The Little White Lie


© garybaldi |

“I am not taking on any new lines.”

Manufacturers sometimes tell me that’s what they hear when they call prospective representatives.

“Why do they even have a profile in MANA’s RepFinder database if they aren’t taking on any new lines?” ask those manufacturers.

When I get that call, asking the manufacturer some strategic questions usually reveals the truth.

  • Does your line have existing business that will be turned over to the representative, or is your line a pioneering line?
  • If it is a pioneering line, did you offer to share the costs of launching your product with some sort of shared market development fee?
  • If you have existing business, will that be turned over to the representative, or will you only pay commission on new customers?
  • Does your representative agreement allow you to terminate all commission payments on 30 days’ notice, or does it include a post-termination commission and/or life-of-part/life of program clause to let the representative recoup the start-up expenses that came from launching your product?
  • Have you worked with representatives before, or will this be the first time?

Honest answers to those questions often lead the manufacturer to an unflattering truth: “The representative hasn’t really decided not to take on any new lines. He or she just decided my offer was not appealing and said what was necessary to end the call quickly.”

There is no such thing as a representative who is not taking on any new lines:

  • If a manufacturer needs a representative to take over a $10,000,000 territory and receive 10 percent commission on all existing business calls, what is the representative’s likely response?
  • If a manufacturer needs a representative to take over a pioneering territory and bear all the expense of launching the product calls, what is the representative’s likely response?

For manufacturers who fall between those extremes, the difference between getting a “yes” or a “no” from a representative is usually whether or not the representative feels the manufacturer is looking for a mutually-profitable long‑term partnership.

To succeed recruiting representatives, craft an attractive package that emphasizes the opportunity to build that mutually-profitable long-term partnership. And then you won’t hear any more little white lies.

The Blank Check* — Part II

image of blank check

© Scott Maxwell |

Part one of “The Blank Check” appeared in our last issue. Just to recap:

The early morning caller was a manufacturers’ representative. He sounded panicky, and I quickly discovered that his panic was justified.

“About 15 years ago I signed a rep agreement with 30-day cancellation terms. And for 15 years I kept growing that principal’s sales, and never gave it another thought.

“Yesterday I found out that I’d been terminated and that all the commissions I would have received for customers I’d closed over the past 15 years will end in 30 days. This is my #1 line and it’s 50 percent of my income. What can I do?”

In our last issue we discussed a manufacturers’ representative’s options for that principal. We also promised to suggest ways to try to negotiate extended post-termination commission into contracts that have already been signed but have not yet been terminated.

Is that really possible?

Yes, there are occasionally brief windows of opportunity when you can get improved terms written into existing representative agreements. But they generally occur only after a manufacturer has given you other bad news, and that window may be open only for a few days.

What kind of bad news? Most often it’s a phone call or e-mail that does not announce a termination, but does cut the manufacturers’ representative’s income. For example, it could be a commission percentage reduction, a reduction in the manufacturers’ representative’s assigned territory, or taking one or more of the manufacturers’ representative’s accounts as house accounts. (In every instance where manufacturers’ representatives have reported these situations to me, by the way, the manufacturer was not a MANA member!)

If an attorney’s review of your agreement doesn’t reveal any ways to get that unwelcome change reversed, don’t give up. Instead, negotiate for something else to make up for what you’ve lost.

  • Commission rate reduced? Negotiate for extended post-termination commissions, life-of-part/life-of-program commissions, additional sales territory, or to convert a current house account into a commissionable account.
  • Lost part of your territory? Negotiate for extended post-termination commissions, life-of-part/life-of-program commissions, or to convert a current house account into a commissionable account.
  • One of your accounts is now a house account? Negotiate for extended post-termination commissions, life-of-part/life-of-program commissions, or additional sales territory.

Remember, if you have to give something, try to get something. A manufacturer who originally hired you for your negotiating skills shouldn’t expect anything less!

* Your legal recourse for a signed blank check may be better than your recourse for a badly written contract. This column is not legal advice; for definitive information, consult your attorney.

The Blank Check* — Part I


© Scott Maxwell |

The call came in early in the morning, long before normal business hours, but I picked up anyway. The caller sounded panicky, and I quickly discovered that his panic was justified.

“About 15 years ago I signed a blank check. No date. No ‘Pay to the Order of.’ No amount. Just my signature. I gave it to someone I’d just recently met, but he seemed so trustworthy. And for 15 years I kept making deposits into that account and never gave it another thought.

“Yesterday I found out that the check I signed 15 years ago was presented to my bank and the account has been cleared out. What can I do?”

OK, that is not exactly what the caller said. But it was close. Here is what the caller actually had to say.

“About 15 years ago I signed a rep agreement with 30-day cancelation terms. No extended post-termination commission. No ‘life-of-part, life-of-program’ clause. I’d only recently met the sales manager, but he seemed so trustworthy. And for 15 years I kept growing that principal’s sales, and never gave it another thought.

“Yesterday I found out that I’d been terminated and that all the commissions I would have received for customers I’d closed over the past 15 years will end in 30 days. This is my number one line and it’s 50 percent of my income. What can I do?”

For this contract and this principal, the only thing you can do is have a rep-savvy attorney read that contract line by line and review the laws of your state and the laws of the places where the principal does business to be sure you know this principal’s obligations to you.

For future contracts with new principals, learn from this experience and negotiate extended post-termination commission and/or “life-of-part, life-of-program” clauses before you sign any new agreements.

For other principals already on your line card, review your contracts to see how many other 30-day “blank check” agreements you’ve signed and watch for opportunities to get those agreements amended to improve your post-termination commission payments.


At the end of the last paragraph you probably shook your head in disbelief. “Really? You expect my current principals to renegotiate my post-termination commissions?”

Not often, but occasionally there will be times when asking to add extended post-termination commissions to an existing contract can be put back on the table. Which is the topic for “The Blank Check Part Two” on this page in the next issue of Agency Sales.

* Your legal recourse for a signed blank check may be better than your recourse for a badly written contract. This column is not legal advice; for definitive information, consult your attorney.

Join MANA in Austin, Texas, February 25-27!

Austin, Texas

© f11photo |


Good for selling? Yes!

Good for manufacturers’ representative education? Also, yes!

We’ve all heard that the Internet would end face-to-face selling. Yes, it’s changed face-to-face selling, but the overall outlook for manufacturers’ representatives remains strong.

We’ve also heard that the Internet would end face-to-face manufacturers’ representative education. And for a while, face-to-face manufacturers’ representative educational programs did suffer a slump.

But high-quality, face-to-face education is making a comeback, and MANA has joined with the Electronics Representative Association (ERA, to give you an unparalleled opportunity to participate in manufacturers’ representative education on February 25-27, 2018 in Austin, Texas.

ERA conference “Tools of Our TradeThe educational session at ERA’s 49th Management and Marketing Conference promises to bring you the kind of company-changing ideas that make the difference between being an average rep firm and a world-class rep firm. And by special arrangement, 25 attendee slots at ERA’s conference have been reserved for MANA members.

The theme of this year’s ERA conference is “Tools of Our Trade — Constructing a Successful Future.” Says ERA Conference Committee Chair Rick LaPiana, the conference focuses on “Tools to help you, your team and your company be more productive and increase your importance to your business partners while sharing your success with them.” Monday morning will include a breakout session with MANA’s CEO.

To view complete details and register for the conference, visit and click on the “ERA Conference” button.

The 25 MANA-member attendee slots and rooms at the conference hotel will go quickly, so please visit the ERA website and register soon. Looking forward to seeing you there!

Tried to register too late and all 25 slots were gone?

E-mail Susan Strouse and ask to be put on the waiting list for cancellations, added slots, and alternate programming.

A Cornucopia of Reps

image of a cornucopia

© Dan Kosmayer |

A cornucopia, often referred to as a “horn of plenty,” is one of the most popular decorations at Thanksgiving. It’s a symbol of abundance, often depicted as overflowing with produce, flowers and nuts.

But sometimes abundance comes with its own set of issues. And it’s the issues raised by abundance and the ways that MANA representative members can capitalize on those issues that are the topics of this Thanksgiving-month article.

MANA manufacturer members report that some searches in MANA’s RepFinder database result in a manageable list of five, 10 or 15 agencies.

