In today’s world, manufacturers reps in the plumbing and HVAC industry are constantly looking for ways to enhance their reputation beyond just being a sales agency — and J & K Sales has managed to accomplish that and more through its dedication to training and building lasting relationships with both its manufacturer partners and customers. The firm’s commitment to training the industry has earned the Manchester, New Hampshire firm the title of Plumbing & Mechanical’s 2022 Manufacturers Rep of the Year.
Founded in 1981 by Karl Grabowski, J & K Sales got its start representing just one line — Wingaersheek Turbine, known today as Turbo Torch. Grabowski previously worked for the manufacturer, starting at just 14 years old by mowing lawns, and worked his way up into many various roles. However, at the ripe old age of 23, the company called him into the office with both good and bad news — the bad news was he was fired; but the good news was he was now a manufacturers rep.
“Karl likes to tell the story when he got home, he tried to figure out what a rep was,” jokes Chris DeWitt, president of J & K Sales. “That’s how the company was born. He found a partner – the ‘J’ portion of the ‘J & K Sales.’”
DeWitt, along with his partner, Vice President Jeff Young, took over the firm in 2020, right as the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“We were nervous at first, quite honestly,” DeWitt says. “We were working on the acquisition for several years from the past owner to new ownership. Doing that right in the middle of a global pandemic is not the best sleep medicine. But, like many others, we had to find a way to shift. Our lifeblood of what we do as reps is being out in the market, being face-to-face and belly-to-belly. We had to shift and find a way to be relevant and add value without being face-to-face. Like everyone else, we got really good on Zoom and other conferencing platforms. We had to go back to the phones and email selling and supporting. Our biggest asset is our people, and so we spent a lot of the downtime training folks, so that when the market opened up and we were able to go out again, they would be ready, trained and hopefully a step ahead of our competition.”
Young agrees there were a lot of sleepless nights and trepidation. “We were worried that if we purchased the company, and then the market turned and the economy tanked, how were we going to support our employees and their families. When you’re an employer, you have to look at it differently. We were very confident — Chris and I had been managing and running the business for several years before that. We felt confident we could continue doing what we do. We had a very good base system that we would continue building upon. We’re continually evolving, and, knock on wood, almost a year and a half into it, we’re growing and doing very well.”
Today, the company’s 30,000 square foot warehouse, training facility and offices are located in Manchester, New Hampshire. The firm has grown to 24 employees, but is still growing in terms of adding people and product lines.
“We turn down more than we take on,” DeWitt notes of new product lines. “One of the key factors is we want to stay in our lane where we know how to operate. A new line needs to ensure it doesn’t take us too far off course. It has to have a comparable advantage — some sort of technology or feature that the competition does not have. We’re generally looking in the new technology realm — what’s the latest and greatest? We want to be in on the ground floor with new technology.”
J&K belongs to several industry associations, including AIM/R, ASA, PHCC and ASPE.
“First and foremost, these organizations are there to be advocates for our industry,” DeWitt says. “By supporting them, we have a voice where it matters. We try to support them all. But most importantly, it’s all about the relationships we build through those organizations and the networking they provide.”
All about the people
Many of J & K’s leadership team have been with the company for more than a decade. DeWitt recently celebrated his 25th anniversary with the company.
“After high school, I was working for a distributor we all know by the name of Grainger,” he says. “I was working there during the day and going to night college — something they graciously paid for. But after 10 years and being passed up for a sales position several times, I decided to move on. So I answered an ad for an entry level salesperson at J & K Sales, which, ironically, was just one building up from where I was working previously.
“They said, ‘OK, kid, here’s a bunch of catalogs, an account list and a company gas card — go figure it out,” DeWitt laughs. “So I was kind of thrown to the wolves, but 25 years later, I’m still here and glad I made the change.”
Though it may be cliché, DeWitt’s favorite thing about the industry is the people.
“I’ve met some amazing people over the years,” he says. “Not only people you work with, but customers, manufacturers and even competitors. We’re all just regular people working hard.”
Young, though he hates to admit it, is the oldest tenured employee at J & K.
“You could probably tell from my hairline,” he jokes.
