There is a well-established axiom in business that if something works well, you keep doing it until you have a reason to change it.

It's time-tested advice that continues to wear well, and transferred to the world of HVACR, Dick Foster continues to follow it.

Foster, president of Elmwood Park, NJ-based ZoneFirst, is one of those personalities that everyone knows and if you don't, eventually you will.

When asked about his best practice approach for gleaning the most out of a HARDI conference, Foster begins with a history that is uncommon. He attended his first HARDI conference (in the form of a predecessor) in the Poconos, 41 years ago, as a 12-year-old tagalong with his father, Richard N. Foster Sr., founder of the company.

All those conferences (there was a second, summer-related conference) gave Dick Foster a launching pad for how to use the conference as a business tool.

Indeed, it eventually led to a plan and a philosophy that has served him well for more than four decades and started with some advice his father gave him: "You're not just doing business. You're doing business with friends."

Foster likens it to a business-tilted version of the famous book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. The theory remains painfully simple but strikes a resonant cord with everyone. You buy from people you know and like.

Foster has refined that advice and says that, in some ways, using the conference now is easier than in the past. For example, HARDI now publishes an early registration list and updates, which allow members to see which wholesalers they might want to meet or get to know better.

When asked by HVACR Distribution Business to share his best practice for suppliers, he said: "I follow the basics. I plan ahead and set a goal of what I want to accomplish."

Then he reviews his plan at the conference, makes any necessary adjustments and follows through with his plan.

Although Foster admits to an agenda for himself, the precise nature of what he does varies depending on the customers. "For some wholesalers, I just want to maintain the relationship and thank them," he says. "It's mostly, if not all, social. We might talk very little about business. But for others, our discussions are mostly about business, whether at the conference booth program or over a breakfast or lunch."

What really adds substance to the process for a supplier is that the conference setting makes it so inviting to talk about business, no matter how casual or formal. By just being there, everyone has a warm introduction, says Foster, recognizing that the beginning of any sales process is often the most important.

Foster also reminds his peers that approaching a large, publicly held company is very different than continuing a relationship with a family-owned business. "I started out as the young guy, but now I'm starting to talk to the kids and heirs of people I knew in my youth," he says. "Suddenly, I'm the old guy, but it's important for the new team to know who I am and the products I sell."

One element that many suppliers forget is to become involved with HARDI. Foster Sr. was chairman of the associate committee, the only position a supplier could hold back then, Dick Foster explains.

Dick Foster is a former board member and served as one of two supplier members (Al Butler was the other) of the transition team that created HARDI. "I've been on every committee that interests me," he says. "It can be one of the best ways to help the organization and gain benefit from it." Being a member of a council or committee facilitates greater interaction with members; it allows suppliers to better understand other members' style, goals, aspirations and even how they conduct business. In a sense, one obtains insider information by simply volunteering some time and listening.

Pressing Foster for a "best practice" after his more than 80-plus conferences (missing only a few during the years), he points to a seemingly obvious, yet ignored practice. He expresses amazement when he sees fellow suppliers who congregate with each other at HARDI functions when they ought to be meeting with their customers: the wholesalers.

"Stalking, sometimes that's what you've got to do," he says with a laugh. He points out that in his early days, the ratio of wholesalers to manufacturers favored the latter, but it is now the reverse, thus making a wholesaler more important than ever because the ratio is smaller. "You have to get on the trade booth show, meeting or social function and just break the ice," he says.

But if you remove the politeness and social aspect of any conference, you are still faced with a very basic question: Is it worthwhile from a business standpoint both in terms of money and time spent?

Foster pauses for a few seconds and then says: "About 80 percent of my wholesaler customers are HARDI members. I know it's worth the investment."


Tom Peric is the editor of HVACR Distribution Business. Contact him at 856/874-0049 or tom.peric@penton.com.