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The Eleventh Annual Gem Award

June 1, 2003
The Ganzenmuller Electrical Marketing Award,or GEM Award, was established in honor of George Ganzenmuller, who was chief editor of Electrical Wholesaling

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 1988, Electrical Wholesaling magazine has awarded the GEM Award to people who exhibit these same leadership qualities. A panel of judges on Electrical Wholesaling's editorial staff selects award winners in three categories representing the three segments of the electrical wholesaling industry: electrical distributors, independent manufacturers' reps and electrical manufacturers.

A companion award, the GEM Rising Star Award, recognizes those electrical distributors, independent reps and manufacturers whose early careers and industry contributions show promise of leadership and insight, and who have already demonstrated the determination to excel.

The editors of Electrical Wholesaling believe all of us in the electrical wholesaling industry can learn from the careers and philosophies of the GEM Award and GEM Rising Star Award winners profiled on the following pages.

Bill Elliot, President, Elliott Electric Supply:

Bill Elliott says his proudest moments in life were marrying his wife Nicky and having three children, but the success of Elliott Electric Supply probably has caused him to pop a button or two from his shirt as well.

The quaint, historic little town of Nacogdoches, population less than 32,000 and situated in a remote part of eastern Texas, seems an unlikely place to set up an electrical distributorship. It seems even more unlikely that a distributorship set up there would grow into a regional dynamo with 31 branches. But that's exactly what Elliott Electric Supply has grown into under the guidance of Bill Elliott, the company owner and president.

All through his college years at Louisiana Technical College, Elliott worked at his father's company, Powerline Supply Co., in Bossier, La., to supplement the income he earned performing with a local band while he worked on a degree in music. But nearing graduation, Elliott decided that his talent as a trombone player just wasn't going to guarantee him the kind of income he wanted.

After graduation, he went to work full time as an inside sales person at Powerline, then moved into outside sales. Several years later, Elliott and his older brother Ken left Powerline to run Ken Elliott Motors, a motor manufacturing company his family owned. Eventually, Elliott sold his interest in the company to his brother and went back to Powerline, but it wasn't long before he began thinking about starting his own business.

In 1972, with $20,000 in his pocket, he left Powerline and headed for Nacogdoches. He liked the area and there were no other supply houses nearby. He borrowed $80,000 from the Small Business Administration, built a new building for $20,000, bought $60,000 worth of inventory and kept the remaining $20,000 as operating capital. That first year his company did less than $500,000 in total sales.

Today, with branch number 32 under construction just north of Houston and 1997 total sales in excess of $84 million, Bill Elliott has proven that location isn't everything after all.

Elliott credits his success to partnering with his employees and his manufacturers. He believes that helping his employees to be successful in the company promotes the company's success. "One of the best terms I've ever heard is 'servant leadership,'" he says. "A good manager finds out what his people need to do the job and helps them accomplish their goals."

Elliott says you can set your own objectives, but the way to get people to help you achieve them is to recognize them for helping. Elliott's favorite saying is one he cut from a Rotary Club bulletin many years ago: "You'd be amazed at what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit." He says that if you give a guy the credit he's due, "that guy will work himself to death for you."

Establishing this same sort of "partner" relationship with vendors has been one of the biggest changes in Elliott Electric's approach to business. When the company first started, Elliott says it was common practice to buy from any vendor who walked through the door with the lowest price. Now they have a select number of vendors and work with customers to establish a preference for those vendors' products by educating the customer on its unique qualities.

Over the next five years, Elliott hopes to continue expanding through the "hub and spoke" style that has worked so successfully for him in the past. He also wants to continue to build the personal relationships with his customers. "My Dad always said that selling is like making love," says Elliot. "It's no fun unless both of you want to do it."

Peter Ewing, President Ewing-Foley, Inc.:

>From childhood, he says, he wanted to be an independent manufacturers' agent-a focus that has placed Peter Ewing at the top of his profession.

