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NEMRA's Jim Johnson

Reimagining the Role of the NEMRA Rep

Feb. 3, 2021
Jim Johnson believes NEMRA reps can use the business lessons they learned during the COVID-19 pandemic to redefine and reinforce their role in the electrical channel.

When Jim Johnson took the job as president and CEO of the National Electrical Manufacturers Representatives Association (NEMRA) in May, 2019 upon Ken Hooper’s retirement, he came to the position with what looked like the perfect background. He spent more than 18 years as an independent rep with Lester Sales Co., Indianapolis, IN, and over a decade at executive posts at Ideal Industries, Ericson Manufacturing, Calpipe and Atkore. Johnson also earned a degree at Northern Illinois University, the alma mater for so many electrical market executives, and worked with his dad as an electrical contractor.

But not even a stellar resume like this could totally prepare anyone for the challenges that came with the COVID-19 pandemic. Electrical Wholesaling recently visited with Johnson over Zoom to learn how NEMRA and its membership have overcome the challenges presented by the pandemic and the association’s plans for the future.

Why don’t you start things off by telling us a little more about your electrical industry background and how it prepared you for your present post at NEMRA?

I grew up in the industry. My father was an electrical contractor and I started carrying the tools at a young age. Shortly after I graduated from college, I went to work for Ideal Industries. After that I went into the rep business for 18 years. From there, I transitioned to back to the manufacturing side. In total, it gave me 34 years of years of industry experience, that encompassed carrying the tools as an electrical contractor, being on the manufacturer side, and being on the representative side.

When we were talking about your mentors, you mentioned how Richard Howland, one of your professors at Northern Illinois University, had a big impact on your career and that Rick Ridnour at Ideal Industries pushed you to do things you didn’t think you could do. It sure sounds like your dad was a great mentor, too.

My father was a tremendous influence on me. He taught me the business at a young age. I look back now and laugh. I wasn’t laughing then.   You see, my father’s business was primarily commercial but as we were in Chicago, Cook County specifically, conduit was also required in residential, so Dad had a residential division as well.  While most of my friends were out playing ball, my dad was teaching me how to work with the tools, including bending conduit in the garage. 

Outside of using the tools, he taught me about servanthood.  Serving each customer as if they were the most important and only customer we had. He taught me the value of relationships, and those relationships have got me to where I am today. You can’t go it alone. You have to know what you know and understand what you don’t and seek out those who can offer guidance and support.

You worked for a large manufacturer, some smaller manufacturers and an independent rep. How has that helped you in your post at NEMRA?

It has been a tremendous advantage, learning it from all different sides -- understanding how a contractor works and what they need and the reasons they need it, and then taking that to a manufacturer and helping them develop products for a contractor, whether it be labor-saving products, the speed of getting products onto and off of the jobsite effectively, and then going to the rep side of the world and understanding their role -- the local touches they have, and the value they have by being locally involved with these contractors. Reps form relationships that go beyond business.  They become the trusted resource.

Sometimes the value of the rep and the value of those local relationships get lost. To be able to bring back to manufacturers that perspective and say, “Here’s how the representative fits in that role, here’s how the contractor views that representative, and views you as a manufacturer.” It’s given me a great platform from which to build new relationships and solidify the ones I have had. 

What has the NEMRA community learned from the pandemic that will help them become more effective selling organizations?

The first thing we learned is that there is a tremendous value in those local relationships. The value of the representatives goes beyond the face-to-face meetings. We always knew they had value there. But all those years of working in the territory, all those handshakes, all those relationships they made, came to the forefront.

When things were shut down, it posed significant challenges to manufacturers and their regional managers who no longer could travel or even come into the office.  As manufacturers, as well as customers, were trying to mobilize their teams, local representatives pivoted very quickly.  They were already local. They already had the contacts and relationships and they had the resources to stay connected with contractors, installers and end users.  Representatives reimagined and reinvented. They went out to job sites, where they utilized their phones, iPads, notebooks to contact regional managers at manufacturers  or other internal contacts, like product managers and quality managers, to serve and address the customers needs, quickly and efficiently. The representatives said, “I am on the jobsite, or I am with the customers, here is the issue. Let me introduce you to the customer. Let’s go through the product and assess it right here.” Traditionally, those product managers and those product assurance managers would not have traveled out to the territory. That’s a tremendous value reps brought and should not be overlooked as I see this continuing going forward.

