With optimism in the air over improving economic conditions and attendance that topped 1,300, the 2004 NEMRA Conference offered a lively panel discussion on the relationships between reps, distributors, manufacturers and end users and an economic update by Martin Regalia, an economist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The panel discussion at the conference, held March 3-6 at The Philadelphia Marriott, Philadelphia, featured speakers from key industry segments, including reps, distributors and manufacturers and electrical contractors.

Tom Cloud, CEO, United Electric Supply Co., Wilmington, Del., and this year's chairman of the National Association of Electrical Distributors, urged reps to plan their visits to distributors more carefully. He says they should try to meet with everyone at the company who touches any facet of the business transactions for any of the lines they represent. Some reps walk right past key people who are part of the buying equation at Cloud's company.

Sam Johnson, this year's NEMRA president and principal of Electra-Tek Carolinas Inc., Greensboro, N.C., which recently merged with the T. F. Farmer Co., also of Greensboro, said reps must improve their marketing skills because more manufacturers expect them to carry out that function for them in the local markets. In particular, he said reps must get better at merchandising. “It's a lost art,” Johnson said.

Russ Crawford, a senior executive with Mills Electrical Contractors/IES, Dallas, has worked in vendor relations for Integrated Electrical Services (IES) over the past few years to establish national purchasing agreements with regional and national distributors and manufacturers. Crawford, who worked as a distributor for many years at Crawford Electric Supply, a company he founded, says reps and distributors must be able to answer some tough questions from electrical contractors if they want their business: What advantage can we achieve by doing business with you?, Do you have a passion about the product you sell?, and Can I trust you?

Crawford said half the agents he worked with had “no knowledge or passion about what they sell.”

On the economic front, Martin Regalia, vice president and chief economist, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, says he expects the trade situation with China to improve as that country adopts a more realistic monetary policy. He also doesn't expect any rise in interest rates this year.

“The Federal Reserve doesn't like to get involved in election-year politics,” he said. “Next January or February there might be an increase.”