The Ganzenmuller Electrical Marketing Award, or GEM Award, was established in honor of George Ganzenmuller, who was chief editor of Electrical Wholesaling magazine for more than 30 years until his death in 1986.
George was a man whose integrity, fairness and industry knowledge won the respect of the entire electrical industry for nearly four decades. Since 1989, Electrical Wholesaling magazine has awarded the GEM Award to honor those independent manufacturers' reps who exhibit these same leadership qualities. A companion award, the GEM Rising Star Award, recognizes those independent reps whose early careers and industry contributions show promise of leadership.
The editors of Electrical Wholesaling believe the electrical industry can learn from the business careers and personal philosophies of this year's winners of the GEM Award and GEM Rising Star Award.
RB SALES CORP.
Bob Benton has always been a salesman. That was clear all the way back to Duluth, Minn., where at age seven he worked at the family's grocery store, Benton's Quality Market. At that store, his father taught him to take care of the customer, and the importance of giving a full effort in any endeavor he tackled.
Benton carried those lessons through Dunwoody Industrial Institute where he went for vocational training, Viking Electric in Minneapolis where he worked as a salesperson, and Berko Electric Heating where he moved up the executive ladder. Still, Benton always wanted to build a company of his own.
In 1977, he and his wife, Sherry, started RB Sales Corp. Over the years, they've grown the agency to cover all of Iowa and Nebraska.
It's a big market area stretching from the Mississippi River to the Colorado border. Visiting accounts in Scotts Bluff, Neb., requires 15 to 16 hours of drive time from the Marion headquarters.
The Bentons grew the business with a personal touch and a professional marketing sense that's among the best in the business.
The Bentons' personal touch is evident in RB Sales' state-of-the-art training room, which accommodates 20 students with DSL access and the latest in AV equipment. To date, more than 300 people have taken training seminars lasting one to four days. It doesn't hurt that the meals served at the training sessions are all home cooked and served on real china.
“We avoid using plastic utensils, paper plates,” says Bill Devereaux, the company's president and CEO. “If that's what they remember and come back, so be it. The investment wasn't that large.”
RB Sales also invested in a Web site at www.rbsalescorp.com with several unique features. Photos and bios of all personnel help customers learn about the people they work with on the phone but may not get the chance to meet in person. Customers and vendors can also contact or identify different members of the RB Sales team by just clicking on the person in a group photo.
How the company handles information requests online is also unique. Benton; his wife, Sherry, the company's executive vice president; and Devereaux knew that most of the information requests their inside sales team handles are in four areas: requests for quotes, requests for literature, sample requests and return requests. Customers can submit these requests online by clicking on the appropriate request button and keying in basic contact information and other data related to the request, such as product type, job description and bid information.
This feature allows RB Sales personnel to handle basic information requests more efficiently. Inside salespeople can rely on the Web to handle simple information requests and spend the necessary time with customers who have more difficult service issues.
Another service the company provides is helping distributors improve their gross margin return on investment (GMROI). Mark Schon, sales manager, learned the importance of maximizing GMROI while working for one of the larger independent distributors in Iowa. Today, he helps distributors' purchasing managers and senior executives do the same.
Although Bob Benton officially retired from RB Sales at the end of last year, he still spends a lot of time in the office. He is an active member of the National Electrical Manufacturers Representatives Association (NEMRA), Tarrytown, N.Y., serving as chapter president, vice president of NEMRA's Central region and on the NEMRA board of directors.
Bill Devereaux, the Bentons' son-in-law, is at the helm after several years of grooming and a stellar career in electrical sales on the distribution side.
RB Sales means the world to Sherry and Bob Benton. When they decided Devereaux, who's married to their daughter Shannon, was the person to perpetuate the business, they laid out a two-year succession plan that called for Bob cutting back over the past year and Sherry continuing on with the business for at least three more years.
“Last year I was putting in about 50 percent of time,” says Benton. “If I didn't back off, the manufacturers and distributors would still call me. They need to be talking with Bill. That helped the transition.”
Devereaux is off to a great start. He says even though the company's Iowa-Nebraska market has only grown between 1 percent and 3 percent over the past few years, RB Sales grew sales 18 percent in 2002 and 14 percent in 2003. He anticipates 2004 growth of 15 percent to 20 percent. Generally, half of the company's growth has come from acquiring new lines; the other half from its existing customer base.
