Manufacturing executives come in two varieties: Production line executives and wholesale sales representatives. Production line executives (PLEs) coordinate production on the factory floor. They supervise production employees, check inventory levels, make certain sales representatives’ orders are being filled, and oversee equipment maintenance and employee needs. They are based in manufacturing plants, where they work closely with employees, and put in predictable hours. Wholesale sales representatives (WSRs), who make up over 70 percent of manufacturing executives, are, first and foremost, salespeople. They spend most of their time on the road, meeting with clients, recruiting new business, and checking shipments and customers’ inventory levels. WSRs liaise with professional buyers, wholesale purchasing agents, and retail stores to make certain that goods get from the factory to the consumer.
WSRs are usually assigned a territory (which can range from a section of a large city to a number of states) and given responsibility for maintaining and improving wholesale sales in that region. To be able to negotiate with clients, existing and prospective, and keep the sales commitments they make, WSRs must have up-to-date information from their PLE counterparts at the manufacturing facility, including manufacturing costs, delivery costs, speed of production, inventory levels and product line options. “You’ve got to have credibility in your region,” mentioned one WSR, “because all the buyers talk to each other and if you don’t follow through on what you tell them, you’re finished. No one will buy from you again.” This theme of “credibility” was echoed by a number of our survey respondents.
WSRs work long hours, but their salaries are higher than those of PLEs. WSRs also have more control over their schedules. They have to meet with their clients regularly, but they can determine when and in what order. For many, the least attractive part of this job is the time spent on the road. If you’re responsible for a large territory, many said, “get used to crummy motel rooms.” Others said it’s important to treat longtime clients with the same attention you give to new clients, otherwise they won’t be clients much longer. WSRs lead a hard and varied life, but those who are successful salespeople reap significant rewards.
It used to be that anyone with initiative, sales skills, and negotiating savvy could find a job as a manufacturing representative. More and more, though, employers are requiring that new hires have college degrees. Marketing, business, psychology, or advertising majors have advantages in the applicant pool. Manufacturing executives also generate sales reports, analyze figures, and file expense reports, so any work experience that demonstrates comfort with numbers is welcomed. At larger concerns, all new hires complete training programs in which they learn about the companies’ product lines and manufacturing processes, their competitors’ products, and general sales techniques. A WSR may spend her first six months working as part of a team with a more experienced sales representative, particularly if the company manufactures a product with technical elements.
Former WSRs hold most of the upper-level management positions at manufacturing companies. A significant number of WSRs become professional buyers for retail and wholesale concerns, using their product and manufacturing expertise to drive good bargains. A notable few enter marketing or advertising or do demographic studies in their industry. Over 20 percent take up graduate studies; only ten percent of this group return as manufacturing executives.