IPRO : Making the Move to Commercial
IPRO is including commercial in a big way—and educating its residential members about the benefits.February 2012 By Nancy Klosek
The wrenching changes in the residential custom integrator business have caused integrators to rethink, retool and adapt their business models, in many cases, to embrace commercial. Manufacturers' reps, too, have had to adapt in parallel with the clients they serve.
And nowhere are their efforts more apparent than at IPRO (Independent Professional Representatives Organization). The group has been working on increasing its appeal and attractiveness to commercial/pro reps, vendors and integrators, and is especially attuned to the needs of those on the residential side who are looking to learn more about the commercial side before they commit to crossing over.
"Over the past few years, we've been very intentional about implementing all sorts of things to open the tent for commercial," said Andrew Ard, IPRO chairman, minority principal at Texas-based Elite Marketing, and senior vice president of Display Development (Display Development and Avielo brands). "The home market in the last three years has suffered a downturn, but the commercial side stayed stronger, so some of our dealers were looking in that direction for filling in some gaps."
There have been several major outreach moves within IPRO that indicate the group is serious about affiliating with reps and vendors already on the commercial side. One part of the initiative three years ago was to create the IPRO MG (Manufacturers Group).
"We knew we had to be intentional about having a place for the manufacturers as well as a place for residential and commercial reps," said Ard. "It's all part of the same market in which we have to deal, and becoming equipped and familiar makes it a lot easier for people to decide whether it's for them or not." Involving manufacturers in the IPRO conferences was a revelation to suppliers, he said. "Where they had only looked at reps as sales guys before, we made them realize we have staff and tech support. They now have an understanding that the rep business IS a business."
Another initiative that will soon come to fruition is the rebuild of the IPRO website, which will undergo all-around tweaks but also be made "more friendly to commercial," said Ard. "The guy with the commercial firm is going to go someplace where he feels understood, but at the same time, there may be some home reps finding they need to know more about the commercial side because it is a different market in terms of margins and other areas.
"It's quite a development going on," said Ard. "We're both accepting and being open about accepting commercial members, but we're also learning about other possibilities. If we were to say, 'Come on in; sit in in our meetings,' that's not really absorption. Absorption is when you learn about one another's businesses. And there's far more that's similar than dissimilar. The rep will always be in the position of having to collect commissions, having to track invoices, having to learn the manufacturers' products. So finding different methodologies for doing that better is key.
Prepping the Rep
"Ross Perot used to say, find an unmet need and fill it," continued Ard. "The unmet need was a common point where people in the commercial/InfoComm world and in the AV world could come and talk about their business and the challenges of their business. We opened the door to that, and did so by not only saying they were welcome as members, but also by bringing people onto the board, and naming an associate director—someone who has spent his whole life in the commercial world. That's pretty significant."
That someone is Ron DeVoe, a Texas-based commercial rep for many years. He came to the position at a tipping point where commercial reps, who comprised just a handful of IPRO membership two years ago, now account for about 20 percent of membership. "There's no question that this is the best organization for AV reps, and it's been centered in the CEDIA channel for so long," he said. "But there are many of the same challenges faced by the commercial end. So that's why there's growth there in IPRO."
DeVoe noted that residential reps' integrator clients are partly the cause of the spur in interest in commercial. Those integrators, having worked in homes, have earned the trust of their residential clients to the extent that "they want them to come into their boardrooms, conference rooms and large presentation areas and do that same work," and do add-ons like video conferencing, which will enable them to connect to anywhere from their homes.
"Right now, our role is in training reps and identifying the best markets to be working in, whether it's best for them to diversify, and if it is, the best avenues to pursue—or if they need to consolidate, what that best avenue is," said DeVoe. "We're trying to provide options and answers for both scenarios. It's difficult, because each independent rep is exactly that—independent—and trying to look into that crystal ball to see where their business is going to be in five years is harder now than it ever has been."
IPRO Creates the Bridge
Reps on both the commercial and residential sides of the fence are laudatory about IPRO's commercial overtures.
Mark Adams, president of EDA Marketing/EDA Pro Group, a commercial firm in Snellville, Ga., was recently appointed an IPRO board member. He observed that there are hurdles to overcome when considering a crossover from residential to commercial repping. But he added that the gap can be narrowed by the many opportunities for interaction that a bridge organization such as IPRO can provide. "The biggest thing I get from IPRO is networking with other reps. What I mean is best practices. You talk with them and learn what they're doing and how it's different from what you're doing. They ask me a lot of questions and I'm glad to help them. Everyone in the room is trying to accomplish the same thing. We're trying to make the commercial side bigger, and I think we have a lot to offer."
Mike Pecar, IPRO treasurer and president of Mike Pecar Sales in Rochester Hills, Mich., said he sees value, too, in the interaction with his commercial counterparts under the IPRO tent. He pointed out that his company, primarily a residential firm, is "doing more things that are residential with commercial applications in the business, but not with distinctly commercial products. Some of our networking equipment has commercial applications, and so do some of the control products. For us, the automation, lighting control and networking areas are the hottest."
He added that products suited to crossover use in both residential and commercial, such as those by Clare Controls, Pakedge and Vantage Controls, enable him to meet the requirements of his clients who work at both. And Ard remarked that, in addition to their credentials in the residential space, lighting and control companies like Lutron, Crestron and Savant either have or are establishing a significant commercial presence.
As the rep business continues on a consolidation trend due to attrition, retirement and more manufacturers' decisions to go direct with lines, said Ard, the bottom line is that more rep firms will have a stake in both residential and commercial spaces. "No one's saying 'no.' It's a market that demands more solutions and no set way of getting those solutions done. And what we decided in our strategic planning for IPRO was that IPRO needs to lead. We looked at the market and said, if not us, who?
"IPRO is making one big melting pot for people to choose what they're going to take out of it. That's the most encouragement we can provide for someone who wants to come from commercial, go to commercial, go to residential, or become better at residential. That's really what the market needs." CR