By Mark Brock
It’s a Saturday afternoon and you’ve been working with a customer for the past couple of hours. She wants to furnish a newly constructed Outdoor Room and is considering the purchase of more than $10,000 in casual furniture and accessories. There’s just one catch. She wants to know if the chairs she’s considering are available in a custom frame color, and you’re not sure. Who are you going to call?
If your manufacturers’ representative is Andy Hamilton, or many others like him, you pick up the phone and call even though it’s Saturday. You established long ago that calls on the weekend are just part of doing business at specialty retail. If you really need help, you never hesitate to reach out.
“Weekends are when the most customers are in the stores, they’re the big money days, and I tell my customers to call me anytime because getting an answer from me can make all the difference in making a sale,” Hamilton says. “Being a good rep is hard work because you’re working all the time, and good communications is a big part of that.”
Manufacturers’ reps have long played a vital role in the success of both manufacturers and specialty retailers. With an increasingly complex and competitive business environment, the demands on a rep’s skills, knowledge, and commitment are growing.
“Manufacturers’ reps are an integral component of the outdoor category, fulfilling a central role as liaisons between manufacturers and product brands, and specialty retailers and their stores,” said Jackie Hirschhaut, executive director of the International Casual Furnishings Association, which since 2010 has sponsored a program to recognize outstanding reps and to promote increased professionalism.
“Manufacturers’ reps must have excellent business and interpersonal skills,” she says, “and they must gain extensive product knowledge that they can share with store associates. Our rep of the year program emphasizes leadership, professionalism, exceptional service, communication skills, knowledge, and product training expertise.”
Carries on a Family Tradition
For Andy Hamilton, serving as a manufacturers’ rep continues a family tradition that goes back to his grandfather, who was one of the industry’s earliest representatives in the outdoor category. But it was a love for the business and respect for the people he serves that got him hooked on the career he enjoys today.
“When I graduated from college in 1997 I wasn’t intending to get into this business at all; it never had crossed my mind,” said Hamilton, co-owner of Dennis Sales Associates (DSA) of Dallas. “But I did agree to come on board with my stepfather’s firm and found that I really enjoy building relationships with my customers. It’s a tight-knit industry, and you can’t beat the quality of the people you work with.”
Hamilton owns DSA with his stepbrother, Steven Dennis, and they cover a territory that includes Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah and Southern Nevada. Major lines represented include Hanamint, Treasure Garden, Breezesta and Ebel. DSA also operates a showroom in Dallas that serves interior designers.
“The most rewarding part of the work is setting up my retailers for success,” Hamilton said. “That means sales associates are well trained and that my manufacturers’ products are fairly distributed throughout the territory. I want to assure that there are enough retail sources carrying our products, but not so many that we’re over-saturated and retailers are unable to differentiate themselves in the markets they serve.”
According to Hamilton, a manufacturers’ rep must enjoy the business because it’s a demanding career, requiring extensive travel and continual learning about new product introductions from multiple manufacturers each season. While Hamilton is often on the road, the seasonal nature of the business means that he’s home for longer stretches of time during December and January for quality time with his wife and two children.
“Retailers have so many challenges today with staff turnover and the need to keep people trained,” Hamilton said. “We not only work with new retail employees, but we also focus on experienced salespeople to keep them up-to-date on what’s new and help keep them energized. At the end of the day, if you’re honest with your retailers, do the right thing for them and build relationships based on setting them up for success, the money will be there for everyone.”
One of Hamilton’s many successful specialty retailers is Home & Patio, a specialty retailer in San Antonio that has been a family-owned and operated company since 1967.
“We see Andy more like a partner than a manufacturers’ rep,” said Home & Patio owner Judy Kelley. “We value his input into the products we should carry, and we believe what he says because he has never steered us wrong. Andy watches out for us, and if there’s a product he doesn’t think will sell, he tells us. He’s in the store every season to train our staff.”
Hamilton’s relationship with Home & Patio extends throughout the company, including Kelley’s son, Adam, who works in the business.
“Andy and Adam are closer to the same age, so they can talk about what our younger generation customers will buy,” Kelley said. “We appreciate Andy’s input because we trust him, and he’s always available if we have questions or need help in tracking down specific pieces.”
Has Been on Both Sides of the Casual Industry Fence
Jack Glynn brings a special perspective to his role as manufacturers’ rep, having devoted 17 years of his career to owning and operating fireplace and patio retail stores throughout the northern Illinois area. In 2000, he and his partner sold those stores, and Glynn formed JJG Sales as a rep firm.
“During my 17 years running my own retail stores, I worked with a lot of different reps, and I came to respect them and learn how to work with them to get what I needed for the business,” he said. “There has been so much change in specialty retail during the past several years, especially in the rate of turnover of employees and in the number of retail employees who are not members of the store ownership family.”
With increased turnover of specialty retail employees and a diminished family focus, the training offered by manufacturers’ reps has become essential, according to Glynn, who concentrates a good deal of his time to imparting both product knowledge and sales training insights.
