One of Florida’s leading manufacturer’s rep firms – Orlando-based Spirit Group, Inc. – is making the transition to a new generation of leadership. “Our company is fortunate to unite comprehensive industry experience, with youthful initiative and fresh ideas,” said Bill Freeman, CEO, and co-founder of the 18-year-old firm.
Now, Freeman’s son Benn has taken the helm as President, and is part of a four-person management team: Matt Clark-Vice President of Sales & Marketing, Ian Heacox-Vice President of Specification Sales, and son Chase is Vice President – Industrial and Waterworks, two key growth segments for the firm. Bill said, “Our agency began with a solid founding group, but these four guys are significantly advanced from where we all were in our relationships, our market insight, and our understanding of the rep business, at similar ages. It is their personal preparation, and the experience and mentoring of our founders and long-time employees that have made this transition possible so early.”
Co-founders Scott Heacox and Mike Ross will remain in their current roles on Spirit Group’s executive committee, while continuing to drive sales in their territories. Sheree Freeman, the company’s CFO, is also a member of the executive committee. “Our comprehensive leadership succession plans will position Spirit Group for continued success over the long term,” said Benn Freeman in an interview with Plumbing Perspective. “Bill will remain in touch with manufacturers and customers, but will shift to more of an oversight role when it comes to day-to-day operations and sales management.”
Today, Spirit Group covers the state of Florida, excluding the Panhandle, representing quality manufacturers of pipe, valves, fittings, fixtures, faucets, and accessories. “Florida’s plumbing industry can have confidence in our strong and experienced sales team, and our company’s strategic direction for the future,” added Benn Freeman. “We represent many great lines and have tremendous product knowledge, along with a deep dedication to serving our customers at all levels.”
Growing through the years
Reflecting back on the founding of Spirit Group in 1994, Bill Freeman said it was a group of friends, respected business associates who shaped the close-knit team culture of our company. “Much of our firm’s success can be attributed to the hard work and dedication of that original group,” said Bill Freeman. “We began with only eight lines and eight people, and worked hard to build strong relationships, and deepen our understanding of the sales dynamics of our business.”
Benn Freeman noted that Charlotte Pipe has been one of the company’s flagship lines since its founding 18 years ago. “Our relationship with this industry leading, family-owned company is one of the strongest between any manufacturer and rep firm,” he said. Today, the firm represents 18 manufacturers, including Accor, Armacell, Elkhart Products, Erico, Mission, E.L. Mustee, Rheem-Ruud, Rectorseal, and Vortens.
“One of our biggest advantages is having a highly diverse lineup that includes a number of niche products like AquaRex,” Benn Freeman said. “We are committed to having proper balance in our lines and manufacturers in order to provide our customers with what they need in an efficient manner. We also strive to generate organic growth with our current lineup, rather than constantly looking for new lines. We are strategic in protecting our manufacturers’ interests in the supply chain.”
The firm markets its lines through select wholesale distributors and promotes its products via a strong secondary market presence with residential and commercial /mechanical plumbing contractors, engineers, industrial, waterworks, architects, builders, and facilities.
“We are not just selling products,” said Clark. “We focus on developing relationships and maintaining them over the long term. We understand the importance of partnerships for everyone to be successful.”
Through the years, Spirit Group has grown to 17 employees, while retaining a close-knit culture that inspires a cooperative approach to sharing fresh ideas and information. “We take care of our employees and as a result we have great tenure on our team, including many professionals with 15 to 25 years of experience in the Florida market,” said Benn Freeman, who joined Spirit Group in October 2007 after working with a manufacturer for four years. “As challenging as the last five years have been for the plumbing industry, I’ve found this to be a very rewarding business – especially with all the great people in our industry,” said Benn Freeman.
Entering new markets
That team spirit is helping to drive the rep firm forward into new markets, while adding to its traditional strengths in residential and commercial plumbing. “For the past three years, we have been steadily growing our presence in the industrial and waterworks segments,” said Chase Freeman. “Our new products, Apollo valves and backflow preventers, Keckley strainers, and FlexHose, have been very well accepted by the market. We know that dealing with municipal and utility customers is different from plumbing contractors, so we have built a sales and service team for this sector.”
