How five years turned into 36 years and ownership for Jeff Baumen at Baumen Ltd.
Baumen Ltd. is celebrating 48 years in business this year – but more importantly it’s Jeff Baumen’s 36th year here. How did a promise of five years turn into thirty-six? We were curious too! Read our interview with Jeff below.
What’s the story about how you came to Baumen? Baumen Associates Limited was your dad’s company, right? Had you ever worked with your dad before?
Jeff: Yes. Some of my summers before university I did some warehouse work for him – cutting capacitor leads – preparing these leads for specific customer’s needs. They were electronic customers – so I was a little familiar with the business. That work made me aware of the world of industrial electronics – which I hadn’t really known much about before.
Honestly, at that age and stage I did not have interest in my dad’s business. I was more interested in the music and sport industries, (laughs) but prior to graduating I didn’t pursue those very hard when I should have (laughs) so I went back to spot where I felt comfortable … even though I never had imagined working there.
One day I think I shocked him. I had just returned from Europe after graduating from Ryerson (now Metropolitan Toronto University). I’d been travelling for a few months – thinking about what I wanted to do next. I knew the door was always open with my dad even though there was never any pressure to go and work with him. He always said if you think this is something that you’d like to try let me know. Like I said, at the time I didn’t have a better idea, so I thought why not? When I got home, I called him and said that I’d like to meet with him. We met and talked about what I could do at Baumen and after our conversation I said “Okay, I’ll try this for five years.”
How was the company different than what exists today? Was being a manufacturer’s representative always part of your dad’s business?
Jeff: Actually no, it came later. He started a distribution business in the 60’s and in 1975 he started the manufacturers rep company that was the parent company of this business. It was different than the manufacturing rep business that exists now. This part of the business was a small, side business that was convenient for my dad for a couple of his lines. But it wasn’t his focus point. It wasn’t his main earnings, and it wasn’t a very developed part of the business. I didn’t know much about it except that it had industrial parts and people were building things – and that was what really interested me.
Dad was always looking for opportunities and planting seeds for new companies even though his formal education was in agriculture and not business. Even though those two fields seem unrelated they are really quite similar. As a farmer you’re always planting seeds and as a manufacturers’ rep you’re planting seeds for new business all the time too. Dad was just planting seeds in a different way, but he was always planting seeds – growing the Baumen business – just like a farmer would work to keep the crops growing.
So, you decide that you’ll try working with your dad for five years – tell us about your first day on the job at Baumen … how you felt …what you learned …
Jeff: Classic first day. I was totally overwhelmed (laughs). I got my desk organized. I remember there was lots of information. I don’t think I really expected that, but dad was, like “here’s our line card,” and I had no idea what that was. I realized that I had no idea who anyone really was in terms of customers or principals. I felt like a rookie – starting something brand new. It was a really long day from what I remember. (laughs)
I quickly learned that to earn income on a full commission salary I really had to up my game. I tried new things and when they started trending in the right direction – meaning I started making some money and winning some business – I just kept on that path. But that was all I really knew – to work under that pressure to produce.
It sounds like you learned a lot from experience, but was there one piece of advice that your dad gave you that you’ll never forget?
Jeff: There isn’t one …but what does come to mind – and you’ve probably heard me say this – is that when there’s a big project or exciting deal we are working on – or a project of importance – he would tell me that every day, every week, each month – whatever you do, make sure the customer knows that you are there – that the customer knows that you’re on top of it – he’d remind me that it is very important to follow up with your customer and to make sure that the customers and principals know that you are on top of the projects that are happening. He (my dad) was very big on following up. He was a good communicator and maybe it wasn’t advice – but those were the messages I got regularly from him.
You said five years, but here you are thirty-six years later! Why did you decide to continue after the five years …what was the motivation or passion to continue?
Jeff: (Laughs) It’s pretty simple. I realized that if I continued to do this, I could earn a reasonable living …. So, after the first five years I thought why change at this point? (Laughs again)
Early in my career, I realized that aside from the satisfaction that I got from that job, there was no ceiling on how many customers, opportunities, etc. there was in this business. When I started to realize that there was all this untapped opportunity with new customers or new verticals – that was a pivot point – an important time – when I had success – and I saw that opportunity … and it made me hungry to stick with the business.
What did you say that day? I’ll try this another five years?
Jeff: (Laughs) Honestly, I think I did!
What are the most significant changes in the business since you started?
Jeff: (Laughs) I’m going to show my age here, but when I started, we had fax machines to send prints to customers and principals and that was a technology that not everyone had.
Voice mail was just in the early stages of development and that meant that you didn’t have a bunch of little pink message notes on your desk of people you needed to call back after a day on the road.
There were no mobile phones. My first mobile phone was hard wired into my truck …and that was pretty rare.
There were others too, like computers, but the one big change that stands out is travel. We have the ability to travel so much easier now. Even booking airline tickets. There was no internet when I started and there was nothing online – so everything had to go through a travel agent.
