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The rep business is often all about the ‘value add.’ What additional value can they offer their customers? Training can be a crucial component of that added value. With new technologies and products flooding the market, it can be hard for plumbing engineers and contractors to stay-up-to-date on the latest and greatest solutions available. Well-trained reps can effectively communicate the features and benefits of plumbing products, addressing customer inquiries with confidence and precision. This not only enhances customer satisfaction but also builds trust and credibility, fostering long-term business relationships.

Mid-Continent’s dedication to training and building lasting relationships within the plumbing and HVAC industries has earned the Romeoville, Illinois-based firm the title of PM Engineer’s 2024 Manufacturers’ Rep of the Year.

The starting point

Mid-Continent was formed in 1976 to fill a need in the plumbing and mechanical market for technical expertise in the backflow prevention field. Watts Regulator decided to turn a factory sales office into an independent manufacturers’ representative firm. As such, Watts Water Technologies is Mid-Continent’s oldest line having represented the firm for 48 years, since its founding.

“A lot of manufacturers had their own people in different markets in the 1950s, 1960s and even in the early 1970s before they went to manufacturers’ reps,” explains Vince England, president and partner of Mid-Continent. “That was the case here in Chicago where Watts Regulator (as Watts was called then) had a factory office. They had three or four people who had come from the East Coast to run it. Based on scale or size, Watts didn't have enough products for that to be a viable market for three guys to be working out of. So they allowed them to become a manufacturers’ rep with Watts as their first line. And those gentlemen founded Mid-Continent.”

England, 61, joined the firm in December 1981 as a warehouse hand.

“I went to church with the warehouse manager, and he gave me a job,” he says. “I grew up in Kentucky. It was my first job as an adult. I was a busboy at a restaurant prior to that. And, at the time, it was just a job. I was looking for a step up from the restaurant job to something with benefits, just like normal people. I had no idea what the industry was — I was just moving boxes, which is the way I saw it at the time.”

Then, one day, the company president visited the warehouse and had a conversation with England.

“I must have been doing a good job, and he asked, ‘What do you want to do with yourself, kid?’ And I said, ‘I want to do what you do,’” England says. “He laughed at me and said, ‘You don’t even know what I do.’ My response then was really kind of silly, but I said, ‘Yeah, I don’t know what you do but you have a smile on your face all the time. You drive a nice car and you wear nice threads.’ He laughed and said the next time there was an opportunity in the office, he would keep me in mind. About a year later, I moved into the office and got a closer look at what this business was.”

England started in sales and worked his way up to sales manager, before being made a junior partner in 1989.

Motor vehicle, Trousers, Cloud, Plant, Sky, Tree, Grass

Mid-Continent represents 21 brands in the plumbing, water quality, mechanical, HVAC, irrigation and fire market segments in Illinois, Northwest Indiana and select areas in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. The firm boasts 18 employees.

Josh Goeden and Jason Romano, both 42, make up the other two points in the leadership triangle at Mid-Continent. The two share the title of vice president and partners of the firm. The Minnesota natives go way back, having been friends since high school. After Goeden was hired in at Mid-Continent, he recommended Romano for an open position.

“I worked in the purchasing department of a Chicago homebuilder while finishing college at Northern Illinois University,” Goeden says. “I really liked the industry aspect of it, but didn't want to be in a cubicle. Mid-Continent was an active sales rep for that homebuilder during that time. I really enjoyed meeting with the salespeople and thought that would be something I was interested in pursuing. I reached out to see if they were looking for more salespeople and the rest is history.”

Romano admits to having zero plumbing industry experience before his hiring at Mid-Continent.

“I was coaching high school football and basketball full-time for St. Cloud Tech, which is just west of Minneapolis. After a couple years, I was getting pushed to essentially become a teacher,” he explains. “After a tough basketball season, I went to Mexico for a week, kind of just thought about life and said, ‘That's not going to be for me. It's time for a change and to get a real job.’ I got back to Minnesota, and we got close to 30 inches of snow one weekend. I was like, ‘I'm done.’ So I called Josh and asked to come down and if I could crash on the couch for a while if I found a job. He was like, ‘Absolutely.’ I found a job that weekend and started working at a bar. About a month later, Josh calls me and says, “We’re looking for an inside salesperson. I don’t know what you’d be doing, but it’d be a foot in the door.’ I was totally into that, I just needed the opportunity.”

