Think about the skill-sets needed in order to be a good rep in this industry. For one thing, to be a rep in the outdoor industry it helps if you have an A-game and/or preferably a passion in one or more outdoor sports, such as skiing, climbing, or paddling. You’ve got to be professional, interpersonal, driven, and willing to work hard for little (consistent) pay. You have to be able to move seamlessly from the bro’ environment at the local climbing gym to the back boardrooms of Nordstrom’s, sometimes even without changing clothes. (Just try pulling that one off…)
You have to love travel. Not the exotic, going-somewhere-foreign-and-beautiful kind of travel, but the pedantic, non-glamorous, stale-coffee travel that brings with it an intimate familiarity with every backwater roadhouse between here and Topeka. You have to be willing to leave home, family, and friends behind to do it. To make matters worse, often you drive right past some of the territory’s best climbing, paddling, and skiing in order to get to that next destination. Mostly, you do this in the middle of the night…
It’s no wonder that reps are getting fewer and rarer as each season passes. The rep shortage in this industry is one of those “don’t-want-to-look-at-that” problems that everyone acknowledges and yet no one can really solve. It’s like the worldwide shortage of honeybees. No one knows what’s causing it or what can be done about it, but people in the know say that the loss of honeybees is directly related to the looming worldwide food shortage. Turns out that the bees are the major pollinators. They make things grow, and bloom, and bear fruit. Without putting too fine of a point on it, this is what reps do, too.
With all of this in mind it’s sad that in this past week we’ve lost two reps in this territory: Sunday Park and Jenn Whitely have each moved on to bigger and better things. Of course, Sunday worked with Brian, Vanessa, and crew at Ames Adventure Outfitters; Jenn was for years with the Holton Sales Group. They have each moved on for the best of reasons – to spend more time with their families – but we’ll still miss working with them, and we’ll miss their work, too. They made people excited about their brands, their sports, and this industry. Reps like Sunday and Jenn are as rare as wild tigers, and – once gone – just as difficult to replace.
Really, it’s true: There are fewer than 2000 tigers left in the wild, and there are certainly fewer reps than this in the outdoor industry.
During the last major economic downturn in 2002 following 9/11, a number of reps left this industry for good. While some are still around in other capacities, many are doing other things entirely. There’s no accounting for the loss of passion and firepower, but there’s no question that we’re a weaker industry because of their departure. What’s concerning is that we can probably expect a similar winnowing of the rep force in the near future, as market conditions, changing job descriptions, and sheer burnout take their toll in the coming months. Some welcome this, and see the opportunity in scarcity. Job security weighs out over professionalism, in this mindset. We here at Pemba have always taken another position, though: There is no end-game in being the last rep standing.
Reps are as critical to this industry as bees are to the food chain, or as tigers are to the jungle. You don’t need to be a biologist to know what happens when you take the pollinators or the predators out of an ecosystem. This industry needs reps, and needs good ones at that. We need to keep the good reps we have and foster the development of new ones. We need to find a common ground of benefits, best-practices, and shared resources and infrastructure so that reps, the lines they represent, and the stores they serve all thrive in common.