"In outside sales, many grew up in the business much like the branch managers did," Wieschorster says, "and were not necessarily trained as professional salespeople. We train them to focus on those customers with the most potential."
Just as with the branch managers, Independent Supply conducted a formal training, and followed up with regular calls and meetings. "You have to follow up on the training," Wieschorster says. "Habits are very hard to change."
With branches that can be up to 3,000 miles away from corporate headquarters, how does Independent Supply effectively manage those operations? "We spend a lot of time in airplanes," Wieschorster says.
Monthly calls help as well. The company has three a month -one each with the business managers, outside sales and inside sales. On those calls, Independent Supply executives provide training and discuss market issues.
Independent Supply also has had the benefit of starting from a clean slate in 2000. Both founders have worked in distribution for more than 25 years.
"We used the experience we had," Wieschorster says. "We used what worked, and avoided what didn't work in the past."
Independent Supply recognizes that change does not happen overnight. "It's a long road,"Wieschorster says. But consistency is crucial for success: "Pick a plan and stick with it."
Jim Ambrose of Jim Ambrose's Workshops can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.branchmanagerceo.com.
A distribution branch manager in many cases has worked his way through the ranks, but may not have had formal management training. In fact, the average manager may be so busy with his daily work that there hasn't been time to spend on higher-level localized market research and business planning. Wholesaler-distributors need to shift how they view the role of their branch managers by giving them the power to dig deeper into their markets.
Vancouver, BC-based heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration distributor Independent Supply Company went from start-up in 2000 to eight branches in Ontario and Western Canada.
In 2006, Independent Supply decided that to maintain that fast growth, it needed to shift how it viewed the job of branch manager.
So the company brought in outside trainer Jim Ambrose, focused on training in the tools the company already had (its CRM system and financial analysis tools) and, most importantly, reinforced that message through ongoing training using workbooks and regular meetings.
We want branch managers to run their branches as branch CEOs. That is where we are headed as an organization," says Rudy Wieschorster, co-founder of the company and vice president of operations. "We want them to understand their marketplace.
"… It is a big leap forward in how we run our branch operations."
Know Your Market
Independent Supply Company wanted to ensure it used the knowledge branch managers gathered in their day-to-day work to create a company vision.
The company is training them to look more closely at their marketplaces.
When the company's leaders meet each year to take stock of the business, those branch managers contribute valuable localized information to hone overall corporate strategy. "The planning process is at the customer level," Wieschorster says.
But to do this a branch manager must understand the market in which he operates. "Your business is in a market that is well-defined," Ambrose says. "That's the nature of the industry."
Branch managers can start by taking a "5,000-foot view" by examining the basic infrastructure of the city or market they are in. What does it contain? "Understand your entire market and each part of it – large industrial, small industrial, OEM, MRO, large commercial, small commercial, and so on, and then choose the best market space for you based on your core competency," Ambrose says.
Also consider capacity. A six-person branch may not be able to cover a multi-million dollar contractor in the space – instead that branch may want to focus on small contractors.
"Invest your capital to maximize your return," Ambrose says. A six-person branch could go after a large contractor, but it may have to fight for orders based on low price, he says. "If you've got a big order, but a small number of people at that branch -it could really handicap your branch."
To really understand the market, ask everybody who touches it what is going on so an opportunity is never missed. Ask customers questions not only about the potential of their business, but what is happening in the general community (a new plant is coming to town, or a public building project is in the works) and how they view certain economic indicators, such as housing starts.
Develop a Vision
A branch manager should create a vision, based on the solid market information gathered. This is more than just fluff. "The vision for the branch means a vision of where they want to take the business. It is more than a mission statement," he says.
For example, "I want to be the No. 2 distributor,"I want to have 20 percent market share," or "I want to grow market share five points a year in this particular market. "Be specific and realistic based on the research that was done."
In visits with his clients, Ambrose will ask, "What's your vision for the
business?" One answer he often gets: "I want to be more profitable."
"We all know that answer," Ambrose says, "but tell me in relation to market space, market share, key customers, profitability of lines and the potential growth of the market."
Still, many managers are so busy with day-to-day operations – taking customer calls, making sure trucks are loaded, filling in for those who called in sick, managing daily crises -that they don't have the time to dig into why these problems are popping up in the first place.
"Are you doing the right things in your business? Are all the people busy reacting to all the customers all the time, trying to solve everybody's problems and attacking the whole market?" Ambrose asks.
"Or do you have a specific vision for the business, "so that you can drive everyone in the organization toward the most profitable customers, and build the integrity and quality you want to be known for in that market?
Once a branch has a concrete vision, any moves should focus on that vision. For example, why another person should be hired. The answer should not be "because we're really busy," Ambrose says. Instead: "A new investment in resources is going to help us get to this goal by doing A, B and C."
"The manager must stand up and articulate the vision. That is huge as far as motivation," Ambrose says. "And it's seldom done."
In six years of surveys, Ambrose says the most common problem he sees at the branch level is that the manager does not communicate effectively with his employees.
"One of the biggest motivations for employees is strong leadership and articulating the vision of the business," he says. "People get excited. Even though they are employees, they're under the flag of the business, so it's their business. They want a strong leader saying, "Here is where I am taking the business and here is how we are going to do it."
"People will say, 'She's got her act together and knows what she is doing.' That's highly motivational."
Continuous communication in support of a vision is essential, Ambrose says. On a weekly basis, branch managers should meet with employees and talk about how the branch is doing in reaching its goals. Let everyone share what they have been doing.
"Do it quick and keep a positive spin on it," Ambrose says. Share success stories, big and small.
For example: "We got Fred from XYZ Company to come into the branch today after six months of trying to get him to do something," or "We secured a service contract with ABC Company."
To be sure, individual performance issues can get in the way of achieving a vision. To overcome this, stay positive and communicate one-on-one, Ambrose says.
"Instead of saying, 'Here is what you are doing, and your attitude is no good,' you say, 'If we're going to achieve our vision, everybody in the organization needs to give the customer a sense of well-being, and the sense that you are happy that the customer came in. So let's talk about how you are doing that.'"
Getting Sales on Board
"The number one issue with poorly performing branches is a weak or nonexistent sales management process," Ambrose says.
The sales force is the engine of the business. "The manager must be engaged with the salespeople in a disciplined sales management process to be sure everyone is investing time and resources on the right customers in the right marketplace."
Ambrose says there is no visionary correlation or motivation to share with the team when the manager tells the salespeople to just "go out and sell."
"There is a major disconnect. The organization needs to understand what they need to do to deliver the vision, and the salespeople are the first stop," he says.
Independent Supply Company recognized this. After developing its branch managers, it zoned in on its outside sales process.