Goeden says his long-time relationship with Romano is beneficial for Mid-Continent.

“We’ve known each other since we were kids, but we’re not the same person,” he says. “How I see something may be completely different from how Jason sees something. But since we’ve known each other for so long, our ability to talk through those things and see the outcome we want has been a huge advantage for us as business partners.”

Today, Mid-Continent represents 21 brands in the plumbing, water quality, mechanical, HVAC, irrigation and fire market segments in Illinois, Northwest Indiana and select areas in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. The firm boasts 18 employees.

Mid-Continent is affiliated with numerous industry associations, including AIM/R, ASSE, ASA, ASPE, Chief Engineers, APPA, PPCANI, PHCC and IPIA, to name a few.

“We want to provide the contractor, engineer, and wholesaler with the best option available and know how to design, size and price accurately,” Goeden says. “We problem solve, but some days you’re unable to provide them with a product you represent. No matter, you still assist with the knowledge and provide them with a new source as needed. And these industry affiliations help strengthen our relationship within the market. Working with the associations allows you to grow relationships and awareness within the different segments across this industry.”

Adapting to change

Goeden and Romano bought into the firm’s partnership in 2020 — just one week before the COVID pandemic struck and changed everything.

“We signed on the dotted line — I think it was on my actual birthday — then we were golfing in Myrtle Beach with friends,” Romano explains. “The country started shutting down and all the wives were calling us to come home. My wife is a superintendent for a park district, and Josh’s wife is a teacher, so we had some insight of what the government was thinking for the state and the city of Chicago. We knew the state was essentially shutting down. So it was all hands on deck. Vince, Josh and I knew what would happen within the next 24 hours, so we set the plan, went to buy laptops, computers and internet wiring to send all our employees home. The three of us would work in the office the following week and see how it played out. That was also the week we figured out the three of us couldn’t answer the phones, figure everything out and work the warehouse by ourselves. One whisper after another came in saying, ‘Hey, we’ll come back to work, just get us back in the office.’ So we started wearing masks and implementing other safety protocols in case COVID hit the office.”

Goeden adds the fact that nobody wanted to work from home speaks a ton to the firm’s culture as a team and family and coming together to face any challenge.

After those initial two weeks, Mid-Continent began reaching out to its customers to find out what they needed.

Jeans, Smile

Mid-Continent places a large focus on training — both internally and externally. According to Romano, the firm trained over 2,900 people.

“That slowly transitioned to mission critical jobs with the state as engineers began refurbishing hospitals,” Romano notes. “Then, we began to get phone calls, ‘We need this trim package. Can you still get this? What’s the upgrade kit?’ It was all about providing solutions and problem solving — and how quickly our manufacturers could ship it out. And that really evolved to constant communication — getting on the phone, sending emails or calling right after sending an email. Our response time became hours instead of a day or 30 minutes versus a few hours.”

Both Goeden and Romano feel coming out the other side of the pandemic cemented the strength of the company as a whole.

“I hope we never have to go through that again, but we always looked at the, there's a line I put in here where challenges help you grow, and I believe if you're not growing, then there's no purpose to continue what you're doing,” Goeden says. “COVID really helped us grow with those challenges. We had, historically, some of the best years we've had as an agency through those years, and I think it's because we really focused on how do we do things better as we go through this.”

“Josh and I learned quickly,” Romano adds. “It was Business 101 within three months, versus what would have taken three years of learning HR, vacation time, sick time, communication, leadership, being flexible with employees and their families and then figuring out the customer side — who was working from home, who felt comfortable calling on them in person, etc.”

More than just a job

Mid-Continent has a long history of mentorship and training the next generation of owners, starting with England.

“The three owners of the company at the time, Don Sinsabaugh, George Shary and Gary Hull — they each had different roles in the company,” England says. “One was the financial guy, one was the sales-driven guy, and the other was Mr. Entertainment. And I learned different aspects of the business from all of them.”

