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What Makes For A Great Wholesaler?

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Dennis works for a wholesaler. He hired me to do a seminar for the contractors in his area, and what a beautiful area it is.

There's a lot of new residential construction going on, and so many of these homes are high-end vacation places. Nearly all have hydronic radiant heating systems, multiple boilers, snowmelt systems, and boiler rooms that look like the ones you'll find in commercial buildings. In fact, most of this stuff is commercial in scope and scale. It's a wonderful place to be, and an even better place to work.

When I was making my plans to fly out for the seminar, Dennis invited me to stay over for an extra day after the seminar so that we could ride around in his big truck and take in some of the local sights. He asked if I felt like fishing or hiking, or maybe I'd just like to drive around and look at some of the work that was being done by the contractors. I chose the third option, of course. I am a devote Wet Head.

And we weren't going to drive around all day looking at problem jobs. Dennis wasn't looking for free consultations from the likes of me, and neither were the contractors. They didn't need that. Dennis just wanted to show me what some of these guys who had come to the seminar the day before were up to. He had played a part in the design of many of their jobs, and he was proud of what these guys had built. He thought that it was important for us to be there to look at the results of their studying, and of their sweat. I liked that.

All in all, we visited six jobs that day. Some of them were still under construction; others were finished. We met the contractors and they were as proud as parents to show us around. We went over every detail of each job, and I asked questions about why they did things a certain way. They were so eager to show me the tricks and techniques they had used. Some of this knowledge had taken them years to acquire, but they generously shared it with me without reservation. We were a bunch of Wet Heads, looking at systems that provide unsurpassed levels of comfort to homeowners who rarely consider the mechanical workings of these hydronic wonders, and we were thoroughly enjoying the experience.

When we were heading back to my hotel that evening, Dennis thanked me for spending time with the contractors. "Hey, it was my pleasure," I said.

"But it means a lot to them, Dan" he said.

"That I look at their jobs?" I asked.

"Well, not just you," Dennis continued. "It means a lot to them that we all take an interest in what they're doing. Their work deserves to be noticed and admired. You have to be there to see it. It's important that we be there."

I thought about that for a while as I watched the beauty of America roll by.

When my daughters were small they would come to me and shout, "Daddy! Watch!" and then they would do a somersault or a cartwheel or kick a soccer ball or dance with glee. What was important to them was that I watch and acknowledge their achievements. They needed me to admire their newly attained skills. Children are like that. It's part of what makes them wonderful. They revel in each new discovery, and they're always excited to show you what they've learned. It's important that you be there for them. I thought about that as I rode with Dennis and looked at the mountains.

I was speaking at an industry association dinner not long ago. They awarded some plaques to members who had done outstanding work that previous year. I watched as each of the recipients walked up to the podium. Each had his picture taken with the president of the association and did the traditional "shake and take" and then he would sit down again. I watched as each of them looked lovingly at the plaque he had received. He would pass the plaque around the table and smile. It meant a lot to each of them. Each was being acknowledged for the good work he  had done, and it was important for us to be there.

I thought about that as we drove.

My father, as he got older, would stop by during the day while I was sitting and writing and trying to make some magazine deadline. He'd pop in unannounced and ask if I had any coffee for him. He'd sit and tell me stories about when he worked in the wholesale end of this business. He'd laugh and he'd remember and he'd tell me the same stories over and over again. I had heard them all before. Countless times.

I went to his grave last week and I stood there for a long time. I apologized to him for my annoyance when he'd stop by for coffee. I was younger then, and I thought he would be here forever, as he had always been. I thought we'd have all the time in the world for talk and for coffee. I stood there last week and talked to the lawn. I thought about how important it was for me to be there to listen to his memories when he was still with me. In the final years, those memories were what defined him. I wish I had been more patient with him.

The last job Dennis and I visited that day was a monastery that was nestled in a valley between majestic mountains. It was prayerfully quiet and the contractor showed us around the boiler room he had just built. He explained that he had had to follow the plans of an old-timer from back east, a retired engineer who had contributed much money to the monastery over the years. "The engineer guy insisted I do it this way. I think his design is a big wacky, but it seems to work." The old-timer had designed a typical New York City job for the monks. It worked just fine, but it seemed old-fashioned to the contractor, who was much more used to radiant heat, multiple-boiler systems, primary/secondary pumping, and such. "It seems to work, though," the contractor said, shrugging his shoulders.

"You did a beautiful installation here," I said, looking around the room. "I see a lot of this in New York, but your work is like art. Some of the best I've ever seen."

The contractor's eyes glowed and he turned his back to brush some dust off one of the big circulators. "You think so?" he said.

Dennis caught my eye, smiled, and winked at me.

It was important for us to be there, to look at that man's work, and to admire his skills, no matter who did the design. Contractors appreciate that. Everyone does. After all, we only human.

I've learned that along the way. I hope I never forget it.


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