When Peter Ewing founded his agency in 1961, it was a simpler time. The independent rep business was a handshake and shoe-leather affair and a rep could keep most of what he needed to know about his clients in his head.

Today, with massive computer databases just a finger's touch away, such a world is difficult to imagine. "Without the computer I don't know how we'd run our business, or how we ever did," says Ewing. That statement is true for Ewing in more ways than one, due to his agency's location on the edge of what's now Silicon Valley.

"We got into this business when Silicon Valley hadn't even been thought about," he says. "Now we've got 5,000 companies in Northern California that we're doing business with."

Ewing-Foley, Inc., based in Cupertino, Calif., sells electrical, electronic and datacom products to distributors and end users throughout Northern California, including the software pioneers of Silicon Valley. As the computer revolution enriched the region, Peter Ewing, along with his partners Dick Foley, Bob Lessing and Gary Lessing, guided Ewing-Foley through explosive growth to make it one of the most successful and widely respected rep agencies in the industry.

The agency has grown from 2 employees-Ewing and Foley-and $1 million in sales its first year to more than 50 people in two locations selling over $100 million a year today.

Ewing-Foley's success is a testament to the soundness of business fundamentals. Ewing's approach to business can be distilled to a variant of the Golden Rule--take care of the customer the way you would want to be taken care of.

A Toronto, Ontario, native, Ewing's life as a rep began in 1957 when, shortly after his graduation from Stanford University with a degree in economics and serving a 6-month stint in the U.S. Army, Ewing joined a rep agency. In 1961, he started Ewing Associates, but later that year was recalled to active duty during construction of the Berlin Wall. It was at Fort Lewis Washington that Ewing met Dick Foley, a fellow soldier, who expressed interest in Ewing's business. Three years later, Foley joined the firm.

Ewing's career has spanned what might be 39 of the best years ever for being an independent manufacturer's rep in the electrical industry, he says. Not that the electrical rep's future is any darker than his past, but with margins declining and demands from all sides increasing, Ewing says the business is changing in some fundamental ways and needs to change further. He does, however, believe the rep's role in the industry is secure. The advantages of long decades spent developing local market expertise and the ability to offer products from multiple, complementary manufacturers, cannot be overcome by manufacturers' direct sales forces, says Ewing.

Beyond his own company, Pete Ewing has served the industry well. He joined the National Electrical Manufacturers Representatives Association (NEMRA) in 1975, when the agency began to make a strong push in the electrical industry. He served as president of his local chapter, and on several national committees, and was president of NEMRA (the position now called chairman) in 1992-93. He's also served on several manufacturers' rep councils, helping to advise manufacturers in formulating policies.

Ewing is now embarking on the next major step in his career: Letting go. The firm has laid out a succession plan that has Ewing phasing out his responsibilities over a 7-year period. The plan calls for partner Gary Lessing to become president in 1999.

Larry Wilton, President, Philips Lighting Co.:

With the environment and service as his battle cries, Larry Wilton has set a new pace in the lamp industry.

Larry Wilton came to the senior management post at Philips Lighting with a management philosophy that worked for him at many of the international posts he held for the company: Stay close to your customers.

It's a simple concept that can be very tough to make a reality when the company markets more than 4,000 lighting products, has 10,000 employees in the U.S. and has an annual sales volume that exceeds $1 billion. This strategy was even tougher to pull off when Wilton became president of Philips Lighting two years ago and became responsible for the company's U.S., Canadian and Mexican operations, and many companies in the lighting market were struggling to get used to life without utility rebates.

For much of the late 1980s and early 1990s, companies in the lighting market feasted on these rebates that offered end users and building owners terrific financial incentives to install energy-efficient lighting products. But when utilities in many markets began to have capacity to spare, they no longer had the same incentive to offer customers cash to save electricity, and most rebate programs dried up. The elimination of rebates meant lighting equipment would have to be sold with sales strategies based on the mantra of "pay more now for future savings." While saving customers money would seem like the catchiest of all incentives, in the hard reality of the marketplace, they were often still hesitant to invest in lighting systems that had higher upfront costs.