“Every time I train a new sales associate, I consider myself to have added a new partner in the business,” he said. “The more people you can get on the same page with your products and how to sell them, the more successful both of you will be.”
Glynn’s primary clients include Ironhaus, OW Lee, Palm Springs Rattan (Watermark Living), and Jensen Leisure, covering Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, and Nebraska. He partners with Mark Cannon in JJG Sales.
For Glynn, the key to success for a manufacturers’ rep is to maintain a high level of visibility with retailers.
“Manufacturers and their reps have different types of relationships with specialty retailers,” Glynn said. “The rep is there to develop a deeper relationship with the retailer, which means spending a great deal of time in the stores. Many of my retailers are not only my customers, but they’re also my friends and partners. If I go into a retail store just once a year for the early-buy, I won’t build a relationship and get the type of exposure that my manufacturers need. I’m in the stores often with training, and I’m there for special weekend events when a retailer needs an extra set of hands.”
The primary focus of store visits remains the constant need for training new sales associates and updating everyone on the latest new offerings from manufacturers.
“Some retailers say they want to do training themselves, but I point out that the reps can bring a lot to the training table, and it’s free to the retailer, so why not,” Glynn said. “I want to look every retail sales associate in the eye and tell them about my products, and I want to do everything I can to help store owners perpetuate their businesses. The more comfortable everyone gets about the lines and about the categories, the more successful we all can be. Specialty retailers should take advantage of every rep who walks in their doors and learn how they can help you.”
One of Glynn’s customers who appreciates the training and new product information is Chad Kruger, a buyer for Marx Fireplaces & Lighting in Springfield, Illinois.
“We see Jack in the store quite a bit, and he’s valuable to us because like some of our other reps he comes from the retail side,” Kruger said. “Jack understands what we need to do to be successful and he’s never pushy on what we should buy. He steers us toward things that will work in our store and he never steers us in the wrong way.”
As a retail store buyer, Kruger appreciates the product information that Glynn and other reps offer, ranging from how to maintain wood furniture to the latest in new fabrics. It’s the type of knowledge transfer from manufacturers to retailers that would be virtually impossible without manufacturers’ reps who have close ties to manufacturers and who develop working relationships with retail outlets from coast to coast.
“A good manufacturers’ rep is one who provides great training and one who consistently follows up and takes care of issues and questions for you quickly,” Kruger said. “When Jack says he’s going to do something, we can count on him; he calls me right back when I have a question, and he goes the extra mile to get what I need. A great rep like Jack is there in a pinch to help us make our customers happy.”
Sharing New Ideas, Best Practices
After Bryan Echols graduated from the University of Georgia, he first thought his career would be in banking. But after only a year with a bank in Florida, he began to look for a new direction.
“I realized early on that I wasn’t built for life inside of a cubicle,” Echols said. “My father was with the Samsonite Furniture Company and helped steer me to an entry-level rep position in a small territory for Samsonite. That was in 1992, and I’ve never looked back.”
Today, Echols is the owner of Echols’ Enterprises, which is located near Charlotte, North Carolina; he represents Lloyd Flanders, OW Lee, Treasure Garden, and Outdoor By Design in the Southeast, primarily the Carolinas. He was voted the ICFA Manufacturers’ Rep of the Year in 2010 and 2016, and serves on the ICFA Board of Directors.
In addition to a focus on training, customer service, and product distribution, Echols stresses the importance of information sharing with his specialty retail customers. Through his active involvement with ICFA, and by networking across the country, Echols has access to the latest insights into best practices in retailing and continually shifting consumer preferences.
“Most of my specialty retail customers are closely held businesses that are focused on the demands of operating a small business day-to-day,” Echols said. “They do stay informed about trends and issues, but I try to bring additional information to them that I’ve secured through industry roundtables and through conversations with people I network with across the country.
“This is a time with a great deal of unsettling transitions taking place, but it’s also an exciting time, especially for manufacturers and retailers who can take advantage of change,” he said. “Specialty retailers are being challenged to embrace the Internet while they also focus on creating a shopping experience inside their stores that cannot be duplicated online.
“It’s essential that retailers position themselves as specialists in the outdoor category who can assist their customers in creating unique backyards, porches, patios and Outdoor Rooms unlike anything they could create on their own or by working solely online.”
As with all successful manufacturers’ reps, Echols is driven by a desire to make the manufacturers he represents and the retailers he serves more successful. Within this environment, he’s found there is a driving passion for the business that makes the casual industry unique.
“The thing that struck me when I first got involved in casual is that people may change what they do in the industry – manufacturers’ rep, retailer or supplier – but it’s rare when someone leaves the industry entirely,” he said. “There’s a passion among people in the casual industry to help consumers find just the right products for their outdoor spaces. The quality of people in our industry is amazing given the relatively small size of the casual market.”
