Every sector of the plumbing and HVAC industries is feeling the pinch of the labor shortage. However, one manufacturers rep is building a solution to the issue that has been challenging the skilled trades for years. Battersby, Danielson, Azbell, or BDA, partnered with its local community to build a brand new $16 million facility which also features a Makers Space —a 17,000 square foot vocational-technical program in which the local district sends students to learn how woodwork, metalwork, use 3D printers and more, allowing them to get the feel of working with their hands, and hopefully, entice them into a career within the trades.
BDA’s dedication and commitment to generating interest in the skilled trades from a young age and its efforts to promote plumbing and HVAC as a viable career path have earned the Fishers, Indiana-based firm the title of PM Engineer’s 2022 Manufacturers Rep of the Year.
Brian Battersby left the Burke Agency in Detroit, Michigan, to become Delta Faucet’s rep in Indiana in 1982, which is how BDA got its start. Four years later, he hired Bob Danielson in 1986, then Joe Azbell in 1992. Then, in 2007, Danielson, now CEO, and Azbell, now president, purchased the rep agency from Battersby, who was retiring.
Under their leadership, the rep firm has grown from 12 to 30 employees and an additional location in Louisville, Kentucky. They still represent Delta in Indiana, and now also in Kentucky.
“Several of our lines have since followed suit and taken us on for the state of Kentucky as well,” Azbell says.
While the agency is small, it is growing by leaps and bounds.
“Just in the last couple of months, we’ve hired four people,” Danielson notes. “Business is expanding, and just in one month, we were awarded three major lines: Oatey, Elkay and Bradley. Any of those could start an agency, pretty much. We’ve been very blessed with some amazing manufacturers.”
The firm has weathered multiple storms, including the Great Recession in 2009 where business dropped by 40%, and, more recently, through the COVID-19 pandemic. Through it all, it has maintained its professional, hard-working reputation among clients and customers alike.
Old-school, family culture
Both Danielson and Azbell started at BDA while in their 20s.
“I started my own agency at the age of 25 and quickly realized I was starving to death in 1980,” Danielson says. “Delta Faucet was a premiere line, and I just knew I wanted to part of something bigger. I was the first outside salesman hired, and I worked straight commission for 20 years and quickly became part of the success plan. I love dealing with people — I’m a relationship guy, and to this day, I’m still out three to four nights a week just building relationships.”
Azbell was only 23, going door-to-door selling long-distance phone service when he met Battersby and was hired by him. “He just came to me and said ‘You’ve done a great job here, and I know young people from time to time will change careers. If you’re ever interested, I hope you’ll come talk to me.’ And my job sucked just badly enough that I was ready to talk to him then. I didn’t have much real-life experience. Brian started me out calling on architect and engineering firms, which developed into a territory. After a period of time, I became a principal in the company, and I was lucky enough that when Brian was retiring, I was one of two people that were in his succession plan.”
BDA’s Operations and Accounting Manager Amy Warren is also a longtime employee, having been with the rep firm for 25 years. She also happens to be Azbell’s sister.
“The previous owners of the company were friends of my parents, and I happened to see them at Joe’s wedding,” she says. “I was just out of college working downtown at the city of Indianapolis, and good friends of mine owned a pool store, so I did the books for them. And the previous owners were looking for somebody to help out with that same kind of thing, so I decided to give it a try, never intending for it to turn into what it has. I run all of the operations here and do accounts payable and receivable as well as the payroll.”
When Warren first started at BDA, there was one DOS computer, which was basically a T1 line straight to Delta, she notes. The firm only represented six lines at that time.
“I’ve seen people come and go, but I’ve always stayed mainly because I take pride in what I do and I want it to be successful. I want the guys to be successful. In customer service and for a small business, you wear every hat. You do whatever needs to be done. If something has to be shipped you run outside and ship it. But I've stayed because of the people. That's the best thing that I can say. And although we’re a larger business now, it’s still got that small business feel. We always try to help our employees get what they need. I just like helping people.”
When asked about the company culture, Warren sighs and says the term “culture” is a buzzword nowadays. But she describes the atmosphere at BDA as very “old-school.”
“We have a good time together — we’re probably a bit inappropriate,” she says. “We love everybody for who they are — we’re a family. If I were going to use a word to describe the culture, it would be family.”
BDA will take several company trips a year. Last year, the rep firm took its employees and their spouses to Churchill Downs for a long weekend. This year, they’re heading to Nashville.
“We invest in our people,” Danielson explains. “And these outings are one of the many things that separate us in our market.”
Danielson notes one thing that makes BDA stand out in its market is the company invests quite a bit into building relationships. “It’s not just an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. business for us. If you look at our mission statement, it’s all about integrity and dignity. And the customer knows that if we screw up, I’m going to make it right. We invest a lot in our people, and I really believe we have arguably the best inside sales team in terms of customer service.”
