Engineers rely on N.H. Yates & Co. for training, solutions and a long list of products. “We’re calling engineers every day. We have an account executive for each engineering firm. He can get an update on what’s going on by asking what projects the engineer is working on.”
James Yates Jr. tells the story of an outside salesman who had just joined his manufacturers rep firm, N.H. Yates & Co., based in Cockeysville, Md.
“He sounded surprised when he said to me: ‘You have a plan; you’re proactive! You get up in the morning and make the phone ring,’” Yates recalls. “He’s right. We don’t wait for the phone to ring.”
Engineers who specify product play a vital role in N.H. Yates’ plan. Yates estimates his agency makes an astonishing 10,000 engineering calls and contacts per year.
“We’re calling engineers every day,” he says. “We handle engineers a little differently. We have an account executive for each engineering firm. He can get an update on what’s going on by asking what projects the engineer is working on.”
All rep agencies struggle with finding enough time to call on contractors, wholesalers and engineers, says Dan Kelbaugh, vice president of sales and marketing at N.H. Yates.
“Going to see the engineer is the last thing that gets done at most rep agencies,” he says. “But we have 2½ people who make sure engineers know where to call first. We hope to increase that number to four or five.”
Steve Hudson, president of engineering firm James Posey and Associates in Baltimore, agrees that many rep agencies care mostly about the sale and, as a result, call on the contractor first.
“Yates is among those who understand that getting their vendors’ names in the spec is important,” Hudson says. “Yates has salesmen who deal with engineers and others who deal with counter sales, and they do not really mix those up the way some other reps do. Yates always has been at the size where the engineer is very important.”
Pictured here: N.H. Yates & Co.’s management team, from left (front row): IT Manager Ken Mamaril; VP Operations Chuck Yates; Executive VP Jon Thomas; President Jim Yates Jr.; VP of Finance Gene Winemiller; Managing Director Tom Yates. (Back row): VP of Business Development Steve Collins; VP of Sales and Marketing Dan Kelbaugh.
How Yates does it
N.H. Yates’ size is impressive. The agency employs 80 people – 20 of whom are sales reps – in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Carolinas. It maintains a combined 50,000 sq. ft. of warehouse space where it stocks close to $2.5 million in inventory in Maryland, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Last year, it did $76 million in sales, which is its all-time high.
The figure that really jumps out, however, is the number of lines that N.H. Yates represents. Its 75 lines include Taco, A.O. Smith, Burnham and Cash-Acme as well as more recent additions such as Aquatherm pipe and Red-White Valve.
You might assume that so many lines would upset its vendors. That’s not the case.
“I think in theory the large number would hurt us if the business was not managed right, but we do not see that as an issue with N.H. Yates,” says Ajita Rajendra, president and chief operating officer of A. O. Smith Corp. “Yates is a very professional organization with very good people and processes. The fact is [Executive Vice President] Jon Thomas and the rest of the Yates organization make us feel like we are their only vendor.”
N.H. Yates has organized its operation by assigning line captains and dividing its products into categories. “With the line captains and market segments, we’re not just one big rep firm,” Yates says.
Thomas says the idea for line captains came from a meeting of the Association of Industry Manufacturers Representatives he attended almost a decade ago. Today, N.H. Yates has nine dedicated line captains.
“Each captain has a handful of lines, which usually are connected,” Thomas explains. “The line captains help drive relationships and recognize business opportunities. They handle all the pricing and politics associated with their lines. Once we moved to this organization, we found it easier to manage all these lines. It’s also how we train the young guys who join our company.”
The agency divides the products it reps into categories on its line cards and its website, www.nhyates.com. The categories are: boilers, water heaters and accessories; commercial, industrial and municipal valves; plumbing products; strainers and filtration; tanks and accessories; HVAC and steam specialties; and pumps and pumping systems.
“The product categories have more to do with marketing,” Yates says. “We break our products into categories so when an engineer or someone else thinks of water heaters, for example, we want him to think of us first.”
All the categories have one thing in common, however.
“We focus on water. We move, store, control and heat water, so we can use the same jargon on all our lines,” Yates says. “We generally don’t handle products that blow air. We own everything in the boiler room but the chiller.”
Emphasis on engineers
The line captains and product categories help N.H. Yates employees attain a high level of product knowledge.
“We’re crazy about building product knowledge here because that’s what allows us to rep 75 lines. We have to know that this little part over here could screw up that big part over there,” Yates says. “The biggest help we can offer to engineers is when they have a job and no idea of how to do it. We have people who know and can talk about steam specialties, valves and tanks.
“We take expertise to the point of attack where it is a win for us, our manufacturer and our customer.”
Vice President of Business Development Steve Collins is the line captain for tanks. These include storage, fire protection, expansion and buffer tank lines as well as tank insulation products and monitoring systems.
“The reason the engineer reaches out to us is that we can tell him how tanks fit into the system he’s designing and what accessories are needed,” Collins says. “With our expertise, we can tell him about how the tank is constructed, how it’s installed and how it’s monitored. If he wants to talk about different product categories, he can talk to different people here who have as much knowledge as anyone in the industry.”