But some searches return much bigger lists. A lot bigger: sometimes 50 or even 75 candidates.

Abundance is usually a good thing. But when it comes to a cornucopia of candidates to represent a line, manufacturers have to find ways to trim a list of 50 to eight or 10.

How does a MANA manufacturer member capitalize on this information? By learning how manufacturers trim their lists and positioning themselves to get onto the short list.

This is how manufacturers tell MANA they get to a short list of candidates:

  • Download the list of reps into Excel and sort by website. Firms without websites are cut from the list without ever even knowing they might have been in contention.
  • Eliminate reps with an “I’ll rep anything” line card, cutting reps whose lines card don’t demonstrate concentration on a particular market or product category. Representatives with lines that include castings, stampings, molded parts, scented candles, and garden tools don’t make the short list.
  • Reps whose e-mail addresses don’t match their websites may not make the long list. If a rep’s website is but his or her e-mail address is
  •, it may be enough to keep that representative off the short list.
  • A MANA member profile that claims a representative firm with one or two employees covers 12, 20, or even all 50 states suggests lack of focus, and can eliminate that firm from consideration.
  • A MANA member profile that claims 20, 30, or even all MANA product categories are sold by one firm also suggests a lack of focus and disqualifies that representative with some manufacturers.
  • And a sloppy MANA member profile also can keep a representative firm off the short list. Capitalization and grammar errors may be held against a representative whose profile says “abc rep company sells machine parts to avionocs customers our phone number is 3125551212.”

The first step to getting on manufacturers’ short list of candidates is knowledge of how manufacturers create short lists. And the final, more important step, is acting on that knowledge.

“The Stars We Are Given.”

image of stars

© Noel Powell |

“The Stars We Are Given.
The Constellations We Make.”

— Rebecca Solnit

(And why this is important to you and your rep business or rep relationships.)

There really aren’t any constellations.

But, when you view the night sky from a particular hemisphere on earth, facing a specific direction, then unique stars are visible. And a creative stargazer spending enough time staring at the heavens from that particular vantage point will start to see patterns and ways to connect the dots.

The patterns form based not so much on the positions of the stars as on the patterns familiar to that viewer.

So, from ancient stargazers, we have been handed down constellations based on images familiar to ancient stargazers: a scorpion, an eagle, a ram, or a charioteer.

It’s just human nature to take those points of light in the sky and see patterns.

We still do it today, but instead of mentally organizing points of light in the sky to fit our preconceived patterns, we mentally organize data points to fit our preconceived notions.

How is this important to your rep business or rep relationships?

Our rep and manufacturer members are awash in data points. Value of products sold, amount of commission paid, percentage of sales leads closed, and orders shipped on time, among many others.

And when it comes to reps and manufacturers, that sea of data points is just waiting for each party to interpret them according to their own preconceived notions.

Viewing the same data points, one sees a great sales year, but another sees great growth for only a single customer. One sees commissions paid to a rep firm exceeding the manufacturers’ CEO’s income, the other sees that firm’s commission spread among 10 of the rep firm’s salespeople.

Once those dots are connected and those business-results constellations are formed, there is little hope of changing anyone’s perceptions. After all, the lines were imaginary in the first place. How can you change imaginary lines in someone’s head?

But you can change their preconceived notions before they form the lines.

Have a conversation about the importance of gross sales vs. the number of new customers brought on board. Let the manufacturer know that the money he or she invests with your rep firm goes to support the efforts of 10 salespeople instead of going into your own pocket.

Then when the data points arrive, the information you’ve supplied will be the framework in which those data points are stored. So, when the time comes, the lines your partners use to connect those dots will be seen as a value instead of a cost.

It’s up to you to give your partners context before they interpret your mutual data points. With context, you can prepare them to connect the dots of your data points into a charioteer instead of a scorpion.

Not Because You Meet the Same People on the Way Down

© Ron Dale |

© Ron Dale |

Be nice to people you meet on the way up.

No. Not because you meet the same people on the way down.

Be nice to the people you meet on the way up because they are on their way up too!

It’s your opportunity to invest like a venture capitalist, except you are investing in your career instead of your stock portfolio.

Let me explain.

A venture capitalist invests in early-stage ventures with lots of upside potential. Many of these ventures fail. Some break even. And a very small percentage are so wildly successful that they make venture capitalists rich, even after they’ve paid off all their bad bets.

For example, in 2004 venture capitalist Peter Thiel invested $500,000 in Facebook in exchange for 10.2 percent of Facebook’s stock. Thiel cashed out his stock in 2012 for $1 billion. Regardless of how Thiel’s other 2004 investments turned out, that was a pretty good year for Thiel. (Today Facebook is valued at $350 billion dollars.)

Your opportunity to invest in your career like a venture capitalist is to invest your time with people who have lots of upside potential instead of investing your money in early stage ventures with lots of upside potential.

Who are these people with upside potential? Colleagues in your own firm who might need a mentor, perhaps a more experienced executive mentoring a Millennial. A promising manufacturer who has no existing business but who offers independent manufacturers’ representatives a contract that includes shared market development fees and/or “life-of-part, life-of-program” commissions. A startup rep who has the promise to do great things representing your manufacturing company.

Venture capitalists expect that some of the ventures in which they invest will fail. And you should expect that some of the people you mentor, some of the prospective clients you help, and some of the manufacturers of new products will never turn a profit for you.

But if you make a few Thiel-like choices, the big winners will more than cover your losses.

And, perhaps more important, it’s a powerful way to insulate your career and your firm from the commoditization of Internet selling.

Websites may be able to compete with you on price and delivery, but the one area where websites can’t compete with you is in the long relationships you have with important decision-makers — relationships based on the time you gave those decision-makers before they were important, and the trust you built when they were just promising beginners starting on their way up.

If you’d like to know important people who will take your calls and buy your products 10 years from now, invest some time with promising early-stage executives today. One of them could be your Facebook!

Six Manufacturers’ Secret Weapon


© gunawanteguh |

Working Together So Everybody Wins

This is a true story.

Six non-competing manufacturers now have an informal alliance to share the cost and benefits of expensive resources that would be too costly for them to deploy on their own. Listing their products illustrates how these companies’ product lines fit the same market but don’t overlap, making it practical for each company to comfortably share resources with companies that are not its competitors.

  • CNC Machining
  • Electroplating
  • Metal Fabrication
  • Rapid Prototyping
  • Stamping
  • Swiss Precision Turning

Because they are not competitors, their informal alliance lets them share sales leads, best practices, and even their sales force. So, when the electroplater gets a sales lead, the electroplater’s offering is presented to the prospect first, but then the stamper gets a crack at the same customer, as do all the other manufacturers. And had the stamper had gotten the lead first, the electroplater and all the other manufacturers would get a crack at the same customer.

And when one creates a best practice in, say, vendor managed inventory or bin stocking, each of the others will hear about it and have the chance to create similar programs.

How is such an informal alliance created and maintained?

These six manufacturers, and others, share the same outsourced sales force company, or manufacturers’ representative, to manage their sales in a particular territory.

The representative is a territory clearing house for all leads received by any manufacturer on the representatives’ line card. When any manufacturer on the representative’s line card has a sales lead in that territory, that manufacturer’s product is presented to the prospect first, but the representative eventually exposes all the complementary non-competing products on that representative’s line card to that prospect, so eventually every manufacturer gets the benefit of all the leads that representative receives.

As manufacturers on the representative’s line card develop best practices, the representative is the conduit through which each non-competing manufacturer often learns about those best practices. If there is a new development in project tracking or lead management, each of the complementary, non-competing manufacturers will likely first hear about it from a representative. Some manufacturers even take that a step further and tap their best and brightest representatives to serve on their Representative Council and serve as the manufacturers’ informal executive peer review board.

This is why manufacturers’ representatives are not just a manufacturer’s stepping stone on the way to being able to afford a direct sales force. Representatives can also be the means to informally collaborate with manufacturers of complementary non-competing products, making representatives a “secret weapon” manufacturers can deploy to outperform competitors who go to market with captive sales forces.



© Zlatko Guzmic |

Many representatives report that a common quality of their favorite principals is that they “Let me figure out the best way to do my job and let my results speak for themselves.”