Wilton set out to build an arsenal of marketing tools and new products that would support the company and its distributors in their sales efforts to overcome this challenge. During his tenure in the company's executive ranks, Wilton helped manage the development of tools, such as industry-specific databases that distributors could tap into for information on potential sales opportunities in a broad array of customer groups, made the development of EDI and other types of electronic commerce a top priority, and got Philips online early with a robust Web site.

He lists as his major industry contribution the introduction of the Alto TCLP-compliant, low-mercury fluorescent technology, which produced the first lamp to pass the Environmental Protection Agency's stringent test for non-hazardous waste. He says his proudest moments in the electrical industry were "Being the first company in our segment to be ISO in all areas; the 'Alto-ising' of America and its subsequent rollout worldwide; and Philips' coming of age in the U.S. market."

Educated at the University of British Columbia, where he earned a degree in marketing, the Canadian native brings a distinctly international flair to Philips Lighting's U.S. operations. Before becoming company president, he was Philips' executive vice president of sales, marketing and distribution. At that time, he was also responsible for Canadian lighting operations, logistics support, warehousing and physical distribution.

He also served for two years as managing director of Philips Domestic Appliance Products in the United Kingdom; group general manager for Philips Consumer and Industrial Products in Australia; and vice president and general manager for Philips Consumer Electronics in Canada.

He counts this experience in the global marketplace amongst his greatest influences, ranking it with the advice he gets from his distributor council and the support he gets from his wife, Patrice; son, Rhys; and daughter, Kristana.

Michael Fromm, President, Fromm Electric Supply of Reading:

Michael Fromm knows he's bucking the odds for success as the leader of a third-generation company, but he has risen to the challenge of continuing the company's winning tradition.

Michael Fromm had a less than stellar beginning in the electrical industry. In 1979, on a summer break from working toward his marketing degree from New York University, Fromm went to work at his dad's company where he was given the nasty job of entering 20,000 items into the company's first computer inventory control program. Fromm recalls that it seemed like a long summer that year.

After graduation, he went to work for a national marketing company, then in 1991, he brought his marketing experience home to the family business, joining Fromm Electric Supply as its marketing manager. Fromm says that was the proudest day of his career.

"I felt an extraordinary sense of pride in the legacy that I was perpetuating, because I'm third generation in the business," he says.

Now, as the recently appointed president and chief operating officer of the company, 37-year-old Fromm realizes the company must adopt non-traditional business methods in the future, whether it's through the use of technology or through some innovative business practices.

A redirection in the industry and Fromm Electric Supply's evolution from a small, family business to a regional industry leader has brought about countless changes in the company, including the need to engage in formal strategic planning and to develop a more corporate image with suppliers and customers. But Fromm says that's the fun of it. "In a way, I enjoy being the underdog, knowing we're third generation and that the independent electrical distributor is going to face some difficult challenges."

He adds that those challenges create energy, not fear, so he loves going to work each day. He says he stepped into a legacy of a well-run company with inspired leadership and enthusiastic employees, and when his brother Lou joined the company a few years ago as an account manager, Fromm says it really completed the circle. "That gave me increased confidence that the family legacy would remain intact."

That legacy, plus the old-fashioned values instilled by his parents ("No matter how much money you have, you can't buy integrity, and that character is who you are when nobody's looking") make it a pretty sure bet he'll beat those third-generation odds.

Howard Pickett, President, George Pickett and Associates:

Howard Pickett has built a promising career in electrical sales on a foundation of hard work and team play.

Howard Pickett, president of George Pickett and Associates, Cary, N.C., grew up with a well-developed sense of hard work and team play. When Howard was young, his father, George, pursued a career in sports, coaching basketball at colleges that included the Citadel and North Carolina State. In 1962 George Pickett left coaching to try his hand at sales--which he saw as similar to the recruiting and coaching process--and formed his own manufacturers' rep firm. Howard's mother, Joan Pickett, was there from the start, serving as office manager.