One of Echols’ valued customers is Hearth & Patio of Charlotte, North Carolina. The company traces its roots to 1978 when it first opened as the Chimney Shop. Over the years, the company added casual furniture as a seasonal complement to fire and hearth products, and changed the name to Hearth & Patio. Don and Mildred Marze purchased the business in 1985 and Cindy Marze, one of the owners now, has been with the company for 33 years.
“Bryan has a lot of compassion about his job and makes sure that we are kept up-to-date on the latest products, promotions, sales, and merchandising approaches,” Marze said. “If there’s an issue, we know he’s there to solve it, and if he can’t find a solution he’ll take it to the manufacturer. He’s a good partner to us and always available, even on a Saturday. If we need him, we call, and he either picks up or returns our call from a message.”
In addition to training and problem resolution, Hearth & Patio turns to Echols for input on product planning and is available for hands-on assistance at any time.
“During training, he’ll focus first on the product category and help us understand the category in general,” she said. “Then he’ll focus on the products that he represents and, of course, is partial to. He also brings us new ideas on a regular basis, on how we can present our products to make them more appealing, how to grow and improve the business.”
For Marze, working with manufacturers’ reps is a two-way street in which everyone – manufacturers, reps, and retailers – should all benefit.
“You have to have a partnership with your reps,” she said. “I emphasize to our employees, don’t do anything to a rep that will break the bond. It’s a partnership and there has to be respect on all sides.”
It’s All About People
Despite all of the talk of product features and benefits, the growth of the Internet, and continually changing demographics, for manufacturers’ rep Saara Wissbaum success in the casual industry really boils down to one thing – people.
“Specialty retail is all about people, it’s a people business,” said Wissbaum of Wissbaum & Associates in Sacramento, California. “Products have to be good and they have to be able to stand on their own merits, but for specialty retailers to be successful, they have to be able to work well with whoever walks into the store. It’s all about being great with people.”
Wissbaum knows what she’s talking about, having pursued a successful career in retail before becoming a manufacturers’ rep in 1998. She serves customers in the northern and northwestern regions of California, along with Hawaii, representing Telescope Casual Furniture, Ratana, Cast Classics, and a variety of accessory lines. As a manufacturers’ rep, Wissbaum sees herself as fulfilling roles for both manufacturers and retailers.
“While representing a manufacturer, it’s my job to create the best possible situations for both manufacturers and retailers,” she said. “It’s my responsibility to know what’s happening in the marketplace, and to suggest ideas that will make everyone better. If we try something new for one retailer and it works, I’ll share that idea with others. I can be a good information resource because I’m in contact with many different markets.”
Wissbaum says it’s a 24/7 job that requires keeping a finger on the pulse of consumer preferences and the needs of retailers.
“I’m out in the marketplace, talking with retailers every day and seeing what’s selling and what’s not,” she said. “I can serve as a resource for my manufacturers on what’s needed in the stores, not just in products, but also in sales tools that retailers can use. For my retailers, I try to be available all the time; it doesn’t matter the day or time of day. If it’s 6 am or on a weekend, I want my retail customers to call me if they need me to answer a question that’s going to help them make a sale.”
In terms of her outlook on the casual industry, Wissbaum is optimistic in general, and in particular for retailers who can adopt new technology and focus on the customer’s in-store experience.
“The casual industry is doing great things, and I think the outlook is very positive,” she said. “It’s up to retailers to create unique experiences inside the store, including special events and the use of technology; I’m glad to help by providing ideas and information.
“We should be looking at how we can sell to the next generation and to the generation behind that one. Technology will be a big part of all that. I also encourage my retailers to embrace the contract market as a great opportunity, and I emphasize how it’s essential that they dedicate someone to selling to hotels, restaurants, and hospitality.”
For Mike Perkins, a salesman at The Patio Place in Fresno, California, responsiveness is at the top of the list when it comes to manufacturers’ reps, which is an area at which he says Wissbaum excels.
“A typical example is with a customer who wants a particular piece for a special event, but the usual delivery time is six to eight weeks,” Perkins said. “I’ll pick up the phone and call Saara and ask if the manufacturer can do any better in terms of delivery. She’ll do the follow-up at the factory and, if we’re judicious enough in asking, we can usually get some help on the delivery so we can make the sale.”
According to Perkins, Wissbaum not only keeps the store up to date on the latest offerings from her manufacturers, but also shares insights into selling from her own extensive sales experience.
“One of the best sales techniques I’ve learned from Saara is how to bring something personal into a conversation with a customer,” Perkins said. “When I’m working with a customer, I might mention something about a similar piece that I have at home and how it works for me. By sharing my experience with the customer, I’m able to make a connection so that it’s not just me trying to sell them something. It creates a friendly conversation.”
In working with manufacturers’ reps, the bottom line for Perkins can be summed up in one word – responsiveness.
“When a customer has a question, I want to give them a quick response, and reps like Saara typically get right back to me,” he said. “A quick response can make all the difference in my closing a sale.”