Michael Wintersteller made a bold choice during the Recession by launching his own rep agency.
Like many in the industry, Michael Wintersteller grew up surrounded by lighting; his mother, Linda, has worked for Kichler for the past 48 years. Although his mom always enjoyed her job, Wintersteller didn’t imagine that lighting would become his career after graduating the University of Akron with a degree in Business and Communications.
While exploring his options at age 22, he landed a job with the now-defunct lighting retailer Lampshader, which had two locations in the Cleveland area. The showroom manager who hired him was none other than Maryellen Pazula, who happens to be married to Bruce, Kichler’s vp/design & product development.
“The first couple of years, I was doing everything from loading boxes, putting fixtures together, and then hanging them,” Wintersteller recalls. Eventually he was out on the showroom floor and doing what he learned was a strength: selling.
After three and a half years, Wintersteller moved on to Cleveland Lighting as a full-time sales associate at its 19,000-sq.-ft. showroom, where he remained for six years. “Working in sales, I really loved what I did. It was great experience and made me want to stay in lighting,” he says, “However, I could see that [being in the lighting showroom business] was like managing a three-ring circus.”
It was while working on the sales floor that Wintersteller started building solid relationships with the reps who would visit the store. “In addition to meeting with the manager, I think reps should meet with the salespeople since they are the ones pulling out the manufacturers’ catalogs every day to show customers,” he suggests.
In 2008, Wintersteller’s parents moved to Arizona to be closer to their grandkids and the retail climate was on shaky ground. When he bumped into Arizona rep Dan Duquette by chance during a Dallas Market, opportunity knocked. It turns out Duquette was looking to add to his agency and Wintersteller was open to a career change. With his parents and his sister’s family already living in Arizona, the relocation seemed ideal. There was one catch. “When Dan hired me, he said ‘I need you here in one month,’” he recalls. Wintersteller, who had gotten married that same year, scrambled to set up a place in Arizona. At nearly the same time, Wintersteller’s wife announced she was pregnant. Commuting between two “homes” before being able to relocate his growing family in March 2009 was definitely a daunting task.
During his two years with Duquette & Co. (which had the Kichler, Tech Lighting, and Bulbrite lines), Wintersteller learned the ins and outs of being a good lighting rep . And, after working in lighting retail for years, he had a thorough understanding of what retail customers expect and need. With some solid repping experience under his belt, Duquette and Wintersteller decided the time was right for him to start up his own agency.
According to Wintersteller, one of the biggest challenges he faced was being the youngest rep in the Arizona territory. “It’s tough being the new kid on the block. I came into a territory where most of the lighting reps have been here for 25 years or more, really know the customers, and have great relationships with them. This isn’t an area where there is a lot of turnover in reps. It’s hard to compete with that,” he explains. “I’ve had to prove myself while trying to grow the territory for my lines.” The most effective way Wintersteller has accomplished that task has been to offer superior customer service.
“I visit customers often. My goal from the beginning was to visit my customers more than anyone else. I figured that if they saw me often, they’d be more likely to strike up a relationship with me,” he notes.
In the four years that Wintersteller has been a lighting rep, he has made great strides. “Of course it was rocky in the beginning, back in 2009, when the market was crashing. During 2010, we still saw a lot of [softness]. In 2011, which was my first year with my own agency, the market seemed to be working its way out of the recession. This year, customers seem more positive. I have to say that it’s been a phenomenal year and I’ve been building momentum with the builder and residential communities. I think the relationships I’ve built up over the past several years have helped.”
Wintersteller also keeps in mind a piece of advice his mother gave after he had graduated college and was unsure of which career path to follow: As long as you work hard, you will be successful. “She was right,” he quips.