Howard grew up in sports. He played freshman basketball for North Carolina State during the 1974 National Championship season and was the manager for the 1975-76 team.

After graduating with a degree in business management in 1976, Howard interviewed with several banks and other firms, but found himself drawn to his father's company. At 22 years of age, though, Howard made it clear that he didn't want success handed to him. He told his father, "I want to earn it." George Pickett replied, "Don't worry about that. You will."

Howard's first assignment was to spend time with three of the major manufacturers the firm represented. Then he went to work as an outside salesman in the firm's eastern North Carolina territory.

Drawing from the agency's foundations in coaching, George Pickett and Associates brings new people into the business through what the agency refers to as "The Long Hard Road"--a training system that emphasizes the fundamentals of the game, and takes no shortcuts on the road to success.

The agency, of which Howard Pickett is now president, has a cards-on-the-table policy with customers that means giving them the bad news as well as the good. The policy in action is not always pleasant, but builds an atmosphere of trust. Hard work is the nature of the game. Outside sales people make a call every day by 8:30 a.m. For Howard, that may mean being on the road by 5:30 for a three-hour drive. It also means that, from the top of the agency on down, everyone may be called on to pitch in to unload a truck or set up a display.

Howard Pickett is active in the industry. He has served on several national committees with the National Electrical Manufacturers Representatives Association (NEMRA), Armonk, N.Y. He graduated as a Certified Professional Manufacturers Representative in 1995 and currently serves as President of NEMRA's Carolina's Chapter.

Ben Lazar, Director of Electronic Commerce, Hubbell, Inc.:

Ben Lazar has been more than just a spectator in all that's happened with electronic commerce in the electrical wholesaling industry. As director of electronic commerce at Hubbell, Inc., Orange, Conn., he's the point man responsible for getting the company's distributors up and running with its various tools of electronic commerce and is its representative on several of the industry's key electronic commerce committees.

With this type of perspective in a company that's an acknowledged leader in electronic commerce, Lazar sees first-hand how EDI, vendor-managed inventory (VMI) and other types of electronic commerce can and have changed the lives of electrical distributors.

Lazar came to Hubbell in 1991 with a dual degree in Information Systems and Marketing from Babson College and earned an MBA from the University of New Haven. His first job at the company was as a site support representative, where he worked Hubbell's help desk and got to see the inner workings of the electronic communications links that the company had set up with distributors.

Lazar has had a seat on many of the NAED and NEMA electronic commerce committees that laid the groundwork for the Industry Data Warehouse, EDIPro, and the standard product field descriptions necessary to carry all electronic information. He has been a key player in rolling out Hubbell's own vendor-managed inventory program. He chairs a NEMA committee that wants to use EDIPro as a foundation for new standards to transmit information accurately and securely over the Internet. That committee, "The Virtual Group," is now studying the security concerns of transmitting confidential order information over the Web.

One reason that so many elements of electronic commerce are finally coming together is the fact that people like Lazar and companies like Hubbell have been willing to put aside partisan battles and look instead to developing common systems and standards that work best for all companies in the electrical industry.

One of Henry David Thoreau's philosophies that Lazar likes to reflect upon aptly describes this progress and his role in making it happen: "If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."

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. 

About the Author

Doug Chandler | Senior Staff Writer

Doug has been reporting and writing on the electrical industry for Electrical Wholesaling and Electrical Marketing since 1992 and still finds the industry’s evolution and the characters who inhabit its companies endlessly fascinating. That was true even before e-commerce, LED lighting and distributed generation began to disrupt so many of the electrical industry’s traditional practices.

Doug earned a BA in English Literature from the University of Kansas after spending a few years in KU’s William Allen White School of Journalism, then deciding he absolutely did not want to be a journalist. In the company of his wife, two kids, two dogs and two cats, he spends a lot of time in the garden and the kitchen – growing food, cooking, brewing beer – and helping to run the family coffee shop.

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