Electrical Wholesaling magazine and the National Electrical Manufacturers Representatives Association (NEMRA), Tarrytown, N.Y., have always had a close, and sometimes incestuous, relationship. In NEMRA's formative years, George Ganzenmuller the magazine's chief editor, and Jerry Ryan, then EW's publisher, gave NEMRA a ton of editorial coverage. They believed in what NEMRA was trying to accomplish, with its goal of helping independent manufacturers reps develop professional business skills, network with their colleagues and make contacts with the senior brass of the manufacturers they represented.

And it didn't hurt NEMRA that George was close friends with Dick Noel, NEMRA's founder, and Tom Preston, its best salesman, or that Preston had been a cub reporter for EW in the 1950s. Noel, a one-man think tank, and Preston, who carried NEMRA's dream in his heart and pen, spent many of the association's earliest years solidifying the role of the professional independent manufacturers rep in the electrical industry. Early on, NEMRA had to overcome the mistrust of manufacturers and distributors who misunderstood the rep's role. They also endured the scorn of the National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED), which didn't officially recognize NEMRA or invite reps to its meetings until the late 1980s.

But NEMRA grew into a power that could not be ignored. It helped reps gain new respect in the marketplace and provided a forum where they could publicly and privately discuss their grievances with the manufacturers they represented. The annual NEMRA conventions quickly became known as the most productive trade association meetings in the electrical industry, largely because of the marathon one-on-one sessions, where reps and manufacturers met to discuss their business relationships and other matters of mutual concern.

As NEMRA grew during the 1980s, it matured under Hank Bergson's firm hand and visionary leadership. The issues that Bergson and other association leaders focused on became even more complex, as mergers and acquisitions, computerization and electronic business standards reshaped the electrical industry.

The next 30 years-and beyond-stand to be an even bigger challenge for NEMRA and a new generation of leaders. New issues are in play, issues that will forever change how reps interact with distributors, manufacturers and end users. As in the rest of the electrical industry, there's a changing of the guard underway. Gone are many of the silver-hairs who were founding members of NEMRA. In many firms, their sons and daughters are running the show; others companies have been sold or have merged with other rep firms.

This new rep generation grew up with computers, but they will need every ounce of their computer savvy to harness information technology (IT) and electronic commerce for their businesses, as you will see in "Rep Tech," (page 44), a report on the IT investment reps are making in their businesses.

E-commerce will also challenge NEMRA to give reps the tools they need to remain integral business partners in the new world of electronic commerce.

No question that it's a tough challenge. But for all things that e-business will digitize in this industry, there will be some things that you won't ever be able to transmit over a telephone line or even the biggest fiber pipeline: local market smarts and service and in-your-face salesmanship. The best NEMRA reps have always scored big-time with this unbeatable combination. Don't expect that to change in NEMRA's next 30 years.