Young started with the firm in 1992 after attending college and working for a plumbing contractor during summer and winter breaks. “I distinctly remember this — I enjoyed the work, but I remember one winter, it was minus 20° F, and we were out at a freeze up so I was underneath the trailer using a torch to thaw the pipe. It’s like 2 a.m., and in my head I’m like, ‘I like this, but I don’t like this part of it.’ So I made some changes and decided I really wanted to be in the industry. I ended up working for a wholesaler and worked my way up the ranks there to operations manager. From there, I basically jumped into the rep industry. When I got here, it was me and one other person inside. J & K has grown tremendously over the last 30 years.”
For Young, J & K Sales represented an opportunity. “It was an opportunity to get into a business I didn’t know a lot about. I don’t think most of us in this industry went to high school and then possibly college and thought, ‘I can’t wait to get out and go work in the plumbing industry.’ But once you get familiar with it and understand it is a multibillion dollar industry with a tremendous amount of opportunities, it starts to look better. I had the opportunity to come into J & K Sales and work my way up through the ranks. I really liked that, and I really grew to love the industry. It’s fascinating, really. And I don’t have one of those jobs where you have to punch a clock and do the same thing over and over again — every day is something new.”
Brian Inserra, sales manager, celebrates his 11 year anniversary with J & K this month. Previously, he worked for Comcast as a technician, then had the opportunity to move into sales.
“I outgrew that role and wanted to get into more industrial type sales,” Inserra explains. “Being a technical and mechanical-type person, I was drawn to the industry. When I was searching for a job, I was specifically looking for something in construction or tools. When I saw this opportunity, I knew it was the environment for me.”
Inserra says the match was a perfect fit. He describes the company culture as sort of a brotherhood, so to speak.
“We’re all like a band of misfits, but we work hard and well together. Everybody gets along, and it’s a true family-type atmosphere. Anybody that’s been here a long time, we’ve grown into a work family. We hang out outside of work. For a lot of companies, employees go to events because they have to and they dread it. But everybody here enjoys when we do something together — we have company cookouts at one of our employees' houses on a lake during the summer, we’ve done regional trade shows and bowling nights. At the same time, everybody ribs on everybody else — nobody is off-limits from the top guy to the bottom guy. It’s really a great environment.”
Inserra also loves working at J & K because the company strives to always do the right thing by both its people and its customers. “I’m proud to be a member of this team and to have grown into one of the leaders here,” he adds.
A 20 year veteran with J & K Sales, Sales Coordinator Liz Elliott wasn’t even looking for a job when she landed the position with the rep agency. “Our previous operations manager was a friend of mine and she had reached out to me — I was working in a toy store at the time. She was like, ‘Hey, are you looking for a job?’ And I said, ‘No, not really, but what do you got?’ And from there, I came in for an interview and started working in their customer service department within a month of that first conversation. I landed here and it’s been fun. I don’t do the same thing every day, which I really enjoy. And you’re always on your toes because you never know what’s going to happen.”
Elliott agrees the company culture is family-oriented, saying the team has great camaraderie. “We all work really well together — we do a lot of work, but we also manage to have fun with each other while working. I think that helps.”
Elliott also points to relationships with the firm’s customers and its manufacturers as to what sets the company apart in the rep business. “We strive to do better every day. And we are always trying to take those relationships to the next level. We really want to be in the forefront of everybody’s mind and be the people that everybody goes to when they need help with something. I really enjoy the rapport that I have with both our customers and our manufacturers.”
Building lasting relationships
One of those relationships is with Patrick Aquino, vice present of sales, wholesale plumbing, for Oatey. Let’s just say Aquino was not at all surprised by the firm winning PM’s 2022 Rep of the Year award.
“I wish I could say I was shocked that J & K has won Manufacturers Rep of the Year, but the reality is I am not because J & K won Rep of the Year for Oatey in 2021,” he says. “I have worked with J & K for seven years and I work with their entire agency. Chris Dewitt and Jeff Young have invested back into their business and employees and that is the core reason why they have won.
“Chris and Jeff both lead by example and are constantly visible working with their team,” Aquino continues. “They are out in the trenches working with their team and setting the tone. J & K is an agency with a ton of grit, passion and forward-thinking mindset that is going to make them successful for many years to come. Chris and Jeff have invested back into their business by creating a training center at their corporate office as well as having a training team that travels on the road. They have brought in new employees with a wide range of skills, and have helped coach and developed those employees to be successful. J & K is a pleasure to partner with and we could not be more excited for them winning this great achievement. Congratulations J & K Team!”
