Plumbing & Mechanical’s 2014 Rep of the Year: Burke Agency
This Michigan-based rep firm builds trust with its contractor customers through longevity, familiarity and accessibility.
Most contractors are familiar with Counter Days held at their local plumbing/heating wholesale distributor — some food, some manufacturer displays, some conversation. It may be once a month or once a week. It may be a cookout or have a theme. And everyone knows what to expect.
But Michigan-based Burke Agency — with a location in the metro Detroit area and one in the Grand Rapids, Mich., area — wanted to do something different for the manufacturers it represents. So the Burke Tech Day concept was created.
Instead of the typical food-and-display counter concept, Principal John Burke and his Western Michigan team went to the company’s distributor partners with a new idea — a training event with eight or 10 stations, each providing contractors hands-on product training from manufacturer lines that Burke Agency represents.
“We told our distributors we’d rather spend more money and make it a training event that ran all day,” says Brian Burke, principal and general manager at Burke Agency. He also is the 2014 president of the Association of Independent Manufacturers/Representatives. “We find training is much more successful if contractors are holding the product and talking about how it’s installed or how it’s built, instead of one of us standing in front of a room lecturing to 30 contractors.”
Burke Agency commits to the distributor that it will get contractors to the Tech Day. The rep firm mails out 50 to 200 customized invitations to specific contracting firm owners or key supervisors. To make sure they get a good turnout, contractors are faxed reminders, then called about a day before the event.
Contractors get individualized training as one of Burke Agency’s reps takes a group of one to three people through the stations. Timing at each station is flexible; a contractor may want to talk about one product line for 20 minutes before moving on to another product.
“The goal is to do one-on-one training,” John Burke says. “So we have four or five Burke Agency people at each one of these events.”
Each invitation includes a graduation certificate. If a contractor comes to a Burke Tech Day and spends 30 or 45 minutes walking through the training stations, he can redeem that graduation coupon for whatever incentive is available.
The program was so successful that Burke Agency expanded it statewide. “It’s time-consuming and expensive but we try to do one every few months because it works,” John Burke says.
Contractors have thanked Burke Agency employees for providing Tech Day learning opportunities. That’s not to say distributor Counter Days aren’t useful to the rep firm.
“Counter Days can be good for building relationships and there are many successful formats around the state we like to participate in,” Brian Burke explains. “But we believe a Tech Day works much better than a Counter Day and achieves our objective, which is to provide some quality product training to the contractor.”
The agency has even set up Tech Days at its Western Michigan office for distributors and contractors, John Burke notes, most recently in early May.
“We’ve always prided ourselves with having a strong relationship with the contractor community,” Brian Burke says. “That takes a lot of different forms, but the obvious one is training. A few of our manufacturers require certification to install their products, so we are continually providing contractor certification classes for those companies.”
The rep firm has created training tools to teach contractors installation methods for various products, such as how to install custom master bath shower systems or how to install PEX piping in a commercial application. It also has a trailer equipped with various products that can be displayed at a distributor or contractor location for hands-on demonstrations.
Before George F. Burkestarted the manufacturers rep firm Burke Associates (which would later become Burke Agency), he worked for American Standard’s Church Seat division and then at Olsonite Seats. In 1970, he and a partner went into the rep business together before George Burke struck out on his own in 1975.
The first two companies that Burke Agency represented in those early days were Delta Faucet Co., which is still a big part of the company’s business, and Olsonite Seats, which was bought out by Bemis and Church. Burke Agency is still a Church Seats representative.
John Burke started at the agency in 1979 as an outside sales rep and took over the West Michigan office in 1980. Brian Burke started in 1981 as an inside sales and customer service rep. After their father George Burke retired in 1989, the brothers became the sole principals of the agency.
The Burke Agency team includes nine outside sales staff and seven inside sales and customer service reps covering a territory of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and five eastern counties of the Upper Peninsula. Each location has a warehouse: metro Detroit at 11,200 sq. ft. and Grand Rapids at 6,000 sq. ft.
“We are fortunate with the companies we represent,” John Burke says. “We have lines that basically change how companies do business. And that’s huge. There’s nothing more rewarding than changing a contractor’s way of doing business. When he sees it’s profitable, you really become a great partner for him.”
The manufacturers rep role has changed from selling primarily at the distributor level, Brian Burke notes. In those days, the distributor took the lead with the contractor, the builder, the engineer, the architect and the designer. These days it’s the rep firm that is focused on the downstream customer — sometimes even the homeowner — to create demand for its client’s products.
“The classic task every manufacturer would like their reps to do is create demand, to go to whomever the decision maker is to create a product or brand preference,” he says. “We want to be in front of all these different buying influences to help impact the sale. And that’s fundamentally different, certainly, from 30 years ago.”
Despite the dismal economic situation that began with the housing bust and continued when the state’s auto makers filed for bankruptcy in 2009, Michigan’s construction industry has seen a healthy rebound in the last few years in remodeling, small commercial jobs and some new residential construction. And the Burke Agency stayed profitable during those lean years because of the strong manufacturers they represent and diversification, such as heating and commercial work.
