In this episode…
Join David Hernandez, host of There’s Always a Lyric, as he sits down with David Rhodes, President of E.B. Carlson and Founder of TurnSKU, LLC. David shares his career journey, the role of failure and learning from mistakes, and finding a balance between his professional and personal life.
David Hernandez (0:44)
Welcome to another episode of There’s Always a Lyric. Today my guest is David Rhodes. Just a little bit about David; David is an experienced manufacturer’s rep. He’s focused on helping brands succeed at big box retailers like Best Buy, Staples, Sam’s Club, and many others. He’s driven by a passion for providing excellent value to his firm’s clients and to his customers. He takes pride in providing the best representation possible. As the president of E.B. Carlson, he and his are often referred to by their clients as “the best rep firm they interact with,” which is a lot, because there are a lot of great rep firms out there. In addition to his primary job functions, David is the founder of TurnSKU, LLC – a website used by countless suppliers to confirm pricing, availability, promotions, and competitors’ promotional activity at Best Buy. TurnSKU automates many manual tasks, helping manufacturers to save time, save money and sell more products. David has worked in the rep industry for 29 years – woo! – gaining experience and expertise in go-to-market strategies and negotiations and product marketing as a seasoned manufacturer’s rep. He is passionate about putting the needs of clients and customers first. And outside the office. David enjoys pickup basketball, golf, travel, and spending time with his lovely wife Tracy and their beautiful three children. And with that, welcome, welcome, welcome my dear friend David. How are you?
David Rhodes (2:06)
I’m doing great. Thanks so much for having me, David, appreciate it.
David Hernandez (2:09)
So, that was a lot.
David Rhodes (2:12)
Is the podcast over? I don’t know if it was too much time already.
David Hernandez (2:17)
Pretty sure all the listeners are exhausted at this point. I really want to kind of start at the present. What led you on this path? Obviously, you started in the rep business as a rep, and you are now the president of E.B. Carlson. Can you just give us a snapshot of how you got into it -what led you down this long and winding path, that’s brought us to 29 years of rep service?
David Rhodes (2:12)
Sure, I started out as a seller for NCR Corporation right out of college. Did that for about three years and then made a move over to what would be like a CDW and spent about five years at a competitor to CDW that doesn’t exist anymore. What other sellers can relate to and would find is that when you are working for a big company, sometimes they have a tendency to sort of track your compensation in a way to sort of keep you inside of a box. And even if you’re selling more, they sort of adjust plans to make sure you’re sort of in that box of what they want to pay for the role. And that’s where I’ve kind of found myself after my fifth year at this CDW-type company, that for a while kind of ramped up, it was nice, and then it started going down even though I was doing more. And so, as the story goes, my lifelong, very good friend, Ed Carlson, who was the founder of E.B. Carlson marketing, we just got to talking and he was talking about wanting to grow a business and struggling to figure out how to do that. Here I was, you know, with a mortgage, a wife who was staying home with our one child at six months, and he said, you know, why don’t we do something together? And that was sort of the beginning of it. And I think what scared me to death was taking a 65% reduction in pay.
David Hernandez (4:07)
That is a lot because you were already settled. I mean, as you said, you had a home, you had a wife with a young child. I mean, that’s a lot to take on.
David Rhodes (4:17)
I know you can relate, it’s probably the scariest time of your life to do it. But at the time, I was looking to make the change because I realized that, you know, I didn’t want to spend a whole career as a seller just having my compensation managed forever by somebody else.
David Hernandez (4:32)
So, you kind of bet on yourself, essentially.
David Rhodes (4:35)
Yeah, that was really it. And believe me, there were lots of ways, you know, lots of second thoughts and questioning that decision along the way and particularly in the early months of it. You know, finally, about a year into it, I felt like you know, we were keeping our head above water and paying our bills, and then 29 years later, I’m still doing this. But it was really sort of driven not so much out of like I was feeling like I really wanted to be a consumer products person, but more so at the time feeling like I really wanted that independence of having a little more control over my own destiny.
David Hernandez (5:16)
Right. Right. And with that, of course, comes risk. And you know, it’s that old saying, right? No risk, no reward. And I’m glad you brought up about, you know, the question marks and those days when you’re just wondering, did I make the right decision? Because I think a lot of people think when they look at the sort of entrepreneurs, and the stories that are told, it’s sometimes it feels like, it’s just one hockey stick of ascendance. Right? And it’s not that, is it?
