By Amy Antenora
Andy Robinson is the general manager of Permatex, a part of the Illinois Tool Works Performance Polymers Group. He was appointed to the position of general manager in August 2008. Robinson has been with Permatex since 1999 and was Permatex’s VP of Operations and was promoted to general manager of ITW/Spray Nine, which was a recent Permatex/ITW acquisition. Robinson holds a BSIE degree from Lehigh University and an MBA from the University of Hartford.
Robinson sat down for an interview with aftermarketNews, just as Permatex was celebrating its 100th anniversary. Read on to learn more about Permatex’s plans for 2009 and beyond.
You are new to your role as GM of Permatex (as of August 2008) and have an operations background with the company. What benefits does your experience and background bring to your new role?
I do have an operations background. I have an engineering undergrad degree and then I went and received a MBA degree. I feel this foundation will prove valuable in my new role.
I think what it brings to the table, at least in terms of my personality, is that I like to measure everything. I tell my folks, “If you can’t show it to me on a chart, then it’s probably not that important.” We need to measure results and I think if you have an operational background you tend to be able to measure things much more easily than compared to other parts of the organization.
It has caused a little consternation with those who aren’t used to it, but at the end of the day, I think it’s a great tool because it forces them to think about what’s really important. They have to find a measurement to show me we are making progress I like to know where we are all the time
The automotive chemicals category is particularly popular today, with a proliferation of SKUs. What category management principles does the company use to help Permatex best manage this business?
We believe in category management like it’s nobody’s business. It is our goal to be the category captain at all of our key customers because we are the experts in adhesives, sealants, hand cleaners and other chemicals. We have the insight on what the end user is looking for and how our customers’ planogram should be set. It is a partnership with our customers, where we provide this insight and our experience based on real facts and research to help their performance, and in some cases ours.
We make recommendations to keep and add our competitors all the time, because it’s the right thing for the consumer and for our customer and if we make the wrong recommendations we are just as much to blame because their performance will suffer. We’re going through category reviews with several of our key customers right now and we aim to expand that as best we can. We have a group here that focuses solely on getting prepared for various category reviews and presenting that type of information to our key accounts on a very regular basis.
And speaking of SKUs, Permatex launched a number of new products in 2008. What is Permatex’s philosophy on bringing new products to market what drives the development of new products?
Permatex/ITW is a very metric driven company. One of the key metrics is that on a regular basis we have to present information on how new products are doing. So, impetus #1 is the executives want to know what new products you have, what percent of sales they make up and how the margins on these items compare to your business. It’s just a part of life here.
Second, our goal is to have 10 percent of our annual sales be from new product sales. We define new product as something that was launched within the last three years. We have a very good measurement of this and actually review it on a regular basis. So, we have a good handle on new product sales all of the time.
The next thing is we have our marketing group, which is focused on getting our sales figures up all the time. Their near full-time job is to develop new products. There’s lots of ways of doing that, but this year we’re going to do some things differently. For example, we just finished something we called a “Supplier Summit” at our Ohio facility. We brought in all of our key suppliers with our marketing, technical and operations folks and basically told them, “We want to see what new stuff you have to offer, and also, we want to have right of first refusal on anything you come up with in the future that you haven’t shown us today.”
So it was like your own mini trade show essentially …
Exactly. I just caught glimpse of some of the results and I think we’ve got a dozen or so solid ideas to go forward with just from that meeting. And what’s nice about our suppliers is that the product or the concept is well beyond just the thought stages. It’s close to implementation such as waiting for a new mold. There are solid ideas that are out there and available, so we like that.
We also do extensive market research, where we actually go and spend time with the professional mechanic (one of our ultimate customers), and try and understand the day in the life of a mechanic. When you spend a whole day with a mechanic in a shop you get a feel for what products are used heavily, what products he or she would like to have that they don’t have, etc. We also go to many trade shows to get new ideas.
Finally, as an acquisition-driven company, one of the best ways to get new products is to buy a company. We spend a great deal of time trying to find companies we can buy, and as you know we bought two in 2008. So, those are three things we are focusing on to get new products. It’s definitely an essential metric for Permatex.
Please share information about new products coming out in 2009.
One of them is a Wheel Restoration Kit. We have a comprehensive kit family right now, what we call our ‘clamshell’ line of pro repair kits and we have several different kinds repair your gas tank, repair your windshield, etc. There are five or six pro repair kits and basically you open them up and you have everything you need to get the job done.
