There is no better time than the present to be an independent electrical manufacturers representative. That's the view of Brian Chase, a certified professional manufacturers representative (CPMR) and the 2006-2007 chairman for the National Electrical Manufacturers Representatives Association (NEMRA), Tarrytown, N.Y.
“The efforts of NEMRA in promoting the rep function are reaping benefits,” he says. “A growing number of electrical manufacturers look to reps to serve either as their outsourced sales forces or to play an integral role in their blended sales efforts.”
Chase became NEMRA chairman at the association's annual conference earlier this year. He comes to NEMRA's top volunteer position with 32 years of experience as a rep. Shortly after graduating from Ohio State University, Chase joined 3M. Before long Ernie Lester, the founder and president of Lester Sales Co. Inc., Indianapolis, offered Chase a position as his agency's seventh employee. That then-seven-employee firm now has 29 employees covering territories in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan.
Reflecting on how he initially became involved in NEMRA, Chase, now Lester Sales' president, says, “Ernie was already involved in the association, and he took me to my first meeting in 1980. I was immediately exposed to the benefits for both electrical reps and their manufacturers.”
Although he initially just attended NEMRA events, Chase joined NEMRA's board of governors (now the NEMRA board of directors) in the early 1990s. After Lester died in 1996, Chase had to curtail some of his volunteer activities with NEMRA because he needed to focus his time on Lester Sales. In 2002, several of NEMRA's past chairmen asked him to get more directly involved with the association.
“I decided it was important to give back to the profession that had done so much for me,” says Chase. “After working my way up through the various governing positions, I was named NEMRA chairman this year.”
He adds that some NEMRA members ask why they should volunteer their time for the association and don't realize the payback they will earn for the time they invest. He discovered the more he got involved with NEMRA, the more the association meant to him.
“Members would be surprised at how much others do for the association,” he says. “At the same time, they may not be aware of the wealth of benefits NEMRA provides them. For instance, in addition to networking opportunities that occur during the NEMRA Annual Conference, NEMRA has, in the presence of NEMRA President Hank Bergson and his staff, done a great job promoting the rep way of going to market. NEMRA just seems to know the right buttons to push to get the job done. Then there are the white papers that provide a great deal of information and guidance. Of particular interest is the white paper currently being prepared that's entitled ‘Eliminating Wasteful Activities in the Rep and Manufacturer Sales and Marketing Channel.’”
That white paper, a project of the NEMRA Manufacturers Group (NMG), will be presented to the membership during the association's 37th Annual Conference in New Orleans, March 7-10, 2007. Chase also says NEMRA has brought reps closer together with electrical manufacturers, and that the NMG has been particularly valuable in these efforts. “As I list these attributes, it's hard to remember back to the time of the association's formation when many considered us just some sort of a union,” he says. “We've come a long way since that time.”
Chase says reps individually and NEMRA as an association continue to face many challenges. The biggest challenges he sees for reps include finding and keeping the best employees and controlling health-care costs. “There's a constant need to be able to find the right people for your agency,” he says. “I have been lucky that very few people leave my company. When we do have an opening, we have been flooded with applications. But that's not the case for all rep firms.
“Then, there's the concern that all of us have when it comes to the mounting costs of health care. I would point to health care as the largest increase in business expense that I have experienced in the past decade. Costs have easily gone up more than two and a half times what they once were.”
Chase believes NEMRA's primary concerns as an organization are as follows.
Prepare for the eventual retirement of Hank Bergson by selecting his successor. “In order for us to maintain the association's integrity and to achieve the continuity necessary to do the job that must be done with manufacturers, distributors and end users, we need to have the right people in place on the association staff,” Chase says.
Recruiting new members. In communicating with current members and in recruiting prospects (both reps and manufacturers) for the association, Chase believes it's important NEMRA emphasizes the benefits of its annual conference, ongoing educational programs such as CPMR certification and certified sales professional (CSP) certification, white papers, networking opportunities and the NMG's benefits. To highlight these benefits, NEMRA recently published a “line card” that spells out available products and services.
Rep consolidation. “The majority of reps in NEMRA are relatively small operations,” says Chase. “These firms are faced with the increased costs of conducting business, and this is a challenge that will remain. Ultimately, the membership will be faced with the results of continued consolidation activity.”
Manufacturers and reps working together on new product launches. The timing on this initiative couldn't be better, says Chase, because NEMRA is finalizing guidelines for manufacturers and their reps on how to better coordinate efforts when presenting new products to the marketplace.
As Chase looks at his tenure as NEMRA chairman and beyond, he says it's vital that reps, distributors and manufacturers work together. “We've got to realize that we're all in this together,” he says. “Manufacturers should be comfortable with us as their marketing arm. At the same time, electrical distributors should trust us to assist in marketing and selling their products. Independent manufacturers' reps are ethical, professional businesspeople. Their best interests are our best interests.”
Chase says the familiar “three-legged stool” analogy used for years to describe the workings of the electrical distribution channel still has value in today's market. “It's important for each of the three (manufacturer, distributor and rep) legs of that stool to complement the efforts of the others if we are to accomplish common goals, he says.
“One weak leg brings down all the relationships. I'd add a fourth leg to the stool — the end-user customer. His or her needs and contributions to the common effort are just as important as the rest of us.”
The author is president of Foster Communications, Trumbull, Conn. During his many years in the electrical wholesaling industry, he worked for the National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED) when it was based in Connecticut. He is editor of Agency Sales magazine, published by the Manufacturers Agents National Association (MANA), Lake Forest, Calif.
Let's look at NEMRA
NEMRA was founded in 1969 by 32 independent manufacturers' reps. Since that time, the association has become a force in the electrical industry marketplace. The association's membership is comprised of approximately 500 representative firms that collectively have more than 4,500 salespeople and approximately 250 manufacturer affiliates. It's estimated that 80 percent of electrical manufacturers marketing through electrical distributors use NEMRA reps. Approximately $42 billion, or 56 percent, of the electrical products purchased by electrical distributors in the United States were sold to them by NEMRA representatives.
NEMRA provides its members with access to sales, marketing and management tools through conferences, programs, networking, research and educational opportunities. NEMRA also provides the independent representative with a voice in business organizations, government agencies and industry groups and aggressively markets the role of the independent representative. For more information about NEMRA, visit www.nemra.org.