Image in modal.

The supply chain doesn’t have to be a straight line, especially when the “product” is expertise.

The basic job description for a manufacturer’s representative is to sell a complementary range of products, acting as a product and technical resource for their customers. They contract individually with each manufacturer to sell in a defined territory, and they do typically sell to wholesalers.

However, a sampling of three manufacturer reps across the U.S. shows a range of ways that they can and do serve contractors directly, too.


Training With Trailers

“CKA spends about 50 percent of our time training, and this has been the basis for our growth over the past five years,” said Matt Graves, president of CKA Sales in Columbus, Ohio.

CKA Sales is the senior firm in this article, formed in 1970 by two men who had each previously run their own agencies. Graves noted that CKA’s training program started in the 1980s in response to a need for education about vent and duct sizing.

Now, the firm — with territories in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania — offers 15 Ohio Construction Industry Licensing Board and NATE-certified courses for contractors.

Winstel Controls Training.

PORTABLE HVAC: As part of CKA's strategy, some equipment like this Airsys unit serve the industry by living in a trailer and staying ready for the next round of instruction.

“Class attendance can range from 150 to 1,” Graves said about CKA’s contractor-specific training, separate from its array of training tailored to distributors.

“Our agency trained over 2,000 technicians last year, and the most difficult task was getting people in the seats,” said Graves. “Students want to learn by having an experience, while touching and seeing a product. Face it: Technicians learn by doing, rather than being told or instructed.”

That insight led CKA to invest in six trailers to haul a variety of equipment to work and train on. Demo units for inverter heat pumps, combustion furnaces, duct board tables, geothermal equipment, loose fill insulation machine, tankless water heaters, and boilers let technicians learn via real experience with the product.

Did this investment in a flexible, hands-on offerings pay off?

“Our training program increased tenfold once our classes included live-fire equipment,” Graves reported. “Our classes have been held in our office, at distributors, contractors, hotels, or conference centers.”

This year, CKA Sales modified the approach a little more to accommodate pandemic-driven distance learning needs.

“We recorded classes and posted them to a cloud for all to access,” Graves said, citing CKA’s Covid Virtual Training Center. Back here below the cloud, Graves observed that while many distributors are resisting the resumption of on-site training classes, some contractors are allowing CKA to train in person again.

Graves sees the robust contractor training program as not just worthwhile on its own terms but part of the value CKA provides to its distributor clients so “each level of the supply chain will know how to work with each other and what is to be expected. You will have a lifelong customer if they know what to expect and you deliver on those expectations.”


On-Site Insights

Chris Richgels founded The Richgels Company in 1985, changing it 10 years later to TRC Sales, where he serves as vice president of sales. His HARDI member company headquarters in Garden Grove, California. In addition to working throughout California, Arizona, and Nevada, TRC Sales also serves customers in Guam and Hawaii.

Winstel Controls Training.

CLASS IS IN: Manufacturer representatives are accustomed to bringing the latest info to audiences from 1 to 150. Look for reps who tailor the content according to whether a group is contractors, distributors, or a mix. Photo courtesy CKA Sales.

TRC does have a 12-person training space to afford hands-on experience on any of the lines it carries, but its offers other opportunities.

“We do off-site training, and the mix varies between 100 percent contractor and 100 percent distributor,” Richgels said. He estimates that perhaps only 10 percent of manufacturer reps have a quality on-site training space.

In addition to differentiating between distributor and contractor audiences, TRC also works to customize any contractor session to the needs of that particular contractor. “Fujitsu 101” remains the most popular of the company’s recurring courses, providing an overview of mini splits and an introduction to the manufacturer.

Contractor opportunities extend beyond classes. Richgels says his reps routinely go to assist contractors with design for individual jobs.

“Contractors can look to us to see how our products interact or interface with their projects,” he said. “For example, we regularly get asked about conditioning the bathrooms, and we can design in our fans to bring conditioned air into the space.”

Bosch Mini Split Cart.