So when MANA VP and General Manager Jerry Leth came to me a little over two years ago with the idea that MANA should facilitate the formation of Special Interest Groups (SIGs), I took a cue from our representative members’ favorite principals and asked Jerry to spearhead the program, manage it as he saw fit, and keep me updated on his progress.

And progress is just what Jerry has achieved, with five robust Special Interest Groups in regular contact on topics that serve a particular subset of MANA members:

  • The Professional Development Council (PDC) focuses on professional development resources for our representative members, enhancing our current offering and giving guidance on the resources needed to complete MANA’s wealth of knowledge. Most recently the group helped draft an Agency Sales magazine article on what to do when principals ask for lengthy reports for their online CRMs.
  • The Manufacturers Educational Development Council (MEDC) mirrors the PDC, but from the manufacturers’ perspective. In addition to helping recast MANA’s Nine Steps to Being a Quality Principal Program, the MEDC also had helped guide the Agency Sales article on principal’s online CRMs.
  • The OEM Aerospace Special Interest Group (OASIG) shares knowledge and experiences of the group in dealing with the unique issues of the aerospace industry, such as its procurement practices and extensive industry/supplier consolidation.
  • The International Special Interest Group (ISIG) gives MANA members who sell into international markets or represent international principals the opportunity to discuss topics like the challenges of vetting international principals or being vetted by them, the added risk of having to collect commissions across international boundaries, and how to best communicate with companies where employees with English fluency are more the exception than the rule.
  • The Young Professionals Organization (YPO) is a forum where younger, millennial manufacturers’ representatives can share solutions and best practices to deal with the unique issues they face.

Although each of these SIGs addresses concerns of a very different group of MANA members, they do all have one thing in common. They exist because a talented and dedicated guy took ownership of the SIG program and ran with it. And because the CEO, like some of our representative members’ favorite principals, had the good sense to “let him figure out the best way to do his job and let his results speak for themselves.”

Special thanks to Jerry for launching and managing this very successful program. If you have a suggestion for a SIG that would add value to MANA members, you can reach Jerry at or (949) 600-6465.

Thank You Cincinnati!


One of my first trips to speak to manufacturers’ representatives after becoming MANA’s CEO in 2011 was to speak to the Manufacturers’ Agents of Cincinnati (MAC). It’s been a regular stop for me ever since, and it was a thrill on my most recent visit to find 35 manufacturers’ agents and manufacturers registered to take part in a “PowerPoint-Free Zone.”

Manufacturers’ Agents of Cincinnati (MAC)

The “PowerPoint-Free Zone” at the Manufacturers’ Agents of Cincinnati (MAC) meeting.

The “PowerPoint-Free Zone” has become one of MANA’s most popular presentation formats, and its heritage goes back to my first MAC visit six years ago. It was common practice then, and remains common practice today, to pick a topic, prepare a slide deck, launch a speech, and hope that the audience that had arrived to receive it was the right audience for the message you had prepared.

It’s the public speaking equivalent of broadcasting: Crafting a message for the audience you hope to attract, and trusting the pull of that message to attract that target audience at the time and place it will be delivered.

Over the years, two things became apparent.

1. PowerPoint overload at work left audiences with little tolerance for PowerPoint outside of work.

2. Q&A after the PowerPoint was often much more dynamic and powerful than the presentation that preceded it.

With this in mind, MANA’s “PowerPoint-Free Zone” was born.

Instead of MANA picking a topic and hoping it would resonate with the audience, we launch each “PowerPoint-Free Zone” presentation with 15 minutes on a topic chosen to elicit questions and vigorous discussion, and then open the floor for Q&A.

photo of Tom Hayward

Special thanks to MANA Past Chairperson Tom Hayward for his regular outreach to get me onto MAC’s speaker agenda once again.

The audience decides what they want to discuss, and we discuss it. Vigorously. Productively. No holds barred.

Instead of broadcasting, it’s narrowcasting. Instead of our chosen topics, it’s the audience’s chosen topics. And some of the best insights are shared not by the presenter, but by members of the audience.

It’s not unlike the advice we get from sales trainers, applied to audiences instead of prospective customers. Instead of telling prospective customers everything you know, according to most sales trainers, find out what they are interested in, listen more than you talk, and help them find useful solutions. Sage advice for salespeople and MANA presenters!

Making the Short List


© WavebreakmediaMicro |

Getting “found” by manufacturers who need representation. It’s one of the benefits of membership that MANA representative members mention most.

But getting from being found to earning an interview takes time and savvy. So how do you make it from the manufacturer’s long “these firms might be possibilities” list to the short “we need to interview these firms” list?

When a manufacturer searches MANA’s RepFinder database, he or she might find five potential representative firms — or 100. When the list is long, how do manufacturers decide who makes it from the long list to the short list?

Some manufacturers have shared ways they narrow down their long list. If you could put those manufacturers in a conference room, the discussion might sound like this:

“It’s interesting,” noted Sam. “Usually I have no problem finding enough reps in the RepFinder, but sometimes I find too many. When I start with a really long list, I have some rules of thumb I use to shorten the list.

“The first thing I do,” Sam continued, “is look at their websites and see if their other lines are complementary to our product. Reps that don’t have a website are the first ones I cut from my list.”

“My rules of thumb include how they use e-mail addresses,” said Cindy. “Now, remember that when I hire a representative, I am usually placing several million dollars with that firm,” she added, “so I feel I have the right to be extra picky.

“One of my pet peeves is representatives whose MANA profile doesn’t have an actual person’s e-mail address. They just have or info@ When I send an e-mail, I want to know who I’m sending it to, so firms with generic addresses get the boot.

“And the same goes for firms that won’t invest $40 per year to have an e-mail address that matches their web domain,” Cindy continued. “They may be hanging onto their AOL account or Gmail account for a variety of good reasons, but if they don’t have an e-mail address like, to me that’s a red flag.”

“Interesting that you mentioned red flags,” added Jim. “When I see a rep profile where the entire profile is in lower case, or has spelling errors, or lists their phone as 3125551212 instead of (312) 555-1212, that firm doesn’t make it to the short list.”

Are these rules arbitrary? Are they unfair? Perhaps. But since the cost to make these fixes ranges from free to $40, why not update your MANA member profile today to help your representative firm make it from the long list to the short list?

Welcome to the Rock!


A manufacturers’ representative walked into the gift shop of the former United States Penitentiary at Alcatraz. Among the various souvenirs offered for sale, he came across a copy of the Institution Rules & Regulations issued to each new inmate, written by Warden Paul J. Madigan.

image of "the rock"

© Dima_Rogozhin |

Leafing through the facsimile of the original 19-page mimeographed pamphlet, he paused to read Rule Five, titled “Privileges,” which states: “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Anything else that you get is a privilege. You earn your privileges by conducting yourself properly.”

“Sweet deal,” he murmured quietly to himself, softly enough so the other tourists couldn’t hear him speak. “In manufacturers’ representative agreements you aren’t entitled to anything, and you have to earn everything.”

That manufacturers’ representative summed up the reason that MANA members are really the entrepreneurs’ entrepreneurs. Because this is the group that heard the offer, “Who only wants to eat what they kill themselves?” and swiftly, confidently replied: “Sign me up for that deal! I will do better looking after myself than I would ever do working for somebody else and expecting them to look after me!”

Which is why it is such an honor and a pleasure to be CEO of an association built around that special breed of entrepreneurs and the companies that use those entrepreneurs who take their products to market.

There is one more reason that it’s such a privilege to be the CEO of MANA. It’s because our industry is so welcoming to industrious individuals who are determined to build a business but have little more than just their own individual drive, ambition and perseverance to make it happen.

Unlike other more capital-intensive businesses, a successful manufacturers’ representative firm can be built with just a strong work ethic, a serviceable car, a cell phone, a laptop, business cards, and just enough savings to squeak by and pay expenses during the first year while the new firm builds its book of business.

The best predictor of which firms will succeed is how hard the founder works and how lucky the founder is. And the harder the founder works, the luckier the founder seems to be!

What a pleasure it is to be surrounded by entrepreneurs who at some point in their lives just said, “I can do this.” And then they did.

