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A Day in the Life of a Manufacturing Executive

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.

Paying Your Dues

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.

Present and Future

Manufacturing executives used to be the owners of their companies, the ones who knew the production processes best, who handled all negotiations, and who knew their reputations were on the line with every item that came out of their factories. In the 1860s, the rapid growth of manufacturing in the U.S. made this owner-intensive approach unworkable, and forced owners to delegate these responsibilities to trusted managers or “owner representatives.” As internal competition intensified in these industries, formal training programs developed that led to the separation of manufacturing representatives’ duties into those of the PLE and those of the WSR. PLEs can expect job prospects to hold steady, since it is impossible to replace the human element in production supervision. WSRs, however, will encounter pressure from two sides. General manufacturing downsizing in the U.S., combined with the decline of small retail firms and the rise of larger bulk-sales and direct-sales houses, will decrease the need for wholesale sales representatives. In addition, the development of standardized-interface merchandise ordering systems, known as electronic data interchange (EDI) systems, will render some of the WSR’s functions obsolete. Clients will be able to view, price, and order merchandise or samples on demand. Currently, only very profitable companies can afford these systems, but as their prices decline, WSRs can expect more and more wholesalers to avail themselves of this option.

Quality of Life


Two years into the profession, manufacturing executives have become either production line executives on the manufacturing floor or wholesale sales representatives out in the field, trying to build a client base. Many WSRs work forty-five or more hours a week as they establish relationships with the clients that were assigned to them and find new clients all their own. Satisfaction is average; salaries are low-to-average, depending on commissions.


WSRs have gone through whole product and business cycles and have at times had to work very hard to maintain their quality of life. Salaries have increased, but many have exhausted the opportunities within their assigned region. Successful WSRs have moved to more promising territories; others with managerial skills have been assigned to oversee large territories with a number of sales managers. Hours flatten out, and satisfaction rises.


Ten-year veterans begin to make decisions about their future direction. Those who are excellent salespeople with good contacts often choose to remain salespeople, finally earning a sizable income from their hard work. Those who are tired of the long hours on the road, the frequent complaints from clients, and the posturing of negotiations, attempt to secure supervisory, managerial, or consultant positions in the industry. Salaries and satisfaction are above average.