The Early Days: ERA’s evolution and thoughts
Harry Abramson founded Electronic Salesmasters Inc. in 1972. He established industry notoriety by virtue of his firm’s peak performance, hundreds of articles and speaking appearances at ERA’s national conferences and chapter meetings and sister trade association MANA. He has an electrical engineering degree from Temple University and entered the electronics industry as an engineer at RCA in Camden, N.J.
His ERA involvement includes serving as vice president of the Components Group and president of the Ohio Chapter. Under his leadership, the chapter was awarded the National Chapter of the Year Award. Abramson recently was recognized with ERA’s prestigious Life Membership Award.
You can reach Harry J. Abramson at 216-406-4119 or email him at email@example.com.
For the past two years, I’ve been privileged to present the “Where Are They Now?” column to readers of The Representor. These groundbreakers made immense contributions to ERA and the electronics industry. Now, we are going to visit the early times of our association and some of the unique challenges it had faced. Additionally, I’ll be injecting some contemporary op-ed views.
Question: Who helped launch the electronics industry as we know it today?
Would you believe it was The Lone Ranger, The Shadow, or Fibber McGee and Molly? The answer is all three and more! That era was known as the Golden Days of Radio and every home had to have one. It was truly the kick start of electronic home entertainment. When was this you ask? Well, it was in the mid-1930s, precisely the same time when ERA reps and distribution (Arrow Electronics) were born. Yes, we were joined at the hip from the very beginning.
Are you an ERA rep?
This was a common interview question by the best and most sophisticated prospective principals. It often was the initial utterance when suppliers met with today’s reps (once referred to as peddlers). The term was less than flattering and fortunately was changed to the representatives of radio parts and later to manufacturers’ representatives or agents. These manufacturers were seeking to hire the most professional and productive rep firms in the country. They knew that our proud association served as a mecca for the advancement of professionalism and peak performance. Shortly after, the formation of chapters followed. In the mid-50s, ERA officially became a professional trade association rather than a fraternal group of salesmen in business to “businesspeople in sales!”
By the way, early rep agreements were typically handshakes. That was the ultimate expression of mutual trust and confidence. While on the subject of reps, the hackneyed old term “independent manufacturers’ representatives” always bothered me. We have always been interdependent on our partners, both principals and distributors.
1935 was the semiofficial year that ERA was born. Those were the glory days of vacuum tubes or valves as they were called in Europe. Likewise, they sold condensers, not capacitors, aerials not antennas, and cat whiskers, not diodes. Some of our veteran/retired reps refer to the early days as “low or heavy tech.” Semiconductors were not yet on the drawing board: i.e., transistors, IC’s, microprocessors, etc. Could you imagine trying to explain in technical terms AI (artificial intelligence) 85 years ago?
Back to ERA. The founding fathers of repdom were clearly visionary. They took their post-war knowledge of technology to the emerging electronics industry that included radio, telephone and transportation. Those reps pioneered our function and we are their successors.
In the early days, many upstart manufacturers could not afford to pay a full commission and in many cases paid a discounted commission. Often, they offered compensation in the form of highly speculative stocks. Needless to say, some of these same companies had explosive growth and their reps became fabulously wealthy. Hence, one of my favorite credos applies, “Partners in Profit.” While that alternative does not exist today, some reps would welcome the opportunity to buy stock options … sound reasonable? What could be a better motivator than having even more skin in the game?
Was it a windfall? I don’t think so! Like today, our first-generation counterparts were huge “risk-takers.” The best and the brightest were aptly rewarded. Perish the thought that reps are “middlemen” as it applies to both distributors (originally called jobbers) and ourselves. Both add value in their own unique way. Interestingly, some reps branched out into distribution, and not to be outdone, some distributors ventured into the perceived green pastures of the rep world. Nowadays, we seldom, if ever, see this dual function.
And again, back to ERA. Would you believe that we had a barrier to membership and that potential members had to be vetted for acceptance? I recall that it required two or more product lines and an ethical history was essential. Believe it or not, some firms were rejected because they allegedly stole lines. Yikes, today’s reps realize that competition is fierce and most lose lines because of poor performance, not thievery. Yes, there are some snarky reps amongst us, but relatively few! The same applies to all aspects of the business.
It is interesting to note that the majority of rep principals served in the military during the 1940s, 50s and 60s. In a future issue of The Representor, we plan on honoring those veterans who have proudly served our country.
If you didn’t know it, ERA is international in scope with member firms on virtually every continent. Do we have more rep companies than ever before? No, just bigger and better ones. Why? Because like the rest of the business world there have been consolidations, M&A and reps covering larger territories. Will it continue? Most likely, yes, based on the current trends, which seem to be working just fine.
Here is a challenging question. Does any reader think that more products are sold today by the outsourced sales rep professional than ever before? I believe that we are experiencing record high sales just like the stock market. I also predict that re-shoring/in-sourcing will continue to increase dramatically and stimulate our domestic electronics economy. It’s a sensitive political thing!
I also believe it’s essential that U.S. manufacturers remove as much labor content out of products as soon as possible. In other words, “automate before it’s too late.” Dependence on China and some other countries is risky at best. If we build high-tech, high-speed automation on our shores, it will be a boom to all reps and distributors. By the way, commission tracking and split commissions will surely be less of an issue.
In our next issue, we will review how ERA established an industry leadership role by establishing an annual conference that ultimately became an industry-wide function. It was tantamount to the past D-M-R (Distributor-Manufacturer-Representative) territory conferences. It is now the quintessential marriage of our three market segments and serves as a platform for strengthening and reinforcing relationships. New product introductions, sales promotions and a whole lot more take place. Stay tuned for the next issue.