It’s rarely easy, but it’s almost always rewarding. Because when it comes to manufacturers’ representatives (with apologies to Dr. Robert H. Schuller for paraphrasing the title of his book): Tough times never last, but tough manufacturers’ representative firms do.

Race to Quality


Thank you Chicago!

A record 43 paid attendees turned out for my 2017 manufacturers’ representative business forecast at a joint MANA/ERA breakfast meeting, about double the average turnout.

MANA CEO Charles Cohon’s Chicago forecast for the representative business in 2017

An overflow crowd sent restaurant staff scrambling for extra chairs at MANA CEO Charles Cohon’s Chicago forecast for the representative business in 2017.

My forecast: 2017 will be a great year for manufacturers’ representatives. And it will also be a terrible year.

Let me explain.

As CEO of MANA I get a lot of calls from reps and from manufacturers who sell through manufacturers’ representatives. And the single most consistent message I get for 2017 is that when it comes to selling through manufacturers’ representatives, more and more manufacturers have begun to participate in a Race to Quality.

What do I mean by a Race to Quality?

Back in the day, often all you had to do to keep a line was to keep sales up and “don’t do anything wrong.”

Today many manufacturers are starting to set the bar higher. “Not doing anything wrong” is not going to be good enough to keep their lines, they say. Instead, they are looking for manufacturers’ representatives who routinely ask themselves, “What more can I do for my principals?”

For representative firms that constantly enhance and expand their services, this Race to Quality will make 2017 a very good year. They will be hotly pursued by excellent principals who have decided to recruit “Best of Class” representative firms in every territory of their rep network.

For representative firms where managers work only in their business but not on their business, 2017 will be a bad year. The Race to Quality will cost them lines as principals impatient with the status quo recruit replacements for representative firms that have a “this is how we’ve always done it” attitude.

Or, to borrow a metaphor from Wayne Gretzky, 2017 will not be a great year for representative firms who skate to the puck, but it will be a terrific year for reps who can figure out how to skate to where the puck is going to be.

Editor’s Note: If you missed Charley’s presentation you can listen to it as a podcast — your March iToolbox newsletter will include the link.

Blast From the Past


70_anniversary_logoIn this issue, we continue our celebration of MANA’s 70th anniversary year with another “Blast From the Past” from MANA’s early years.

From the first issue of The Agent and Representative magazine in July 1949 (which eventually became Agency Sales magazine) we share the story of Bill Herendon.

It’s a story that could just as easily have been written last month as 68 years ago, except that now many manufacturers have joined MANA, have stronger relationships with their representatives, and would not be so easily misled by the ploy that ended Herendon’s relationship with his principal.

And now, read the article from the very first magazine ever published by MANA.

By Paul Edouard

(Reprinted from July 1949 The AGENT and Representative magazine)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The author was a young 3-minute speaker in World War II, and is now a 3-minute business-story writer, each story with a moral. Names and places mentioned are fictional, and any similarity to persons living or dead is purely accidental.


© lukeruk, © VITAMIN |

His name was Herendon — Bill Herendon. If you’ll look in the phone book, you’ll not likely find a Herendon there, although there probably is a Bill Herendon in every large city in the United States. Only, in the phone books, they go by their right names.

Sitting next to me there in the grill, I could see that Bill was a square-shouldered, square-jawed individual, with plenty of turkey-foot lines fanning back from a pair of friendly, if now sad, blue eyes. I signaled the waiter, this time including Bill. Over his objections, I asked his profession.

Bill was a manufacturers’ agent, or had been for many years. As a hobby, he learned to fly, and in good weather covered his territory that way. When he washed out “Jenny” in an Arizona flash storm, he joined the Air Reserve for “free time” to hold his license. Then, one day — BANG! — and he was in the Navy.

That little tour of duty is another story — and I’ll bet interesting! I’m hoping Bill will tell me something about it some time.

VE and VJ days arriving, Bill finally came back home; hung out the old shingle again. But it was a bit tough. He had had to release the old accounts, of course, and getting them back was something else again — what with liquidation and retirement, war conversion to unsuited items, and just plain scarcity of raw and finished materials.

But by playing hop-scotch, so to speak, Bill kept going for a year; and then, as goods started rolling along, began rebuilding his business and his accounts in dead earnest.

“Worked mighty hard,” he told me, over his old-fashioned, “building up strong jobber connections for two Eastern lines. Sometimes, to get a jobber I wanted the factory to have,” he said, “I went pretty far in giving exclusives.”

Oh yes, Bill knew all about “eggs all in one basket,” but trusted, and took the chance. Didn’t even have formal contracts with his two principals. “Never had a written contract in my life,” he said. “No one ever mistrusted Bill Herendon.”

At the end of the second year, Bill was going great guns, back in the old stride — new office, smart secretary, salesmen in training — doing a bang-up job for all concerned.

“Then, one day,” and he looked at me with bewilderment still in his eyes, “things began to happen to me.”

At the new municipal airport, the manager of Bill’s biggest and best account weighed in his bags for the East. “Yes, on time,” said the attendant, and passed him through.

In a matter of hours the DC-6 set him down in the northern end of the Buckeye State. The next morning he was at the desk of the president of one of Ohio’s up and coming manufacturing concerns.

“Glad to meet the manager of one of our best jobbing accounts,” smiled the president. “How’s Bill Herendon? ”

“Herendon? … Oh, all right, I guess … last time I saw him,” parried the jobber.

“Last time you saw him? … I don’t understand,” said the president.

“Well, frankly, that’s why I’m here,” answered the jobber, as though it hurt him to say it more than it was going to hurt Bill. “It just doesn’t seem fair that we invest the money — you and I — promote and sell the goods, and Herendon pirates a nice fat commission out of your hard-earned profits — and mine!”

There ensued a half hour of spirited conversation, the president trying to build Bill up and the jobber slowly tearing him down.

“Anyway,” said the president, rising, “there’s nothing I can do about it. We have a contract with Herendon, and we live up to our contracts.”

The phone rang. “Yes, Miss Jones, I’m taking that plane. Wire Boston. And, Miss Jones, send in my sales manager, please.”

The president offered apologies, introduced his new sales manager, and was gone.

With a clear field, the jobber started working on the new sales manager — but systematically! By the second day, it was established beyond doubt that there was no contract in existence with Bill Herendon. Merely a brief exchange of letters, mentioning the commission rate orally agreed upon for business in the new territory, obtained by Bill and approved by the company. Nothing more binding; nothing legal at all.

All the jobber wanted was an “advertising allowance,” less than Herendon’s commission. “And that advertising, placed by us right at the spot, will be worth far more than anything Herendon could possibly do, even if he worked conscientiously at his job, which he certainly isn’t,” concluded the jobber’s manager.

The new sales manager was impressed — impressed with the possibilities in the suggestion, and with his own newly acquired authority. After all, hadn’t the president said he was to be the undisputed boss of sales? Why have to compete with Herendon?

So, the deal was concluded, the jobber leaving a big, fat order for goods hard to get anywhere, at any price; and, satisfied, flew back from whence he came.

In Boston, the president wasn’t feeling so well; decided to run on up to Maine for a much needed rest; wired his sales manager, “Place you in complete charge. Will be away at least a month.”

That did it!

One by one the sales manager took over Bill’s jobbers, flying them in to Cleveland and passing out the advertising allowances. “For the present, just say nothing to Herendon. You understand? That’s all I ask,” cautioned the sales manager. “In due course, I’ll be out to see you, and we’ll play some more golf, and have fun!”

Each jobber inwardly smiled over the cash gain through the old advertising dodge, secretly felt sorry for good old Bill — but then … well, that was Bill’s problem.

It was two months before Bill actually learned the truth of the matter, and even then he wouldn’t believe it. He had known that business was off a bit, but still not that badly off.

The look in the eyes of his friendliest jobbers, those who really did appreciate a job well done by a factory representative — whether on salary or commission — made Bill call Cleveland the moment he could get back to his office.

“Then I consulted a lawyer,” Bill told me, sadly.

“What, no contract, Mr. Herendon? … I’m afraid you haven’t a leg to stand on,” said the attorney, with complete finality.

And that about sums up the story of Bill Herendon, at least for the present. The pins had really been knocked out from under him. The war had made him a bit reckless perhaps, measured by commercial standards. The unquestioned loyalty of his flying pals was a thing taken for granted. This peace-time stuff he couldn’t quite bring himself to understand again.