MOBILE MINI SPLIT: This ductless duo on wheels is one part of CKA Sales' arsenal in taking a hands-on experience wherever contractors can use it. Photo courtesy CKA Sales

In addition, he said, reps may see opportunities for contractors outside the scope of the equipment needs of a particular job.

Firms like TRC Sales can only deliver significant training because their team undergoes significant training themselves. While that education keeps reps up to date on latest offerings, Richgels said their manufacturer training touches on other information relevant for contractors, “especially as it relates to government regulations, which change frequently.”

That is one example of value that may lurk behind everyday course titles for contractors who make the effort to establish rep relationships. More value can lie in representatives’ own personal experience. Richgels, for example, worked for a wholesaler prior to founding TRC Sales. That has given him not only a leg up in forming strategies for distributor clients but direct experience with contractor needs and concerns.

Paul DeIuliis worked for privately owned Trane and Daikin franchises in Philadelphia and the mid-Atlantic before eventually becoming owner of The Joyce Agency’s HVAC Products Group.

“I forfeited the opportunity to continue a career in a larger corporation to challenge myself as a small business owner,” he recalled. DeIuliis sees and pursues the advantages of a smaller, high-value product list in avoiding common mistakes of larger firms as he serves contractor, consulting, and end user clients.

“We offer a much deeper and complete level of support for an environmentally responsible approach to commercial and residential air conditioning,” he said.

The Joyce Agency, based in Chantilly, Virginia, was well established in the plumbing sector before establishing its HVAC division in 1998. The HVAC side’s business growth aligned with the bloom of VRF interest in the U.S., and as with The Joyce Agency in general, its territories cover Virginia from top to bottom and east to west.

The Joyce Agency works through its distributor customers for contractor-specific events there, but it also conducts “numerous” trainings at contractor offices and on job sites.

DeIuliis said that with the on-site events, Joyce works to bring in all the affected trades, from mechanical and electrical to building automation and the general contractor.

“We found this approach to be incredibly valuable to promote successful installation and delivery of each sold system,” he said, noting his fulfillment team coordinates system installation training on each project.

Elsewhere, Joyce Agency reps’ day-to-day involvement with contractors might kick in before ground is broken. DeIuliis mentioned participating in design-build efforts as “idea generators,” or supporting a contractor looking for creative options as it competes for work in a traditional bid process.

As for dedicated contractor training, VRF and ventilation energy recovery top the topics of interest. While DeIuliis acknowledges VRF “can be the most troublesome to install,” he noted that when done right, it consistently proves its value in terms of cost effectiveness and energy efficiency.

With a variety of strategies on the energy recovery side, he said, “the trick is understanding all the option to choose a useful version that does not have an unreasonable first cost.”

An overarching knowledge of the process informs The Joyce Agency’s classes on the HVAC side and its interaction with contractors: it conducts training for building owners, architects, general and mechanical contractors, and consulting engineers.

Like TRC Sales’ Richgels, DeIuliis commented that energy benchmarks and standards “reset almost yearly.” That entails new options from Joyce’s list of one dozen brands and new info to pass through to the contractors who will be installing that equipment for success. DeIullis noted that the more recent offerings they deal with include chilled water equipment offering net zero and heat recovery options, and new opportunities to “leverage VRF and its strategic version of heat recovery.”


In-Person Investment

DeIullis closed with some encouragement that applies regardless of a contractor’s region. His advice for building good partnerships with manufacturer reps: Ask them to “step away from the computer and come see you.”

He advocates walking job sites with reps.

“Very little of what a rep is responsible for can be learned from a computer screen, pricing software, or buried somewhere in an email,” DeIullis said.

The Joyce Agency’s HVAC Products Group, TRC Sales, and CKA Sales all demonstrate a commitment to that principle. They have developed their own strategies for making and growing that connection with contractors who do not overlook manufacturers reps as potential allies.

While technological advancements continue to progress and impress, DeIullis concluded that “much of all of our growth and success in HVAC is driven by our ability to be effective at problem solving together.”