer and your needs as a customer. But it most certainly depends on the abilities and personality of the individual salesperson.

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