The Electronics Representative Association (ERA) has been a part of the electronics landscape for just about as longa as the industry has existed. Now, however, the group is working to make itself more relevant to our quickly changing industry.
EBN sat down to have a conversation with newly appointed chief executive officer of the Electronics Representatives Association (ERA), Walter Tobin, to get an update on the newest directions and initiatives for the organization.
Founded in 1935, the organization started as a gathering of a handful of radio parts sales reps in New York. Later, it evolved to represent the interests of stocking reps serving the electronics industry. Now, the group represents electronics sales reps across the country and has 22 chapters. “It's a big advantage to ERA because we have boots on the ground,” said Tobin.
Today, the group's mission is “to support its members in optimizing the professional field sales function in the global electronics industry by providing programs and activities that educate, inform and advocate for manufacturers' representatives and the manufacturers they represent.” Currently, the group has 450 rep companies on its member rosters, as well as 110 electronics manufacturers.
In August 2015, the ERA announced that it had hired industry veteran Walter Tobin, previously corporate vice president of future electronics as its CEO.
EBN: Tell us a little bit about your goals as a CEO of the ERA.
Tobin: I've tried to build on those that came before me and take the ERA to the next level. Since I've started, I've been impressed with what I've seen, a lot of good things – but that a lot of our suppliers, customers and manufacturers didn't know about. We just had our conference in Austin that was a huge success – 94 first-time attendees! The ERA needed to be brought into the 21st century by providing a strong value proposition to its members. For example, we have spent a lot of time and money updating our web site to offer a more pleasant user experience and to automate many of our offerings and member services.
EBN: You just took the helm at ERA. Tell us a little about what you see going well already and what new directions you are hoping to take?
Tobin: ERA is trying to help reps better equipped to articulate their value proposition to their manufacturers. We need to answer the question: The value of the rep as seen through the eyes of manufacturer, is it fact or fantasy? We are trying to help them maintain their image as a highly professional selling organization – to defend their services and be able to articulate what a manufacturer gets for their services – and not readily accept reduced commission rates or house accounts. They already spend a huge amount of time tracking their split sales and to try and make up for lost commission dollars due to asp erosion.
In terms of new directions, I have a charter to grow the membership. We have a solid core of existing manufacturing and rep members in the chapters. We want to build on that, and grow membership amongst both reps and distributors. I am, in many ways, an agnostic advocate for reps within the electronics industry to both the manufacturer and the distributor. I am not the rep trying to get or keep the line. ERA is trying to be perceived as a union for manufacturers reps to give them air cover and continue to play nicely with distributors and advocate programs to grow sales for manufactures. We want to strengthen and grow the chapters as well.
We want to let the industry know that this isn't your father's ERA. It's time that the rep model be advocated and articulated better. We'll be broadening the membership into the semiconductor rep and manufacturing space. It's been primarily in the passives, interconnects, and electro-mechanicals space.
We are also looking at ways to expand the ERA into Europe and Asia. The rep model in those countries is quite different. Many are stocking reps that look like distributors – a model that the Americas saw a few decades ago but they are facing many of the same issues as reps here, such as reduced commission rates. They need training and resources to articulate value to customers. In Europe, there are only a few EMEA-wide rep organizations – many are country-specific. It's a global economy and we want to take best practices into Europe. We will be manning a booth at electronica in November to help spread the gospel on the rep model. They are starving for information and they are under siege as they move from a stocking model to a non-stocking model.
EBN: I know that recruiting and developing talent, mentoring and training personnel are key issues for today's reps. Can you say more about how the ERA is helping its members address that?
Tobin: If you look at the average rep out there, many are a second-generation company that was started by the father or grandfather. The average rep owner is looking to have someone take over the firm. That's why their biggest issue is succession planning.
There are lots of questions to answer. How do I turn the business over to someone who will keep the organization as an ongoing concern? Who is covering all the major accounts? Where do I find new talent? We had a huge session about millennial workers at our recent conference. In 2017, these folks will be the largest percentage of the workforce. We want to help them how to identify and train these workers. We are working on an internship program in which electronics reps will tell us why they would like an intern and we'll fund them for a summer. We'll be visible at colleges as well and will encourage our member companies to establish a presence at the universities in their area.
— Hailey Lynne McKeefry, Editor in Chief, EBN
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