The role of the manufacturers representative has changed dramatically - particularly over the last 10 to 12 years -since Gary “Skipper” Joyce founded The Joyce Agency in northern Virginia in 1982 (his first client was Charlotte Pipe and Foundry).
“The rep used to be a guy with a box of doughnuts who showed up at a wholesaler’s business the same time every month,” he explains. “He would talk to the counter guys and the inside sales guys for a good part of the morning, maybe take someone to lunch or drinks and dinner in the evening. It was a leisurely, comfortable way to do business - the wholesaler was his customer, so he didn’t go farther than that.”
Today, an order may go through a wholesaler, but not necessarily the job. Reps need to put themselves and their manufacturer clients in front of those making product decisions every day. That may be a mechanical or general contractor, a builder, an engineer or an architect.
“The real focus for us is who is in control of the order,” says Troy Joyce, Skipper’s younger son.
In the early 1980s, there were about 45 wholesalers in the northern Virginia area. Today, large national wholesalers such as Ferguson, Noland, WinWholesale and Hajoca, as well as regional wholesalers Northeastern Supply and Thos. Somerville Co., control nearly 90 percent of the marketplace. Only about a dozen independent wholesale distributors may be left.
“You have to be involved heavily with those wholesalers’ customers because their decisions can make a tremendous impact on you,” explains Skipper’s older son Todd Joyce.
Skipper Joyce adds: “It’s an interesting dance we do with the wholesaler to make sure we are part of the buying decision. We’ll sell to the mechanical or general contractor and then up the chain to make sure that when the order for that job is made with the wholesaler, our clients’ products are in the mix.”
Many times the rep firm has to educate engineers on its clients’ products to get them specified in a project. About two or three years ago, The Joyce Agency began focusing its sales efforts on architects. “They’ll take the vision of a property’s owner and transform it into a set of plans and specs,” Troy Joyce explains. “It’s our job to make sure that we - and our clients - are part of that vision.”
Once the “soft sell” has been completed at the top of the supply chain, he continues, the rep’s role changes to a more aggressive one of closing the order, where relationships with contractors and wholesalers come into play.
The mantra that Skipper Joyce teaches the salespeople at his agency is simple: It’s never about the order; it’s about building the relationship. If the relationship is good, he says, the order will take of itself. Ethics may take a hit in the political arena of Washington, D.C., but it’s essential to building a solid foundation of trust with players up and down the supply chain.
Relationship-building involves education. The Joyce Agency provides hands-on, technical training for contractors, wholesalers, architects and engineers on the merits of its clients’ products. Most sessions are conducted off-site by the agency’s salespeople, usually at a client’s place of business or a conference room for larger groups.
On the social media front, clients can follow Joyce Agency reps on Twitter as well as two Facebook pages. “You’ve got to be in front of your customers (during this recession) more than ever before,” Troy Joyce explains.
Brigitte Flower and Lynn Baldwin in the administrative department put together a monthly e-newsletter, which provides information on company and client promotions, contests and freebies, as well as “T’s Corner,” a letter to customers from Todd and Troy Joyce.
DiversificationAs the company grew and the lines it represented became more technologically advanced, it was apparent that a single salesperson couldn’t satisfy all the plumbing, heating and showroom clients at the same level. So the agency (which currently employs 38 associates) now has three divisions:
• Plumbing And Mechanical - Focuses on the traditional wholesale plumbing business. Generates sales with wholesalers, plumbers, mechanical contractors, builders, engineers, developers and government entities.
• HVAC Products Group - A stand-alone company run by Ron Jenkins. Focuses on hydronic and HVAC wholesalers, contractors, builders and developers, engineers and architects.
• Residental Products Group - Targets wholesaler and contractor showrooms, kitchen-and-bath dealers, high-end builders, architects/designers and the hospitality industry.
“We’re kind of a hybrid rep agency,” Jenkins says. “Everybody has different talents, everybody has different interest levels. We can create different departments that focus on the different relationships in the marketplace - the engineering community, the HVAC distributors, the showroom people - and have different people focused on just those areas.”
Before creating the HVAC division in 1998, Skipper Joyce noticed that he and Jenkins were calling on the same mechanical contractors for the same project - Joyce on the plumbing side and Jenkins on the heating side. So a new, separate division was born. Overhead functions are shared by the two groups, but HPG has its own staff and its own profit-and-loss statement.
“It’s worked very nicely,” Skipper Joyce says. “Ron will get a job working through an engineer, we see it come to a contractor that I’ve got a relationship with, and we’ll work with each other to close the order.”
When the residential business segment started to decrease and high-end bath-and-kitchen projects began to dry up, the firm’s Residential Products Group (created in 2000) realized it needed to switch gears from targeting the showroom business to chasing the hospitality and high-end multifamily business more aggressively.