“I believe the agencies focused on more sophisticated products, more technologically advanced products, products less likely to be sold on Amazon or at Home Depot, are the agencies that will be successful in the future,” Brian Burke says. “Our company will stay aligned with manufacturers and products offering a value-added package that can’t be purchased from an Internet retailer or at a big-box store.”
A key to Burke Agency’s success is the longevity of its staff — many employees have been with the company for 20 years or more. Their experience and familiarity with the brands they represent helps build relationships with local contractors, and helps build trust and confidence in those product lines.
“Almost every day of the week someone from our agency is on a jobsite,” Brian Burke says. “It’s just what we do. It could be Rick Higginbotham on a showroom service call where someone is concerned about a product. Or Tom Zimmerman laying out a job with a contractor. Or Scott Deckrow doing certification training with a group of contractors. Or John Taylor, our heating and boiler specialist, helping out on a job where a 30-year-old heating system is being replaced.
“I believe you get on a jobsite by proving yourself as a trustworthy source.”
Longevity leads to familiarity. Many businesses in the plumbing and heating contracting industry are small- to mid-sized family-run companies. During the Great Recession, Burke Agency kept its relationships with contractors flourishing with sports events, social events, family events and contests.
“When you get someone out of the office and into a more social atmosphere, you develop not just a customer but a friend,” Brian Burke says. “It makes it easier to discuss and understand what his daily challenges are in the field. We enjoy doing that. We eat at the same restaurants as our customers and go to the same churches. We are part of the fabric of the community the same way they are.”
Familiarity leads to accessibility, another key to the agency’s success.
“We work with contractors and inspectors all the time,” Deckrow says. “So we become that thread of communication between many people in the industry. And because we spread out through the entire state, there isn’t much we haven’t seen. We can share that experience with a lot of different people. It does make a difference.”
Technology has played a large part in the accessibility of people — and information — in the plumbing and heating industries. More contractors are using smartphones, tablets and laptops to communicate with the office and the customer. Burke Agency’s outside and inside sales reps have smartphones and frequently get text messages from contractors with photos or videos of problems they’re having on a jobsite.
And industry manufacturers have created better mobile apps for contractors in the field to look up product specs, sizing calculations or warranty information. Communicating information takes seconds, providing the contractor with better job productivity.
One critical reason industry training is so important is the contractor labor pool is shrinking. After a long, cold winter, many distributors and contractors across the state say work is available but skilled workers are not.
“There’s a lot of pent-up demand for jobs stalled during the winter,” John Burke says. “You really couldn’t start a house. You couldn’t do a lot of work. We’re hearing over and over from contractors and distributors that a lot of work is available to take care of January and February backlogs. But they can’t find the people to do it. There isn’t going to be a surge of work because the labor just isn’t available in the entire construction industry.”
Brian Burke agrees: “I think it’s become painfully apparent to everybody in the industry that the next group of contractors need training. We used to have a formalized training process everybody went through. And it was more likely that a son would follow his father into the business, which is not the case anymore. We haven’t figured out how to replace that natural labor pool.”
Some areas in the state — such as Detroit, Ann Arbor and Lansing — have union programs that are doing an excellent job of filling that role, he adds. But residential contractors in particular have had trouble accessing a labor pool that already has high quality skills and product training. So they look to manufacturers reps to provide much of that help.
“A good example is a course we recently started called Hydronics 101, taught by John Taylor,” John Burke explains. “We had a phenomenal turnout. For the first test run, we thought we’d have 12 to 15 people. We had 38 and had to stop registrations. The wholesaler had us line up another training session to meet the demand.”
Progressive contractors took advantage of training opportunities during the recession. But now that business is picking up, they aren’t always taking the time needed to continue educating their service and install techs. Some states and code bodies have added an annual requirement for their licensed contractors to complete Continuing Education Units, such as the architectural, engineering and interior design fields do. CEU requirements might be the future model that will help boost interest in hands-on product training, webinars, and certification courses, Brian Burke says.
The brothers would like to see contractors become more involved in the industry — whether it’s a commitment to training, joining industry associations and best practices groups, or supporting industry manufacturers, distributors and rep agencies at trade shows.
“When John and I started in this industry, it was very close-knit where everybody knew everybody else’s spouses and kids,” Brian Burke recalls. “Everybody was involved in all segments of the industry. We need to somehow find our way back to that plumbing and heating ‘community.’ It simply makes our industry stronger.”
Part of a modern manufacturers rep’s role is managing chaos, he says. Having a plan of what the rep firm wants to do each day, each week and each month, and what products and customer segments it wants to focus on, is important. But managing the chaos created by technology — constant emails, cell phone calls and text messages — is equally important.
“We live at a nexus in our industry between the manufacturer, the distributor, the contractor and, in some cases, the homeowner,” Brian Burke explains. “All these different industries, channels and customer segments that at any moment could call us and say, ‘I’m the most important thing to you right now. Come help me.’ By accepting that role, we make it easier for our customers to do business with our manufacturers.
“A premier rep agency will provide high-quality customer service, offer constant training opportunities and continually help customers solve problems. And they will embrace the chaos. That may be the hardest part, but that is what a successful rep agency will do.”