Anyone who has spent more than five minutes with this year's winner, Murray Chamney, president of Intralec Electrical Products in Mississaugua, Ontario, immediately sees this is a guy who truly loves the electrical industry. Maybe that love for the business came from his dad, Bruce Chamney, who was vice president and general manager of ITE's Electrical Business before he and Dave Doherty decided to leave the corporate world and start up their own rep agency.
When Murray was growing up in Quebec and was a self-admitted science nerd in high school who got all of his best grades in calculus, physics and chemistry, he didn't think he was destined to be a rep — or to be the first Canadian rep to win a GEM Award. He wanted to be a chemical engineer until his dad took him by the scruff of his neck and told him to get into the business world, because, he said, any idiot can learn the technical stuff. Chamney eventually agreed to give the rep business a try, and not too long after finishing his last business exam at Ryerson University, he was sitting at Intralec's order desk. He says it took him some time to see that his dad was right.
Fast-forward a few years. Chamney and Ted Doherty, Dave's son, are sitting on a boat with their dads on Ontario's Georgian Bay, enjoying a glass of wine with a meal when their fathers made a proposal that would change their lives — You should buy us out and run the company yourselves.
The rest, as they say, is history. Doherty and Chamney bought the company and had what Chamney describes as a seamless transition. Since that time, they and the rest of the Intralec team have built a business that's widely respected not only in Canada, but throughout North America. It's a company that has made a major investment in a well-trained staff that can answer customers' technical questions, and call on the specifying engineer and design community throughout what's called Canada's Golden Horseshoe along Lake Ontario, home to 80% of their territory's population and a massive concentration of the country's industrial business. Intralec focuses primarily on Ontario, a territory that's larger than the state of Texas.
Outside of residential construction, wind and solar, most of the company's key markets are growing pretty slowly right now and he expects at best 2% to 4% growth this year. “From strictly an electrical viewpoint, we are in the rustbelt — automotive, aircraft manufacturing, chemicals,” Chamney says. “General manufacturing and commercial are fairly close to flat.”
Down the road, Chamney believes he and Ted Doherty will be able to continue differentiating Intralec from other reps or factory people in the market with their emphasis on marketing and their company's technically trained salespeople. They pride themselves on their ability to take marketing programs produced by their American manufacturers (which account for two-thirds of all their lines) that don't quite fit in Canada, rework them and roll them out to market. Chamney also believes Intralec's investment in staff engineers and “certified electrical technologists,” really differentiate the company in Ontario's marketplace. In Canada, these technologists are students who have studied a technical curriculum in college and graduated with a certificate, but have not gotten engineering degrees.
“We have recognized that we need more expertise both at the outside level and the inside level — good technical people such as engineers and technologists. We are a commodity rep, a traditional shelf-goods rep, and most of commodity reps spend alot of time working with contractors and distributors. Although we spend alot of time doing that, we recognize that we must spend more time on the specification end of things.
“We have three full-time engineering people doing just that. It's a tough justification. But we have taken the leap of faith that it's a necessary thing to build both the manufacturer's brand and the Intralec brand in the marketplace. The last three people we have hired have been electrical technologists for the inside staff.”
Chamney says as manufacturers have moved more of their product information online it's left a huge hole in the marketplace, because customers still want to call an electrical manufacturer and have the person who answers the phone be able to give a good technical answer in a timely manner. “We can fill that gap,” he says. “Alot of my rep friends in the industry aren't investing in that.”
Intralec's sales personnel fill this need because they are each trained in a specific family of products. Chamney says this “ownership” of a manufacturer's product line can be a motivating factor for these employees. “We are not in a sexy business,” he says. “No question about that. We try to instill the fact that they are going to be the experts in certain products. After the probationary period, we give each of them a portfolio of products. We tell them, ‘You are the product manager. You are running it. It's your show. You are going to get all the training and do the training.’
“That ownership of a line immediately sparks some interest in them. Secondly, we work very hard at trying to compensate based on their performance of our principals. We try to commission them as much as possible. We don't have a very high turnover in staff here.”
Chamney's impact on the North American electrical industry goes far beyond his beloved Ontario. He has been a tireless advocate of the independent manufacturers' rep with the hours of volunteer time he has put in with NEMRA, the Canadian Manufacturers' Rep Association (CEMRA), and Canada's ElectroFed, which combines electrical manufacturers, distributors and reps all under one roof. He has taught plenty of executives with U.S.-based electrical manufacturers about the subtle marketing differences of selling electrical products in Canada compared to selling them in the United States. One of the idiosyncrasies of being a Canadian rep is that they tend to have a working familiarity with U.S.-based electrical companies because of the size of the U.S. electrical market and the number of American manufacturers who have a Canadian presence, while relatively few executives at U.S. companies in the electrical market really understand how the Canadian market works.
Providing that market knowledge for his line has been one of Intralec's unique value-added services, even though Ontario actually has fewer reps per capita than other Canadian provinces. So much of Canada's population and industrial business is located in Ontario that many U.S.-based manufacturers have their Canadian head offices there and often have factory salespeople calling on accounts in the region. It's a different story in Quebec, where the primary language is French, and manufacturers will use local reps because of the language barrier. Chamney says after all his years in the industry, the thrill of the sale still turns him on the most. He doesn't like it when manufacturers think the primary role of the reps is to be information gatherers, and not to grow sales.
“The nonproductive stuff really drags me down,” he says. “The amount of reporting and playing with CRM programs is probably the most disheartening. We are in this business to grow markets, not to write reports. I like growing things. Ted and I are both builders. Over the past two years, we have been building the solar market. We recognize it's short term. In Ontario, they have a feed-in tariff program. We are in year three of an estimated five-year program. We recognize that we can be an extra source in the electrical nuts-and-bolts. Out of the four or five super projects we worked on, we were playing in three of them. That's what gets our juices flowing in the morning.”