There's really no magical formula to create a successful independent manufacturers' rep. The old stereotype was that most of them were two parts Type “A” salesman, one part renegade and one part riverboat gambler. Add a pinch of business savvy and dash of street smarts, shake vigorously, and you had a rep.
The formula is much more complex these days. When you meet many successful reps, you quickly learn they are professional marketers of electrical products who do much more than get by with their innate sales abilities. They know how to mentor and keep young talent; harness IT and computing tools; develop and maintain a line card of complementary product lines; and manage a profitable business.
The winner of the 2012 GEM Award for Independent Manufacturers Reps, Charley Cohon, CEO, Prime Devices Corp., Glenview, Ill., exemplifies today's successful manufacturers' rep, and in many ways sets a new standard. How many reps do you know who run a profitable rep agency while being president of the Manufacturers Agents National Association (MANA); wrote a book, The Sales Force, on the benefits of using independent manufacturers' reps; got an MBA from the prestigious University of Chicago business school and serve on that university's graduate school admissions board; are the V.P. of research for the Manufacturers Representatives Educational Research Foundation (MRERF) and act as the liaison between MRERF and Pi Sigma Epsilon, the undergraduate national professional fraternity in marketing, sales management, and selling? And in his spare time, Charley enjoys writing articles for Electrical Wholesaling and other industry publications and speaking on rep- and sales-related topics for a variety of industry organizations.
To do all of this and still manage a profitable rep agency that specializes in the industrial OEM market in Chicago and northern Illinois, you really have to love being a rep. Cohon attributes much of his success to his father, Harold, who was a rep himself for many years and helped get Charley started in the business soon after he graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism. Harold eventually joined Charley at Prime Devices and until very recently came into the office every day.
“I worked for dad for eight years,” says Cohon. “It was wonderful experience. People talk about loving the rep business and loving the electrical business. A lot of it is that I associate the business with my dad. It's sort of a continuation of the relationship to do the thing that dad did.
“No one really sets out to become a rep. We become reps in a serendipitous way, because people don't go to school with the intention of becoming a rep. A lot of people become reps because of family members. Loving the rep business and the electrical business comes from having a strong relationship with my dad.”
In his early days in the rep field, Cohon worked for another Chicago-based industrial rep and he likes to tell the story of how he would park at a downtown Chicago parking garage and haul catalogs for terminal blocks and other industrial devices in a huge piece of luggage to the many consulting engineers who worked in the area.
The electrical market has changed quite a bit since he had to lug those catalogs around the streets of Chicago. But Cohon, who founded Prime Devices in 1984, and Eric Anderson, the company's president since Jan. 1, 2011, say while the technological tools they use to service customers may have changed, everything they do at Prime Devices is still centered on maximizing the amount of selling time they have with customers. They strive to fulfill the promise in the company's “elevator pitch”: “Think about an electrical enclosure. If your product is installed inside it, connected to it, installed near to it, powers it, is powered by it, or is the enclosure itself, Prime Devices is the rep for you.” The enclosure-related product lines that Prime Devices reps include ABB, Rittal, Federal Signal, Brother International, Dart Controls, Heatrex, Meltric, Micron, Redington, SSAC and Symcom.
Cohon utilizes technology in some innovative ways to market these lines. For instance, in the case of ABB, a line Prime Devices has repped since the late 1980s, customers can find hyperlinks to much of the information in the catalogs that Cohon lugged around Chicago through the website he designed, www.controlcatalogs.com, which directs customers to information on ABB controls.
And to give the Prime Devices sales force additional face time with customers, over the past few years Cohon has worked on automating the company's call reporting system. Today, the company uses voice recognition software so Cohon's wife, Barbara, listens to the call reports that the salespeople leave in their designated voice-mail boxes and then speaks into the computer, telling the phone.com voice recognition software what to transcribe. Phone.com then sends back both a .wav file of the salesperson's call and a transcription back to Barbara so she can check it for accuracy and then cut and paste reports into their CRM (customer relationship management) system. Eric Anderson says the system frees up precious sales time and allows the company's sales force to make several more sales calls per week than when they had to manually fill out call reports.
Cohon enjoys the time he gets to spend talking with reps from other markets through his involvement with MANA and over the years has gotten ideas from them that he has integrated into his own business. He says that while MANA reps sell many different types of products, they have many common challenges. Like electrical reps, reps from other lines of trade want to find the best CRM system; are interested in trends in commission payments and percentages; and want to know what services manufacturers expect from other reps. “There's a rush to excellence,” he says. “Manufacturers are looking to get the maximum value for the commission dollars they spend. The reps that are the most professional and well-run are much more valuable because manufacturers are trying to get the most for their money.”