“Become a leader.”

That is a phrase we hear and use a lot in this industry and it is a designation many of us strive for. In the end, it truly is hard to quantify. When does someone actually become a leader? How do we really know?

You know when you see it firsthand.

I spent 30 hours back in March at the St. Paul, Minn., headquarters of Michel Sales Agency — pme’s well-deserved 2016 Manufacturers Representative of the Year. Kelly Michel and his team found some time to squeeze me into their busy schedule while hosting about 30 contractors (on a Tuesday) and 30 engineers (on a Wednesday) for Laars training sessions at its office facility.

Five years ago, Michel Sales became aggressive in its efforts to train engineers and contractors in its market on technologies ideal for the commercial markets. Accomplishing that goal took much more than Michel Sales just opening the checkbook. The 15-employee manufacturers rep firm became leaders by mastering every aspect in order to provide top-notch training. (For the complete Michel Sales Agency story, please check out this month’s cover story.)

“You can have a training center, put the equipment on the wall, get the tables, but the biggest problem we had was curriculum,” Kelly Michel tells me. “We had to develop the curriculum in line with our working model product and how we do things.”

It took six months for Michel Sales to put the final touches on its training curriculum. The firm also was lucky to have Rick Genrich on staff when it put the pedal down for this training venture. Genrich has the moniker “MacGyver” because of the creativity he exudes with materials on hand. Kelly Michel recalls how Genrich was able to take an element of training on a water heater line and make it easy to transport around for more sessions.

“He took a heater, stripped it all down, and we made up a little mockup heater with the burner, gas valve and everything in it with the fan on it that we could carry around with us,” Michel explains. “We hook it up to an LP gas can and show the sequence of operation, what could happen, measuring gas pressure and if the spark igniter is working.”

Dean Parker, a Michel Sales outside sales rep, says the company hosted 150 people in the first quarter of 2016 for training and expects to top out around 800 at year’s end. Parker says Michel Sales’ customer factories love the number of industry people they are bringing in for training. Just because the curriculum is done, Michel Sales continues to look for ways to improve.

“If we can do it a little bit differently or if we can do it a little bit more effectively, we are going to do it,” Parker says.

I give Michel Sales a lot of credit for seeing an opportunity to better its operations and business by investing in training. I double that credit for installing the right people to create and develop the training process on its own terms.

Taking initiative requires courage. Let’s take a note from the Michel Sales Agency and see where we can take calculated risks to help improve our businesses.

This article was originally titled “Cream rises to the top” in the June 2016 print edition of PM Engineer.