WMS Sales talks to groups of engineers about the upcoming federal law on low-lead plumbing products, the manufacturers rep agency begins by asking for a show of hands to answer this question: “Who is going to rob a 7-Eleven on the way home?”

“Everyone looks around the room and says, ‘Not me,’” WMS President Randy Schaefer explains. “Then we ask: ‘So why are you going to break a federal law? It’s no different. We’re relying on you to do the right thing.’ They can do the wrong thing and hope they never get caught, but no business person wants to do that.”

Whether the subject is low-lead plumbing, green buildings, training or standing behind the products it represents, WMS Sales has been doing business the right way since it began in 1959 in Buffalo, N.Y. That same objective extends to how the ownership team of Randy and Bryan Schaefer and Bill Sestak manages the company’s 26 employees.

“First and foremost, the people at WMS have high-quality standards in the way they conduct business, which I respect greatly,” says John Danek, Northeast regional sales manager for Lochinvar, one of WMS Sales’ 32 lines. “Their individual approach, communication and leadership make WMS the No. 1 rep firm in upstate New York, in my humble opinion. WMS has provided double-digit growth for us year after year, and it has won sales achievement awards from Lochinvar the last two years.”

Arnold Clubine, mechanical department manager at M/E Engineering in Buffalo adds: “We’re very satisfied with WMS Sales. Technically, they are very strong. What’s most important, however, is that after the sale they stand shoulder to shoulder with us so the client is satisfied if something doesn’t work out the way we had wanted. We never walk away from the client. We’re there to solve a problem.” 

WMS Sales’ territory covers all New York state — except for the New York City metropolitan area — and northwest Pennsylvania. It services the area from its 10,000-sq.-ft. main office and warehouse in Clarence Center, N.Y., just outside Buffalo, where the Schaefers work; a new 4,000-sq.-ft. office and warehouse in Syracuse where Sestak is located; and sales reps working out of their home offices in Albany under the direction of Eastern Regional Sales Manager Kevin Mosher, who is a recent WMS shareholder. The company’s general manager is Shelly DiGiacomo.

The economy in the region used to be driven by corporate titans such as Kodak, Xerox and Carrier. The decline in both manufacturing and population has left WMS scrambling to find new opportunities.

“While we anticipate another flat year in 2013, we would like to think our sales will be up for a number of reasons,” Randy Schaefer says. “Much of it has to do with our people and how we manage our sales. We spend more time than some agencies do with engineers and end-users, whether they’re in the commercial or residential market.

“We’re talking about high-efficiency boilers to save them energy on water heating or water-conditioning systems to save them wear and tear on plumbing fixtures. I like to think our people, myself included, are out promoting new products and new ideas.”

That approach — and the results it brings — has led pme to name WMS Sales our 2013 Manufacturers Rep of the Year.


Water Management Specialists

WMS is short for Water Management Specialists. The company name and the green leaf in its logo could lead someone to believe that water conservation has been WMS Sales’ focus from the beginning. But that’s not the case.

Dave Wigginsfounded the Wiggins Co. with Dan McGuckin. Paul Schaefer, Randy and Bryan’s father, joined the firm in 1960. In the early years, “WMS” became the informal shorthand for the company whose name then incorporated the last names of all three owners.

“We had one of our good customers tell us, ‘We’re not going to write down Wiggins, McGuckin & Schaefer on everything,’” says Paul Schaefer who today is CEO.

With McGuckin’s death in 1974, the company formally changed its name to WMS Sales, with WMS now referring to Water Management Specialists. A green focus was still years ahead.

“Dave Wiggins came up with ‘Water Management Specialists’ to associate our company name with what we did,” Paul Schaefer recalls. “The only manufacturer that was into water conservation at that time was Speakman Co. with showerheads.”

Today, however, the name plays well into the construction industry’s interest in green buildings. WMS employees are specialists in helping customers manage water more efficiently.

“Water conservation is a big emphasis for T&S Brass, Sloan and some of our other manufacturers,” Randy Schaefer says. “T&S Brass, for example, can look at hose spray assemblies that traditionally have used 4.5 gpm. The new standard is 1.6 gpm, but T&S makes nozzles all the way down to 0.65 gpm. That’s a tremendous amount of water savings.

“The sad part is that water is cheap. Utilities don’t charge that much for water. We can tell customers, ‘I’m going to save you 300,000 gal. of water,’ but it’s more of a matter of them feeling good about that than saving money.”

Nevertheless, WMS helps its customers do audits on water usage. The firm also has electronic equipment to audit how much electrical energy pumps consume.

“We can show customers a hard number of how much it costs them to run their heating pump or their domestic water booster pump every year, and then show them the savings of putting in new equipment from Grundfos,” Randy Schaefer says. “We can give them accurate data on their ROI on the new equipment. We’ve tried to become more interactive with everyone on costs, whether it’s electrical energy, heating Btu or just water down the drain.”


Green opportunities

Return on investment appeals to building owners who invest in energy-efficient equipment from vendors such as Lochinvar and Navien.