And, like many leaders in this industry, England says his own leadership style has changed over the years as he has aged.

“In the beginning, it was definitely lead by example,” he says. “We have a very strong ethic in the company about doing the right thing, always. Then, as we've gone through a bunch of different changes, it was important to be open-minded to the evolutions that are needed in business. Probably the last 10 years, it's been more of the advisory role and mentoring the people coming up underneath me in some ways.”

England has helped mentor Goeden and Romano as they stepped into their partnership roles.

“I’ve had a couple of great mentors — one of them, Dave Wolniak, who used to be a partner; he retired in 2020, was a big part of my career, especially on the backflow side with Watts,” Goeden says. “There's a quote he told me when I was coming up through the ranks, ‘I'll give you the gift of backflow. It's up to you what you do with it.’ I always thought that was very creative because it's such a big part of our industry and it really has been a huge part of my career. I do a lot of stuff with training around backflow. We do backflow schools where they help get certified to do backflow testing. We help organize the one that they're doing with the Chicago Union Halls now.

“And Vince has really helped me on the management and ownership side to really understand more of the business side of this industry versus the selling side,” he adds. “The actual ‘How do you run a rep agency’ and understanding managing people because it’s a very different learning process than the sales process of selling products. One of the key takeaways was making sure you’re looking at your personnel and rewarding them in a way to keep talent. In this industry, it’s difficult to keep salespeople because there are other opportunities. We aren’t the only people selling these products. One thing Vince has taught me is if you make the place somewhere people would like to go to work, somewhere where they get up in the morning and they're excited to do their job at the company that you are at, that can really mean a lot. He's really created that culture here and also allowed Jason and I to add to that cultural aspect of feeling the idea of this is more than just a job. We really do like to have a close-knit community within our office.”

Romano adds that Mid-Continent tries to empower its team members and assist in big decisions. “This has propelled our team, and the best part is they provide the ideas for improvement, change, structure and processes.”

Crystal Trabado, operations manager, is a 22 year veteran with Mid-Continent. She first applied for a receptionist position with the firm.

“We all have our individual roles but we come together as one team,” Trabado explains. “We are close knit, we know how to have fun and still get our work done. Our leadership is very respected and hardworking. They have high expectations, but they allow us to handle things on our own. They have allowed me to grow into the position I am in today. I learn new things everyday even being here for 22 years. The environment is comfortable and mostly laid back yet we can switch it on to meet goals and deadlines.”

Louann Weiss, inside sales and a 25 year veteran with the firm, also started out as a receptionist. She moved to estimating and quotes, and now is the lead in the inside sales department.

Motor vehicle, Smile, Trousers, Sky, Cloud, Plant, Tree, Tire, Grass, Leisure

Mid-Continent’s inside sales team. From left to right: Crystal, Trabado, operations manager; Louann Weiss, inside sales; Melissa Boring, quotes; Amanda Airheart, inside sales; and Cathy Bonner, inside sales.

“There is a great team atmosphere with a various range of ages and knowledge,” Weiss says, describing what it’s like to work at Mid-Continent. “Leadership is great. We have the pleasure of three principles with different ideas that come together, and it works. We are also asked for input on ideas and how to handle situations or calls, which means leadership also listens. It is a comfortable place to work, everyone is easy to work with. It feels like a family working at Mid Continent.”

Weiss jokes that the employees also work for food, whether it be a birthday, football, holiday or even made-up events.

“I’ve witnessed so many changes here during my tenure, including changing leadership, moving locations, moving from hand writing and fax orders to email, watched as business dropped when the market dropped after 9/11 and did not know what was going to happen, worked with variety of people that have and still work at Mid Continent. Our sales force is fantastic — seeing all the new lines awarded to us with the hype to promote and learn new products is exciting. We are all involved. Bottom line is Mid-Continent is a great place to be. I have learned so much over the years and love sharing my knowledge with others. We are always moving forward and striving to be the best. I’m glad and proud to be part of this team!”

Focus on training

Mid-Continent places a large focus on training — both internally and externally. According to Romano, the firm trained over 2,900 people.

