After two years of largely interacting with each other and their channel partners digitally, enthusiasm among members leading up to the AIM/R 49th Annual Conference was at an all-time high. Like many other organizations that had to adapt to new ways of doing traditional business during the height of the COVID pandemic, AIM/R held a virtual conference in 2020.
As approximately 400 attendees — including 72 first-timers! — arrived for the Welcome Reception at the 2021 Conference, there was a distinct energy throughout the ballroom. Appropriately themed “Mission Possible,” the event was held Sept. 28-Oct. 1, at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego. For those who couldn’t attend in person, AIM/R hosted a live stream broadcast of each of the business and educational sessions.
Brian Morgan, CPMR, principal of The Morgan Group, served as Conference Chair, an always challenging responsibility made much more complicated by continually changing COVID protocols and future unknowns.
“I was fortunate to be the first Conference Chair given a committee to support me,” Morgan said. “I’m not sure I could have pulled this off without them and the expertise of CM Services. One thing was clear — our members really wanted to get together in person.
“‘Mission Possible’ at times seemed impossible. But it was extremely gratifying when we got onsite and felt the excitement. Friendships that have existed for 25+ years were reunited for the first time in two years, and new relationships were initiated with the many first-time attendees. Comments like ‘It is so good to get together again’ were filling the rooms.”
Getting down to business AIM/R Past President Stew Chaffee, now retired from Rich-Tomkins, graciously accepted the request to serve as emcee throughout the event. He kicked off the business sessions the next morning by warmly welcoming reps and the approximately 90 manufacturer executives who attended.
“We appreciate the strength, leadership and dedication to the supply chain you are showing by being here,” he said. “This annual conference provides all of us a tremendous opportunity for increased dialogue, respect and idea exchange. We also want to recognize and thank all of our sponsors because without you, none of us would be here.”
The opening speaker was Eric Kapitulik, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and former Marine special ops officer who survived a harrowing helicopter accident during a training mission with a Naval ship preparing for deployment to the Persian Gulf. He has an MBA from University of Chicago and is founder and CEO of The Program Corporate, which builds better leaders and more cohesive teams.
“We all perform best in an environment with some structure, and it’s the job of our leaders to provide that,” he said. “Great leaders consistently set an example and hold their teams accountable to those same high standards so they can accomplish their mission.”
Kapitulik went on to note that great leaders must commit to the following three core principles:
There were several panel discussions during the event. The first, led by Mike Powers, CPMR, and Phil Valles of Keyline Sales, featured local contractors Andy Johnson of Murray Company, and Andy Carlson and John Raya of Infinity Plumbing Design. They described how reps can provide value and build trust, being high tech vs high touch, and transparency.
The second panel was comprised of manufacturer executives Joel Dzekciorius of Centrotherm Eco Systems, Ed Moran of OmegaFlex, Kevin O’Rourke from Mestek Inc., Rex Bauer of Sioux Chief and Rene Emerson from American Bath Group. They responded to questions that moderator and AIM/R Past President Brian Burke, CPMR, of Burke Agency, had already gathered from reps. They shared very candid answers on topics including virtual versus in-person communications, reporting, most important data to track, hiring and training, creating demand, providing value to contractors, and commissions and alternative compensation options.
“It was so helpful to hear from that panel of contractors,” Morgan explained. “Their perspectives on how reps can improve our service and communication are great takeaways for us to consider in our agencies. And the panel discussion with manufacturing executives was eye-opening. They graciously answered all the question posed to them, and also detailed key changes they initiated during COVID including things they’d like reps to continue doing going forward.”
Wrapping up the first business day, Jessica Kolaitis, CPMR, of Tim Morales & Associates Inc. teamed with Michelle Lewnes-Dadas, CPMR, of Preferred Sales to put together table assignments for approximately 340 participants in the RAM (Rep and Manufacturer) Roundtables. This is one of the biggest opportunities each year for both parties to have an open dialogue about critical issues, and it requires significant advance planning.
“When assigning people to tables, you’ve got to be careful about conflicts of interest, mixing personalities and having competitors at the same table. It needs to be a comfortable setting for people to feel like they can be honest about sensitive topics. Creating this environment can help both sides navigate issues they may be having difficulty with.”
Parham applauded their determination: “Their efforts really paid off. Our table worked on a very specific problem of building relationships with architects, and came up with ideas that would benefit both manufacturers and reps. It was the perfect RAM topic — specific, timely, relatable to the wide variety of reps at the table.
“On the other end of the spectrum were broad-ranging conversations on the future of data in the rep/manufacturer space — all cached in a vision of partnering to achieve more. Solutions like these are only created when both parties come together focused on building the rep function. That’s what makes this time so valuable.”
Focus turns to reps
As the conference moved into its second full day, manufacturers departed and the remainder of the sessions were for reps only. Gene Marks of The Marks Group brought high energy and tremendous knowledge to the opening presentation, “Strategy Beyond the Pandemic.”