“The manufacturing plants still here are looking at green technology,” Sestak says. “They’re looking to offset their operating costs, so they’re looking at payback and life-cycle costs.”

Randy Schaefer adds: “We’re definitely seeing people interested in saving energy. We can help them take advantage of federal tax credits and local natural gas utility rebates. A lot of them aren’t even aware these exist. That has helped drive a lot of business.”

Schools and universities present other green opportunities, in some cases tied to LEED certification. Current retrofit projects include a K-12 building and two colleges. The green component can be as much for image as actual energy savings, Bryan Schaefer says.

Colleges present other opportunities to WMS, not directly tied to green, with older buildings being converted to student housing. In many cases, a developer will buy the building, renovate it and then lease it back to the university, Bill Sestak says.

A similar trend in multifamily housing is going on in Syracuse and Buffalo where older structures are being converted to loft apartments.

“We’ve got some great old buildings that are structurally sound and aren’t going anyplace unless you knock them down,” Bryan Schaefer says. “In Buffalo in an area called the Medical Corridor, we’re seeing seven or eight loft-type construction projects underway or in the drawing phases, which is more than we’ve seen in a long time.”

Another form of housing — namely prisons — represents another growth market for WMS.

“There are a lot of opportunities in those types of facilities with our line card with Acorn Engineering’s vacuum toilet systems, Watts’ water conditioning products and  Lochinvar’s boilers,” notes Western Regional Sales Manager Kevin Norris, also a recent WMS shareholder. “Prisons are a strong area for us.”

On the commercial side of the business, other bright spots around New York state include: a military base near Watertown; a helicopter manufacturing plant in Owego; an aerospace facility in Sidney; and silicon chip and other high-tech industries in Albany. The smaller, residential side of WMS’ business, under the direction of Residential Products Manager Dave Brockmann, is discovering renewed interest in energy and water efficiency with federal tax credits being restored.


Lead trainer

The nation’s transition to low-lead plumbing products touches both the residential and commercial sides of WMS. The issue presents a good example of how much the agency invests in training engineers, contractors, distributors and its own employees.

WMS regularly attends and sponsors speakers at the meetings of local ASPE chapters, of which there are four – in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany. The same is true of the region’s five ASHRAE chapters and the local plumbing and mechanical contractor associations.

“We started making ASPE presentations on low-lead plumbing 1 1/2 years ago to bring engineers up to speed on what was going on in the industry. We’re fortunate that a number of our manufacturers such as T&S Brass, Sloan and Watts are on the Get The Lead Out Plumbing Consortium,” Randy Schaefer says. “The new law will be enforced by plumbing inspectors. Yet I if I ask local plumbing inspectors about it, they don’t even know it’s there. But like any code change, it’s going to rely on the engineers and installers to do the right thing even if the enforcement is not there.”

WMS has been doing its part in other ways the last several months by putting together bids that contain low-lead products. A bid may include an alternate quote with leaded product if the installation will take place before 2014, but WMS wants to avoid the risk of a contractor or distributor getting caught with leaded product in inventory after the Jan. 4 deadline.

“A number of our vendors have been lead-free for awhile, so including their products in the quote is no big deal,” Randy Schaefer says. “We have to be very careful with some of our other products to say to a customer, ‘You have a choice but the reason we’re quoting it this way is to do the right thing.’”

Besides the training it conducts at association meetings, WMS holds sessions at breakfasts and lunch-and-learn events. The agency also will take groups of engineers to its vendors’ plants and training facilities.

M/E Engineering does about four lunch-and-learns with WMS a year both on plumbing and heating products, Clubine says. He sees the value of doing plant tours as more than just the training he receives.

“You can’t entice me to use a product by giving me a trip to the factory,” he says. “I do see a benefit in seeing how a product is made and in talking with the designers and facility engineers. It gives me the opportunity to call the engineers after the fact if I have questions.”

WMS personnel must be strong on the technical side to provide high levels of training and customer service. All three owners stay involved in the field along with the outside sales reps to offer design advice and solutions for customers.

Bryan Schaefer conducts company-wide training every Friday morning in Clarence Center with employees in other offices joining via video conference or Skype. An inside sales person frequently will educate the other employees on a new product or application. WMS takes advantage of vendors’ training facilities, webinars and instructional videos for its own employees, too.

Yet, as important as technical knowledge is, WMS Sales puts greater emphasis on positive attitude when it hires someone, particularly younger people it is bringing into the industry.

“We’re looking for people who are caring and helpful. That is who we are,” Randy Schaefer says. “We can train people to size a boiler, a pump or the correct valve. We can’t train someone to go that extra mile.”

Both vendors and engineers appreciate that quality in WMS Sales.

“People do business with people,” Danek says. “WMS Sales is very strong on personal relationships, which is the same way Lochinvar likes to do business.”

 Clubine adds: “We hold the people we work with in a very jealous manner because the people are more important to us than the products they sell. We look for support before, during and after the sale. WMS has wonderful people with a great work ethic. They’ve got to be one of the best reps — if not the best — in our area.”