It's no secret that I've been a big fan of AIM/R for a long time. I haven’t missed many of their annual conferences during my 20 years covering this industry. And thanks to that, I’ve come to know and develop a deep respect for these hard-working entrepreneurs who are in the trenches every day as the conduit between all their distribution channel partners.
One of them is Steve Fleming, a principal at Reid Pacific Corp. in Seattle, who been a dedicated volunteer leader going through the chairs of the AIM/R Executive Committee. Last year, as Conference Chairman, Steve organized a great event held near Albuquerque that drew very positive reviews from members for the depth and breadth of speakers, constructive communication with manufacturer attendees, and a lot of best practice sharing among members.
This year, Steve takes over as President of AIM/R during a time that he describes as one of growth, change and opportunities for manufacturers’ representatives. He is very bullish on the future for the industry — and for those involved with rep agencies. I recently had a chance to talk with Steve about his career and agency, the tremendous benefits to AIM/R membership, and what he believes are favorite market conditions ahead. Following are excerpts from that interview.
MJM: Please give us a glimpse at your start in this industry?
Fleming: Soon out of high school I got married to my wife Sheri (of now 42 years) and we started our family. I went to work for a local rep in the Puget Sound area in 1973 and was initially in the warehouse. But I realized pretty quickly that I wanted to get into sales because I was motivated by the fun and interaction with customers, and the idea of helping them get the right products for their jobs.
I ended up with a territory in Oregon and after 10 years, I wanted to return to my roots in Seattle. I had known Ed Reid, who owned Reid Pacific, and he offered me a job. Over the next decade, his son Matt and I worked closely together and in 1996 we purchased the company from Ed. Matt and I are still partners and truly enjoy each others’ company. We have really tried to maintain Reid Pacific’s foundation, which was build on providing ethical sales in the Pacific Northwest.
MJM: How important do you think the reps’ role is in creating demand in their territories?
Fleming: That is one of the most important roles that a rep plays today — getting customers to demand your products in any given marketplace. Doing that involves a lot of hard work and mix of building those crucial personal relationships, offering superior training and providing top-notch product knowledge.
One of the foundations of our success has been those personal relationships, which take time to develop. We engage in many relationship-building activities with our distribution partners and manufacturers. All of this is built over time and based on trust.
MJM: What are some of the key ways you have built relationships with customers over the years?
Fleming: It’s interesting because when younger people come on board in our company, one of their first questions is “How do you build a relationship?”
I tell them that those relationships start once a customer makes their first purchase from you. Then you must keep it alive by interactivity. A lot of times, it comes from doing fun things together – skiing, golfing, dinner.
I have noticed something of a shift in recent years, from going out and bonding over a beer to now connecting in a variety of different ways. Today, you’ve got to provide a more value-added atmosphere and bring something more to the table. We also continue to support our customers when they have open houses, golf outings, trips, and other special events. In addition to their appreciation for our support, it gives us an opportunity to interact not only with our distributors, but with their customers as well.
We just hired my oldest son to come into the business. The way he communicates is so much different. I practically have to text him to get him to call me back. They have a different definition of relationships, which isn’t wrong, but it loses some of that personal touch. So one of the things that keeps me motivated is helping to facilitate and ensure that we keep those relationships alive, and that our next generations realizes their importance. The world is changing and there are a lot of other forces in business today, but I don’t believe that the idea that you do business with people you like will ever fade. The core values are still much needed in business.
MJM: How do you maintain a cohesiveness among your team?
Fleming: I’m based at our Seattle office and Matt is in Portland, so we have an owner in each of our major markets. We still call on key distributors and take an active role in supporting our staff and salesforce. We hold weekly conference calls. If our staff is trained properly they can propel us to new heights in the marketplace.
MJM: Profitability is key to any businesses’ survival. How do reps ensure they make a fair profit?
Fleming: We are really invested with everyone we do business with — our manufacturers and our customers and their customers. We want to make sure everybody is making money so that we can all be successful. When price becomes the only issue, nobody wins. Something has got to give — service, product quality, delivery, something. We have to be a leader and provide value up and down the channel.
MJM: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen during your career when it comes to reps?
Fleming: When I first got into the business, I had to make sure I had plenty of quarters in my pocket for the pay phone! Now I don’t know anyone without a cell phone and tablet so they have instant access to everything.