Although the agency handles residential products too, its expertise on its commercial lines is what engineers value.
“When it comes to the plumbing industry, Yates has been known as the leader in the area,” says Hudson, whose firm designs mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. “If you have questions about valves, floor drains or other products, you know if you call there, someone will have an answer. The agency is broken into groups and so they know the products very well.”
James Posey and Associates takes advantage of the lunch-and-learn sessions that N.H. Yates offers. The agency conducts 200 of these training events a year either in its own facilities or, more frequently, in engineers’ offices.
“We do as many lunch-and-learns as we can,” Yates says. “Typically, engineers are looking for industry information on new products such as low-mass panel radiators from Jaga. Or we teach more generic topics such as how to size a pump, when to use a condensing boiler or how to approach a certain type of customer.”
N.H. Yates uses the lunch-and-learns as a marketing tool. “Engineers are harder to get to now than they used to be,” Yates says. “The lunch-and-learns are a good way to bring them out and to meet them.”
Getting involved with industry associations such as ASPE and ASHRAE also allows N.H. Yates to connect with engineers. It’s active at both the national level and in local chapters in Philadelphia; Baltimore; Washington; Richmond, Va.; and Charlotte, N.C.
“Associations are a great way to work with and rub elbows with engineers,” Yates says. “We push our young guys to join associations.”
N.H. Yates further assists engineers in the bid and design stages of a project. The agency’s commercial bid department provides engineers with a detailed checklist of all the products it has to offer for a particular job.
“We consider our bidding group a marketing tool,” Thomas says. “We feel it’s important to let everyone know what the engineer specified. It also allows us to keep a database of jobs, who is bidding them and who the engineers are.”
The commercial bid department is just one aspect that differentiates N.H. Yates from other rep firms. Another is its IT department, which employs three full-time people who maintain the agency’s computer system and website.
“We’ve made the investment in IT so that our guys can spend all their time selling,” Yates explains. “Our overall philosophy is we want our salespeople to be out meeting with people and solving customers’ problems.”
The line captains become information filters for all the reports and data generated by the IT department. One report constitutes an early-warning system that tracks national trends and allows N.H. Yates to respond to softening business segments. Its diversity of products and mix of residential and commercial work helped the agency get through the recession in relatively good shape.
Collins’ role in business development and Jacqueline Carbone’s as marketing coordinator are positions not typical of most rep firms. Collins can leverage the agency’s expertise to find projects outside its normal sales territories in places such as California and New Orleans. Carbone places N.H. Yates ads in regional trade magazines and develops promotions, with the Baltimore Ravens being an agency favorite.
Together they put out a quarterly newsletter that reports on products, vendors and activities at N.H. Yates. The inaugural Winter 2011 edition carried the news of several personnel moves, including: Tom Yates (Jim’s brother) to managing partner from executive vice president; Bob Coons to residential hydronic product manager and consultant from senior vice president of Taco Residential; Zach Young to outside sales – engineering and institutional from bid department manager; Matt Spratt, to bid department manager from technical products manager; Kelbaugh from vice president of sales and marketing at U.S. Boiler/Burnham; and Thomas from vice president of sales and marketing.
The same edition reports on the 2011 acquisition of Baltimore rep firm Bay Hydronics and the addition of agency founder Milt Barrett to the N.H. Yates team. The growth of N.H. Yates over the years has been fueled by other acquisitions: CEP Sales in Richmond in 1998; Yendall & Associates in Baltimore in 2002; J.R. Clendenning & Associates in Pottstown, Pa., and the addition of John Clendenning in 2004; and Allison Sales in Kernersville, N.C., this year.
Further growth has been spurred by N.H. Yates subsidiaries: Yates Energy Management Services, which is a controls business specializing in more complex projects; FM Firestopping, which is a regional fire protection contracting firm; and Hydronic Modules Co., which fabricates domestic water booster systems, heat transfer modules, fuel oil pump sets and other skid-mounted systems.
Yates acquired the agency in 1996 from his dad, James Yates Sr., and uncles Richard, Robert and Donald Yates. In 1995, the agency had done $15 million in total sales, so the growth since then has been dramatic.
The agency dates back to 1949 when Jim Yates’ grandfather Nimrod Harrison Yates became Taco’s first outside rep firm. N.H. Yates died in 1955 when Jim Yates’ father and uncles became owners.
A succession plan is in the works that eventually will transfer ownership of the agency outside the Yates family for the first time. Thomas and Kelbaugh will take over, although when that will be is still to be determined.
With the exception of Kelbaugh, Yates’ management team has been together since 1997. So, radical change appears unlikely at an agency so highly regarded by customers and vendors.
“The agency meshes well with the way we do business,” A.O. Smith’s Rajendra says. “Yates is very good from a technical viewpoint, but more than that, it’s their people, who are very responsive and customer-oriented.”
Hudson adds: “We’re very fortunate in Baltimore to have a number of good rep firms. In terms of time, people and knowledge, Yates is right at the top. Any engineer in town would say the same.”