MANA President Offers Reflections Upon Leaving Office


Too often, individuals who are confident or even foolish enough to offer predictions concerning the future are not held accountable for what they thought was going to transpire. After eight years, however, as Joe Miller leaves his position as president and CEO of MANA, Agency Sales magazine has asked him to comment on his thoughts about the future as he leaves the association. We do this at the same time we look back at predictions Miller made several years ago.

In an editorial in the December 1997 issue of MANA’s monthly magazine, Miller maintained: “These are exciting times for the sales agent profession and the manufacturers who use this excellent channel of distribution. After a decade of downsizing just about every other department, companies are beginning to re-engineer the sales function in order to squeeze out cost and improve efficiency. Who better to teach, counsel and motivate these potential new converts to the rep method of selling than MANA?”

While those words may have served as Miller’s view of the present in 1997, here’s what he had to say about the future: “But the rep of the 21st century will also have to be better educated, better trained and even more highly motivated than in the past, if he or she is to help convince these new rep users that we offer a superior way to go to market. And what about the customer? Teaching, counseling and problem-solving are the best ways to motivate him or her to accord us respect. MANA, in concert with our sister associations, will lead here, too.”

A Look to the Future

Even the most cursory view of his words shows that he was right on the mark. Given his track record for accuracy, Agency Sales asked Miller to offer his thoughts concerning what the association has accomplished during his tenure and what direction he sees the rep profession taking in the future.

“When I took office in 1997,” Miller explains, “I saw that there were a good number of manufacturers’ representatives who were simply selling products. That’s what they did and they did it well. How quickly times have changed. Compare that to today and certainly on into the future where I see reps that are doing much more. They are now providing information and offering solutions to problems for customers and their principals. This includes providing a variety of value-added services that many professional agency owners never dreamed of a decade ago.”

And MANA has always been there to aid the rep in recognizing the skill needed to prove their value in the market. As he considered the job the association has done for its constituents during his tenure, Miller moves close to offering a report card on how MANA has performed:

  • “As an association, I believe we’ve made positive strides in providing the tools reps will need to meet their goals. For instance, when it comes to promoting the profession as a whole, I believe the association has done an excellent job. Publications such as Understanding the Outsourced Sales Professional, Agency Sales magazine and our relationships with the manufacturing community continue to serve as major educational tools.”
  • “We’ve also done a good job of protecting the profession when it comes to the efforts we’ve successfully undertaken with various state legislatures and lobbying for federal tax laws and regulations favorable to the professional sales company.”
  • “Then there’s been the creation of MANA’s Attorney Symposium, which has grown into an annual event. This gathering of attorneys, who are experts in rep law, provides the ideal venue for the discussion of rep problems. In addition, it has resulted in a comprehensive list of attorneys that reps can feel confident contacting. This effort has certainly exceeded my expectations.”

Other positive steps MANA has taken, according to Miller, include:

  • “MANA’s unification strategy among the various rep associations has been successful as seen in the management services the association presently provides AIM/R, PTRA and NAGMR — all successful, industry-specific associations of reps. Then there have been our efforts in leading AMRA and informally working together with those rep associations who do not require MANA’s management assistance to the benefit of all reps.”
  • While admitting that MANA has accomplished much in the areas of rep and manufacturer education, Miller maintains much more must be done. “Considering what we’ve done for both reps and manufacturers, I’d have to give us a mixed grade. When I first came here, the demand for education was much greater than it is today. Perhaps some of that is our fault by not marketing and communicating the need for continued education; but at the same time if there’s any blame, perhaps some of it should rest on the shoulders of our members who have not taken advantage of the resources that will allow them to become complete businesspersons.”
  • In the area of communication, Miller offers a C grade. “We’ve done only a fair job. We’ve got to do much better in that area in the future. The proof of that statement resides in the fact that quite a few of our members are not taking advantage of the association’s resources. Many of them sense that continuing education is the secret to surviving and thriving in the 21st century, but they allow day-to-day pressures from customers, principals and outside commitments to force postponement of the retraining and education necessary to assure future success. As a result, many of them have failed.”
  • “One thing we’ve done that I am especially proud of is to develop a team of former reps who are knowledgeable and able to counsel members on issues affecting the rep-principal relationship. This service has helped many members to find solutions to problems and capitalize on opportunities, and, to a degree, helped some members to succeed.”
  • The most prominent change to occur over Miller’s tenure is the significant increase in the demand for professional rep firm services at the same time the market was washing out those reps that did not take the time to become complete businessmen. According to Miller, “This paradox of supply/demand imbalance has not yet been fully understood, but the reps who do understand it are negotiating much more favorable representation contracts with newer principals.”
  • And finally, as he looks back over his years with MANA, Miller reflects on the terms World Wide Web and “disintermediation.” “Just a short time ago, both those terms were viewed as threats to reps. As time passed however, the Internet presented any number of opportunities at the same time it was considered a threat by many. As we have already seen, advances in technology and the development of the World Wide Web that accompanied those advances showed themselves as real opportunities for reps to grow and improve themselves. Those who have stayed current and used the association’s resources to access knowledge about technology are doing very well. As for the term ‘disintermediation,’ if anything, it was overblown. Many reps countered any threat that may have been presented through training and education and becoming more valuable to their principals and customers.”

