Frey Gaede’s relationships allow it to grow and thrive in changing markets.
By Chris Kelsch
As any successful manufacturer’s representative will tell you, the key to success in the industry, regardless of the product, is developing relationships with both manufacturers and prospective clients.
That has certainly been the case with Frey Gaede. The company was founded in 1948 by Arthur Frey, landing its first contract with Banker’s Box, an Illinois-based manufacturer of storage boxes for bank records. That company is still in business today (now known as Fellowes), and Frey Gaede has since grown to be one of the premier manufacturing representative groups in the country.
Frey Gaede has a staff of 26 that covers 25 states in the Midwest, Southeast and Southwest. The group specializes in office supplies, contract furniture, janitorial and safety products.
The company currently has four owners: Jim Gaede, who joined the company in the 1970s; John Frey Jr. (Arthur’s grandson), who joined in the ‘80s; Todd Gaede (Jim’s son), who joined in the ‘90s; and Gary Brusa (who joined in 2001). As that list of names indicates, Frey Gaede strives to maintain a family-run approach.
“When we look at what we do, we have a cultural belief that you have to work harder, be honest and forthright, and have to care about other people,” Partner John Frey Jr. says. “We don’t have egos. We win or lose as a team doing it the right way.”
And while there will always be issues that come up with suppliers or customers, Todd Gaede notes how critical the company’s performance has been in handling challenges. “In sales there are always going to be problems,” Gaede says. “But customers will always remember how you handled the problem, so it’s critical to develop problem-solving skills.”
Partner Jim Gaede says one of the strengths of Frey Gaede has been its ability to adapt to paradigm shifts in the industry throughout its history. The first of those took place in the mid 1970s with the advent of buying groups. Similar to cooperatives, buying groups cropped up when companies decided to pool their purchasing resources, committing to quantities of products and driving down costs.
“For maybe the first 30 years, we would deal with manufacturers and dealers,” Gaede recalls. “But then buying groups came along, we started working with dealers who were a part of a buying group entity. It has worked well for the individual dealers and our group.”
The second large change in the industry took place in the 1980s with the launch of huge superstores such as Staples and Office Depot. “Ultimately, we formed relationships with their commercial sales force which controls more than half of their business,” Gaede says. “And because of those relationships we were able to serve large consumers.”
The ability to adapt and adjust to those two revolutions explains how Frey Gaede was able to survive other sea changes, such as the expansion of e-commerce. Traditionally, Frey Gaede has responded to such challenges by educating and serving as advisors to dealers and consumers.
“A big part of our success has been our ability to educate distributors,” Frey says. “By educating them and forming a relationship, we can continue to promote value-added products.”
Of course, the field representatives working for Frey Gaede also have to keep up with industry trends in an effort to constantly educate their customers. To that end, Frey Gaede recently hired a director of marketing. “One of our real strengths has been our overall knowledge regarding products in the industry,” Frey says. “Our motto is ‘Trusted Solutions for the Workplace,’ so it isn’t always just the lowest price.”
As the industry has evolved and many manufacturing lines have consolidated, many manufacturer’s representatives have been swallowed up by larger companies with more resources. Frey Gaede has not only survived, but also thrived as it has grown and expanded its geographic reach by acquiring companies with similar values.
That began in 2001, when Frey Gaede partnered with Brusa, then a regional sales manager with Fellowes, to form Frey Gaede Brusa. The move expanded the company’s reach to 13 states in the central part of the country.
The company rebranded itself Frey Gaede in early 2017, and has continued with acquisitions that fit culturally. The latest one is the Rep Group, completed in July. Headquartered in Minneapolis, the Rep Group has focused on contract furniture in the upper Midwest since 1954. “Since the early 2000s we have not only increased our relationships with manufacturers,” Jim Gaede notes, “but at the same time we have been able to acquire other groups like ourselves, but with only one principal owner. In some cases, these acquisitions allowed us to expand geographically.”
For Gaede, the acquired companies represented more than just geographic and line expansion opportunities. They also operated in a similar fashion to Frey Gaede. “What we found was that we ended up with groups who have a similar personality type,” Gaede says. “We do better with like-minded people: transparent, honest and open.”
The values of Frey Gaede, passed down to its current leadership team, include being passionate about community involvement. In recent years Frey Gaede has hosted a golf tournament with proceeds going to City of Hope, a group dedicated to funding cancer research.
To date, Frey Gaede has raised nearly $500,000 dollars. “This is our seventh year hosting the tournament,” Todd Gaede says. “It’s an opportunity to work with our manufacturers and dealers and support a worthy cause.”