“Delta Faucet Co. has worked with BDA since 1982, and in those 40 years, both businesses have seen tremendous transformation through growth and innovation,” says Delta Faucet President Ken Roberts. “BDA has invested in their business and their people, bringing on a new generation of professionals and giving them the guidance, training and support they need to succeed. BDA is aligned with our strategy, but what I most appreciate about them is how they’re investing in the future of our industry and the local community. They’ve collaborated with other construction-related businesses, community leaders and local schools to create a state-of-the-art office space and showroom. Perhaps most impressive is the hands-on training facility they have created for pros and students, paired with an innovative curriculum and internships with local contractors. They are sparking interest in the value of a trade career, and helping people gain the foundational skills to pursue one.”
Pam Hoppel, vice president of trade for Delta Faucet, notes the company asks its rep agencies to align, invest and grow with the manufacturer. “One thing that sets BDA apart is the ownership each team member shows in building loyalty for our brands and growing our market share. And we appreciate that they do it wrapped in the mantle of good corporate citizenship. In fact, in 2021, we awarded them our ‘Invest for the Future’ award for investments made within their agency, their local community and our industry.”
Uponor North America is another long-term relationship BDA has invested in. The agency has represented Uponor across Indiana for more than 15 years and Kentucky for the past five years.
“We appreciate their commitment to our industry and the strong relationships they have built and continue to build with contractors, builders, engineers and distributors, says Joe Grubesic, director of sales for Uponor North America. “BDA’s team has a deep knowledge of, and the ability to articulate, Uponor’s value proposition to all stakeholders in the market. Having a partner like BDA gives us peace of mind knowing their customers are going to have the service and support they need to deliver great solutions on the job site. One of the things that make BDA unique is their unique ability to both strategize and execute on sales plans.”
Though BDA recently began representing Bradley Corp. and Oatey Co., both manufacturers had high praise for the rep firm.
“While BDA has been a Bradley rep for just a short time, I have known Bob and Joe for many years,” notes Mark Whittington, vice president of corporate sales for Bradley Corp. “Their high standards for service, professionalism and integrity set them apart; they certainly deserve this honor from PM Engineer. They have in-depth knowledge of our industry and an experienced sales team that has strong relationships with engineers and contractors. We are excited to see our business grow with BDA in the coming years.”
“BDA has shown an immediate dedication and commitment to our organization — in a short time, they are already making strides in the market to convert business,” says Victoria Manenti, communications specialist for Oatey. “As a new manufacturer’s rep for Oatey, BDA’s team has immersed themselves in Oatey’s brands to learn about our assortment, train on our products and educate themselves to best represent our brands in the marketplace. We’ve been very impressed by their willingness to dive in and learn about our wide range of SKUs. BDA and Oatey are aligned in growing all our sales verticals (residential, commercial, showroom, hospitality and healthcare). BDA continually reinvests in its agency with people and resources which allows them to be a better asset to the entire wholesale plumbing sector.”
On the other side of the equation, Peter Dervenis, owner and president of Garrett Advisors, has been designing plumbing systems for commercial buildings for 32 years and has interacted with many of the team members at BDA.
“I appreciate how they take the time to respond to my design questions as well as questions that come up in construction,” he says. “They are always responsive if they need to call me back and will always help me with finding and solving a problem. The entire staff is friendly, courteous and always willing to assist. Also, if they receive a new product or update on an existing product, they will set up an appointment with me to share their information. BDA has a great line of commercial products which helps plumbing designers specify their products.”
Mark Helm, president of Pipe Incorporated, agrees, saying BDA’s honesty and their willingness to fix a mistake is what he appreciates most about the firm.
“They’re going to fix it right, without trying to argue about it,” he says. “Many other reps would just try to brush it under the rug. Their honesty and willingness to back their product up are second to none. If I could hire Mike Lambert (director of sales for BDA), or somebody like him, I would in a heartbeat. They are the best rep because they will stand behind everything — it’s just a pleasure to work with them. I wish more rep agencies were like them. They’re good people.”
There have been a lot of buzzwords circulating in the wholesale supplier and rep industries, especially around CRM software. BDA saw the need for this technology, so it implemented its own CRM software system.
“I’m really proud of the advancements we're making technologically in our business,” Azbell notes. “Really, it was a defensive mechanism. We had so many manufacturers asking us for such different information that it became hard to participate in all of their individual CRMs. We contracted with a company to create our CRM — it allows us to have all our employees enter information into one place then be able to disperse the information out.”
Azbell adds the rep agency is also in development of new ERP software, which was implemented last month. “Several of our lines are important to distributors, but the only way they can get information now is by calling to ask, ‘Hey, what do you have in stock?’ We’re building a backend on our ERP software that will allow the wholesaler to be able to login, check our parts and equipment inventory and place orders in real-time. We’re using technology and resources to advance ourselves and do things other rep agencies do not do, at least in our area right now.”
