The company you keep. Developing a closer relationship with manufacturers and their representatives can be a big advantage for retailers and distributors. A visit to a manufacturing plant can also be a great way to get insight into the products you sell. Here, Kronotex president & CEO Norm Voss leads a day-long  tour of his company's manufacturing facility  in Barnwell, S.C.

To succeed in the commercial market requires more than great salesmanship, good installers, and the desire to do business in this sector. You must have the right relationship with several mill reps that have terrific products. At the same time, you must appeal to them as someone who is good for their dealer network. Commercial manufacturers depend on their key dealers to create and support their product specifications. The astute commercial dealer can ensure his success by working closely with the commercial mill rep to promote their business. But how?

Ask around in your area. What manufacturer is getting the important business? Who is the leader in your market area? This will vary area by area; in some cases it will be Lees, in others, Shaw, Mohawk, or Bentley Prince Street; if you are looking at carpet tile, then it’s likely to be either Interface, Milliken, Lees, or Shaw. While it is impossible to exclusively sell one brand of carpet, every time, to curry the favor of a dominant line, you are expected to be “kindly disposed” toward their products.  So, plan to offer their products as often as possible. In a reciprocal effort, they should pass some leads along your way. This is the kind of partnership you should establish with a few top quality mill reps. I will confine myself to carpet manufacturers, but much of what follows also applies to resilient and other hard surface manufacturers. There are two important things to remember when working with mill reps:

FACT: The quality of the mill rep can be as important as the quality of the products he reps.Each mill rep will have established a reputation in his market. When you are considering a new product line for your business, look at the mill rep that will handle your account. Is he honest?  How long has he been in his position? Is he naïve, or is he street savvy enough to know his competition and the market in which you both will operate? How does he keep track of his projects and is he well organized? What is his requirement for registering jobs specified by you (Can you do it via email or telephone or both?) If you didn’t specify a job, but are in a position to support his specification, will you have any advantage? Most important, does the mill rep control the pricing levels in his area, or is this vested with a regional manager somewhere else? Does he have other mill rep partners in the area, and if so, who controls project pricing for the area? Does he offer a price list, and if so, at what pricing levels?

FACT: The right attitude is more critical than the mill rep’s line or pricing.What will it take to become a”key dealer” for his company?  Will you be one of many or are there a reasonable number of other key dealers in the area? Does he show a willingness to work with you and your company? Just like dating, there are some people with whom you establish an almost instant rapport. They say the right things and your gut instinct is that you can trust them. However, important relationships take time to develop; as with any relationship the key is honest communication. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to develop a relationship of truthfulness and candor. You give it and you should expect it. Believe me, you will be tested with various compelling opportunities to see if you will “take a shot” and be less than accurate.  “Did you take my product in on this job and specify it?”  If you did, then you can provide all the succinct detail; if you did not, you won’t know the right answers, and will burn an important bridge if you lie.  

Fortunately, I had the experience of meeting Gary, a savvy, energetic, honest, and ambitious senior mill rep for a major mill. Gary was blunt, “I need another flooring dealer in this market that will work with me to carry my products out, show them, feature our best sellers, and install them properly. Are you interested in working with me?” I listened to what he said, told him I would consider it. I then checked his reputation with other dealers and mill reps. “Yeah, I go up against Gary and his company; sometimes I win it and sometimes I don’t, but he is a straight-shooter,” said one. Another told me: “I have done several projects with Gary, from spec stage to final installation, and I found him to be knowledgeable, and he went to bat for us with his credit department.” A third said, “He always returns calls quickly, even if he doesn’t have an answer or it is bad news. I don’t have to track him down.” I was impressed-so far. I also found out that while Gary’s mill had a couple of other more junior reps, he controlled special project pricing for the area. He required complete project details when specifications were being developed and was organized to a fault.

So, I resolved to see if we could work with Gary and his mill. Our first big opportunity was with a property manager leasing 150,000 square feet to a government tenant. The tenant was demanding that the broadloom carpet installed must remain “visually viable” for the entire lease period. If it didn’t, the property manager would be liable for replacement (including moving and replacing several acres of modular systems furniture.) The property manager was understandably nervous and tried to limit this requirement, but the government was adamant.

When Gary heard about this he suggested a tightly tufted 1/10 gauge multi-level loop solution-dyed carpet with the addition of an attached cushion backing. This combination would promote stain resistance (and stain removal), tuft bind, seam integrity, and increased loop definition under heavy traffic conditions, as well as more comfort underfoot. The property manager and the government were impressed with the specs and the vibrant range of colors, and used this specification for the lease.

We bid on the job and Gary provided a project price that reflected a mill production run of over 16,000 yards of carpet in one pattern and color. After some negotiation we were awarded the job.

The property manager later told us why we got the job-and the role our rep played. The product selection and price quoted made sense, he said. He knew my company’s reputation and when he looked into the manufacturer we selected, he found “their reputation was impeccable.” Then he clued me in about our rep.

“Frankly, we tried to just buy the product direct, but the senior mill rep [Gary] explained that we did not have an account and he would not sell direct even if it meant losing the job,” he explained adding, “We didn’t like that, but understood his position.” Gary had told us he had been approached by the property manager, but gave no real details. The fact is, had he been willing to sell direct, he may have made more money, but would have certainly lost us as a dealer. He kept the spec and we got the job.

I later received a call from someone at a law firm asking me if we were familiar with Gary’s mill. I told her, yes, and added that I'd had a positive experience with them. “Would you be willing to give us a quote on our carpet replacement project?  Your name was given us as one of several flooring contractors that had installers qualified to do the job, and it is an after-hours job that must be completed exactly on schedule.” I quickly assured her that “we would be delighted to survey the job, look at your requirements, and then give you a bid.”  Within 48 hours, we had done a site measurement, reviewed the products specified, figured our yardages, and called Gary for information and pricing. We found out that Gary had called on the design firm that was doing the interior specification work for the law firm and they had specified Gary’s products as a sole source specification.  Gary had his products locked-in for this job! He said he was asked for a list of dealers that were competent to install a complex carpet pattern job, do it after-hours, keep it on schedule, and deal with an enormous amount of furniture. 

As Gary explained: “Dave, this is a law firm. It doesn’t cost them anything to sue you or me or the design firm. As you might imagine, my list of companies was a short one.”  With that said, he gave me product pricing.  We submitted a detailed scope of work with our bid which included an on-site field supervisor, and credentials and certifications of our installation team members. The end result was that, “we are awarding the bid to you even though your price was not the lowest; we felt it was the most responsive when comparing your scope of work details with the goal of this project.” We did the project and got paid instead of being sued.  We would never have gotten the job if we weren’t on Gary’s short list.

The more effort you put into becoming a commercial success story in your area, the more chances you’ll have to work with the cream of the crop in mill reps and their mills. Yes, it may take several years to establish a solid reputation with several great companies, but there is no shortcut for honesty, hard work and careful planning.