Marks is very well-versed in business trends, economics, tax strategies, investments and human resources practices. He included a broad check list for navigating new rules on earnings and taxes that will apply in 2022.
Among the points he covered included the following:
“The smartest business people I know are always looking ahead,” Marks encouraged. “Work with tax advisors you trust to define and schedule actions to maximize earnings and limit avoidable taxes. And consider working with an HR consultant to create good company policies on things like overtime, work from-home programs, and protecting your business from discrepancies or other issues with an employee.”
The next session, “Reporting With Purpose,” was led by Mike Powers, CPMR, and Jeff Icenogle of Keyline Sales and based on a study they had conducted. They identified some of the most pivotal elements of reporting that have the biggest benefits to all parties. They also addressed the difficulties that issues like lack of communication can cause between supply chain partners.
Later, Owen Flanagan of Cleveland Research Company outlined key indicators of economic performance in the industrial sector, primarily for 2020-2022. He prefaced his outlook by noting that business conditions, like everything else in our lives, are still significantly impacted by the pandemic and cautioned that the economy won’t fully recover until the virus is under control.
“Between January and July 2020, we experienced the largest GDP decline since the Great Depression,” he said. “But in 2021, we’re expecting 6% to 7% growth, and it should hold steady at 6% again in 2022. Inflation and transportation costs will continue to rise because of high demand and low supplies.”
The next panel discussion, moderated by Katie Hubach, CPA, of Signature Sales, delved into the critical process of succession planning.
“This is a big topic for manufacturers because they want to know who will be coming in to take over when the current leaders retire,” she said. “You can’t just turn the keys over to new people overnight. It takes time for manufacturers and customers to get on board. It’s best if you can incorporate them into important meetings and decision making slowly so it becomes a natural progression.”
Panelists included Chris Soderholm of Soderholm & Associates, Bill Bradshaw, CPMR, from RichTomkins, Rick Banner, CPMR, of Keyline Sales, Jeff Davis, CPMR, of DSC Pacific, and Whitney Morgan from Harry Warren Inc. Each of them shared the background and current footprint of their agencies, and then detailed ways in which they had navigated succession planning.
That evening, the LOT/T division (Leaders of Tomorrow, Today) sponsored the “LOT/Ts of Brews” networking happy hour at a local venue. The group, which was formed roughly 15 years ago, has been instrumental in the growth and development of members who now lead their organizations, some of whom serve on the AIM/R Board of Directors. Kolaitis is currently LOT/T’s non-voting representative on the AIM/R Board.
“LOT/T is a great opportunity for up-and-coming leaders to learn from each other, participate and network within AIM/R,” she said. “This helps us build relationships and trust so we feel comfortable reaching out to each other throughout the year to discuss issues we might be experiencing.”
On the final day, veteran supply chain management consultant Mike Marks, founding partner of Indian River Consulting Group, led a series of four sessions. He dove deep into the world of independent rep leaders, including their changing roles and challenging market conditions. Marks also shared his expertise on maximizing profitability, inspiring the most from your team, transitioning into a high-tech marketplace, customer mining and retention, compensation programs, and leading through adversity.
“To maximize profitability, agency leaders must recognize that their mission isn’t just about earning income, it’s about creating shareholder value,” he said. “They also must determine the correct way to structure their compensation plan. Owners can’t just rely on a sales incentive program to manage your team. You have to manage them by defining what you want them to accomplish. And you have to add value to the upstream principals and downstream channel partners.”
As Marks explained, for reps, digital technology is a way to handle the simple transaction stuff, freeing up their time to connect and build the much more important personal relationships. It allows reps to have genuine human interaction The trust resulting from those relationships with channel partners is key in a B2B situation. Reps that earn distributors’ trust are going to receive a lot more of their business.
There are some startling numbers that may blur the definitions and responsibilities of supply chain partners. Roughly 1 million B2B sales jobs have been eliminated in recent years, and that number will continue to grow. Recent studies indicate that 44% of Millennials prefer human-free transactions.
Despite that, Marks believes that reps will always hold an important place in the supply chain. “Reps make the market, distributors serve it,” he said. “You can serve a lot with digital tools, but you still need a human to make the market.” In closing the conference, 2021 Chair Brian Morgan was joined on stage by 2022 Chair Katie Hubach to share a toast and details about next year’s event. The 50th Annual AIM/R Conference will be held October 12-15, 2022, at the Gaylord Rockies Resort.
“I am so excited to be planning this milestone conference,” Hubach noted. “Our first conference 50 years ago was in Colorado, so I thought it was appropriate to go back to those roots. The Gaylord Rockies is conveniently located 10 minutes from the Denver airport. We also went back in time for the theme “Live and Let Die,” from the James Bond movie that premiered in 1973. The conference will showcase where we came from, where we’ve been and where we are going.”