UEi is not your father's test and measurement instruments company. Heck, it's not even your older brother's company. This is a company focused squarely on the present — and the future. After all, UEi does not believe in standing still: The world changes, and UEi changes with it. “Life moves on,” says UEi President Michael Kane. “The industry changes, the market changes, and expectations change. And we've really tried to remake the company to match this different world.”

Founded 40 years ago in Beaverton, OR, as Universal Enterprises Inc. by Joe Aleskus, the company joined forces with The Kane Group, based in England, in 1992. Two years later, Michael Kane moved from England to Beaverton to learn the business and became president in 1995. Kane credits Aleskus with starting and sustaining a successful business. “A lot of people want to start a business, few get around to it and even fewer actually make it,” Kane says. “And there are not that many still in business 40 years later.”

Today, UEi, as the company is now known, offers a broad line of portable test and measurement tools, motors, transformers and accessories to serve HVACR contractors. UEi is not a manufacturer in the sense that it produces products at its own facility. Rather, it creates the ideas and relies on manufacturers for the production. Such an approach allows UEi to seek out the best manufacturers for particular products. “We play to people's strengths instead of assuming that everyone can be good at everything,” Kane says.

With the manufacturing component taken care of, Kane and his management team spend their energy on developing — and then marketing — the products that will be used in the field. Kane sees UEi as serving two groups of customers — wholesalers and their customers, the contractors and the building superintendents. These two groups are always top-of-mind among UEi's product designers and sales managers.

How will the wholesaler sell a UEi product and how will their customers use the product? How will it work? Those questions are always in play at UEi. “We spend a lot of time getting the product right,” Kane says. “But we also want to make it easy to sell. So a lot of our work is on how do we make this easy for the guy behind the counter.”

UEi underwent a major rebranding effort five years ago. “If you look at the kind of materials that we produced before and what we're doing now — it's the same company name, but it's really unrecognizable,” Kane says. Among its metamorphoses were changes to the packaging to provide more detailed product information for wholesalers and contractors. The goal was to clearly communicate the strengths of its products so that customers could make informed decisions without overwhelming them with technical data, says Sean Tierney, UEi's marketing manager. Kane credits Tierney for leading this successful rebranding effort. Now, contractors can pick up any UEi product and know exactly what it will do and how it will benefit them on the job.

Because UEi embraces change, its managers have a keen understanding of the marketplace. They see supply houses looking more and more like retail centers with additional products crowding the counters, and UEi's rebranded packaging reflects this new environment. (Kane emphasizes that UEi does not sell directly to end-users.) Tierney notes that UEi works with a variety of wholesalers on strategies to develop “merchandising solutions” to take advantage of their branch environments.

Of course, rebranding your products only works if you have quality, innovative products to sell. Kane is proud of his company's evolving product portfolio. Not one to be stuck in the past, he notes that the product line has completely changed over the last decade. “It doesn't bear any resemblance to 10 years ago except for the fact they are all test and measurement products,” he says. “The product line is broader. The features and the products are far more sophisticated, and the quality is much stronger.”

The people at UEi develop new products based on their experience and that of their customers. Surveying customers, gaining feedback from sales calls, trade shows and conferences as well as bouncing ideas among the UEi staff all lead to new concepts. “There's not one approach,” Kane says. “A big part of it is to keep the conversation going and continually refine the process.” The goal is to create products that will have a real payoff for the contractors.

“We've been fortunate to have a number of products where people say, ‘Wow',” Kane says. He cites the introduction of the Phoenix clamp meter about two years ago. This product line represented a new approach in measurement tools. Presented in “good, better, best” formats, the Phoenix includes an array of professional features and functions, including a unique “hook” which makes it safe and easy for a user to take measurements in a confined space. The same user-friendly approach can be found in UEi's new Eagle series of combustion analyzers. As Product Development Manager David Wheaton says, “We're listening to our customers and providing smart solutions that make their life easier in the real world.”

UEi has also gotten smarter about the changing wholesaler market. With the rise of national and regional wholesalers, UEi actively manages the launching of its new products. It cannot just bring out a new product and expect wholesalers, particularly national wholesalers, to jump on board. “They have a complicated process, and new products have to get into their system. We have to roll out these products in a way that makes sense for them,” Kane says.

Wholesalers, both large and small, are also much more focused on getting the products on their shelves as quickly and efficiently as possible. Responding to this challenge, UEi encourages customers to use EDI for seamless ordering and delivery. UEi pays particular attention to its on-time delivery performance, which Kane rates as very high. Creating greater efficiencies in shipping and delivery are areas of continued focus, he adds.

