Matt O’Grady’s father, grandfather and uncle were all policemen, so naturally — he became an independent manufacturers’ representative. While obviously not following the same career path as some other family members, today he sounds perfectly happy and content as president of CAM Associates, LLC, with locations in Itasca, Illinois and Delavan, Wisconsin.
As he looks back on how and why he became a rep, O’Grady explains that as a student at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, “I majored in communication because I felt no matter what career I pursued, I would have to be an effective communicator. At the same time, doing something with sales always attracted me because I liked the idea that your effort would be directly related to your level of success. That’s something I especially learned by playing football in college and it had applications to whatever you do in life. I’ve never been attracted to entering a career where you make the right connections, advance, and simply check off the boxes. I wanted to do something that was directly related to my effort.”
Right out of college O’Grady began working as a territory manager for United Rentals. “It was there that I got my first real exposure to who and what reps were, and how they operated. I was instantly intrigued and loved the idea that they were solely rewarded based on their effort. It was their effort that had the direct effect on their level of success. Obviously, the more you get into what reps do, you realize that there are a number of other factors impacting success, but their independence really attracted me.”
From United Rentals, O’Grady moved on to pharmaceutical sales for two years. During that time, he learned that the owner of CAM Associates was looking for someone to join and purchase the agency — and, 11 years ago, that’s what he did. “Previously I sold some of the heaters that they represented, so I was familiar what who they were.”
O’Grady’s background with United Rentals and pharmaceutical sales obviously laid a foundation for him to run his own agency, but by his own admission he faced a fairly steep learning curve when he took over CAM Associates. “One thing I learned early on in my career was the importance of the fact that when selling, you’re really dealing with two customers — the manufacturers you represent, and the customer — in our case distributors — that you’re dealing with. I admit that from day one I had a very steep hill to climb when it came to learning and I asked myself how I was going to accomplish the task. What I did was to simply break it down into segments and get it done. I learned everything I could about the distributors I was selling to. On top of that, when I first bought the agency, I took a week-long trip to visit as many manufacturers as I could to learn all I could about them. I admit it was a whirlwind, but at the same time it was a lot of fun. Keep in mind that I hadn’t worked at the agency previously and really didn’t know the manufacturers I was representing beforehand. Looking back, the way I did it was probably the most difficult way to buy an agency. I’d only recommend it to someone else if they were really determined that that’s what they wanted to do.
“On top of that, I had a wife and family to think of as I was making this career change. Although I was 99 percent sure things were going to work out, I couldn’t guarantee any sizeable income for the next 30 days, so it was a little bit like taking a giant step off a cliff. Then consider the fact I not only had to convince myself I was making the right move, I also had to convince my wife to come along for the ride.”
Feast or Famine
Matt O’Grady (right) president of CAM Associates, LLC, walks a customer through the advantages of one of his manufacturer’s products vs. what they are currently using.
From his first days on the job, O’Grady realized what he was undertaking was a feast or famine move. “The scenario I had sketched out for myself was simply to jump into the deep end and learn immediately. I knew I had to gain the trust of the people I was working with and for — and let them know that I was going to work as hard as possible for them.”
While admitting that he encountered no real surprises when he took over CAM Associates, O’Grady does emphasize that it didn’t take him long to realize the benefits of learning from other reps. “I was like a sponge when it came to learning from others. Early on it dawned on me how important reps were to our manufacturers and, in our case, to our distribution customers. The fact is the rep, unlike manufacturer personnel, doesn’t go anywhere — we stay in the territory. It’s important to realize that we’re the most consistent factor impacting the relationships between the manufacturer and the distributor.”
While hardly a surprise, a challenge that he admits to was the critical importance of finding principals. “Since I was new to the agency, no one really knew who I was. That resulted in a situation where when any opportunity presented itself, I made it a point to introduce myself to principals that might be interested in working with a rep. I made as many phone calls as I could and learned as much as I could along the way.
“While that remained a challenge, it really didn’t keep me up at night. Perhaps one concern I had when we began with the agency — and continues to this day — is just my desire to be sure that we remain as the most efficient means for our principals to market and sell their products.
“As I think back to my time of playing football at St. Norbert, one thing you learn as a player and a coach is that you should strive to do things better today than you did a week or a month ago. I always keep in mind that it’s a struggle to accomplish that goal, but it’s something we’re always working toward.”
In the course of learning about O’Grady and his experiences as a rep, it’s striking that many of the challenges and experiences he’s encountered are common among reps across all industries. As examples, here are some of the topics that he shares as common ground with his fellow reps:
Use of Social Media — “As a part of our plan to grow we’ve been active on LinkedIn, Instagram and Facebook. We find that that activity can add value as you grow a social following that complements your face-to-face activity.”
Impact of the Pandemic — And speaking of face-to-face activity, something that’s been missing for many during the lengthy pandemic, O’Grady, like so many other reps, has found himself relying more on virtual everything for several months. “We’ve been conducting virtual sales calls and lunch-and-learns where we order lunch for our distributors and meet with them remotely.”
Emotional Favorites — When asked what it takes for a manufacturer to become one of his agency’s “Emotional Favorites,” O’Grady notes that “What you want is to work with a manufacturer who is truly your partner in profits. They’ll recognize the relationship between your effort and the success you achieve. At the same time, they will be super responsive in getting back to you whenever you need something.”
Shared Territorial Development Fees — Explaining that he and his agency don’t do a great deal of pioneering lines, he says, “High-quality manufacturers certainly understand the concept of the need for shared territorial development fees. They know beforehand that it’s going to take time, money and effort to develop a territory that isn’t already producing sales. They know we can’t make just a single sales call and expect success; it’s always a matter of time and multiple calls. There’s so much work needed to be completed before there’s going to be a purchase order. Those are the manufacturers who are understanding of the need of such a fee. On the other hand, it’s those manufacturers who are less understanding of what reps do that we’re not able to make much progress with. They’ve got to understand that in the absence of such a fee, we may not be able to do justice to their line.”
Association Membership — A visit to CAM Associates’ website lets visitors know that the agency is a member of several associations, including MANA and STAFDA, among others. According to O’Grady, “For years I had considered going into coaching. In that profession, I was familiar with the American Football Coaches Association. If you ever wanted to become an up-and-comer in that profession, you had to be a part of it. Likewise with associations such as MANA. By becoming a member, you are able to learn from others and become familiar with all aspects of the profession.”
Backselling — If there’s one thing O’Grady admits to that he should have done earlier in his career as a rep, it’s to be a practitioner of backselling. Readers of Agency Sales have long been exposed to backselling via the articles by John Haskell (aka Dr. Revenue). According to O’Grady, “We’re really into backselling at CAM. It’s a concept that I wasn’t familiar with prior to joining MANA. I believe it’s incumbent upon the rep to be proactive in their communication with principals. It just makes so much sense to let your principals know what you’re doing for them in the field. Remember, you’re not bragging about what you do, you’re simply letting them know how you represent them in the field. If anything, I’d advise other reps to keep up a steady stream of communication with the manufacturers they work with — and that means more than the people you directly report to. At the same time, make it a point to communicate with their superiors.”
As a result of his belief in backselling, O’Grady adds, “We’ve never had any occasion when a manufacturer has questioned the amount of time we spend on their line. Because we’re proactive in our communication, they know what we’re doing ahead of time.”
AUTHOR: Jack Foster