Sales representatives who call on utilities have big shoulders, as they should. Today, just to get in to see a utility standards or staff engineer requires a lot of fortitude. Standards engineers are ridiculously busy, to the point of being overworked. Now maybe this isn’t the case in your utility, but standards and staff engineers might also attend a few more meetings than is good for their working souls.
So, what’s a sales rep to do? Walking on water would help. Sales reps also perform a bigger role than just pitching a product; they are part of the bigger family. Indeed, they seem to be woven into the fabric of the utility.
When I was at Georgia Power, the “alpha” rep firm was Whitehead & Associates, and Pat Whitehead was one smooth operator. He was so instinctive. This may be because he was raised around the culture, with his daddy, Bob, being a non-degreed Georgia Power operating man who worked his way up to senior vice president of operations. Pat, like most of the reps you’ll meet, just gets people. He not only knows what to say, he knows when and how to say it. He knew way more people at Georgia Power that I ever did, and I was there 22 years. I hate to admit this, but he also knew about the inner workings of Georgia Power. He knew the executives on a first-name basis.
Reps are a great source to help you keep up with all the shifting and maneuvering within your company, not gossip but close. As a bonus, reps keep you in the know about what’s going on in the industry and in neighboring utilities. They’re a treasure trove of knowledge you can’t get anywhere else.
A lot of representatives are engineers, too, and they really know their products. Bud Williams and his sons, Nelson and Sky, of T.S. Williams and Associates Inc. were not above getting out the toolbox and tracking down grounding problems when installing Biddle corona-detection equipment. Good reps are extensions of the companies they represent.
They are also a part of the extended utility family. It’s not because they are good salespeople, it’s because they are good people. When Stan Harper was running the lab at Georgia Power, he’d have an annual pig roast, and Nelson would come and roast the pig. Those were good times, times when we may have stayed up a little too late and sipped a few too many brews.
I first got connected with the Electric Equipment Representatives Association (EERA) in 2005 when Robert Chapman of Utility Sales Agents of South Texas Inc. invited me to speak at their annual meeting held on Hawaii’s Big Island.
This year, the incoming president, Don Shirk of Utility Sales Agents of North Texas Inc., invited my wife, Alice, and me to their annual meeting in Branson, Missouri. Executive Director Jane Male gave me the microphone, and I shared a few trends and statistics as well as more than a few strongly held opinions.
At the opening reception, Alice and I were talking with EERA President Brad Cahoon and his brother, Doug, about the state of the industry. It’s always good for me to gain perspectives from individuals working in the trenches. These Cahoons are third generation in the business. Their grandfather started in the rep business in 1954 and then formed his own agency, MC Sales Inc., in 1964. Brad and Doug’s dad worked with their grandfather before he established his own company, Cahoon Sales Inc., in 1978. I also met Doug’s son and daughter who joined them in Branson. Brad has youngsters, too, so one can’t help but expect some of these Cahoon kids to carry the family business into its fourth generation.
As we chatted at breakfast on the second day, P.J. Martini told me that his dad started Martini & Associates Inc. in 1967, and he joined the company in 1979. Now P.J. is always animated about one issue or another. We had quite a discussion about the role of regulation on rooftop solar. We then got to talking about generational links. P.J. mentioned that Vince Brown III’s grandfather started V.J. Brown Co. Inc. and that the senior Vince also helped get the EERA off the ground in the late 1940s. In fact, the senior Vince served as EERA president in 1951, and his grandson served as president 61 years later in 2012.
Robert Chapman, who first introduced me to the EERA, says his organization is now in the family way, too. His son,
Tyler, just joined him at Utility Sales Agents of South Texas Inc. in March as an outside salesman after spending five years with Johnson Controls Inc.
Later, Alice and I ran into Pat and his wife, Lucinda, along with their son, Scott, and his wife, Tasha, and their three kids. Several years ago, Pat turned over the reins of Whitehead & Associates to Scott, who now runs the business. This leaves Pat with time to dabble in his hobbies and keep up with his grandchildren. One set of grandkids calls him “The Warden” and the other set calls him “Big Daddy.” I can’t argue with these nicknames. Pat, like many of his rep friends, is a larger-than-life character. We are better for having professional reps active in our industry and in our lives.