Anticipating Florida’s decline in residential construction several years ago, the firm made a conscious effort to attract more specification products like Oasis water coolers, McGuire, and Chicago Faucets. Ian Heacox is now leading the team’s initiatives in this area. “My job is to oversee the inside quotation department, and work closely with Luis Gomez in south Florida to insure that our sales staff follows projects from planning and engineering specifications all the way thru to the buy-out,” said Ian Heacox. Patrick Mathews in Orlando quotes most of the jobs, and communicates with the sales staff. Ian commented, “We have people and systems in place to drive the job/spec work from start to finish, and a communication process within to secure project work for our manufacturers and customers.”
In addition to their management roles, Benn and Chase Freeman, Matt Clark and Ian Heacox, join key territory managers Luis Gomez, Randy Johnson, Mike Ross, and Scott Heacox calling regularly on customers in all market segments. The firm’s inside team includes Barry Ayres, Debi Calamia, Patrice Davis, Donna DeGregory, Ernie Jones, and Patrick Matthews.
Chase Freeman says the sales team enjoys representing quality domestic manufacturers. “We believe in selling quality, and virtually all our products are Made in the U.S.A, or in Buy-America countries,” he added.
Adding value to sales
Spirit Group’s team also focuses on ways to add value to every sale. To take just one example, Clark is recognized throughout Florida for his technical expertise. “I enjoy listening to the plumbing contractors,” Clark said. “It’s very satisfying to identify a need, and then be able to provide the technical solution as well.”
When a new product comes in, Clark and the other outside sales professionals, like to get it right in front of a contractor. “They may see new features and benefits, or identify how it can be used in an application,” said Clark. “These are the guys turning the wrenches every day and they understand the practical aspects, as well as the technical side.”
Spirit Group also holds a wide range of training sessions, including lunch and learn events, with all its product lines. “We believe that as plumbing professionals are educated about our products, they are more likely to specify and use our products correctly,” Clark said, who has also been involved with apprenticeship programs, and installation training for CPVC and Metacaulk fire-stopping systems.
“We did a lot of research and spent a lot of time and money to make our website the best in the country. We’ve tried to make it an easy-to-use tool for training, as well as gathering specifications and pricing information,” Benn Freeman said. “In addition, we have developed our own information management system, as part of our commitment to adopt new technology to help us become more efficient as a company.” Spirit Group believes in new technology, but still answers every phone call with a live person, something preferred by customers.
Benn Freeman says Spirit Group’s dedication to adding value has paid off during Florida’s economic downturn and slow recovery. “We know everyone has faced challenges in the past few years,” he said. “For us, 2009 was the toughest time, and since then we’ve been growing and improving our performance.”
From his statewide perspective, Clark says he’s finally seeing an upturn in residential construction. “While there’s still a lot of foreclosed properties on the market, a number of builders are starting new projects,” he said. “We do see good signs of life and there is light at the end of the tunnel.” On the commercial side, Clark says many projects are in the planning and design phase with developers who are either waiting for funding or market improvement, to start construction.
Spirit Group has been highly active in the commercial sector with a growing portfolio of high-profile commercial, healthcare and governmental projects, including the Duval County Court House in Jacksonville, the VA and Nemours Children’s Hospitals in Orlando, Lee County VA Healthcare Center in Cape Coral, and Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center near Titusville, as well as Traditions Hospital, now under construction in Port St. Lucie.
“Today, rep agencies’ greatest challenges are the economy, foreign competition, and protecting sales volume in the wholesale channel,” said Benn Freeman. “We need to maintain the wholesale distribution channel in the face of those pressures to ensure that plumbing professionals specify and use the right products for each individual application. This is not a one-size-fits-all industry, as every project is different.”
Summing up the company’s philosophy, Benn Freeman said, “We don’t want to be the biggest rep firm in the state. We want to become more knowledgeable about our products, increase market insight, operate more efficiently, and keep improving. Most of all, we want to build on our reputation for professionalism and integrity, while helping our manufacturers and customers throughout Florida achieve their goals.”
Spirit Group’s Statement of Values
• Provide opportunity in business and concern for the well-being and security of all employees and their families
• Commitment to personal performance that will build strong relationships and lead to complete satisfaction in our manufacturers, our wholesale customers, and our secondary market influences
• Enthusiasm, respect, teamwork, fairness, and caring in all relationships
• Maintain a strong financial base and reinvest profits, to support our business partners and secure the future of our company