On the wholesaler side, Torrco has been working with J & K Sales for longer than President Chris Fasano has been at the company — more than 20 years.
“I believe that the best reps have two primary roles: Drive sales to Torrco and manage Torrco’s relationship with the manufacturer. J & K excels in both of these areas. The one thing that J & K does better than most is executing on our mutually agreed upon plans. They are excellent at “planning the work and working the plan.” Not everyone can do that.”
Training is in the blood
According to DeWitt, one of the key pillars of J & K is to train — it’s something the company prides itself in. J & K trained more than 1,000 contractors last year, DeWitt notes. The company’s training facility features a 35-person seated classroom along with a live-fire lab. Training sessions consist of both classroom instruction and hands-on education.
“Our facility in Manchester, New Hampshire, which is located centrally to our entire market,” DeWitt says. “We do a lot of training here in our facility, but we also utilize our manufacturers’ facilities if they have them. We also train remotely — not everyone is going to travel and take their technicians or installers of the road, so we’ll go to them. We have outfitted vehicles that have the same capabilities as we have here in our training center. We can do it out of the back of the van, in the training room or even on the side of the highway. If someone wants training, we’ll go out of our way to give it to them.”
While New England’s geography is pretty small, some parts of J & K’s territory extend into Maine — a five and a half hour car ride from its location.
“Time is money, and people are shorthanded” DeWitt notes. “Sending people to us for training isn’t always feasible. And we didn’t want that to be an obstacle for us to get people trained, so we decided to outfit the vehicles. We’ve made a reputation for it. The more people trained, the better — they will be more comfortable installing and troubleshooting, and they’ll have more confidence in the selling aspect of it. Training is paramount in what we do. That’s what separates us from the pack.”
Young agrees, saying training is in the blood. “It’s what separates us from being just a commodity-type sales agency. Yes, we’re a sales agency — and we never forget that — but when we’re in training mode, it’s almost like we’ve changed our identity from a salesperson trying to sell something to a teacher trying to educate a student. I think that is really critical in the world that we live in, that we can show separation by out-training our competition. Plus, many of the products we deal with require that type of training, and selfishly, we’re doing it because we don’t want problems down the road. Even during COVID, we transitioned very quickly to Zoom calls and remote training offerings. We found that to be beneficial to a point until we could get back out on the street, in person.”
While neither DeWitt nor Young have a magical crystal ball to peer into the future, both have plans for the business as well as challenges to overcome — the labor shortage being one of the greatest challenges facing all of the skilled trades.
“It’s harder than ever to find people, honestly,” DeWitt says. “Our industry is not that sexy. No one is leaving college or saying, ‘Let’s go into the plumbing rep business.’ So attracting talent is hard enough, never mind bringing them into our little world. We’re trying to support the trades as best we can through trade school support and training. We’re always interviewing and hiring. If the right person walks through the door and you don’t have a position for them, you find one.”
DeWitt also points out the other side of that coin is focusing on current employees. “If everyone is having trouble hiring, let’s focus on retaining the great people we already have — we don’t want them to get pulled away. I think we do that well. I look at our team and the people I have the honor to work with every day, and we’re more like a family than a business — quite dysfunctional at times, but it works. We support each other, and, when push comes to shove, we would protect each other like family.”
Young notes that J & K is actually employing a recruiter to help the firm find good candidates for open positions.
“The labor shortages are affecting everybody, so it’s not unique to just us,” he says. “It is a problem. Our advantage is we have a pretty great base of personnel here that are locked in with us. We, as owners, have to be cognizant of what’s going on with market and wages and compensation. So we’re continually looking at that aspect as well.”
As far as long-term goals for the business, DeWitt notes, much like everyone else, they want to grow so the company can provide more to its employees and their families.
“In the end, I want to be known as a good steward for the industry,” he adds.
Young agrees, saying, “We want to continue to strengthen the agency. We want to make sure that we share the vision of our manufacturer partners. I think that one of the other important things for us is we want to see our people continue to grow. We want to provide opportunities for the individuals that are taking the ride with us, that are on the other end of the oar, in the boat rowing with us. And I think that Chris and I are both going to be looking to create the next succession plan, and make sure that we have the right people in the right place to carry on the legacy of this agency.”