After two decades on the electrical manufacturing side of the desk with companies such as Square D, Panduit and Gardner Bender, Mike Pille parlayed his industry experience into an electrical business of his own.

Pille founded rep firm Southern Electrical Sales, Atlanta, in 2001.

“All the time I was with three different manufacturers, I heard people talking about how great it would be to be an entrepreneur, out on your own, making all your own decisions,” said Pille. “It seems talking about making that kind of a move was easier than actually doing it. No one I knew really had the gumption to make the move and actually step on the nail. Well I finally did it.”

One of the contributing factors in convincing Pille to make the move was the feedback he received from others. “I knew the business well and was constantly being told by customers and associates that I was ‘better than the average bear.’ Added to that was the attraction of being able to run your own life and make decisions for yourself.”

Today, Pille and his two-man rep agency find themselves “operating as a small fish in a big pond.” From his ‘small-fish-big-pond’ vantage, Pille maintains that even with the market shrinking, business is still pretty good.

“I came armed to the rep business with 19 years experience in the electrical industry,” says Pille. “The experience you gain from that isn't something you can attain in a day, and it's critical to your success. An important part of your industry experience is the contacts you've made along the way coupled with truly beneficial application experience. Especially as an agency startup, when someone you know provides you with business information, you can reference that as you make additional contacts. It provides you with credibility.”

One of his initial lines, a $60 million company, went out of business shortly after he took on the line.

“We heard rumors about their financial problems and eventually they went bankrupt,” said Pille. “But, because we had developed good relations within the company and, more importantly, with the end customer, we were able to stay on top of things and get business out the door and paid for prior to the bankruptcy. This experience reinforced for me the importance of having a good informational conduit with the company to let me know what was going on and, in fact, forewarn me concerning any difficulties. Relationships such as those are just as important for the rep as key customers.”

After losing the big line at the beginning, Southern Electrical Sales now represents a dozen manufacturers with synergistic lines.

Acquiring those 12 lines was probably a bit easier than it might have been if Southern Electrical Sales didn't have its own stocking warehouse. The warehouse helped level the playing field for this startup agency.

“Having a warehouse was a requirement for me getting some lines,” Pille explained. “Providing local stock that is available to the customer immediately allowed me to compete with other reps in the territory that can do the same.”

Pille also stressed the importance of the customer. “You have to have the customers that allow you to stand apart from the competition. You need to build a better mousetrap, and in my case, my better mousetrap is made up of the customers I provide the manufacturer. Once you have that customer, you service him in every area where he has a need. The customer is the key.”

For the firm's future, Pille recognizes the advantage of technology. He says use of a DSL modem line, automatic fax and various other computer and technological tools enable Southern Electrical Sales to be much more productive. “We're able to get the work done of an agency three times our size,” says Pille. “If I went back five years and worked with what was available then, we'd never be able to get the job done.”