Why sales agents are destined to flourish

Individuals acting as exclusive agents for multiple manufacturers are a common fixture in many industries but that can’t always be said of the catering equipment sector. But with the role of traditional intermediaries changing, the sales agent model is poised to become more prevalent, writes Richard Fordham, founder of Cuisine-Europe.

I think we would all agree that the past couple of years have seen some pretty dramatic changes within our industry.

The previously well-defined roles of the consultant, distributor, contract house, importer and manufacturer have become somewhat blurred in certain areas and, driven by a tight economy, the need to diversify and show a larger degree of flexibility has never been greater.

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Having had more than 20 years as a directly employed manufacturer’s representative, allied to time behind the stove and in catering management, I have seen trends come and go. Competitive tendering, outsourcing and value engineering, to name but three, have been viewed — and in many cases still are — as a curse on the status quo.

But they are here, they aren’t going to go away and they have their benefits as well as their disadvantages — although I’m not going to open the debate on value engineering here even though, like a lot of people, I’ve felt its claws in my back on too many occasions.

The next trend I see is the growth of the manufacturers’ agent, a role which has come to have a place within the foodservice sector.

It is also an area that I have been directly involved in since the end of last year when Cuisine-Europe reared its head. The sales agent model is already the norm in the USA and it is inevitable that it will grow in significance here too.

Currently I am aware of very few catering equipment agents, but I would hope that as the numbers grow — as they surely will — they will be viewed a little more favourably than the three earlier examples.

The role of the salesman as an employee is reasonably well-defined. You have a range of products you need to sell. On a few occasions in the past I have been asked to source certain products, but by virtue of my allegiance to one company — although self employed — was largely unable to do so. However, there were opportunities to be explored there and, bringing diversity and flexibility to the forefront, Cuisine-Europe was set up to circumnavigate that particular bump in the road.

Essentially I am a freelance salesman, it is as simple as that. I just have more than one company that I work for. After all, with the experience garnered over the years, wouldn’t it be a shame to restrict the benefits of that to one party?
I now have a number of brands in my portfolio forming a nice cross-section of equipment that I am able to source, represent and give advice and guidance on.

I have endeavoured to undertake only those products which provide either some unique benefits, significant sustainability benefits — whether in cost in use, carbon emissions or labour and time savings — or, being selfish for a minute, have limited competition in the UK market.

So what, you may ask, is the benefit of an agent like Cuisine-Europe to its customers?

The answer is simple. By representing different products, it gives the client — be it a consultant, distributor or indeed end-user — less people to deal with.

In any given kitchen lay-out I can co-ordinate the cooking suite, kitchen extraction and air handling, warewashing system, front-of-house servery and now, most recently, and if called for, the specialist wine storage, all from one office.
Some people get the role of an agent immediately, others struggle. And no, I do not add any mark-up onto the products I sell. Prices you get from me will be exactly the same as those from the manufacturer directly.

The benefit to the companies that I represent is a lowering of costs and pure payment on results. With no employment expenses prior to a sale, it is a win-win situation for them.

Additionally, agents are sometimes asked to provide assistance in project management and, unlike Europe where the distributor/contract house largely assumes complete responsibility for this function, the manufacturer here in the UK has an inherent role to play in a successful installation, so I have experienced the many facets of that also.

It therefore makes sense to look at this as a potential additional avenue and assist those who want to use it. Like I said, it’s all about flexibility and diversity.

Mine is a varied role and it would be easy to take every opportunity that presents itself — there have been a number and I’ve looked at and considered most of them. But to do so would be to do an injustice to the brands I have chosen and also a huge disservice to my clients.

So, there you go, that is what the role of an agent entails. There are some who will argue that these things are cyclical, but we should remember that when we adapt to change it becomes the norm after a while. And the more things change, the more they stay the same.

As our friends across the Channel like to say: Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose.

Richard Fordham is the founder of Cuisine-Europe, a trading division of Nomina Consulting, which acts as a UK agent for Counterline warewash systems, Menu System, Frialator Middleby and Wine Storage Solutions. He has previously held roles at a number of companies operating in the foodservice sector, including Kuppersbusch, Winterhalter and Masters & Andren Limited.

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