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WDI-Manufacturer’s Representatives

Michel Sales Agency

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When it’s minus 10 F and a rest home loses heat, people depend on a contractor to get it back up and running right away. The contractor depends on Michel Sales Agency to provide the support to make that quick response possible.

Michel Sales Agency is a manufacturer’s representative for the plumbing, heating, ventilation and air conditioning market. The company sees itself as an extension of the manufacturer, President Kelly Michel says, and takes pride in the products it sells and supports.

Michel Sales Agency got its start in 1932 in founder Clarence Michel’s basement. Today, Kelly Michel represents the fourth generation of a family that has grown the business to including a main building in St. Paul, Minn., and a satellite office in Plymouth, Wis. Its customers include wholesalers and contractors, though Michel says about 60 percent of its time is spent with contractors because those companies are the ones that need the training and support in the field.

As experts on HVAC and plumbing systems, Michel Sales Agency has been called on to provide product support for a wide range of projects and installations, including city halls, medical centers, banks, condominium complexes and churches. Recently, the company provided support to Faribo Plumbing & Heating, a Faribault, Minn., contractor, on a nine-month project to reopen Pillsbury Baptist Bible College in Owatonna, Minn., as a charter school. The project required moving from a central stream for the entire campus to independent HVAC for each building. Michel Sales Agency assisted with the design work, layout and installations for the retrofit.

Enhancing Training

Michel Sales Agency continues to expand on its services by building upon its training programs. When the company moved into its current facility in 2005, it invested in a 1,200-square-foot training room with seating for 34 students. “We have a regional, world-class training facility right here so people don’t have to go to the manufacturers,” Michel says. “We can do just as good of a job here as they can at the [manufacturing] facility.”

The training area is equipped with the latest systems such as a 2-million-BTU boiler with a 500-gallon storage tank. The facility provides wholesalers and installers a hand-on opportunity to learn about and test the equipment. In addition to new equipment, Michel Sales Agency also keeps legacy systems on hand as a resource for customers working with older technology. Customers typically bring in the contractors and service staff members, along with tools such as volt monitors and carbon dioxide operators. The sessions teach the trainees about the equipment and show contractors how to test and repair malfunctions in devices.

After a decade of hosting the weekly session, Michel Sales Agency offers 11 different classes that qualify for continuing education credits – helping installers to meet their annual licensing requirements. The classes are usually held at the request of a customer and include only that customer’s employees. “We’re able to individualize the training because in the class you’re going to have veterans and rookies,” Michel says. “We specialize in being able to tailor the class to the contractor’s wants and needs.”

But training is not exclusive to Michel Sales Agency’s St. Paul building. The company takes equipment hooked up to a natural gas source into the field for on-site demonstrations. “We do that because of the geography we cover,” Michel says.

Manuals can be 120 pages long, and even the most careful installers won’t remember every word in those books. Michel says the in-person training helps contractors better understand the systems and reduce the number of service calls. “The fact is that equipment is becoming more high-efficient all the time,” he says. “And with high efficiency comes technology that contractors may have a problem with.”

The classes also help to sell customers on the technology. The engineering professionals in particular tends to be careful when selecting new equipment because a failure can impact their reputation. “The engineering community wants to see it running, operating,” Michel says. “The larger the product the harder the specification.”

Value in Service

Even the most thorough training won’t resolve all problems, which is why Michel Sales Agency staff members are available to assist customers in the field. The company has one full-time field person and is looking to hire a second one, Michel says. Additionally, all seven salespeople are capable of going to a job site to work with the client and resolve problems. “When someone is in North Dakota, the salesmen need to be able to walk into a room and solve a problem,” Michel says. That in-person support is how Michel Sales Agency demonstrates the value of its support to build lasting relationships with its customers.

But despite a stable of longtime clients, advances in technology are forcing changes in the market that threaten Michel Sales Agency’s business. National distributors are moving toward regional warehouses while independent wholesalers are setting up central distribution chains. The flow of equipment among warehouses from all over the country requires a reworking of how manufacturer’s representatives are paid. For example, if a distribution center out of Michel Sales Agency’s territory ships a boiler to a branch inside its market, how should Michel Sales Agency be credited for that sale?

The company is also seeing disruption from Internet-based sales, which often cut the wholesaler and manufacturer’s representative out of the process to reduce price. Now when Michel Sales Agency receives a service call the company must first verify whether the equipment was purchased from one of its clients. If not, Michel Sales Agency will not offer support. 

Michel says manufactures should develop an Internet pricing policy to curb the advantage of Internet sales and ensure end-users are buying products from dealers who can offer the necessary service. “For products that need in-field support, engineering code and a license to install, being sold over the Internet is poor judgment,” Michel explains.

Michel Sales Agency’s record of stellar service has allowed it to overcome those challenges and consistently grow during the past five years. By taking a measured approach to growth, Michel says his business has been able to maintain the close-knit, goal-driven culture that sets it apart. “It’s a team effort to solve a problem,” Michel says. “If you don’t have any problems, you don’t have any business. Problems are going to be there: What are you going to do about it?”

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