Kane also understands the importance of personal relationships in the manufacturer-wholesaler relationship. He cites UEi's experienced sales team and staff, and UEi's customer-friendly sales policies in creating a climate of trust among HVACR wholesalers. “Throughout the whole organization, we have a good group of people who have tons of experience in the marketplace,” he says. “I'm especially struck by the professionalism and experience of our national network of manufacturer's reps. They do a very good job for us.”

In addition, UEi's sales managers bring 50 years of experience in the test and measurement world to their jobs. “This is a relationship-driven industry, and it's really important to have people who know our customers and how to relate to them,” Kane says.

While the manufacturer's reps work with customers at their branch locations, the customer service representatives in Beaverton are always ready to work with them over the phone when they call with questions, whether those questions are technical or sales-oriented. The website, ueitest.com, also provides useful information. “Every customer has a single point of contact within UEi. It's worked really well for us,” Kane says. He estimates that about half of UEi's employees spend at least some of their time out of the office, meeting with customers. “You've got to keep yourself in front of current and potential customers,” he says. “That's where we'll grow our business. And you learn a lot.”

As Kane has discovered, there's always more business than one can go after. Opportunity is always knocking, if you're willing to open the door. He recalls attending a recent trade show where he met the owner of a wholesale business with multiple branches who had never heard of UEi. “We'll work to develop a good business relationship with them,” he says confidently.

One of the motivations that fuels UEi is the very nature of its products. Test and measurement equipment are important tools for contractors, but they are not the only reasons why a contractor goes each day to their local supply house. These tools will never make up the core of a wholesaler's business. That's why UEi's rebranding strategy was so important to the company. With UEi's distinct brand identity in the test and measurement market, its products stand out from the competition. Packaging its products with clear and concise information that is understandable to customers made them easier to sell. Kane says he's struck that UEi products “pretty much sell themselves.” UEi's challenge, he adds, is to “make sure that our wholesalers know enough to explain the products to their customers.” When that happens, Kane says, the products will pretty much take care of themselves.

Kane attributes much of UEi's success to the management team, which has functioned as a close unit for five years. With Sandy Hobkirk, UEi's general manager, running the day-to-day operations, Kane is free to work on strategic and long-term planning issues. The management team, which includes Hobkirk; Tierney; David Wheaton, product development manager; Bruce Baker, national sales manager; and Yori Horan, national combustion sales manager, play to each other's strengths, Kane says. “I think we're quite fortunate because we all pretty much complement each other.”

With such a solid team in place, Kane predicts continued success for UEi. But he and his team will not rest on their laurels. “You're never good enough. We're always trying to make it better, and we're focused on that,” he says. Then there is the competition, which Kane views as a healthy dynamic that keeps everyone on their toes. “We're not No. 1, but we're trying to be a very, very good No. 2.”


Michael Maynard is a business writer based in Providence, RI. He writes frequently on HVACR, construction and architecture issues. Contact him at michael.maynard@lycos.com.

UEi at a Glance
President Michael Kane
Management Team Sandy Hobkirk, general manager
Bruce Baker, national sales manager
Yori Horan, national combustion sales manager
David Wheaton, product development manager
Sean Tierney, marketing manager
Headquarters 8030 SW Nimbus Ave.
Beaverton, OR 97008
Operations Founded in 1967, Universal Enterprises Inc. (UEi) is an industry-leading, privately held manufacturer of portable test and measurement tools for the HVACR industry.
Employees n/a
Major Product Lines Phoenix Clamp Meter Series
Eagle Combustion Analyzers
Scout I.R. Thermometers
Annual Sales n/a
Websites www.ueitest.com
www.ueiautomotive.com

Best Practice

Definition and Example: Redesign the business process to reduce SKUs, develop innovative and customer-friendly products, offer world-class delivery and service performance, and strengthen UEi's presence in the marketplace.

Significance: Reduce wholesaler inventories, simplify product training and improve customer service while providing HVACR professionals with innovative solutions to real-world problems.

Benefits: Making life easier for wholesalers and their customers and offering a credible alternative to expensive name brands.

People Involved:

Sales Team: Experienced internal and field professionals provide personalized service unmatched by outsourced customer service.

Customer Service: Knowledgeable, helpful and empowered to get problems solved.

Technical Support: Accessible through phone or e-mail to provide intelligent solutions.

Service & Repair: On-staff technicians offer fast turnaround; products backed by industry-leading warranties without the small print.

Shipping: Most orders ship complete within 24 hours.

Local Rep Agencies: National coverage through experienced professionals providing local training, sales and marketing support.

Other Considerations: It's all about relationships: with our routes to market, with their customers.