Magazine pays tribute to some of the most illustrious members of our industry.
Category: Legend, Rep
Alan Colker, Alco Lighting Sales Inc.
The Early Days:
My father opened an electrical supply house in Charleston, WV in the 1950s and my uncles also opened one in Huntington, West Virginia. I guess you could say I didn’t have much chance to escape. I began working with my father when I was about 13 years old helping in the warehouse for 10 cents an hour. After some time spent at West Virginia University, I began working for my dad full-time and was soon joined by my two brothers. Dad retired in the early 1970s and I became president. After 18 years there full-time, the last 10 as president, my brothers and I sold the business.
After a little rest, I was strongly encouraged by my beautiful wife, Frona, to find something to do. While on vacation I was checking out some lighting showrooms in Myrtle Beach, S.C. and a chance encounter with a rep led me to begin sub-repping for him in Virginia. Soon after, he gave me the Virginia territory as my own. In 1984, I named my agency Alco Lighting Sales Inc. and started the long process of building relationships and trying to get some decent lines. I’ve been blessed to have more than 25-year relationships with most of the vendors I represent and have added a couple more great companies in the last two years.
After many years working at lighting showrooms, my son Mitch began to work with me part-time about eight years ago while he finished college. A couple of months after he graduated, I offered him a trial position working with me. He has been with me full-time for six years now and has helped me take our business to new heights.
The easy answer is technology and I’m thankful I have had Mitch’s help on that front. It has been a challenge seeing some people I have had long relationships with leave the industry, but Mitch has been a great help in building relationships with the younger generation. While I believe that the basics of service like calling people back and doing what you say you will do does not change, I have seen a difference in what people value the most in their reps. There is less emphasis on things like weekly stop ins with a buyer you are friends with or doing business at a casual lunch and more emphasis on having the ability to keep an accounts staff well-trained and get information to them as quickly as possible. It can be a challenge for older reps like myself to feel comfortable in a world where a one- or two-word text message in answer to a customer can generate the same sale that an hour lunch together used to do. I have had to learn to mesh the old and the new to be the best I possibly can.
Additionally, like many agencies, we have had to expand into the commercial arena and make designers and architects aware of our lines. That brings with it the challenge of having to build new relationships with new accounts. I don’t view this as optional; I think it is necessary that every rep take a look at these avenues.
Having Mitch with me has allowed us to incorporate new technologies into our trainings and day-to-day interactions, which has made things easier for both ourselves and our customers.
We have added nights away from home and longer day trips to make sure we maintain and grow our relationships with lighting showrooms while also seeing electrical distributors and supply houses on a regular basis.
We also make sure we stay as up to date as possible on industry trends, legislation changes, and business news so we can offer a valuable service to our accounts above and beyond just selling product. We try to be a knowledge resource our customers can lean on. I think the biggest day-to-day challenge is simply managing our time and trying to make every minute count.
What Lies Ahead:
I think the industry will continue to be strong long-term, but technology will continue to alter the way we do our jobs. Mitch has taught me to realize that things like the Internet and smart phones aren’t going away, so you either embrace them or find yourself going away. Incorporating things like video chat and digital training into your routine will likely become as common to us as email is today. I think I might have been the last rep in the country to buy a computer, but now I can’t imagine working without one. In the same way some of us were slow to adapt to email and smart phones and GPS, the reps who are slow to adapt to emerging technologies will find themselves at a disadvantage.
We are at a very exciting time in our industry. For the first time ever lighting is not just needed, but it is cool! The growth of LED and other technologies like smart controls have pushed our business into the fringe of gadgetry. I am actually selling an item in LED lamps that Apple stores sell! If you had told me 10 years ago that Apple and myself would be competing, I would have laughed. Large electronics chains like Best Buy® are also going to become competition in the LED landscape. More than ever our customers will need reps who can help them be comfortable in selling and talking about our products.
I don’t think showrooms will ever go away. We are fortunate we deal with a product that still has a need to be seen in person by a lot of people. By the time a customer walks into a showroom, there is a good chance they have looked at lighting online and it is a challenge to help our customers understand that people have a desire to see interesting and exciting product – not just 30 different shades of bronze. Showrooms have a chance to position themselves in more of a designer role and it is partly the job of reps to help them realize this opportunity. The basics will not change. Service will be more valuable than ever and people will continue to support those who service them well. However, the way we service our customers will continue to adapt with technology.