Trends Important to Reps

As he looks to the future of both the rep profession and MANA — the association that advocates on behalf of the rep — Miller maintains the same enthusiasm and optimism he showed when beginning the job eight years ago. At the same time, however, he notes some growing trends that will impact the profession.

“In the future I can see reps moving away from traditional geographic territorial coverage and working with specific accounts worldwide. As reps continue to work with multinational companies — both manufacturers and customers — this trend will continue to grow. Similarly, I can see reps being more willing to share geographic territories with other reps of the same manufacturer in cases where they serve distinctly different markets.”

Merger/consolidation activity will continue to impact rep firms, according to Miller. “In addition, as customers and principals continue to consolidate and merge, so too will the rep firms that serve them. Perhaps an exception to this trend might be found with the relatively small capital equipment reps and firms selling OEM components that will continue to serve the niche needs of their customers.

“In general, however, rep firms that survive and thrive will be larger, and I’m not sure rep-manufacturer relationships will last 30 years or more as they have in the past.

“I also believe there will be a continued compression of the product life-cycle curve which will place added pressure on the rep-principal relationship. The lifeblood of manufacturing activity and success will be new product development. At the same time reps will constantly be on the hunt for new products and for manufacturers that can deliver those new products, systems and solutions that will make the rep more valuable to his customers.”

More Favorable Contracts

“It’s also very clear to me that the rep of the future will be able to negotiate much more favorable contracts with principals than in the past. This will result from the supply/demand paradox mentioned earlier and is necessary to provide adequate compensation for younger professionals to enter the profession.”

In addition to becoming disseminators of knowledge and solution providers, Miller also predicts reps will become “what I’d like to refer to as sales and marketing entrepreneurs. In that role I can see them providing all kinds of value-added services for their customers and principals. Those services will go beyond just warehousing and might very well include:

  • Logistics.
  • Customer training.
  • Field installation.
  • JIT delivery.
  • Assembly of subsystems.
  • Design and engineering.
  • Private label manufacturing.
  • Importing.
  • Master repping for large geographic areas.
  • Basically whatever it takes to provide more products and services for customers.”

“Alliances among rep firms selling different products and solutions to the same markets and customers will also become popular in the near future as reps look for additional ways to leverage their relationships and knowledge of customer cultures and business models.”

As an aside, he adds that while “nothing will ever replace the value and quality of face-to-face selling, the cost of sales calls continues to rise. As a result, I can see video conferencing becoming more of a factor as the rep conducts business. Video will become a very important part of the sales process as more and more reps get involved globally and the cost of this form of conferencing continues to plummet.”

Miller concludes his comments by reflecting on the future of MANA. “As I think about what the future might hold for the association, I know that I leave the organization financially and structurally sound. We’ve created very effective leadership at the staff and board levels. MANA will continue to lead by setting a positive example for the rep profession in both the United States and worldwide.”

End of article

Jack Foster, president of Foster Communications, Fairfield, Connecticut, has been the editor of Agency Sales magazine for the past 23 years. Over the course of a more than 53-year career in journalism he has covered the communications’ spectrum from public relations to education, daily newspapers and trade publications. In addition to his work with MANA, he also has served as the editor of TED Magazine (NAED’s monthly publication), Electrical Advocate magazine, provided editorial services to NEMRA and MRERF as well as contributing to numerous publications including Electrical Wholesaling magazine and Electrical Marketing newsletter.