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The Beauty of the Big Tent

May 1, 2009
Companies from the fringes of the electrical market are surprisingly similar to mainstream distributors and independent reps.

When most folks think of an electrical distributor, an image of the traditional full-line “pipe and wire” electrical distributor comes to mind. It's the type of guy or gal you run into at a meeting of the National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED). These companies sell the vast majority of electrical supplies, and depending on how you define a full-line electrical distributor, there are probably about 2,500 of them operating about 7,000 locations. Selling them electrical products are manufacturers' field sales personnel or independent manufacturers' reps. Many of these reps are among the 450 members of the National Electrical Manufacturers Representatives Association (NEMRA), Tarrytown, N.Y.

But there's at least another 1,000 distributors of electrical supplies (and quite possibly that many independent manufacturers' reps) that focus on specific product niches such as lamps, residential lighting fixtures, utility products or automation controls, as EW has documented over the years in its popular “Electrical Pyramid,” which helps educate electrical professionals about the dizzying array of channels an electrical marketer can choose from to bring their products to market.

EW's editors got a good reminder about this diversity during some recent travels. Executive Editor Doug Chandler participated in a seminar at the Professional Electrical Apparatus Recyclers League (PEARL) in Atlanta on April 19, and I was on a panel discussion at the recent annual meeting of the Electrical Equipment Representatives Association (EERA) in Asheville, N.C., on April 27. The thing that struck both of us was how utterly different — but at the same time eerily similar — members of these associations were to the distributors and reps in the “mainstream” electrical market.

PEARL members dedicate themselves to providing a professional, dependable source of quality surplus and reconditioned electrical products to the electrical market. Like so many of the other specialty niches in the electrical market, the surplus market has its own heroes, crusaders, rogues and industry legends. They are in many ways quite different from full-line electrical distributors, and their uniqueness binds them together with a proud “us-against-the-rest-of-the- world” attitude, similar to what you often find when meeting the inhabitants of a small island nation.

That being said, PEARL members are probably more like full-line distributors than they are different. They have the same concerns about running a profitable business, training salespeople, and they have relationships with some of the same electrical manufacturers as full-line electrical distributors. They also have the same concerns with counterfeit electrical products, as you will learn in Doug Chandler's report on this year's PEARL Annual Conference on page 20.

I had a similar experience while visiting a different island nation: the world of the utility rep. When I first wandered into the EERA annual conference, I was only vaguely familiar with the Smart Grid, two-way metering and the storage challenge with renewable energy sources. After an intense immersion into this new culture, barely 24 hours later I had a workable understanding of how these challenges are changing today's utility market. You can read my report on that meeting on page 19.

Like the surplus distributors, these utility reps had that same “us-against-the-rest-of-the-world” attitude. And while their market interests are different enough from those of NEMRA reps that very few EERA reps are also members of NEMRA, EERA members are cut from the same cloth as their NEMRA brethren. Many of the EERA reps I met had that had same gung-ho, Type-A personality and love of life (and golf) that you find in NEMRA reps.

Our travels reminded us that like a political party that tries to appeal to many different constituencies, the electrical market operates with a Big Tent philosophy that covers many different types of distributors and reps. The common threads in the tent's fabric are the electrical products that everyone sells, and the sales, marketing and management strategies they use to sell them. It's a blast sorting out the similarities and differences in EW's pages each month.

About the Author

Jim Lucy | Editor-in-Chief of Electrical Wholesaling and Electrical Marketing

Jim Lucy has been wandering through the electrical market for more than 40 years, most of the time as an editor for Electrical Wholesaling and Electrical Marketing newsletter, and as a contributing writer for EC&M magazine During that time he and the editorial team for the publications have won numerous national awards for their coverage of the electrical business. He showed an early interest in electricity, when as a youth he had an idea for a hot dog cooker. Unfortunately, the first crude prototype malfunctioned and the arc nearly blew him out of his parents' basement.

Before becoming an editor for Electrical Wholesaling  and Electrical Marketing, he earned a BA degree in journalism and a MA in communications from Glassboro State College, Glassboro, NJ., which is formerly best known as the site of the 1967 summit meeting between President Lyndon Johnson and Russian Premier Aleksei Nikolayevich Kosygin, and now best known as the New Jersey state college that changed its name in 1992 to Rowan University because of a generous $100 million donation by N.J. zillionaire industrialist Henry Rowan. Jim is a Brooklyn-born Jersey Guy happily transplanted with his wife and three sons in the fertile plains of Kansas for the past 30 years. 

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