“Why should anyone want to do a thing like that to me?” Bill asked.

“What are you doing now. Bill?” I ventured, as Bill signaled the waiter.

“Well, not much of anything,” he replied. “I go to the hospital once a week; nerves they say, but I’m getting better.” Without Bill noticing, I picked up the tab … and said good night. At the desk, the club’s cashier told me that Bill came there about once a week. Seemed lonely, and melancholy.

Thoughtfully, I said, “Too bad,” and slowly went my way.

MORAL (by John Dryden): “Bold knaves thrive, without one grain of sense; but good men starve for want of impudence.”

70th MANAversary


The year was 1947. Harry S. Truman was president, the World Series was televised for the first time (the New York Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in seven games), Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, and on October 17, 1947, the Manufacturers’ Agents National Association joined the community of not-for-profit trade associations.

Fast forward to July 1949, and MANA members discovered the first, 24-page issue of The Agent and Representative magazine (eventually renamed Agency Sales) in their mailboxes.

Digging through the first few issues of The Agent and Representative reveals how much MANA has changed, and also how much it has remained the same.

In those first few issues we find sentences like: “I know it’s customary for men who call themselves and believe themselves to be ‘practical men’ to pooh-pooh anything savoring of academic classification in salesmanship.” No thought of women as salespeople or as customers in those earliest editions. But in today’s MANA, woman-owned firms are common and the first woman to join MANA’s Board of Directors does so in May 2017.

Another glaring change since 1949 is that, although manufacturers were invited to advertise in our magazine, the articles in that 1949 issue focus solely on the needs of manufacturers’ representatives. Today Agency Sales strives to be relevant to both manufacturers and manufacturers’ representatives and includes articles for both audiences. And, also for the first time, a manufacturer will join MANA’s Board of Directors in May 2017.

Those are things that have changed, and changed for the better. Yet, some articles from those early issues could be reprinted today and most readers would have no hint that they were written in 1949. In the very first issue of The Agent and Representative is the story of Bill Herendon, a manufacturers’ representative whose customers pressured his principals to fire Bill and cut the price by the amount of Bill’s commissions. And how Bill, lacking a written agreement, had no recourse when the principal’s new sales manager agreed to that customer’s request.

As part of our 70th MANAversary celebration, each Agency Sales magazine from this issue through October will include a “blast from the past” from those early issues. In this issue, we share the first full page of “Agents and Representatives Wanted” advertising published in The Agent and Representative magazine, from the September 1949 issue. Next month, we’ll reprint the story of Bill Herendon.

Click on image to see full size

Click on image to see full size version.

On a personal note, it is humbling to read these early issues and realize the legacy with which MANA’s current staff and Board of Directors has been entrusted. It falls upon us not only to maintain and grow the services we provide to our members, but also to ensure that some future MANA CEO can write a similar editorial for MANA’s 100th anniversary, musing on how hard it must have been for manufacturers’ representatives in 2017 to get through traffic and make sales calls without flying cars.

Yes, There Will Always Be Reps


Yes, the Internet has changed the role of manufacturers’ representatives. We no longer deliver boxes of catalogs into the hands of customers eagerly awaiting printed notification of our newest products, or communicate by postal letter or fax.


© panimoni |

Which has led some pundits to predict that Internet selling will eventually replace manufacturers’ representatives completely.

I’ve always known that those pundits were wrong, but I’ve struggled to articulate exactly why they are wrong — until now, thanks to a brief description of human psychology that I share below.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you’ve said.

No sustainable advantage in “what you’ve said” for manufacturers’ representatives over Internet selling. We’ve all met with customers and carefully described the features and limitations of our products and secured a sale — and then gotten the call after the sale complaining about the absence of a feature we never offered or the existence of a limitation that we carefully described before the purchase. Whether it is something we said, or something presented on a web page, customers forget or misremember what’s been said or posted on a web page.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you’ve said.
People will forget what you did.

Again, no sustainable advantage in “what you did” for manufacturers’ representatives over Internet selling. The memory of our in-person product demonstrations often will fade before the customer makes a buying decision, just as the memory of an online video demonstrating the product also soon fades.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you’ve said.
People will forget what you did.
But people will never forget how you made them feel.
— Maya Angelou

That is why there will always be manufacturers’ representatives. Because human beings don’t remember what you said, or what you did, but they do remember how you made them feel. A website can reproduce everything that a manufacturers’ representative could say during a sales call. And a website can offer a credible reproduction of the product demonstration a manufacturers’ representative did during a sales call.

But a website can only be a feeble imitation of person-to-person engagement when it comes to how the customer feels about a purchase. All of us have to purchase things that call for special expertise; things that we would be anxious about buying if we did not have an expert at our side. Or purchases where knowing that our business is highly valued reassures us that we will get special attention when we need it.

Manufacturers’ representatives’ roles may change, but they will always be a crucial part of commerce — because customers make buying decisions based on how they feel, and the most powerful way to impact how people feel is face-to-face.

9-1-1 Emergency


© retrostar |

It was April 11, 2016. Something very, very bad was about to happen to manufacturers’ agents who sell to the State of California.

New legislation that would in many cases classify manufacturers’ agents as lobbyists was about to become law. California forbids lobbyists from receiving contingent compensation (such as sales commission). Once classified as lobbyists, manufacturers’ agents would be prohibited from receiving sales commission on sales to the State of California.

And the bill conveniently excluded direct sales forces from these restrictions.

The state’s procurement department knew this was a terrible idea. But where could they turn to quickly rally opposition?

They turned to the rep association that spans across all industries and markets: MANA.

In just days MANA researched the bill, interviewed California lobbyists, hired a lobbyist, and joined forces with California’s Department of Finance and Fair Political Practices Commission, which also opposed this bill.

MANA authored a formal letter of opposition, and invited MANA California members and all other rep associations to weigh in with their own letters.

Despite our best efforts, on May 3, 2016 California’s Assembly and Senate passed the bill unanimously.

Our only hope: a veto from California Governor Edmund G. Brown.

On May 3, 2016 MANA submitted a new formal letter of opposition to the Governor, and followed up with a legislative fact sheet. And again we invited MANA California members and all other rep associations to write letters of opposition.

On May 13, Governor Brown vetoed this bill, and as of this writing the California legislature has not chosen to override his veto. Just 32 days after MANA was first notified of this anti-rep legislation, the Governor was putting his signature on its veto.

Sometimes prospective MANA members ask me about the benefits of MANA membership. We usually talk about matchmaking between reps and principals, Agency Sales magazine, MANA’s educational materials, and our specimen representative agreement.

But after this experience, I will have to add one more benefit of membership. Without your support, MANA would not exist. And without MANA, when some terribly misguided anti-rep law is being considered in your state’s legislature, who would you call for help?

In some respects, MANA is like 9-1-1. You may go a long time without calling 9‑1‑1, but part of its value is the peace of mind you get from knowing you are just one phone call away for emergency services that will arrive with red lights flashing and sirens blaring.

Because of your support, we’re here when you need us. Rep emergency? Call MANA!


May 13, 2016

To the Members of the California State Assembly:

I am returning Assembly Bill 1200 without my signature.

This bill would revise the definition of “lobbyist” in the Political Reform Act of 1974 to include specified conduct by third-party consultants who work to influence governmental procurement.

Given that the laws regulating state procurement are voluminous and already contain ample opportunity for public scrutiny, I don’t believe this bill is necessary.



Edmund G. Brown Jr.

MANA Featured in Billboard Magazine


Yes, you can find MANA’s announcement of its new president on page 105 of Billboard magazine. In all fairness, we should note that you should not search for this article in the current issue of Billboard. You’ll need to search Billboard’s back issues for the June 19, 1948 issue, when that magazine was still The Billboard. (To view that entire The Billboard article online, use the search term: “Richard A. Wilcox” MANA.)

As printed in "The Billboard" magazine, June 19, 1948.

As printed in The Billboard magazine, June 19, 1948.

Why the sudden interest in MANA’s ancient history? Because MANA’s 70th anniversary is coming up in October 2017. And while I’ve spent my first five years as MANA’s CEO looking diligently and aggressively toward MANA’s future, our upcoming 70th anniversary has reminded me to spend a little time looking at our past.