Part of the formula for RB Sales is finding distributor personnel who may have moved into management but really want to get back to selling. The Bentons and Devereaux have tried to create an environment that allows them to do that. They offer company benefits like full medical and dental plans and a 401(k) retirement plan that aren't standard for rep firms but are common with electrical distributors.
“The biggest reason we have been able to grow is that we have hired some great people, and some experienced salespeople,” says Devereaux. “We do not hire or encourage milk route salespeople. We just don't show up between 9-9:30 on Tuesdays with a box of donuts. We want to drive sales.”
To achieve this goal, Devereaux wants to supplement RB Sales' core electrical business with newer ventures into the HVAC/mechanical and voice/data market. Another major emphasis for the company is marketing. The company recently promoted Daniel Riedell to a full-time marketing post.
You can bet part of Devereaux's plan to build this business will be based on one of Bob's basic tenets: He who controls the end user controls the market. “Bob has been preaching that to us forever,” says Devereaux.
The electrical business hasn't seen the last of Bob Benton. His AIM networking group refused to let him retire as its leader, and he is already busy with his consulting business, PowerMark Inc.
2004 GEM RISING STAR
Richard Whitecraft took a slightly different path to becoming an independent manufacturers' rep. He worked for family-owned businesses during high school and college and enjoyed the small business environment. It wasn't until after graduating from Arizona State University and working for WESCO's Manufactured Housing Division for two years and GE Supply for three years that he decided to become an independent rep. Working for distributors helped him learn “how this whole game goes together,” he says.
While working for GE Supply in Phoenix, he learned of an opening with Maddox Sales in New Mexico. John Maddox, the company's founder, taught him about the importance of making end-user calls to get products specified into plans.
“Not only were your customers electrical wholesalers, the market was your customer,” says Whitecraft. “If you had a product for hospitals, you needed to go there. If you had a product for utilities, you needed to go there.”
When Maddox announced plans to close down the territory in 1990, Whitecraft started thinking about his life-long dream of having his own business.
It was a busy time. Two weeks after marrying his wife, Kim, the couple started up Keyline Sales. With what Whitecraft had learned at Maddox Sales, mentoring from John Maddox, and an offer from Charlie Eastman to take on the Carlon line, they were in business.
The company name came after discussing plans to start up a rep agency with several customers.
“When I called on customers and said, ‘What do you think about all this?,’ They said, ‘If you have key lines you can make it.’” Hence the name: Keyline Sales.
“We were the new kid on the block, but we didn't let that deter us,” Whitecraft says. “We wanted to create demand. If users aren't calling for our product, we are in trouble. Then it is all price if you don't have the relationship with the distributor. We work in harmony with distributors. We are actively pinpointing where the product is most likely to be used.”
Today, the company focuses on the residential, commercial, industrial and utility markets in a territory that reaches from Albuquerque to Farmington, Las Cruces, and Roswell, N.M., and into El Paso, Texas.
One salesperson works out of El Paso to cover 17 distributors in that market; the rest work out of the Albuquerque office.
Keyline Sales has two outside salespeople and two inside salespeople. Kim Whitecraft handles administrative duties. “I couldn't have done this without her. She is the cornerstone,” he says.
“Everything is really spread out and that is a challenge,” he says. “It's 280 miles from Albuquerque to El Paso, 180 miles to Farmington, 225 miles to Los Cruces and 225 miles to Roswell.”
Although the market has been flat over the past year, the company has enjoyed double-digit sales growth. Whitecraft attributes growth in a down market to direct-mail campaigns, counter day and training.
“My philosophy is that we are in the communications business. They can't buy what they don't know. We basically tell people about stuff. There's a lot of ways we can tell people about things. We rely on direct mail, end-user sales calls, counter days, sales training. By the time you get back from showing your new product to everybody in this state, five new products have come out. That's why the direct mail has been beneficial. Also, we try to do counter days every week.”
Keyline Sales has built a strong package of lines, partnering with several key vendors, including Arlington, BRK, Carlon and Christy, for more than 10 years. Other key lines include Bryant, Burndy, MonoSystems, NEC and Woodhead.
Over the years, Keyline Sales has earned national sales awards from Carlon, BRK and Arlington, and recently was awarded the IMARK Circle of Distinction Award for excellence in sales generation and development.
The editors of Electrical Wholesaling expect Whitecraft to win lots more awards in the years to come.