“It’s really what separates us from our competitors,” he says.

Goeden notes that Mid-Continent’s goal is to train a few thousand contractors, engineers and wholesaler employees each year with Lunch and Learn meetings, counter days, or parking lot parties. “We train several Backflow Schools and Union Halls throughout the year with our staff, which helps create a history and connection to all. Our entire outside staff understands the value of training all market segments.”

England adds that the firm specializes on training the right people who will go forward and be advocates for the industry.

“It's interesting, being a Watts-founded agency at a time before backflow and tempering were code-driven, how we ended up being in the position of being the experts when the codes changed,” England explains. “That put us in a position where — for one of the first times — we could teach the contractor something they didn't know. In general, reps and suppliers are less informed than the installer. When things change, you have that opportunity to be the welcomed trainer. At the same time, Illinois changed its plumbing codes to require CEU classes for plumbers to renew their licenses. It really put us in the forefront. With safety valves being a foundation for us, we kind of fit into the concept of where the plumber protects the health of the nation. Our agency was founded on training. We just have never stopped. We've recognized that it's the opportunity to add value to the contractor. It's in our DNA to be trainers.”

Romano adds that Mid-Continent also tries to get its customers to their manufacturers, to see how products are built then bring them into a classroom and breakdown the product and learn how to size things accurately.

Maintaining relationships

Originating as a Watts sales agency, the firm has close ties with the manufacturer to this day. Andrew Windsor, senior vice president of sales for Watts Water Technologies, has been working with Mid-Continent for the last 10 years.

“I find the Mid-Con team to be passionate and extremely focused on our customers,” Windsor notes. “They are fast to respond with a solution and meet customers’ needs in even the most complex issues. They have the appropriate balance of technical know-how and market acumen to not only provide the correct solution, but navigate the channels to get it to the end user in the best way possible.

“They are experts in complex flow control products and have been able to gain market share for Watts simply by being best and most knowledgeable rep for the products they sell,” he adds. “More importantly, they are not just great at the technical performance of the product, but also providing application solutions for engineers and installing contractors.”

Windsor notes that Mid-Continent puts the customer first, then backs it up with knowledge, systems and passion to out serve the competition.

“They’re a great rep and better people. I can’t say enough good things about Mid-Continent,” he says.

Amy Brownlow, business development sales manager for nVent, has only worked with Mid-Continent the last two years, but has a similar experience with the firm.

“They are truly an ‘all hands on deck’ agency,” she says. “The Mid-Continent team really makes an effort to put together the best business plan for their customers and the manufacturers that they represent, and to make the best use of everyone’s time. They also represent themselves (and therefore their brands) with absolute integrity from dressing professionally to having the materials, training, back-up needed for sales calls and events. They take pride in what they do and it shows.”

Brownlow notes that the firm ensures its staff knows what training tools are available and even offers fun competitions and incentive plans to motivate them to learn about the products they sell.

“If they don’t know about the product before I hit town, they are diligent to learn from me during our time together and I am confident they have a good understanding by the time I leave. They arm their team with all of the tools they need to be successful. Mid-Continent truly is an outstanding agency. I love that I get to work with them and am thrilled to see them get this much deserved recognition.”

Joe Hainaut, principal-in-charge, MEP Practice, WT Group, has interacted with Mid-Continent since 2006, and mostly with Romano.

“Their professionalism, expertise and positive attitude are their best qualities,” he says of the firm. “We appreciate the proactive approach they take in anticipating our needs and offering innovative solutions. Their contributions play a role in our achievements, and for that, we are grateful.

“They consistently go above and beyond to ensure that our expectations are not only met but exceeded,” Hainaut continues. “Their attention to detail, responsiveness, and willingness to troubleshoot any issues that arise have been invaluable. We have full confidence in the products and support they provide.”

Mid-Continent’s approach to building relationships with WT Group’s engineers truly sets them apart, Hainaut adds. “Their genuine interest in understanding our needs and challenges is a reflection of their commitment. By taking the time to listen, learn, and engage with our team, they have earned our trust and respect, fostering a collaborative environment that is conducive to success.”