A search of our archives has revealed the first issue of The Agent and Representative magazine, dated July 1949, so this June 1948 Billboard article is the earliest reference to MANA we’ve found in print so far. If you have something older in your files, we hope you’ll share it.

We will continue to include more and more nuggets from MANA’s past as our October 2017 anniversary approaches, but for now I’d like to close this MANA editorial with an excerpt from MANA’s very first editorial, penned for that July 1949 issue by MANA’s then Executive Secretary P. Edwin Thomas.

P. Edwin Thomas

P. Edwin Thomas

New Times, New Tasks

Rightly or wrongly, the post-war American interest is tightly linked to the welfare of half the whole world; although, even if we wished, we are not rich enough to endow the world, or powerful enough to rule it. Instead, being what we are, we can only strive to create, and work to produce, the conditions that make for freedom and peace among nations, being careful to keep ourselves solvent in the gigantic process.

But this condition, this American world interest, demands a new look at the needs of the domestic welfare of our own people, in pure terms of dollars and cents alone. For, somehow, the cost of all items, the cost of everything we need and use, must be lowered to a point within the means of each and every one of us — the means remaining after all the multifarous and multitudinous tax burdens have been borne.

Among these are the lowering of selling costs, and that is where agents and representatives come in.

More Than Just a Job


What makes being a rep more than just a job?
Why do so many reps become professionally and emotionally attached to our industry?

Charles and Harold Cohon

Charles and Harold Cohon

I’ve been MANA’s CEO for five years and was a rep for three decades before that, but it’s only recent events that have led me to reflect deeply on questions like those.

Part of the answer is just pragmatic. Becoming a rep gives a budding entrepreneur a way to start a company with just business savvy, a robust work ethic, and enough savings to live off of while their company gets on its feet. And there is justifiable pride earned from relationships with long-term principals and customers.

But the strongest emotional attachments to our industry are probably because rep companies tend to be family businesses. Sometimes rep companies are fathers and mothers and sons and daughters, and sometimes they are just people who have become like family working together in a small business.

The trigger for my deep reflections on the powerful emotional attachment reps have to our industry was my father Harold Cohon’s recent passing.

In the days that followed, one of the memories that kept coming back over and over again was the first time Dad took me to make out-of-town sales calls.

We arrived in Rockford, Illinois, pulled into a gas station, and as I refilled the tank Dad announced, “You’d better figure out how to get to the customer.”

Dad was in the car, and he knew the directions to the customer’s office, but he also knew that the next time I went out on calls he wouldn’t be in the car. It was time to be sure that I wouldn’t be too bashful to ask for directions. The attendant pointed me in the right direction and also sold me a Rockford street guide that I carried in my car for many years.

In the car that day Dad knew that I needed to learn how to make sales calls on my own, but on my first out-of-town sales trip he gave me the gift of being my safety net. And then, over time, he gave me the even greater gift of guiding me to learn to work without a net.

Agents Benefit From Extensive Support Network


Who supports the representative system of selling? MANA, of course, but there are probably more people in that role than you’d expect, from a wide range of industry-specific representative associations to an elite group of representative-savvy attorneys.

How do these executives discover opportunities to collaborate and learn from each other? Often it’s at a MANA-hosted meeting where those executives share the latest innovations and best practices that support the representative system of selling.

Why does MANA host this event? Because the insights from those meetings will benefit MANA representative and manufacturer members for years to come.

The first day of this recent event MANA hosted representative association executives to meet with their peers as members of the Alliance of Manufacturers’ Representative Associations (AMRA). With such a powerful group gathered together, the conversation quickly turned to ways that these associations could collaborate for their representative and manufacturer members’ benefit, enhance member services, and share educational resources.

Sharing their expertise were: Stacey Woldt, AIM/R; Patricia Collins, EMDA; Tess Hill, ERA; Bill Weiner, IHRA; Ray Wright, IPRO; Charles Cohon, MANA; Jerry Leth, MANA; Liz Beerman, MRERF; Ken Hooper, NEMRA; Susan Crolla, PTRA. (My fault that we missed taking a group photo, sorry!)

The second day of this event MANA hosted attorneys who specialize in manufacturer/representative law to meet with their counterparts from across the country as members of the MANA Attorney Forum.

MANA Attorney Forum

Two examples of how MANA provides backstage support for its agent and manufacturer members are the association’s participation in AMRA and the MANA-sponsored Attorney Forum. Participants in this years’ Attorney Forum are above, back row, left to right: Mark Smith, Adam Glazer, Matt Benson, Tom Kammerait, Barbara Kramer, John Riccione, Dan Beederman, Gerry Newman, Randy Gillary and Charles Cohon. Front row, from left: Jerry Leth, Steve Nelson, Mark Schmidt, Scott Sanders, Doug Andrews, John Anderson and John Rotaris.

What do members of the MANA Attorney Forum discuss? Yes, as you might expect, they discuss how to enforce agreements that have not been honored (almost always with principals who are not MANA members), but they spent just as much time discussing how to write fair agreements to avoid post-termination conflicts.

And there is much more to MANA Attorney Forum members than just representative agreements. The group also discussed how reps can avoid conflicts of interest, ways that alternative compensation like stock options can substitute for commission, and valuation and succession planning for representative firms.

Attorney Forum

Left to right: Doug Andrews, Steve Nelson, Steve Valentine, and John Riccione participating in an ongoing discussion at the Attorney Forum.

When executives who support the representative system of selling share their expertise, everybody wins. And MANA is a better association for having participated.

Revealing Moments


© nicolaselowe |

What happens when a deer first catches the scent or sound of a hunter? The deer freezes. Why does the deer freeze? Because motion would catch the hunter’s eye and make the deer’s presence obvious. To hide in plain sight, the deer needs to be motionless.

What about things that hide in plain sight in our businesses — procedures, practices and policies that undermine our success? How do we catch sight of things that are so much a part of our daily routine that they blend into the landscape?

“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” said Winston Churchill, to which I would add, “Never let a good transition go to waste” either. Transitions are motions that make things visible that were not visible while they were motionless. Let me give you an example.

Three members of MANA’s Board of Directors recently completed their terms of service on the Board. Three new Board members took their places. Six transitions not to be wasted!

When a Board member leaves MANA, or an employee leaves your company, or when a relationship with one of your principals ends, that transition should trigger an exit interview. Exit interviews recognize that an exit is a significant transition and a one-time-only opportunity to get frank feedback from someone who might have been reluctant to be blunt while they were still part of the organization.

MANA Board member exit interviews focus on experiences on the Board which were positive and experiences which were not, and guidance for successors. In your business, when a relationship with an employee or principal ends, you can extract the last bit of value from that relationship with an exit interview that might reveal important facts about your business that might never be discovered any other way.

When a new Board member joins MANA, or an employee joins your company, or when a relationship with a new principal begins, that transition should trigger a “fresh eyes” interview. A new Board member will see things in their first Board meeting that a veteran might dismiss as routine. In your business a new employee or a new principal relationship puts “fresh eyes” on your firm and may reveal problems or opportunities that were hiding in plain sight.

Whenever something changes at MANA it gives us an opportunity to illuminate teachable moments that help us improve our services to you. We hope you will join us in never letting a good transition go to waste.

Thank You Cincinnati!


A couple of months ago I thanked Texas MANA members for their warm welcome and hospitality when we met for lunch and conversation in Dallas. Now I have the opportunity to extend those same thanks to Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky MANA members, and members of the Manufacturers’ Agents of Cincinnati (MAC) who met me for a joint MANA/MAC lunch and conversation at the Montgomery Inn in Cincinnati.

MANA/MAC lunch

A good turnout at the joint MANA/MAC lunch.

Why were Dallas and Cincinnati some of the best meetings I’ve ever had? I think it’s because we established a “PowerPoint-Free Zone” for our meetings. No projector. No screen. Just informal questions, answers and conversation about topics important to representatives, and some friendly networking.

There are still topics best communicated with formal presentations, but it seems that there is less appetite for a classroom setting and more of an appetite for conversation. The message I’m getting is, “Talk with me, not at me.” Message received!

MAC ( is an association focused on representative and principal best practices much like MANA, except that, as the name suggests, it focuses its attention on the area surrounding Cincinnati.

