Tired of seeing counter mats from his manufacturers gathering dust in distributors' warehouses, John Milner, a partner with United Electrical Sales Ltd., an independent manufacturers' rep based in Orlando, is getting ready to revolutionize how distributors promote their product lines and educate their customers in counter areas.

When it hits the market next month (the intended launch date), the iCountermat will offer electrical distributors a radically new method for bringing new product information, updated technical data and other information into the counter area. Powered by a 320-gigabyte computer, the 26-inch touchscreen display will give distributors' counter personnel and their customers fingertip access to a customizable library of updated content such as manufacturers' catalogs, specification sheets, product videos and other technical and industry information.

In demos of the prototype that Milner gave to Electrical Wholesaling staffers in recent months, the iCountermat's touchscreen had an iPhone look and feel to it, and drilling down to various manufacturers' data was quite intuitive. The user interface where distributors select the manufacturers they want to highlight on their iCountermats and the catalogs, videos or other information they want to include from those manufacturers was also quite easy-to-use on the prototype.

Manufacturers will be able to load their product content into the iCountermat's centralized library for free. For each iCountermat unit, electrical distributors will pay approximately $3,000 for the hardware and a monthly service fee of $149, but Milner believes they will be able to use vendors' co-op dollars to defray most if not all of that cost.

Distributors will have full control over all content displayed by each unit, and as mentioned earlier will be able to manage which manufacturers are listed and what content from each manufacturer will be accessible. Larger distributors will be able to assign an administrator at the corporate level to manage content in the iCountermats at all of their branches or allow individual branches to manage their own content.

“We have made it very flexible,” Milner said. “A lot of these larger distributors like to be able to control content on all of their devices. They might want to have a promotion and put it on all of the devices for the counter guys to see the next morning.

“The manufacturers will be able to register for no charge and upload their full catalog, videos into the central library,” he said. “The way I picture the model working is that the distributor will use co-op dollars and pick their top manufacturers to be featured on their devices. A lot of manufacturers are tired of spending co-op dollars on tee-shirts and what-not. They want to see some actual opportunity to create revenue and sell products.

“Having this tool in a distributor's counter areas will help them do that in a big way. The timing is right. There is less staff at the counters and the staff that is left needs some additional help. Having this reference tool and teaching aid at the counter has got to be worth its weight in gold.”

Milner is already looking at the next version of the iCountermat market and sees opportunity in the training arena. Distributor personnel would log into a training library and be able to watch product videos required for the company's training program, and managers would be able to monitor which employees have completed their online classes. “It will be a training tool and there will be some accountability there,” he said. “That's where we are headed.”

Those electrical distributors who have seen the iCountermat as a working prototype have been very enthusiastic, says Milner. Dick Coates, president of World Electric Supply/Sonepar, Miami, pre-ordered units for all of his company's Florida branches and said in a testimonial on the iCountermat, “I hate laminated countermats and generally throw them away because they become outdated very quickly. I think spending co-op money on shirts is a waste of money and see this product as bringing real value in our counter sales effort.”

Other electrical distributors that Milner counts as early supporters of the iCountermat include Bill Olson, vice president, World Electric Supply/Sonepar-Florida; Glenn Goedecke, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Mayer Electric Supply, Birmingham, Ala.; Ray Miller, group manager, City Electric Supply (CES), Orlando; and Steve Ferry, vice president, HD Supply-Electrical, Atlanta. Miller of CES said in a testimonial that the iCountermats will “not only provide additional sales at our sales counters, it will also help train CES employees.”

When it hits the market next month, the iCountermat will be available in three models: 26-inch flush-cut, an island and a kiosk.

The Milners: A Family of Entrepreneurs

Launching the iCountermat in this economy — while at the same time managing United Electrical Sales — is quite a juggling act. But when you first meet brothers John Milner and Willis J. Milner IV of United Electrical Sales, you will soon learn it's not the first time a Milner has launched a new business in a challenging economic environment. During the Great Depression, their grandfather established a territory for a small vacuum cleaner company. According to his obituary, Willis J. Milner Jr., “hired a dozen jobless door-to-door salesman on commission, gave them soup money out of his pocket for a few days, and pretty soon, under Milner's leadership both he and the salesmen were in funds.”

Their father, Willis J. Milner III, was one of the salespeople. In the late 1930s, he started his career in the electrical industry working with the Electric Sales & Service Co. in Atlanta. He also worked with GE in the Tampa area during the 1940s before joining the Army and serving with distinction on Utah Beach on D-Day and during the Battle of the Bulge, and being awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

After returning from the war, in the early 1950s he met his wife, Jean Sullivan, got married and started his rep agency W. J. Milner & Co., in Atlanta. At one time his firm covered as many as 10 states in the Southeast. His brother Seixas G. Milner was a partner at one time, and Gene W. Milner, his youngest brother, worked in the business as well.

In the early 1960s, their father sold his electrical rep business in the southeast United States (except the Florida market) to a company called Whit-Shaw and moved to Orlando, Fla., to start up a new rep agency that represented Southwire and Universal Ballast. When their dad passed away in 1977, Willis J. Milner IV took over W. J. Milner & Co., when he was just 22 years of age.

Says John, “I guess you could say both of us were groomed to take over the business, and after graduating from school I moved to Ft. Lauderdale to take over one of the four warehouses we had. The core lines we represented at the time were Southwire and Universal Ballast.”

In the mid 1980s, Willis and John decided they needed to offer more than just commodity lines in their package, so they bought out Glenn & Associates from Floyd Blair, a well-known Florida rep at the time, and picked up several core lines, including Wiremold Co. and Gould Shawmut fuses. “Our thoughts were that we had to bring more to the party than just a price sheet and a phone,” says John Milner. “We have dedicated salespeople that strictly call on electrical contractors, electrical engineers and other end users, do takeoffs and guarantee bills of materials.”

In July 1997, John and Willis merged W. J. Milner & Co. with Clement-Kinzel to form United Electrical Sales, Ltd. The company now represents a broader spectrum of manufacturers and has three dedicated specification salespeople calling on end users, homebuilders, electrical engineers and electrical contractors, and 12 dedicated distributor salespeople.