In those early years, I had to write all my own orders, fill stock and literally do everything manually. Now there is electronic control and most purchases are done at the corporate rather than branch level. Companies are getting bigger because of the tremendous amount of consolidation our industry has gone through at all levels of the channel, and manufacturers have put increasing responsibilities and higher expectations on their reps’ shoulders. The reps that are successful have found ways to take advantage of those opportunities and retain profitability.
I’ve seen major retailing come to heights that are incredible with the market saturation of Home Depot and Lowes. There’s also been a dramatic reduction in the amount of plumbing products manufactured in the U.S. and the advent of global sourcing. All in all, there’s been an incredible shift in the way products are getting into the market place today.
And then, of course, there is the relatively new threat of Amazon, which has gotten into markets many of us never thought they would. With that threat comes tremendous opportunity.
MJM: Let’s broaden our focus to AIM/R. How did you initially decide to get involved?
Fleming: We had heard good things about AIM/R from some other agencies around the country that we share lines with, and decided to go just to see what it was like. That first meeting was such a great experience! It was easy to see that the organization was filled with a lot of very successful, impressive agencies. It was eye opening to have them speak candidly about some of their best practices. I can honestly say that still today, we get so many benefits from that interaction with fellow members.
MJM: And then what led you to decide to pursue a volunteer leadership role?
Fleming: It probably sounds cliché, but I just really wanted to give something back to an industry and organization that has been very good to me and to our agency. I also wanted to be part of mapping the direction that AIM/R is going. It’s been a whirlwind of activity since I got on the Board of Directors and then started going through the chairs on the Executive Committee. Being Conference Chairman last year was an incredible experience, and I’m very grateful to all who helped make it happen, and to the manufacturers who really supported the event.
MJM: AIM/R is a vibrant organization that provides a lot of value. What would you define as some of its key accomplishments in recent years?
Fleming: One of the things that stands out to me is the formation of our Manufacturers Advisory Council. That is a roundtable that brings together the AIM/R Executive Committee with leading manufacturers to share their visions, discuss challenges and talk about perceptions and realities. Having that type of open communication gives us a window to the future and a lot of great information.
And it’s been a great move for AIM/R to now open up a portion of our conferences to manufacturers. Their participation and interaction with the group has helped us all — and elevated their appreciation of what an AIM/R rep brings to the table.
MJM: Give us an update on the LOT Division and what’s been going on with them this past year?
Fleming: The founding of the LOT group has been so well received. I enjoy dealing with younger people and getting them motivated, so it’s been a gratifying to help prepare those next-generation leaders. We want to make sure they are not only fired up about our industry so that we can retain good people, but also that they see the value of participating in AIM/R.
Many of the young people who are coming into this business are sons and daughters of current owners who are being groomed into an agency succession plan. LOT gives them good advice, a better understanding of the market around the country, and an opportunity for them to share what their agencies are doing moving forward. I’ve got two sons who are now in industry — my younger son is with Noritz and my older son is with Reid Pacific. I’m very passionate about getting involved with young people and helping them navigate their way to a long, solid career.
The people who take part in our LOT Division are not only being groomed for AIM/R leadership, but individual agency leadership. I’m really proud of the job Bill Horsman has done to keep it energized.
MJM: What are some of the key initiatives set to be tackled in the coming year?
Fleming: The Executive Committee held our Strategic Planning Meeting earlier this summer, and we’ve begun discussions on some things we think will be important for the future. Some of these topics are things I’m looking forward to putting on my agenda this year.
One of those things is to gain insight from manufacturers that don’t use independent reps — to find out why and if we can facilitate a change in their thinking and gain conduit or information link. Ultimately, we want to promote AIM/R and the value reps can bring to their companies in a more dynamic way.
We’ve also looked at more effective ways to grow our membership over the next five years. To do that, we’re taking the responsibility off of just one person’s shoulders (the Membership Chairman), and now are spreading it around to help the process even further. We’ve challenged all of our directors to bring new members in. A few years ago we developed a tagline of “Where Reps Come to Succeed.” I believe no truer statement can be made about AIM/R, so we want to share that message with every rep out there.
MJM: Last year, you were the Chairman for a great conference in New Mexico with a lively program. So what’s on tap this year?
Fleming: One of the things we did differently last year was having two Rep Cafés — one that included our manufacturers and one for just the reps. This year, we’re adding some new opportunities this year during the time with our manufacturers to try to generate even more dialogue. And we’re keeping the very popular Rep Café to ensure getting a lot of information sharing between reps. It takes a lot of time to put that together and divide everyone into the best possible small groups, because we don’t want to ever have competing reps at one table who would then feel awkward sharing their best practices or personal situations.
