Former Business Development Representative at POOLCORP
Joel has over 15 years experience in the swimming pool industry and was a leading Business Development Representative for 14 seasons for POOLCORP. In 2002, he joined POOLCORP and was responsible for the New Jersey and Pennsylvania region as an outside sales representative working directly with pool contractor customers. Joel now works for Merlin Industries, a vinyl and pool cover manufacturer, as the Regional Sales Manager covering the Mid-Atlantic region. Read moreView Profile Page
Joel, can you share a short introduction to your role and responsibilities at POOL CORP?
At POOL CORP, there are different positions; I was in a position called BDR, business development representative. It’s the sort of title that goes to outside sales people these days. I had a portion of New Jersey and my customer base consisted of service companies – sometimes they’d stand alone – retail services and then there was a tri-sector customer, which was a retail store that does construction and runs a service. I had all three of those and anyone in my position would have the same mix, regardless of where they were.
As a BDR at POOL CORP, your responsibilities were to budget and, annually, you are going to go through all of your accounts. You’re going to come up with where they are, where you see them going and you will budget for growth from there. You don’t just do that by putting a number on it; ultimately you have to assign values to it. You might say, we’re going to do so much in this product category and so much in that product category and so on and so forth. You would be looking at whether or not you are going to get their chems; if you don’t have them currently, can you get them? If so, what is going to be the course of action? How do you plan to go about it? Is there a manufacturer that you need to bring in as a third party?
As a distributor sales rep, there’s no better sales call you can do with a client, in most cases, than bringing in a third-party manufacturer, such as somebody as I am now, working for a manufacturer. What happens there is that your manufacturer meets you at the client’s office space or store and they will give you a certain amount of time and they will present their product for you. You are the distributor bringing in the manufacturer and that’s a big part of how your meetings will go, at different times of the year. The selling cycle lends itself to a chunk of time. In the North East, mid-Atlantic, New England, that chunk of time is, basically, from the beginning of January until the end of April. When you get to the 5th May, if you haven’t got someone’s business or you haven’t already put yourself in a position to get the business, odds are that they are so busy at that point that they’ve already gone a different way or, frankly, they were never going to go with you to begin with.
You want to be wary, sometimes, with the customers you are going to get in late April, beginning of May, because there’s usually a reason for that. Maybe there is a credit issue or a disgruntled issue or maybe their suppliers don’t want to deal with them anymore. So there are a couple of factors to be conscious of.
But the selling cycle is very intense. You’ve got four months, from a distributor and manufacturer side, from the mid-Atlantic up to New England, to secure your business for the year. That means closing down on the early buys you pitched in the previous season, at the end of the year and getting them to come to fruition and map out those orders, hammer down pricing and then schedule delivery. Pricing is a big part of what you do in the distribution side. It’s not nearly as much a part of the manufacturing side; it’s really more about touches. But in the distribution, you are constantly dealing with the pricing side of the equation because so much of how a small business thinks about how they do, is largely based on their cost. A distributor, like POOL CORP, tries to constantly preach value and high-margin products and private-label products, where there is more margin.
Just taking a step back and looking at POOL CORP as a business, how would you describe the feeling of working there?
Everybody has a different experience. I started in 2002 and I left in 2015, so I was there for 14 seasons. I would say, in the beginning, as I was learning the industry, as I was fresh and new to it, it was interesting, entertaining and educational; I enjoyed my first couple of years. I did feel, however, at a certain point, whilst you were told that the opportunities were exponential, they were actually rather limited. As a sales rep, you either want to be a branch manager or get yourself to regional. For me, I had no interest in being a branch manager; I wanted to be a regional manager. There are only so many regions and, therefore, there are only so many of those jobs to go round and there are so many BDRs. So you end up hitting a ceiling in your pay scale. There are four tiers of pay and I was at the highest end of the second tier and I got stuck there.
For me, that side of it, the culture of it, was probably good at first and then, later, not so good for me. Overall, it’s a great stepping stone for someone who is learning to be a sales person, who wants to learn the basic building blocks and fundamentals of a sales person. You really need to have some form of outside sales experience before you take a position as a BDR and a distributor, particularly in a company like POOL CORP. They are heavy on technology and reporting. Over the years, they’ve welcomed in all the new technology such as the CMR, the CMS, sales digest and things like that; I’ve utilized a lot of those programs. They are all helpful.