If we roll all those things up, the speed of business is tremendous today versus when I started in 1987. I enjoy the speed and productivity, efficiency and all the gains we can make as a business today and working and keeping up with the manufacturers and principals we work with.
I don’t use the word very often, but our business has really embraced new technologies to position our business well – with our CRM etc. And if there is something that is going to make us more productive and efficient internally then I want to know about it. I want to know about it for sure.
Is there one thing that stands out as most transformational over your time at Baumen …something planned and maybe also unexpected in terms of its value?
Jeff: I would say our digital transformation and the timing of that in the year before the pandemic really stands out. We never could have predicted that the timing of that initiative would have allowed us to continue and transition with ease to remote work and continue business as usual.
The digital transformation included a full rebranding of our assets including our website and adoption of our CRM. We really began to understand how we could leverage these tools while we were working remotely.
But we really had no idea how that initiative would help us move forward when the global workspace was so disrupted with the pandemic. Honestly, we were able to just keep moving forward with the tools we had put in place.
And that’s still an ongoing process for us to continue to optimize these things and to increase our ability to communicate with principals and customers whether it’s in the office or remotely. Basically, we were able to do a whole 360 flip with our operations with ease.
How have you put your own stamp on the company since taking over full ownership in 2009?
Jeff: I would say a big part of my own stamp is my personality and my relations with customers and principals. As a leader of a company, you need to have good relations with leaders of other organizations so with our principals I really feel like we have done that – and in turn we’ve provided customers with solutions as best as we can. I feel like we have really strengthened our bonds since I took ownership. We have legacy relationships and what’s important is that our average tenure is very long …we have the history, we have the contacts, we have the knowledge of the manufactures – their business and what their capabilities are – what their history is – and I think that really helps us especially when we need to escalate projects, concerns or opportunities to a principal.
The other thing I’ve really focused on during my time at Baumen, is growing our portfolio of synergistic product lines. With customers we are stronger going to them with multiple product lines – while at one time we might have gone with one or two product lines, now we might have 6,7, 8 product lines with a single manufacturer. We’ve really taken steps to grow our business and a big part of that is making sure that product lines align with our manufacturers – so one of the biggest differences is that we have more components for each of our channels or verticals.
Your tag line is engineering partnerships – why did you choose this and what does it mean to you and your team?
Jeff: This tag line is an evolution of how our company has evolved and got deeper into component lines and deeper into our four verticals. We realized that there was a huge importance in engineering and the engineering community we were working with at manufacturers. So, it made sense to us to come up with a tag line that reflected that. For our company this really spoke to us not just from the component perspective because what we were developing wasn’t just component sales, but we were engineering partnerships with the communities that we were working with.
We really use it as a focus point in communication with our partners – here’s how we go to market – here’s the value stream that we offer – we understand what content is important and valuable when we speak to engineers every day
What’s the funniest thing that ever happened to you on a sales call, principal, or with a customer?
Jeff: Oh … (laughs) … there’s lots of good ones …but there was the time in the middle of winter when I picked up a principal from southern USA at the Montreal airport and it was an extremely cold, extremely snowy winter, day – and he hadn’t brought a coat. My funniest stories usually have something to do with clothing – there have been many clothing faux pas over the years … aside from forgotten coats there were forgotten dress shoes etc. (laughs) It always turns out that you joke about it later and have some good laughs.
How after so many years do you still find the passion for Baumen and continue to improve the Baumen experience with your partners and team?
Jeff: I never even ask myself that – it just seems like a natural progression to each day to have new ideas – – first thing in the morning. The constant always thinking about what can we do – innovating – what can we do better? Different?
As a team. With our principals. With our customers. What does that look like? What can that be? And not everything works – but always having an open mind to trying new things and having a discussion each day – that’s what keeps me going. There are always new ideas and thoughts – I write them down – always thinking about what we can do better differently the next day with our principals and customers – I have an open mind to try things and have those conversations with my team.
What’s the best part of your day? Not including pickleball … Your Baumen day …?
Jeff: I do like to start my day with some pickleball (laughs), but the best part of Baumen days is when I’ve been out on sales calls – when I’ve met with people – found new opportunities, found, and grown new relationships – saw something new on a plant tour – those are the best parts of a Baumen day.
What’s one thing that continues to amaze you about manufacturing in Canada?
Jeff: For sure it’s the innovation
If Canadian manufacturers weren’t as innovative as they are – all Canadian manufacturing would be done somewhere else. For sure. There is always a lower cost country to do manufacturing. Innovation to stay ahead of the competition that our partners show is phenomenal starting with the R&D departments, sales departments that are always looking for ideas for the manufacturer and so it’s the constant innovation to make things better – new products – that to me is the most impressive.
So, another five years?
Jeff: (Laughs) …Oh, yeah! For sure…