Danielson adds, “One of the challenges we face today is just the time our inside people are having to spend answering questions like ‘Where’s my order?’ These questions should be able to be answered automatically by just looking online. This will help streamline that and allow our people to focus on helping design a radiant heat job or help troubleshoot a water heater — the stuff that’s more technical.”
Building a solution
When asked about challenges facing the rep industry, both Azbell and Danielson point to the labor shortage.
“There’s a real industry challenge — and not just for our agency or in our two states — with the lack of people coming into the skilled trades,” Azbell says.
Four years ago, BDA was outgrowing its previous location. Instead of just adding on — they had the space — Azbell and Danielson decided to do something different, something that would help the industry as well as BDA’s business in the long-term. After identifying a need in their market for a vocational-technical program, they partnered with a developer and the City of Fishers, Indiana, to build a new $16 million, 95,000 square-foot building in the city.
“College is a great option, but it’s not for everybody,” Danielson says. “So we partnered with the City of Fishers, who gave us a 10-year tax abatement and a master lease of 17,000 square feet in our facility to build a vocational study area. The city paid $450,000 for woodworking, metalworking and welding equipment. Every day, we have 30 to 40 fifth-graders coming in. They chose from three projects, and they are here a couple of weeks at a time. This program runs all year. They just get bussed in and it helps get them exposed to working with their hands.”
The building, named Hub & Spoke, opened in May 2020. BDA offices and warehousing takes up about 25,000 square feet, so the company rents out space inside to other tenants, including a kitchen and bath remodel company, flooring company, a plumbing fixture showroom company, a security and audio-visual company and an interior design firm.
“Because of COVID, the schools had a little bit of trepidation about getting in here so the kids were slow to come in when we first opened the building,” Azbell says. “But it’s been a great success seeing all the kids come into the building and learn to use their hands and work. It’s our hope the program will work well enough that it will spark interest for kids to choose a career in the trades.”
Danielson notes that BDA has actually been in talks with the City of Louisville, Kentucky, discussing duplicating the program in Fishers in Louisville.
“We’ve already shown a profit every year for our investors, including in 2020,” he says. “It’s a very cool deal. When we bring in manufacturers and customers, they’re just blown away by this project and how successful it’s been. I don't think any of us would've been able to afford this without the city's financial backing and help. And to know that it's actually making money in its first year and every year has since then is a big deal. We're about 97% leased today. There's a small 2,500 square feet, that we're waiting on a restaurant to fill it.”
The BDA offices inside the Hub & Spoke also include several conference rooms, one of which is a training room, allowing the rep firm to train up to 50 people in a state-of-the-art facility.
“We can bring in product, set it up and train there,” Azbell explains. “We’ve got all the cameras and hook up to be able to virtually train from our space as well. Additionally, many of our sales guys all perform their own training out in the field as well.”
BDA also happens to host its local ASPE chapter meetings at the Hub & Spoke. “We do a lot with engineers and mechanical contractors here in our facility in terms of training,” Azbell explains. “Then we’ll do a tour of our building, showing them the vocational area as well as our warehouse.”
Danielson doesn’t hesitate when asked about his favorite thing about working in the industry.
“It’s the people and the lifelong friendships I’ve built,” he says. “I can’t emphasize enough the relationship side of what Joe and I do. I’m 65 years old, and you can see I’ve been doing this for a long time. The way the future is heading, you have to be more than just a salesperson in this market. You’ve really got to bring the technical expertise. Some of these brands in the industry, do you really think they need a rep to sell? Probably not. You’ve got to be more of a solutions provider rep agency, whether that’s the technical or design side, and you have to invest in your salespeople and in your company, like the data analytical person we just hired.”
As far as long-term goals for BDA, Danielson would like to see the Hub & Spoke vocational program expand into Kentucky.
“I believe we will continue to expand our geographical area and it sounds cliché, but we want to provide the best service for a rep agency in our given geographic area,” he says. “We just want to continue providing the best service and access to the best information and technology.”
Azbell wants to see the agency grow into something that will sustain itself and continue to get stronger.
“We want to develop young talent within our company, and we’ve got a lot of it here — those are the people that will keep this business alive long after Bob walks away, and then later on when I walk away. That’s been the goal all along.”
When looking ahead to the future, Azbell notes the big buzzword for manufacturers is “omnichannel,” which is their way of addressing the different markets they participate in.
“I think those lines — whether it's big-box retail, online or through the trades — will continue to get more and more blurred,” he says. “When I started out, it was pretty much just the trade that did most all the business. Then you saw big-box retail pick up their end, and now online retail certainly can threaten a portion of the business we do. It will continue to get tougher for all of us as online becomes a bigger and bigger part of the world and how people do business. It’s not going to go away. It’s up to us to continue to create value and ensure our customers see that value as well.”