We’ve also added more to our website to promote the conference, give a preview of Lake Tahoe attractions and what to expect at the conference, as well as a easy online registration process. Lake Tahoe will be a great destination and I think people will be blown away at the venue. It’s shaping up to be a great conference this year.
And we feel so confident in the value it provides that we offer a money-back guarantee for first-time attendees if they don’t feel like they got anything out of the conference. That can be a great incentive for people who are sitting on the fence. I can’t imagine that happening though, because every year I continue to get so much out of AIM/R’s conferences!
MJM: The participation of manufacturers at your conference continues to grow. What have you been doing to successfully draw greater numbers of principals?
Fleming: When the idea of allowing manufacturers to attend was first brought up a number of years ago, it was met with a lot of concern because many members didn’t want to give up what they consider our “locker room.” But as time has gone by, everyone has realized the importance of giving manufacturers an opportunity to interact and have a voice with AIM/R — and to observe what we really face out there in our markets. We can all improve, and do better business together, through open and understanding dialogue. Overall, it’s one of the most gratifying things I have experienced from my membership.
MJM: What are you doing to maximize manufacturers’ experience during their portion of the conference?
Fleming: From the first year we invited them to attend, it’s been a very special time of interaction and learning opportunities. We control the amount of time they spend at conference, so they are typically with us for the first day and a half. After that, all of the sessions revolve around reps.
The feedback we get from them is that we do provide value, and they always have takeaways from their participation. We continue to work on an agenda that maximizes that opportunity. Going forward, having the support of the manufacturers is extremely important in the long-term success of AIM/R. Without them, there is no AIM/R — because we’re all partners and none of us can survive without the others. Over the last couple of years, we’ve made a big effort to reconnect with ASA, and we want to continue exploring that.
MJM: AIM/R changed its management group last year, and now has a new executive director. Share with us some of the reasons behind that decision, and why you chose CM Management Services?
Fleming: We were managed by part of the staff at MANA for a number of years, and they did a great job for us. But then MANA decided to get out of the association management business. So our Executive Committee went on a search and solicited bids from variety of management companies. What came out of it was really cool. There are a lot of good companies out there. We believe we’ve selected a great one. Our new team at CM Services is really engaged with us. That change alone is going to help move AIM/R in a very positive direction with new membership and the tools they use to keep value added proposition alive.
They bring a new energy to AIM/R and our management team. Members of their organization were part of our MAC Meeting and our Strategic Planning Meeting. Their energy, follow through, and attention to detail is great.
MJM: What do you see ahead for the traditional distribution model, and the value of reps?
Fleming: There will always be market challenges — big companies getting bigger, mergers, Internet sales, and a lot more. It’s how we face those challenges that will make the difference. The conference we have put together and the messages we put out are geared toward those challenges. If you get some of best reps and business minds together on these issues, you’ll come up with a solution.
I want to encourage everyone to go online at www.aimr.net and see what we have to offer at this year’s conference. We have worked hard to keep them viable and valuable to the rep community. Conference is the culmination of what we do and what we talk about all year.
MJM: And how about opportunities you see?
Fleming: Over the last few years, we’ve all gone through a market depression. As you come out of that, confidence slowly gains and the distribution channel adapts to the changes it was forced to go through.
But I believe our channel is strong, and won’t be compromised. We have to wrap our arms around changes and strategies, and then execute in what are sometimes really tough environments.
Manufacturers also have a large say in the future of our industry. There is a growing manufacturer sector again in the U.S. We’re all looking at the same issues and ways to succeed in this environment. Change in inevitable, and you have to grow and adapt to be successful. And then, of course, there is always the people factor. You have to have a good development strategy for your team to ensure they are ready to take on whatever comes your way.
MJM: It’s your opportunity to reach a lot of reps who may not yet be AIM/R members. Give them your best sales pitch on why they should join — and beyond that, participate?
Fleming: Let’s talk opportunities that will help you be better businesspeople. Are you using current technology? Looking at new ways to communicate? Developing strong business and succession plans?
We’ve done a lot with our website not only to benefit current members but to attract new ones. We’ve even started to attract Canadian members.
Take a step back and look at your market and how you’re engaged within it. Get involved with the association that is here for you. It’s where reps come to succeed.