We did really well with our Headlight Restoration Kit over the last few years. The new one we’re coming out with is called a Wheel Restoration Kit and it’s meant for the repairing and restoring not only factory wheels but even those fancy mag-type wheels that seem to be very prevalent on the roads today. Sometimes you hit a curb and end up with unsightly “curb rash”, or maybe a rock or fresh tar hits your wheel which causes chips or other blemishes on your wheel finish. Many car owners and especially car enthusiasts like their wheels to be spotless and perfect all the time and this kit is a mechanism to keep those wheels looking new even after wear and tear. It’s certainly cheaper than buying a new wheels! This new product is available now.
You mentioned acquisition a moment a go. While economic conditions are difficult right now, some major players in the industry are using this challenging time as an opportunity to grow through acquisition. And as you mentioned earlier, Permatex acquired two businesses in early 2008. Are there plans for more growth this year?
I probably spend half my time working on this — making calls to presidents or whoever the primary contact is and seeing if there is any interest. It’s a way of life here, similar to our philosophy with new products. I have to report regularly on how we are doing with acquisitions. I don’t have anything exciting to report on now.
It’s kind of like fishing the more you fish, the more you catch. The more contacts you make, the more likely you are to get an acquisition. It can be hit or miss. You call somebody up and catch them at the right time and they are ready to sell and other times as you might suspect, it’s not the right time.
Permatex has always been very active with respect to training, launching online training videos and holding hands-on clinics, for example. Why is this so important to Permatex and what are the benefits for the company?
As I told you earlier, one of our main customers is the professional technician. That set of people is generally a male population that is aging. So we’ve refocused our training to vo-tech schools with the concept that if we can get to these new technicians at an early age it will pay great dividends down the road. Much like advertising you are sowing the seeds. We’ve always been a proponent of trying to create a pull-through demand by having people out there looking for our products and us training them on how to use them properly. So we’ve got our focus right now on the vo-tech schools.
In the past, we were training any end-user on our products, mainly because they love to see people like us come in and go through our product line. It’s generally a nice training session we called “clinics.” We provide a lunch and some gift bags. It’s an event a customer would look forward to on any given day. Some of our products are a technical and you need to understand how to use them right. There’s loads of interaction with these clinics.
On the video side, our video training stems from the fact that we extensively monitor our customer feedback and we might get phone calls or e-mails with questions on a particular product. The Headlight Restoration Kit is a perfect example. We received customer feedback in the beginning, asking exactly how to use the product. So, we ended up making a video and putting it on our website (www.permatex.com) and also on www.utube.com. The video walks through the process as opposed to just reading a folded set of instructions. We’re building a new video as we speak for the Wheel Restoration Kit. We’ve learned now that this kind of training goes along with a new product introduction and we’ll probably do one for every new product we come out with going forward.
Permatex has also developed a special training initiative for NATEF schools. Tell us more about this.
We had all of our sales force doing some form of training on a regular basis, and then about two years ago we peeled off a couple of our stronger trainers and told them to focus on the vo-tech schools. So, we’ve got a subset of trainers now that concentrates entirely on the younger generation, up-and-coming professional technicians.
We want to make sure we’re in at the ground level when these folks are graduating from these schools. We’ve seen some nice feedback so far. It might be years before we will we see the benefit. It’s an investment of time and money that we’re willing to make because we feel strongly about the future benefits.
Back to the issue of the challenging economic climate … Many businesses are cutting back or eliminating motorsports sponsorships altogether. However, Permatex’s relationship in motorsports is quite unique and special. Tell us about the relationship between Permatex and Follow-A-Dream Racing and why Permatex feels it’s valuable to continue this sponsorship.
First off, if you spend any time with Jay Blake, what’s not to like? He’s got a great story and his cause is exceptional. Here’s a blind man trying to convince people not to let anything get in their way, and he’s got Permatex logos all over his shirt. We got in early with Jay. We like what we see. He does a lot for us that’s well beyond our agreement. He’s just such a staunch supporter of Permatex and he’s just a great spokesperson for our company.
Of course, we’d like to see him win some big events. He’s done well in a few race events. The value that we get from Jay compared to the size of our business is outstanding. We’re partners with Jay. I think we’re his largest supporter and I don’t see that changing. We’re very happy with his exposure level.
Any last comments?
If I had to make one plug, I would say that I’ve been out in the working world now for 30 years and the one thing that I’ve noticed about Permatex is the commitment of the people. I’m sure a lot of people say that, but if you look around at the folks we have and the experience they have, it’s really remarkable.
We’re a 100 year old brand. How many brands can say that? For us to survive this long, I’m very confident of the future, primarily because we have great people. We’ll weather this current economic storm. We’ve hunkered down and made necessary changes to make sure that we come out swinging when the economy improves. We’ve just got an awesome group of people.