A special treat for me during this visit was the opportunity to meet with most of MAC’s Board of Directors, MANA past Chairman Tom Hayward, and MANA Board member John Davis before the meeting. Getting together face-to-face to share ideas and best practices with other associations that share MANA’s interests is a very important part of MANA’s role in promoting the representative system of selling.

My biggest takeaway from Dallas and Cincinnati is that my role at those meetings has been to get the conversation started, and keep it on track. The combined experience of 20 or 30 representatives in the room brings more expertise to the table than any MANA CEO could bring.

So, again, thanks to Dallas and Cincinnati, and I’m looking forward to an upcoming (at press time) “PowerPoint-Free Zone” in New Jersey. Where’s next? I’m open to suggestions, e-mail me at

Left to right: Jeff Witt, John Davis, Larry Roy, Chris Schnetzer, Charlie McDonald, Dick Harvey, Tom Hayward, Rick Pierce and Charles Cohon.

Attendees at the MAC Board meeting (left to right) Jeff Witt, John Davis, Larry Roy, Chris Schnetzer, Charlie McDonald, Dick Harvey, Tom Hayward, Rick Pierce and Charles Cohon.

Rolaids™ or Rep Councils?


© ckellyphoto |

Over lunch recently a MANA manufacturer member shared his experience with rep councils, and also shared an unexpected outcome from a recently assembled rep council: relief from excess stomach acid.

But I’ll let him tell the story.*

“We’ve been a big believer in rep councils for a long time, for all the usual reasons.

“Because our five rep council members collect input from all of our reps, analyze it, and then present it to us without identifying the source, nobody feels that they might jeopardize the line by pointing out our weak spots.

“But anonymity is only the first step. No one will spend time preparing that feedback unless they know that we will act on it. So, step two is prompt executive response. Our rep council’s report goes directly to our top executives and they respond within six weeks, bullet point by bullet point. Some of the bullet points are acted upon quickly, some are queued for attention later, and some may not be practical to pursue, but every bullet point gets a response.

“We get great results from our rep council, but I recently got an unexpected benefit from the rep council: relief from excess stomach acid.

“Let me explain. One of our reps who also happens to be a member of the rep council made a request we just couldn’t accommodate. When a rep requests something we just can’t do they often will ask again a second or third time, but eventually they accept the bad news and move on to other opportunities.

“But this guy was like a dog with a bone. He just wouldn’t let go. Every couple of weeks he’d push me for the same thing again, as if I could give him a different answer the 16th time he asked than I had given him the first 15 times.

“But he is a very, very effective rep, so I bit my tongue. Then at the rep council meeting he asked the other four reps serving on the council to back his request. And all four told him that his request was completely unrealistic. When I had to turn him down, it sounded to him like I was just defending my company. But when he heard it from his counterparts, it sank in. He never brought it up again. No more heartburn.

“How do you spell relief? R-E-P-C-O-U-N-C-I-L”

* I’ve recounted the substance of the manufacturer’s story, but details and phrasing have been changed.

Thank You, Dallas!


Maybe it’s the economy. Maybe it’s the nature of the rep business. But over my five years as MANA’s CEO, every year I’ve seen less and less appetite for face-to-face education and networking from MANA members.

Until February.

When Dallas MANA members wowed me by turning out 30-strong for a “PowerPoint-Free Zone*” lunch at Dunston’s Steakhouse, where I facilitated a conversation on topics in our industry that were of interest to that particular group of MANA members.

image of Dallas meeting

MANA members gather for the “PowerPoint-Free Zone” lunch in Dallas, Texas

Thank you, Dallas MANA members, for demonstrating that there can still be exceptions to that trend and that there are still opportunities for MANA members to meet face-to-face to exchange ideas and support the representative system of selling.

At press time we’d just sent surveys to attendees to find out what kind of appetite there is for another Dallas meeting. But even if Dallas MANA members decide to meet only once or twice a year, it will still be reassuring to know that our industry, which hangs its hat on selling the value of face-to-face meetings with customers, puts its money where its mouth is and occasionally invests time in face-to-face meetings among peers.

And the same week this issue hits your mailbox, I’m facilitating another rep conversation in Cincinnati. The topics that interest attendees in Cincinnati will undoubtedly be different from the topics we discussed in Dallas, but what will be the same is that members of our industry will be sitting down together for a meal, sharing common problems and concerns, and having frank discussions about ways to solve those common issues.

Interested in bringing this conversation to your city? If you’re ready to volunteer as MANA’s “boots on the ground” to find a venue and stir up local interest, reach out to me at (877) 626-2776 or

Conversation  not Presentation

NOT Presentation

* What, exactly, is a “PowerPoint-Free Zone?” It means no PowerPoint allowed. No projector. No canned speech. It means conversation instead of presentation. We start with a quick scan of the topics in MANA’s 18-page “Benefits of Membership” booklet to find the topics that are of greatest interest to that particular group, and then open the floor for facilitated conversation.

I Just Lost My Big Line. What Should I Do?


© CGinspiration | Dollar Photo Club

It’s a phone call I get, unfortunately, several times a year. A MANA representative member calls to say, “I know I shouldn’t have let one principal become more than half my income, but that’s just how our business grew, and now that line has terminated my firm.”

“I do have a couple of nibbles from competitive lines, but none of them comes close to replacing the commission income from the line we lost. What should I do?”

Looking back at those conversations, I’ve compiled below the suggestions those callers found most useful, both as guidance for you if you ever find yourself in this position and as a reminder to try to grow your line card in a balanced way if you can.

  • Have a rep-savvy rep attorney from MANA’s attorneys list review the agreement that was just terminated. They may discover that you are entitled to more compensation than might be obvious.
  • If your ex-principal is going direct, they may try to recruit one or more of your firm’s salespeople to become their direct salespeople. Give some advance thought to:
    • If this happens, do I care?
    • If I do care, what recourse do I have?
  • When the territory you’re taking over for your new principal has much less existing business than the territory you lost, you can ask your new principal to help you by offering:
    • A “Life of Part, Life of Program” clause, so if you design in a part, they pay you commission on that part for life, even if they terminate you as their representative.
    • An extended termination clause, perhaps adding one month of severance for each year of service.
    • A “no house accounts” policy.
    • A larger territory than you had with your prior principal.
    • A commission bump for the first year.

And probably the best advice I can give you is to call MANA to talk through your options with me or with Jerry Leth, MANA’s VP and General Manager. Having a friendly, experienced sounding board during an emotionally-charged transition may help you see some options you might have missed on your own, and give you a better chance to take the lemons you’ve been handed and make lemonade.

I Don’t Know Who You Are


I don’t know who you are.
I don’t know your company.
I don’t know your company’s product….
Now — what was it you wanted to sell me?

McGraw-Hill Magazines
“Man in the Chair” ad, 1958

I don’t know what a rep is.
I don’t know what services you provide.
I don’t know how your firm adds value.
Now — why should we keep sending you commission checks?

Recent Business School Graduate
Just hired as a key executive at your most important principal

Why do MANA and other manufacturers’ representatives associations reach out to business schools? Because someday the graduates of those business schools will be recruited to become the regional sales managers, sales managers, sales vice-presidents, or even presidents of the companies our members represent.
What happens if those recent business school graduates show up for their first day of work without already knowing what a manufacturers’ representative is and the value we add to their companies? That manufacturing company’s representatives risk ending up as collateral damage when these uninformed executives’ learning curves include ill-advised decisions to cut commission rates, take house accounts, or move to a direct sales forces.

Who suffers when business schools graduate students who don’t understand manufacturers’ representatives? Everybody suffers!

Manufacturers’ representatives suffer when principal relationships sour and commissions fall.

Customers suffer when a manufacturer’s new policies impair customers’ ability to access the manufacturers’ representative expertise they’d come to rely upon.

Manufacturers suffer when disgruntled customers defect to new suppliers.

That’s why I spoke at Harvard Business School in October, at Columbia Business School in April, and maintain close ties to the University of Chicago Booth School of Business’ Entrepreneurial Selling course. (Video of the Harvard presentation is online at

Are you ready to join us in getting out the word about manufacturers’ representatives? Then help us reach out to academia! Contact your alma mater and offer to speak to a business class, or introduce us to key academics and we’ll schedule a MANA presentation there. Let us know how we can help!

