Branch Manager Fundamentals

The branch manager makes your company successful.

As I made my career advances from branch manager up through progressive management levels, I realized that the differentiator in my division or region or company was ultimately the knowledge, attitude and skills of the local manager at the market level, the branch manager. The branch market space is the ground zero real world space for the wholesale distributor. This is where the branch manager operates. Regardless of corporate structure or strategy, a strong local branch manager will beat the weaker branch manager of the competitor regardless of their strategy or structure.

There are five fundamental skill sets the branch manager must have to be successful. They are:

  1. The 5,000-Foot View
  2. Good Communication
  3. Ability to Build a Team
  4. Skilled at Managing Outside Salespeople
  5. Knowledge of Financial Analysis

The 5,000-Foot View

The first fundamental, the 5,000-foot view, is where everything the branch manager does has to start. The starting point is knowing and understanding the local market in which the branch is operating. A lot of money is spent to understand the macro-industry ratios, overall trends and benchmarks. They are nice to know, but what is going on real time in the specific market is the information that the branch manager constantly needs to receive.

The successful manager realizes that the local market is a dynamic universe of constantly changing and adjusting forces in the competitive world of customers and suppliers. With a constant flow of market level information coming from many sources, the branch manager can adjust and focus resources quickly to take advantage of share gain opportunities. I call this evergreen market information the 5,000-foot view.

My hobby is to teach people how to fly airplanes. At 5,000 feet above any city, you can see the entire infrastructure of the city and all the activity. This view from 5,000 feet is a snapshot of the commercial activity and changes happening in the market. The branch manager needs to work on finding ways to continually receive this view of activities and changes in their market.

A few prime sources of the 5,000-foot view are found by treating all the manufacturer representatives with respect and engaging them in conversation about what they know is going on in the industry. After all, they call on your competitors and customers and have a broad reach into the market. Another approach is to train the counter salespeople and delivery drivers on questions to ask customers in order to learn about new things going on in their market.

The branch manager needs to lean out of the day-to-day business to constantly seek new information. But even if the manager is establishing excellent 5,000-foot view evergreen market information, the ability to lead the team to take advantage of the information has a hard stop if their communication skills are weak.

Communicating

Fundamental Two deals with the communication habits and skills of the branch manager. I have seen and worked with very smart and market savvy managers, yet they struggle to significantly improve performance because their employees are cowering and intimidated by their management style.

Prior to a branch manager workshop, we survey the employees of the attendees. The number one most listed area the branch manager needs to improve is communication habits and style. This is the biggest surprise to the branch managers when they see the results. Consider this: The branch manager’s communication style directly impacts employee engagement and motivation in the business.

There is an easy way to begin the evaluation process. Ask the employees to complete a simple and confidential feedback questionnaire with just three questions:

  • What does Jim do in the branch that you really like?
  • What does Jim do in the branch that he needs to do more of?
  • What does Jim do in the branch that he needs to stop doing?

Be absolutely certain the writer’s identity cannot be determined. You will learn a lot about the branch manager’s style and habits and what needs to change. If you have a rather grumpy, intense, sarcastic style, the worst thing you could be telling yourself is: “Well, that is just my style and everybody knows how I am.”  You are flunking out on Fundamental Two.

Team Building

Fundamental Three can only happen once the manager is mastering the first two Fundamentals and is all about employee engagement to provide value to the right customers. Think about how many employee touch points to a customer you have in a typical day as a gas and welding distributor. At every touch point is a critical moment of employee motivation. Since an order is either 100 percent perfect or a mistake, every touch point is a pass or fail moment.

I have watched many managers try to improve customer service with a passionate and vociferous speech at their weekly or monthly meetings about customer service. But there is very little change in the way people do things and problems get repeated with the comment that “someone needs to fix this” by a frustrated employee. The fix is to provide a pathway for the employees to engage in fixing issues and impediments to customer service.

This pathway is a fun, simple yet powerful tool I call the “mini-huddle.” The mini-huddle is a series of steps that pull together various people in the branch to find the cause and effect of events leading to the customer service problems. The employees welcome the opportunity to fix things that cause them more work and in the process eliminate the habits that cause the customer service problems.

The first step in building the mini-huddle culture in the branch is to ask the branch team to identify impediments that often get in the way or happen a lot that cause the customer experience to be less than perfect. Ask a few cross-functional people to huddle up and work on identifying the cause and cure to the issue. Be sure to support and communicate the successes from the huddles. Eventually people will take the initiative and call their own mini-huddle to solve problems and prevent mistakes. It is very exciting to see and experience once it gets going. This is a progressive organizational development though, and it needs to be coached and nurtured over many months for it to full get traction.

Managing Outside Salespeople

With the branch team engaged in the mini-huddle process, the next step is to aim the sales force at the right customers. Outside salespeople are an expensive investment that must be constantly performing in a way that drives business growth and profitability. Think about the top line of your financial report as a summary of the account package portfolios in your branch. How the account packages perform is directly influenced by the skills and attitudes of the outside salespeople, which are the direct result of the branch manager’s sales management skills. Even your best salespeople need direction and boundaries that fit the business goals.

My survey data confirm that branch managers feel their toughest job is managing the outside salespeople. They are right. That is a tough job and a very important part of the success of the branch.

The idea that sales and sales management is a separate function from branch management is a big mistake. They are an integral part of the overall branch success, and they directly impact what investment should be made in the operations side of the business.

In some organizational structures, the salespeople do not report directly to the branch manager. However, even in that reporting structure, the branch manager can influence and help direct the salesperson. Where the salesperson reports directly to the branch manager, Fundamental Four points the way to aim the salesperson and therefore the overall business on the right accounts, arm the salesperson to sell what you want them to, and improve their engagement skills in front of the customer.

Unless the branch manager is directly involved in the sales management part of the business, it is next to impossible to fully understand how to direct the resources of the branch in delivering customer service.

Financial Analysis

Fundamentals One through Four address market awareness, personal leadership style, engaging the employees in the business, and effective sales management techniques. There is a scorecard for the branch manager to indicate results—the financial reports on the branch performance. Fundamental Five has two parts: the first is a primer on the basic financial report and its components; the second is where the fun and creativity happen.

We have many commonly used ratios: gross profit rate, inventory turnover, accounts receivable, accounts payable, turn and earn, to name a few. There are a few common variances, such as the change in total sales this year over last, expressed as “sales are up 10 percent this year.” What is really revealing is creating your own ratios of various line items to sales or gross profit dollars or inventory investment, etc. and then applying variance analysis to the ratio over time. I refer to this as uncovering the branch organizational behavior by reviewing your financial data. Your data over time is what is important. Benchmark data in the industry is nice to know, but working your branch financial data and how it changes over time is Fundamental Five.

Every branch manager must know all the inputs that impact every line item on their financial statement. All the actions in the branch eventually turn into financial data somewhere on the reports. Many opportunities to uncover a profit leak, find resources being wasted, and spot good or bad trends early in the cycle will be missed if the branch manager simply looks at the bottom line every month to make sure things are “okay.” Fundamental Five is to study and analyze the branch financial reports.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
Jim Ambrose Meet the Author
Jim Ambrose is the author of Five Fundamentals for the Wholesale Distribution Branch Manager, My Business Analysis, and Cracking Accounts. A faculty member of the University of Industrial Distribution, he is headquartered in Camillus, New York, and www.jimambroseworkshops.com.