David Rhodes (5:49)
It absolutely is not that, it is not that. And it’s gonna be a lot of questioning, second thoughts, and bumpiness along the way, but I think part of it is just being willing to work hard at being persistent, and just having confidence that you can do it. Those are the three hardest things. And then, you know, I know a lot of, you know, people that might be listening or thinking about boy D guy, a little bit of a nest egg, you know, to do something like that. Unfortunately, you know, you also want to not put your whole life and family and everybody at risk. So, you know, only a little bit of a savings account to sort of draw from at the time to sort of weather the storm of that first year of trying to build a business.
David Hernandez (6:37)
Did you have folks that you met along the way that were good mentors to you? Or good coaches? And I guess, including Ed himself, right?
David Rhodes (6:47)
Yeah, you certainly have to start there. Because, you know, you’re coming out of like, the corporate reseller, you know, industry, I understood tech. So, I sort of came in with an understanding of tech and tech products, more at a core corporate tech, not necessarily consumer tech, but enough of a baseline there. And then, you know, I had at that point, probably eight years as a seller, that’s what I did right out of college. So, I had some of the ins and outs of what to do and what not to do. But in terms of like learning the rep business and the consumer tech business, and retail, and at the time, you know, catalogs, were still in a place where people would, you know, like Mac warehouse, some of these older publications that were selling products, but Ed really taught me the business, he was certainly, you know, would be the lead mentor. And then my current business partner, joined Ed and me, only a few years after I did, Norman St. Jacques was another one that I learned an awful lot from, both of those guys, you know, about the rep business and being a rep. And so those are probably the two most influential people in terms of mentoring me along the way to learn about the business. But I had another mentor very early in my career, who is a very dear friend still, Marc Kitz. I’ll give him a shout-out you can go to marckitz.com; he does sales coaching now. There was a point at which I was selling a point-of-sale system, it would be similar to like, what today is, you know, Toast is the big point-of-sale system for restaurants. Only back at that time, I was selling one that was, you know, a microprocessor the size of about five shoe boxes together. And you would load your operating system onto the thing with a cassette tape that you would like a music tape. And so, this thing, when I was trying to sell it was old technology, and Marc had left and gone to work for this CDW-type company. He was the one that sort of recruited me to come over there and rule number one I’ve learned as a seller is you have to sell something people are buying.
David Hernandez (8:56)
David Rhodes (8:59)
And it seems simple, but I’m telling you I’m not the only one out there sitting there looking at you know what they are doing as the seller every day, going oh, you know, is it me? Or is nobody buying this product? And that’s really the first question you have to ask yourself.
David Hernandez (8:56)
It’s fundamental, isn’t it?
David Rhodes (9:15)
It is, so he pulled me over to the reseller business and I learned an awful lot you know from him, about the process, persistence, cold calling, and some of the real fundamentals of the business. So anyway, I want to give a shout-out to him too, he was influential and is still a very good friend to this day.
David Hernandez (9:35)
That’s wonderful and that’s such a great story because he really was not only a mentor but a coach for you.
David Rhodes (9:41)
David Hernandez (9:44)
This eventual ride with E.B. Carlson turns into one guy, then two guys, then three guys, and then it’s a company. There has to be this leap of faith that you know, it’s like you’re jumping into a pitch-black room, and you have to believe there’s a floor. So, a floor appears. Because there’s so many other references out there. How was E.B. Carlson going to kind of rise up and turn into what it did? Right. And that just came down to really having the right people and it sounds like with Norman, and with Ed, and yourself, you had the beginnings of what was a solid team to be able to go out there and gain some market share.
David Rhodes (10:29)
Yeah, and that’s true. Yeah, for sure. And in the time that we’ve grown to the 11 people we are today, you know, we’ve certainly had a few bumps, people that came in and maybe didn’t quite fit the bill, it didn’t work out. But those have been relatively few in 29 years where that’s happened, but, you know, we look at the expansion of our sales team, you know, where we’ve added, you know, two guys like Zack, Steve Dimitroff, both those guys have come over sort of from the buying side. And so for rounding out a sales team, you know, when you take lifetime sellers, like myself, and Ed, and Norman, and then round them out with two former merchants, like Mike and Dean, the perspective that we get when we take on a new client, or even with an existing client and being able to look at product positioning, you know, the marketplace, the competition, is just really, I feel like it’s unprecedented with any other rep firm that’s in the industry. We just have the ability to really vet out opportunities and find a way to help clients succeed.