Walter Tobin, Charley Cohon, Liz Beerman and Ken Hooper.

Special thanks to three other representative association executives on hand for MANA CEO Charles Cohon’s Harvard Business School presentation. Pictured with Cohon (second from left) are Electronics Representatives Association CEO Walter Tobin, Manufacturers’ Representatives Educational Research Foundation Executive Director Liz Beerman, and National Electrical Manufacturers Representatives Association CEO Ken Hooper.

Need to Hire a Rep Badly in a Big Hurry?




“We want someone who’s willing to take risks.”
© cartoonresource | Dollar Photo Club

You probably will.

It’s a call I get several times a year from a desperate manufacturer. And it’s a call I never, ever get from a MANA manufacturer member. “I just lost the customer who has been 70 percent of my business for the last 10 years. So I need to hire a rep badly in a big hurry.”

I bite my tongue.

Because what I want to say is, “You want to hire a rep badly in a big hurry? That’s fortunate, because the only way you can hire a rep in a big hurry is badly.”

But I don’t say that. Instead I ask:

  1. What experience do you have working with representatives?
  2. Would you be willing to work on a Life of Part / Life of Program basis?
  3. Would you make some sort of contribution to the cost of pioneering new business with a Market Development Fee?

The response I get to the first question is either, “I’ve never worked with reps but now I am desperate,” or “I had a few reps but after they brought me some customers I didn’t see the value anymore so I terminated them.”

Their answer on the topic of “Life of Part / Life of Program” commissions is always the same. “No way. Why should I keep paying a rep for the business after I already have it?”

And their response to the third question also is consistent. “Nope. The cost of pioneering the line is the rep’s responsibility.”

Again, I bite my tongue. Because what I want to say is: “Let me help you write the ad.”

Representative Wanted

Manufacturer on the brink of bankruptcy needs representative to quickly deliver orders and save my company. No existing business, but don’t expect any financial help to pioneer our line. And if you do bring in orders that save my company, I am already planning to terminate you at my earliest opportunity.

The good news is that this manufacturer also consistently balks at paying MANA’s annual dues—which, frankly, is a relief, because MANA representative members deserve better principals than this one.

MANA manufacturer members, as a rule, know that working with reps is a marathon, not a sprint. Locating, recruiting, hiring, and partnering with reps is time-consuming, hard work. It doesn’t happen quickly, but once the hard work is done, the benefits can last for decades. Which is why quality MANA‑member principals don’t rush the process — they take the time needed to do the job right.

Sales Is a Terrible Job!


© keangs | Dollar Photo Club

Cold-calling strangers to pry hard-earned money from their hands in exchange for your products? Ugh!

Fighting off circling competitors who try to grab customers right out of your hands just as you’re preparing to close? Phooey!

Pandering to fickle customers who lead you on and then buy from somebody else? Unfair!

Meeting people who ask what you do and then wrinkle their noses when you reply “Sales.” Eew!

Fighting off an endless parade of upstarts who want to take your job and work for cheap? Sheesh!

If you think sales is a low-prestige job you settle for until you get something better, you will be right. Well, you will be right for you, at least. Because, with that attitude, you will always be scrabbling in the mud with peers who consider customers to be annoying obstacles between them and their sales commission.

Yes, for you, sales is a terrible job. But, as most MANA representative members know, it can be a wonderful career.

Yes, the first six months is hard for any new salesperson. And for new salespeople who spend that first six months trying to push their products onto anyone with a pulse, things won’t get any better after that first six months.

But for salespeople like most MANA representative members, who instead take a long-term approach and spend that six months studying customers’ problems before offering any solutions, something wonderful starts to happen. That salesperson starts to undergo a metamorphosis from salesperson to trusted consultant. And what started six months ago looking like a sales job undergoes a metamorphosis from job to career.

Careerists like MANA representative members have earned customer loyalty and have no reason to fear that a stranger with a slightly lower price can steal their customers.

Careerists are just as highly valued by their employers and their principals as they are by their customers, so they are also well-protected from upstarts who seek to encroach into the relationships careerists have with employers and principals.

And there is no group of salespeople where careerists are more highly concentrated than among MANA representative members.

Because careerists like MANA representative members treat sales as a career, at the end of each decade they have 10 more years of experience and 10 more years of customer rapport — unlike people who see sales as just a job, who end each decade with the same six months of experience, repeated 20 times.

“If I could just get my reps to do exactly what I tell them to do….”


We don’t hear that from manufacturers who consider their representatives to be their partners, but companies with a top-down management philosophy sometimes complain that representatives push back when they are told exactly how to accomplish that principal’s goals.

A character flaw on the part of representatives? Or a virtue that protects overly top-down managers from undermining their own companies’ success?

A popular problem-solving computer algorithm called Ant Colony Optimization that takes its name and principles from nature may give us the answer as to whether day-to-day operations are best guided from headquarters or from the field.

Figure 1

Figure 1

When ants leave the colony to search in the field for food, they start their journey randomly, leaving behind a trail of pheromones that slowly evaporates. And when ants come across the trails of pheromones from other ants they follow the trail that is strongest and therefore the most recent.

As ants find food and carry it back to the colony, they double back on their own trails, leaving behind even more pheromones. And, of course, the shorter the round trip, the less the pheromones dissipate.

Figure 2

Figure 2

That strong pheromone trail attracts even more ants, which bring back more food and further reinforce the pheromone trail. (See Figure 1.)

Note that the queen of the ant colony has no role in telling ants where to go look for food in the field. That’s a job for the ants that actually spend time in the field.

Figure 3

Figure 3

The most impressive aspect of this self-organizing, field-driven system is demonstrated when ants encounter a fresh obstacle. (See Figure 2.)

Ants then randomly turn left or right to bypass the obstacle. (See Figure 3.)

Figure 4

Figure 4

The pheromone trail of ants that took the shortest path is refreshed more quickly than the trail of ants who took the longest path, so the shortest path is the most attractive and ants quickly abandon the longer path. (See Figure 4.)

The only instructions the ants receive is “bring food.” No step-by-step instructions from headquarters are required; it is up to the ants to sniff out the most efficient path to quickly bring the most food back to the colony. And the queen never tells them to go look under the third shrub from the left and report back with their results.

The Rainmakers


My father, Harold Cohon, a retired manufacturers’ representative who celebrates his 91st birthday this month, served in the U.S. Army during World War II. In 1943 basic training brought him to Death Valley in eastern California, and we recently came across this photo he took at that signpost.

image taken in 1943

Dad snapped this photo in 1943.

Death Valley is the hottest location in North America, setting its record 134°F temperature in 1913. It is also the driest location in North America, averaging just two inches of rain per year. Based on what Dad saw, the only thing that seemed to grow reliably there was cracks in the parched desert floor.


Dad back home,
enjoying the Midwest’s more moderate climate.

What Dad and most other people didn’t know is that Death Valley wasn’t really dead at all; it was just waiting for one final ingredient to show exactly what it was capable of.

It turns out that the earth in Death Valley is nutrient-rich and well-mixed with dormant seeds of flowering plants, all of the elements needed to support a vibrant ecosystem — except for one. Unknown to Dad, Death Valley was just waiting for water to show its amazing potential.

That potential revealed itself in 2005, when six inches of rain fell suddenly on Death Valley. Just as suddenly, this super-desert burst forth with an amazing variety of multi-colored flowering plants. Then, gradually, the water from that fluke rain evaporated. The desert dried up again, the plants died, and Death Valley went back to being the parched, cracked wasteland my father still remembers.

What can manufacturers and manufacturers’ representatives learn from the example of Death Valley?

An otherwise well-run manufacturing firm can be just like Death Valley. If all of the elements of a thriving ecosystem exist except one, nothing blooms. It is not a coincidence that the most successful manufacturers’ representatives are called rainmakers.

When professionally executed sales calls, like the rain, are added to the mix, a commercial ecosystem can thrive.

And removing that rain can destroy that thriving ecosystem, turning it into dust that will quickly blow away. A reminder that the excitement over harvesting a single, unexpected, wildly successful bloom should not be taken as a cause to fire the rainmakers.