It sounds like reps and manufacturers have learned a lot about the virtual sales environment, and how in the future at times it may be just as effective for a manufacturer’s regional manager to get on an online call as to get on a plane to go to a territory and work with a rep. How does this new reality blend with some of the age-old challenges that have confronted independent reps, like 30-day contracts and mergers and acquisitions?

The whole industry has been flipped upside-down. What we thought we knew, we now realize we didn’t know as well. It has put everyone back at the table planning and proactively reimagining their business. When we look at the marketplaces, the customers are blending. The definition of power and how it is installed is changing. When we look at contracts, they have not kept up with the times and  do not properly  account for the additional responsibilities that reps are now required and expected to do.  performance behavior that as a manufacturer you want your representatives to have.

This presents a wonderful opportunity for everyone to come to the table, understand the value of what the local representative brings, and to make sure the agreement drives the behavior and appropriately compensate their efforts that benefit the partnership.  A discussion that sounds something like this. "I need specification work here, and I need training there." Now you weave those elements into the contract, and they become very specific to the behavior you want and the results you need in the local markets you are interested in.

We offer a nice template, Negotiating Agreements Between Sales Representatives and Manufacturers, from which to begin this dialogue. It’s an open template that encourages the manufacturer and rep to sit down, as partners, and to focus on what they want and what the representative can produce.  This resource, as it requires collaboration, will not only produce a stronger partnership but what I would call a more successful partnership in terms of sales and revenue. 

Let’s talk about the distributor side of the equation and how NEMRA is reimagining the rep-distributor relationship. You have several distributors on the program at this year’s NEMRA Conference.

With the environment the way it is, it was time to start engaging all three legs of the stool. It’s the first time in history that NEMRA will have the top leaders from both channel distribution and contractors speaking and engaging with our members and manufacturers at our Annual Conference.

Reps are serving the contractors through their manufacturers, and together they are serving the channel partners -- distribution . By having them at the conference we all gain clarity and understanding of how the dynamics are changing in the channel and what will be required to meet with them. How their engagement practices be different going forward, etc.  

I think the industry is realizing that the better connected and engaged we are, the more successful we will be with each other. With all the dynamics changing, it’s critical we understand what each segment needs and how the rep and the manufacturer can serve them best while also serving one another.

With NEMRA’s membership being a mix of large regional reps, medium-sized reps and smaller and in many cases specialty product reps, what is the common denominator of services that NEMRA will offer its rep membership in the future?

They all need networking. They all need professional development and education advancement. Whether you are large or small or medium, that education piece is big.  We are pulling together additional and new talent development resources and platforms that bring reps and manufacturers together, in the belief that the more interaction they have, together, the better they will work together.

How have all the manufacturers’ mergers and acquisitions affected NEMRA reps?

With mergers, it’s not just the big get bigger. There are opportunities for everybody. Those manufacturers that have a conflict will be searching for a rep to fill that need. To our representatives we say, “This is when your branding becomes valuable. Have you made it clear what you do and what your strengths are, what your coverage is and how you do it?”  

What’s your take on how the changes in the lighting market are affecting the NEMRA rep?

As the lighting industry and its products continue to change and evolve, I believe NEMRA and our representatives will not only continue to play an increasingly important role in delivering these products and technologies but that role will expand.

What have you and the NEMRA board established as your key goals for the association over the next few years?

First thing on my agenda was to create a holistic conference and create a strategy around that. You are seeing the first steps of it this year, albeit virtual. We are bringing everybody together to share and to help each other become more successful.

We want the networking and the professional development piece in there. We want it to become not just an opportunity to meet with your peers, but to develop your peers and engage with them. Whether it’s emerging leaders, or empowering women, with the help of Kathy Jo Van of KJ Co, or new committees to address new and emerging trends, our goal is to bring more awareness and resources to the membership.

It’s developing the talent, becoming more diverse, bringing it all together and having a broader reach into the marketplace. It’s a tremendous opportunity. From a strategic point of view, NEMRA has a great base to build upon because of our membership. The more we broaden that net and engagement, the better we get at serving them.

Any closing thoughts for NEMRA members?

Our members have proven their resilience this year. That is one word that I am really proud to use. Our representatives and manufacturers were resilient in a year that kicked us smack between the eyes and challenged everything we knew and how we did it.  We not only successfully navigated it, but it taught us that the way things have always been done need not be the way things always have to be.

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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