Face, Smile, Coat, Gesture, Door, Suit

In 2023, Mid-Continent won the Drainage Excellence Award from Watts Water Technologies.

Chris Sbarbaro, PE, CPD, GPD, LEED AP BD+C, associate at Grumman Butkus Associates, has worked closely with Romano and Mid-Continent for nearly 20 years.

“I appreciate their response time (and follow through) for questions asked — they have exceeded expectations time and time again,” he says. “Mid Continent is like an extension of our Engineering team. They are always ready to confirm, or in some cases redirect us, when we are looking for the most ideal product selection for a particular project. Grumman Butkus Associates often goes deep into installation requirements and Mid Continent always gets us in touch with the right manufacturer's engineers to ensure we get the in depth answers we seek.”

Jason Kieffer, vice president of Triton Plumbing, notes that his company has worked with Mid-Continent for the past 15 years, but it wasn’t until about three years ago that they started working more closely with the firm.

“This started with an office visit from Jason Romano and has continued to flourish to this day,” Kieffer says. “We get their products in nearly all of the projects we are working on. Their team is on the phone with our plumbers our superintendent almost daily. Aside from them being just good human beings, they are easy to deal with, reliable when we need product data or any information or if we call last minute in a panic to get something shipped overnight from across the country, they go out of their way to make it happen. Mid-Continent has also helped us ensure that the products we intend to install on projects are readily available locally and, of course, competitive pricing on well-known name brand manufacturers helps, too!”

Kieffer adds that the firm makes Triton Plumbing feel like the only plumbing contractor around. “They always get us the information we need in a timely fashion. Product, if it’s not local, is brought in in a timely fashion. They have helped design or redesign products to ensure the end user is getting what they wanted which always makes us look better to the owner or general contractor.”

Attracting the next generation

One of the greatest challenges every business within the plumbing industry faces is attracting the next generation of workers.

“You have to grow or you fade away,” England notes. “If you don't evolve, and you don't recognize the market needs in front of you, then you're trying to provide buggy whips in an industry that's no longer using buggies. Being open-minded to the people on your team and listening to the younger attitudes and ways of doing things is critical. You need to be open to change.”

England points out that technology evolves and things change as years pass. When he started in the business, it was before the fax machine, and well before the internet came into play.

“Recognizing that older management needs reverse mentors today is very important,” he stresses. “It’s an interesting concept. Everybody understands mentoring, but reverse mentoring is important for management that is, let’s say, long in the tooth or gray on the top, in the sense that we can learn things from the younger generations that aren’t skills we have. And we’ve really embraced that at Mid-Continent.”

Goeden notes that several of Mid-Continent’s younger employees have been able to share insight that has helped the company evolve and move forward.

“If we didn't look at that next generation of talent, I don't think we'd have that clear sight into those trends and opportunities,” he says.

He adds that the leadership team always keeps its ears open to find the right fit for the firm.

“It’s important to have a process for experience and growth of each new employee,” he says. “Then finding the right fit or blend of the individual for the company direction. We’ve implemented different incentives, flexible schedules and the team support dynamic. Setting them up with the proper tools needed to succeed from the start. The culture we have is uplifting and empowering.”

What’s next

According to England, the future of this industry points toward education and connected technology.

“The plumbing and HVAC industry is adapting technology now more than ever before,” he says. “Making sure you are educated and prepared with the next generation of talent that can help navigate this growing part of the industry is key to succeeding in the future.”

Goeden acknowledges these are exciting, albeit challenging times. But he’s not worried.

“We’ve thrived in tough times, as they taught us how to overcome and achieve,” he says. “How you respond to the challenges in life create a foundation for you to build and grow from.”

Romano adds that Mid-Continent always strives to do things the right way and respect the people it does business with.

“This industry is never boring,” he says. “Every day is full of new and unique challenges. Being challenged is what produces growth and that is always important. I’m incredibly proud of our team. At the end of the day, we are nothing without the strength of our agency as a whole.”

“I’m at the part of my career now where I’m incredibly grateful to the industry and what it’s provided to me, my family and my agency,” England adds. “This industry is filled with an unbelievable number of generous people. It’s a wonderful place to be.”