Nearly five decades after its founding, manufacturers’ rep firm Keyline Sales credits its success to being engaged and purposeful with employees, customers and partners.
Keyline Sales serves Southern California and Southern Nevada, representing 17 lines with Fluidmaster being the longest partnership at 37 years.
In 1974, Peter Gold, owner of what was then called Price Pfister, wanted to expand. To do so, Gold brought four competitors — Jack Reynolds, Glenn Taylorson, John Shaw and George Blilie — together. The four competitors saw this as an opportunity for the freedom to own their own business, and thus became Keyline Sales’ initial founders. In addition to the five founders, Keyline brought on three other partners: Rick Banner, Don Kliss and Al Campos who each held key roles before retiring. Banner became president in 1999 and led the company through 2016. Since that time, the operation has grown to 22 employees.
Bill Rante, general manager and outside sales for Keyline Sales.
Two other key people who have helped grow the company over the past 30-plus years are Bill Rante, outside sales and general manager, who leads Keyline's wholesale-distribution efforts and the company's Builder Sales Specialist Mike Fisk who leads builder efforts and is retiring this year.
Mike Powers, president of Keyline Sales and president-elect for the Association of Independent Manufacturers’ Reps, says, “The best of the best founded Keyline.”
Powers began working in the industry in the 1970s with a wholesale-distributor, and then with a manufacturer, before joining the rep side of the business in 1989. Keyline Sales’ Vice President, Keith Katz was hired first as a territory rep in 1990. Both Katz and Powers both worked their way up at Keyline to the roles they obtain now.
Working up through the company is a theme at Keyline. “Keyline Sales has an amazing track record of long-term employees,” Powers notes. “Some have been here 20 to 30-plus years, starting from the bottom to become owners.”
Vice President Keith Katz (left) and President Mike Powers (right).
The company holds a 21-year tenure among employees. When it comes to finding and keeping great employees, Powers says not everyone has to come from a plumbing background.
“The priority is finding capable, good people who can be taught the industry,” he explains. “We have employees covering everywhere from Paso Robles to Southern Nevada, and not everyone had a background in plumbing before joining us.”
Powers and Katz emphasize the importance of Keyline’s’ great employee retention, and how having long-term employees is vital in the industry. “We have long-term employees who know what they’re doing. That’s huge in our industry,” Powers says. “Our manufacturers are our lifeline in the industry, and you can’t put just anyone in front them. Keyline has the team of experts we can trust.”
Katz mentions that Keyline’s company culture is a key aspect to its success. “I have 31 years with Keyline Sales and am incredibly fortunate to be part of such an amazing team,” he says. “It’s the core values of serving our customers with the highest integrity that our founding principles inscribed in all of us, and we have carried that flag for more than 46 years of service. We are family, and we are privileged to have seen our team thrive through several recessions, COVID-19, and, of course, celebrated some great times too. Amazing best describes the dedication the team has towards Keyline and the factories we represent.”
Heidi Shaver, commercial sales administrator at Keyline Sales.
Keyline is currently focused on going into the commercial segment of the market. Powers explains there are a few strategic reasons behind this focus.
“After the 2008 recession, we looked at ourselves in the mirror and realized we were way too weighted in the residential sector,” he says. “During this time, many of our manufacturer partners were growing their commercial lines, and asking us to branch out into that side of the market as well. We had several key accounts looking to move into the commercial market, and they wanted us to be a part of it.”
This shift has helped create a diversity of product lines that proved beneficial during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve always has some commercial product, but back then we didn’t have it at the level we do now,” Powers explains. “Having moved into that market made us a more diverse and nimble company, and once the challenges of COVID hit, we were able to take advantage of new opportunities in various market sectors.”
Reps roles have changed
The role of a manufacturers’ rep has evolved just as the plumbing industry has over the years. Powers describes the rep community today as an extension of their manufacturers.
“Early on, we were commission based and were calling primarily on distributors,” Powers says. “We will continue to do this, as our distributors continue to be top priority. More recently, we have added some buy-sell lines and offer other services such as lead management. Now, we also call on contractors, developers and specifiers.”
When speaking on technology, Powers notes while it’s great to be good at it, it’s important to focus on how technology turns into sales. “We call it, ‘Zoom with purpose,’ and ‘Time with purpose,’” he explains. “We need to take this time on Zoom and other platforms, and turn it into sales downstream.”
While reps’ roles have evolved over time, Powers notes one thing hasn’t changed: Relationships are the lifeline of a rep — particularly relationships with manufacturers, key distributors and specifiers.
“The secret to a good rep company is having very strong relationships and leveraging them,” Powers says. “This became even more prevalent during COVID. If you didn’t have strong relationships, you were probably going to miss out on some business people were leaning on folks they were close to and trust.”
Another large part of rep success is customer service. Powers describes Keyline’s’ customer service arm as, “hugely important.”
“Customer service is simply dealing with the incoming volume and the outgoing volume,” Powers says. “What’s important is how well you do it. If something goes wrong in customer service, the whole project is affected, so we prioritize that heavily at Keyline”
Keyline Sales is a member of ASA, AIM/R IAPMO, PHCC, MCCA and BIA of Southern California. Powers explains one benefit of these associations is the access to members and students, which Keyline can then reach out to for product knowledge and training.
“We did thousands of trainings in 2019,” Powers says. “2020 was obviously slower, but training never stops, and it definitely pays off.”
It’s no secret the industry is facing incredible supply chain disruption. “Everyone is going through it,” Powers says. “The best thing we can do is remain engaged, be purposeful with our communication, and look ahead.”
Keyline Sales is looking ahead with goals in mind. Using a strategic business plan, the company plans to expand both in terms of territory and product lines.
Strong manufacturer partnerships
Echoing the humble pride Powers and Katz have for Keyline, several long-time manufacturer partners have congratulated the firm for the Rep of the Year award.
Cam Thomsen, director of sales, southwest for Uponor says, “Keyline Sales is one of Uponor’s longest standing, independent rep agencies. Over the past 20 years, they have evolved to support our new product introductions, organizational growth changes, and played an important role in delivering an Uponor brand experience to our customers in Southern California. Congratulations, Keyline Sales! Uponor is proud to have you represent us.”
Jason Fleming, executive vice president and general manager for Noritz agrees, “From all of us at Noritz, we would like to congratulate Keyline Sales for receiving the Rep of the Year award. They are a very deserving group. The Noritz team is honored to have the opportunity to be associated with you and your company. Thank you for your friendship, partnership and commitment to our customers.”
Phil Valles, outside sales – commercial specialist for Keyline Sales (left) and Jeff Icenogle outside sales – South Bay and metro Los Angeles (right).
Ed Moran, vice president at OmegaFlex, says the company looks forward to many more years partnering with Keyline. “Keyline Sales remains one of our longest tenured agencies, having represented us in the Southern California territory for more than 24 years. Keyline is one of our finest in the country and the agency by which all others are measured. Keyline has won our coveted 'President’s Award' several times having shined in all segments of our business. Their engagement with the engineering community has allowed us to take our business to the next level, securing numerous specifications leading to significant increases in exposure and sales.”
Sal Arias, manager, warehouse and literature department for Keyline Sales.
"The entire Keyline organization is first-class from top to bottom," says H20 Degree's President Don Millstein. "Keyline Sales has been H2O Degree’s rep for more than 5 years — starting from zero sales — and has made H2O Degree the dominant water meter and conservation company in Southern California. Their tenacity and commitment to the engineering community has driven our success. We look forward to many years to come working with our valued partner Keyline Sales in Southern California and expanding into Las Vegas and other markets as they grow."