“We learned that we needed to drive business back to the showrooms,” says Marie Kauma, RPG outside sales.
Sustainable Construction“This is the most exciting time in the industry in the past 35 years,” Jenkins explains. “Things are changing. The whole idea of energy efficiency, green building design, LEED projects - we’ve been very fortunate on my side of the business that we have partnered with manufacturers that are the leaders in those areas.”
One of the compelling reasons Troy Joyce had for obtaining his LEED Accredited Professional designation was because the company saw that its engineer and architect customers were getting green certifications.
“We wanted to speak the same language,” Troy Joyce notes. “Sustainable construction and renewable energy have so much legislative and tax-dollar horsepower behind them. If we can be a part of that green building preliminary discussion, that’s true value when it comes down the chain.”
The federal government’s directive is for 50 percent savings in energy consumption, so there’s a big push for old government buildings to upgrade their systems to become more efficient.
Family TiesBack in 1982, Skipper Joyce didn’t have a hint that his two sons would someday join the business. He saw many rep firms come and go because they didn’t plan for the future. “But I knew that a successful company needed an exit strategy.”
His sons worked in the industry while growing up, either in the agency’s warehouse during the summers or at nearby Ferguson, where their dad began his industry career.
“Dad dragged us around in the station wagon with an order pad,” Troy Joyce recalls. “We’ve done every job in the agency.”
But Todd Joyce notes: “Neither of us were ready to work in the business right out of college.” After he received his law degree, Todd Joyce was a practicing attorney for a few years. When he realized he hated his law career, he talked to his dad. In 1996, when an opportunity opened up for him at the agency, he made the transition.
The frenetic pace of the restaurant industry fit Troy Joyce’s personality. He trained to be a chef and worked at restaurants in Albequerque, N.M., and Charleston, S.C. Yet in 2003, he found a creative angle to working at The Joyce Agency that he hadn’t noticed before.
“I saw the industry picking up its pace, requiring firms to out-hustle and out-think their competitors,” he says. “Before, it seemed to be all about time-saving products. Now it’s about teaching people to be innovators, stressing the need to be creative in business.”
Both began in Ferguson’s structured training program before joining the agency. Skipper Joyce believes that program helped them understand the plumbing-and-heating business.
They believe in continuing education, for employees and themselves - both brothers have completed the Certified Professional Manufacturers Representive program in order to understand how to run a successful rep agency in today’s business climate. And Troy Joyce is also a LEED AP.
“Working together has been a wonderful experience,” Todd Joyce says. “It’s brought us closer.”
That sense of family extends to the agency’s employees, many of whom have been with the firm a long time: Jenkins was hired more than 25 years ago from Thos. Somerville; Mike Wentz in outside sales is a long-timer in the industry but has worked at the agency for 13 years; Keith Coughlin, plumbing outside sales, has been with the firm 10 years (he was recruited by a friend and now works with several people he grew up with); Inside Sales Manager Don Horan was recruited from Thos. Somerville about 10 years ago. These are only a few of the people who have made a long-term commitment to The Joyce Agency.
The current recession is the deepest and longest that Skipper Joyce has seen in his nearly 40-year career. And his company had the same difficult decisions to make when business began to decline. Some associates were let go. Last September, outside salespeople took a 10 percent cut in salary. But the company also put in place a bonus program - if quarterly commissions rose 10 percent over the same quarter the previous year, the sales team would get 5 percent of their salary as a bonus.
It was an incentive to get the outside sales staff in front of their customers when most of the company’s competitors were not.
“We’ve got a family relationship with everybody here and it kills us to let somebody go,” Skipper Joyce says. “But we’ve got a business to run, and we’re responsible to the employees (and their families) that are still left. We didn’t have to take the business apart to survive, and I think that’s the win for us - we haven’t destroyed what took us years to put together.”
The Joyces see business picking up here and there. Some companies are moving their headquarters to the D.C. area to get close to their largest customer, the U.S. government, as well as defense and aerospace contractor Northrop Grumman, Volkswagen and Hilton.
“That’s driving some of the recovery on the residential side,” Todd Joyce says.
Quite a bit of the construction activity in the nation’s capital and the surrounding communities is government- or military-related. The Base Realignment and Closure program has been a big boost for the rep firm, Troy Joyce says. BRAC is the process used by the Defense Department and Congress to close excess military installations and realign asset inventory, saving money on operations and maintenance.
The U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground (where weapons, ammunitions and equipment are tested), the Quantico Marine Corps base, Andrews Air Force Base and the Fort Belvoir Army base are in The Joyce Agency’s backyard. More government and military personnel moving into the area means more facilities to house people and give them a place to work, as well as more health-care and research facilities.
“We’re fortunate that the government never closes down,” Skipper Joyce says.