The Plan & Spec Committee held its second AHR Seminar in Dallas in January, focusing on growing trends in the Plan & Spec market, including some insight from key personnel on how to be a better Plan & Spec rep.

Three successful players in the Plan & Spec market were the featured guests: Bill Shaw, owner, Bartos Inc./Standard Supply and immediate past president of HARDI Board of Directors; Cal Johnson, sales manager of HVAC products for Rapid Engineering; and John Mullins, professional engineer from Carter Burgess.

Carter Burgess is truly one of the “big boys” in the engineering community. In fact, they are ranked sixth in the country for their type of firm. John's perspective on success in the Plan & Spec market was clear and concise (as most engineers' comments are). In order to succeed, it truly comes down to reliability, service and patience. John mentioned that it was important to represent a quality product with a low failure rate. In addition, he really isn't interested in seeing someone representing a “knockoff” line. Sounds like “reliability” to me.

John also added other nonproduct-related points that are key, even if you don't have a marquee line. Time is fleeting for most engineers, as it is for all of us. However, the successful Plan & Spec reps have the relationship and the tools to help slow the clock down and make the engineer's life a little easier. Whether it is up-to-date catalogs on his shelf, easy design software programs or simply calling him back the same day he calls with a question, these are the people he prefers to do business with. Sounds like good “service” to me.

John's final points summarized the fact that a good Plan & Spec rep builds a strong, long-term relationship with the engineering community. This type of relationship is built over time and proving yourself and/or your firm over several years and several projects. Sounds like an awful lot of “patience” to me.

Rapid Engineering is one of the largest air-handling equipment manufacturers in the HVACR marketplace and is a well-respected line in this particular HVACR niche. While Cal's presentation was from the manufacturer's perspective, several of the key items John mentioned had a very similar tone. According to Cal, in order to succeed with his line, you must truly commit to it. You must become an industry expert for your market and establish yourself as the go-to guy for air-handling products. Sounds like “reliability” to me.

Cal's successful reps help the engineering community understand what makes Rapid a better product, such as features and benefits the other players in the market don't have. Rapid products are not a commodity. Since engineers aren't looking for a “knockoff” or a commodity, the good rep helps the engineer understand the differentiating features of a product and what they mean to the customer. Sounds like “service” to me.

Good Plan & Spec reps, according to Cal, need to understand it may take six months to a year before you enter into your first project with a specific engineer. The strong rep understands that the selling cycle doesn't fit into today's world of instant gratification. However, the rewards are much more profitable, both monetarily and personally, than the “quick-hit sale” that often goes on in HVACR. Sounds like “patience” to me.

Bill Shaw's perspective was truly loud and clear in terms of what a new player needs to understand about the Plan & Spec market. Patience, patience and more patience. Bill's initial and only experience with the HVACR market, prior to his purchase of Bartos, was as owner of Standard Supply, a very large wholesaler in the Texas market.

While Bill is still the owner of Standard, he was reminiscing about his first days as new owner of Bartos Inc., a very successful rep firm in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Looking back, it was very obvious the high-volume, quick-sale mentality associated with the wholesale market really didn't fit. He found it truly amazing that purchase orders weren't flying in and out the door all day long and people were still getting paid. In fact, a sense of panic set in. However, once he networked with other Plan & Spec firm owners and eventually saw some of the margins associated with the sales that were earning, he calmed down rather quickly. Sounds like “patience” to me.

I also remember one of Bill's best pieces of advice was for Plan & Spec reps to learn from each other. According to Bill, he was surprised that when he bought Bartos there was no organization or network for Plan & Spec reps to gather and exchange ideas. Bill urged reps to join and use organizations like HARDI and its Plan & Spec Committee to create networks and learn from others' challenges. Bill believes that the “number one goal” of any successful Plan & Spec rep has got to be: “Attain and maintain the market share the product deserves.”

As with any presentation, we covered other key topics that we don't have the space to cover in a short article like this. Items such as how to write better specifications, how to identify a “Spec-stopper” and training programs that truly interest engineers. However, the three key items that were interwoven throughout the entire seminar were patience, service and reliability. I imagine that if you are a successful business owner reading this article, chances are you are quite astute at figuring out a way to be reliable and offer excellent service to your existing customers. If you step back and think, you do have patience. If you have children, employees or, heaven forbid, both, trust me, you have patience.

Bill wrapped up the seminar with a very appropriate analogy. A young monk in training places a bird in his hand to trick the “all-knowing” Dalai Lama. His theory is that he will ask the Dalai Lama whether the bird in his hand is alive or dead. If the Dalai Lama answers, “Alive,” the young monk will crush the tiny bird. If the Dalai Lama answers, “Dead,” the young monk will open his hand and let the bird fly away. The young monk finds the Dalai Lama and asks him, in his infinite wisdom, if he can guess if the bird in the young monk's hand is alive or dead. The Dalai Lama pauses, looks the young monk in the eyes and says, “Son, the answer lies in your hands.”

The answer truly lies in your hands. Maybe it is time to consider focusing on the Plan & Spec market and/or on how to be a better Plan & Spec rep, because you know what? Not once in the hour-long seminar did anyone mention the words “lowest price.”

In the continuing effort of creating a forum for players in the Plan & Spec market, HARDI has decided to continue offering educational seminars at AHR and is also considering holding its annual committee meeting at AHR. If you are interested in joining the Plan & Spec Committee or want more information, please contact me or HARDI at 888/253-2128.


Kevin Mahoney is the chair of HARDI's Plan & Spec Committee. He is also vice president of North American Sales and Corporate Marketing with Buffalo, NY-based Roberts-Gordon. Contact him at 716/852-4400 or kevinma@rg-inc.com.