J&K Sales Associates
J&K Sales Associates’ role as a manufacturer’s representative has changed rapidly during the 33 years the company has been in business. “Years ago, we were simply hired as salespeople, but now manufacturers are asking us to do more,” explains Karl Grabowski, president and owner of the Manchester, N.H.-based company. “We have become territory managers, and are responsible for tech support, engineering spec work, contractor training, brand identity building and market communications.”
All of those roles require revenue – which the company historically has had very little control over when it comes to its customers. “It would be great if we got calls from our manufacturers saying they were going to raise our commission, or from our wholesalers saying they were going to pay us more for the products that they purchase from us. Those calls never come,” he adds.
“Traditionally, what manufacturer’s reps have done to create revenue is to sell more of their existing lines. The reality is that for every additional million dollars of revenue we bring in, we have to hire someone to support that growth,” Grabowski continues. “Reps have also traditionally just tried to add more product lines. The reality is that when you do that, you’re stretched so thin you tend to do a lousy job not just for the core manufacturers you work with, but for the people you just brought on board.”
Instead of taking either approach, J&K Sales found an alternative method to manage its revenue. “We compare our business to a little black box that sits on a table, and inside that box is all of the individual transactions we conduct,” Grabowski says. “We’ve asked ourselves, ‘What if we could use technology and clever people to compress those transactions?’”
‘Quicker, Faster, Smarter’
J&K Sales began to answer that question more than 12 years ago, when it developed an in-house technology platform it uses in both internal and external communications. “I’m proud that we’ve been able to put together a completely agency-built, agency-designed and agency-supported communication platform with absolutely no outside support,” Grabowski says.
The platform, based on the Microsoft Outlook program, organizes purchase orders, e-mails, sales reports and other documents into multiple categories as well as by department. All faxes received by the company are processed digitally and accessible through the system. The company operates almost entirely on a paperless basis.
“This system allows us to be quicker, faster and smarter than our contemporaries,” Grabowski says. “We can find any document that anyone would want in less than five seconds, and e-mail or desktop-fax it to someone in another five seconds.”
J&K Sales’ system interfaces directly with an intranet site, where it stores pricing information, product literature and catalogs for the more than a dozen manufacturers it represents.
Every J&K Sales department manager has the ability to access the screens of every employee in his department, which further increases communication. “A lot of bigger manufacturer’s representative firms function like brokerage houses, with a lot of paper flying and people asking where quotes and other information is,” Grabowski says. “With us it’s much more cerebral. We have every piece of data going back 10 years, as well as the ability to retrieve it without ever having to get out of our chairs.”
The system has allowed the company to be more efficient in its operations by redeploying office staff to technical and sales support, he adds.
A New Market
J&K Sales has served as a manufacturer’s representative specializing in the plumbing, heating, industrial pipe valve fitting and irrigation markets since its inception in 1981. Karl Grabowski – the “K” in the company’s name – co-founded the firm as a small two-person operation with partner James Ferguson, whom Grabowski bought out in 1986.
The company today serves six New England states and upstate New York. J&K Sales’ facility in Manchester includes a 28,000-square-foot warehouse and more than 4,500 square feet of office space. The warehouse gives the company the ability to introduce new products to the marketplace or redistribute large products on behalf of its manufacturing customers. J&K Sales’ facility also includes a state-of-the-art “live fire” training lab.
“I’m proud that we’ve made a major, calculated move into the high-tech hydronic heating business,” Grabowski notes. “We didn’t really know anything about it five years ago, and now we’ve carved out a position where we are highly respected in the market.”