The culture, in general, is an open-ended question; a high-gain question. It would be very easy to stick my foot in my mouth. I would say that I enjoyed the culture and, probably, was my own worst enemy, in certain respects. It is a big company and there is a structure to who is in charge. Sometimes, when you’re younger, you don’t really want to accept that. As you get a little older, you start to realize that there are people in charge that you need to answer to and show respect to. At this point, I’m almost 49 and I’ve come around full circle to understanding that a bit better.
One stat that I came across was that over 40% of employees have over 10 years at the company. That seems pretty unique in that it is a high number.
You’ll get a lot of that in the BDR; you will have less turnover in the branch managers. What they have there is what they call a manager-in-training program, the MIT program. I was probably one of the most widely-used BDRs to travel with those MITs. They would get assigned to a branch like mine, in Bound Brook, New Jersey, because it was one of the larger branches. It would be budgeted for, for salary, because you would have to pay for that. It gets paid for by POOL CORP but it gets shared by all the different satellite branches. Those MITs were in different functions, such as the customer service position, the shipping, different functions in the warehouse; all leading towards becoming a branch manager and, at some point, a regional manager and so on and so forth.
Usually, they were college graduates that were starting out in their careers. They had to decide if they wanted to become a sales rep or an ops manager. There are two paths for that manager-in-training. One of the tasks that they had to go through was to travel with a BDR. I was probably that guy that people would come to my branch and travel with me. It seemed as if that was my pattern for a couple of years. I lost track of all the BDRs I would travel with and a lot of them would recall those times, because we used to have some fun.
It’s their opportunity to see a seasoned sales person in front of a customer. I would take them on two or three sales calls. They would get to see the fundamentals or the actual mechanics of a sales call. It seems silly and stupid, but the truth is, there is an art form to it; there is a chronological order as to how you conduct a sales call. A lot of people think that it comes naturally and, for some people, it does. I know a lot more self-made sales people that become much more successful because they are very goal oriented, very organized and, actually, sales has got a lot more to do with being organized that it has to do with being savvy, like me. I always utilize personality, voice, humor and interaction to get myself somewhere, but I wasn’t nearly as organized as I really needed to be. Time management is huge and you have to respect the time of the people you are going to be in front of.
There are some customers that are totally fine with you popping in; there are others who you absolutely do not visit without an appointment. Those were some of the things that the MITs would have learnt from travelling with the BDR. We would know that, going into that call.
Do you think POOL CORP has an advantage given the training program and the sales focused culture, in out competing in the market?
Yes, but largely, their advantage is probably more due to their general size and the fact that they are publicly traded. There are large resources to draw from; they are just a behemoth size in an industry that is relatively small. Back at the beginning of this century, when the pool industry was around $6 billion, we were $1 billion to $1.2 billion of that, just in a publicly traded valued company. The reality is, we were always the biggest player, in terms of distribution. I imagine that that continues. They have just bought Jet Line which is another distributor in the industry, up in the North East. When you see those acquisitions, it’s ironic that they never had to deal with any anti-trust scenarios, because of how big they had become. A lot of it was through acquisition and then becoming publicly traded. I imagine, as a publicly traded company, they constantly had to navigate that sort of liability with press releases and such like.
Do you think they have too much power in the industry?
That’s no different from asking if Amazon has too much power in the industry. I’m not sure that is even fair to say. It’s a choice for a company to go public. A way back, POOL CORP wasn’t POOL CORP; it was South Central Pool Supply; it was Superior Pools. There was a group of investors that came together and decided to take the company public and put it under a different umbrella. Do they have more power than all the other distributors? Yes, but distribution costs from the manufacturers are distribution costs. Rebates that come back to a distributor are based on volume. But generally, they are just based on whatever you purchase. If one buys $100,000 of a product and one buys $10,000, you both get a 3% back-end rebate, so one has a $3,000 rebate and the has a $300 rebate. On a support side, where you basically get to take advantage of it, you really don’t. But if you’re buying that much more, then you’re getting that much more.
That’s a tough one to answer; it’s not a yes/no answer. It’s a grey answer. Are they too big for the pool industry? No, because I think the pool industry is so fragmented today that it’s not just pool chemicals; it’s not just maintenance equipment. Today, it’s everything under the sun, the entire backyard. When I first started at POOL CORP, they weren’t selling grills; they were barely doing the spas. They had nothing to do with marketing and they weren’t doing pavers and brick coping and all that stuff. They got into a lot of that product later. Hats off to Manny Perez, the former CEO, because he read the correct writing on the wall when the big recession came in, in 2007-2008. Prior to that, he was already diversifying in the business.