David Hernandez (11:37)
Just kind of pulling that thread a little further, that leads me to TurnSKU. So how did that all come about? And I feel like I’m leading the witness here because it ties directly to the level of detail that you’re talking about. And then what your customer, you know, you’re looking at your business through your customers’ eyes.
David Rhodes (12:02)
Yeah, TurnSKU sort of evolved out of a need I had personally. You know, the problem that I saw, and I was having is that on any given day, understanding which products were you know, available, add to cart, or out of stock, or in some cases with Best Buy, if you’re out of stock for too many days they actually will pull the listing down. And then you have to try to get it back up when you do go back in stock with an item. So, one, monitoring that manually, is impossible. And so, I was getting calls from clients with, “Hey, this SKU, you know, we’ve got it back in stock, how come it’s not showing up on bestbuy.com? How do we fix that?” And so, I was sort of playing Whac-A-Mole with 300 SKUs trying to solve problems. It became like, okay, that’s not working. And then problem two I was out trying to solve was, you know, as we line up promotions on Best Buy, you know, I could be sitting here on May 5, when we’re doing this podcast, I could be putting a promotion to start out on the seventh of June, in my old way of doing this, I would get my Outlook calendar and write on eight o’clock in the morning, “Don’t forget to look at promotion that’s running this morning on these queues”, and I’m like, this is insanity. And then, you know, if Best Buy were price-matching somebody the next day, that price could still change. So long story short, I was able to work with Best Buy to get access to their API, so not scraping a website, that’s important to them. Important to me because I want to be a good business partner of theirs. And I built a website that automates that entire process, and just serves up these beautiful reports, you can get them daily, you can get them weekly, and you don’t have to go on bestbuy.com anymore to like try to keep track of all that. The information is served up to you in a very simple, easy way. And I built it for myself, and then I started to show some people and they’re like, can we use it too? Long story short, I’ve you know, built it into a SaaS site. So, you can subscribe to it monthly. Onboarding is an hour, maybe? Maybe to get a brand up and running. And today, I’ve got, you know, brands, $500 million, billion-dollar companies that are using the website, because I’ve just taken a very simple problem solved in a very easy way and made people’s life easier. And that’s what I was really looking to do for myself and now doing it for other brands and other rep firms actually are using it too.
David Hernandez (14:34)
That’s such a great story, David because it really speaks to you being able to address something because of the level of experience that you have. And you just said one day, why does this have to be like this? You know, there’s an underlying theme here I’m noticing about your life and your career, which is sort of you’re an eternal optimist, right? You’re constantly looking at, well, this is happening, and this is not so great. But what’s the opportunity?
David Rhodes (15:07)
I think I’ve got sort of a natural curiosity and that’s probably whether it’s, you know, your business or my business, whether it’s solving a business problem, like TurnSKU did, or, you know, just walking into a Best Buy or Lowe’s and, you know, rather than just picking up the lightbulb that you needed, or something like that, I’m constantly just looking at displays, and, you know, wondering why it’s there, what could have been better? And why they didn’t call us to rep it? I think, you know, we’re fortunate that a lot of us in the company are sort of driven by that same sort of natural, you know, curiosity. And I think there’s really no replacement for curiosity, creativity, and persistence. It’s just all the things that are sort of necessary to see.
David Hernandez (15:56)
I agree wholeheartedly there, along the lines of curiosity and experimentation is failure. And that’s something nobody wants to talk about, but I think it’s an important element because that’s where the best learning takes place, at least for me.
David Rhodes (16:15)
Oh, yeah. For sure. And how long is this podcast? Do we want one example, or how many do we need?
David Hernandez (16:26)
Well, we could just talk about it, you could use an example if you like, or we just talk about it broadly, about failure and what failure plays a role, in your professional career.
David Rhodes (16:39)
You know, if you’re not taking chances, and you’re not failing, then you know, it’s just part of life, and you really have to take risks and have to take chances, whether it’s a career change, you know, in a brand, you’re in this department, and you want to go to this and it doesn’t work out, you know, or it’s taking a leap of faith and starting your own business. I mean, it’s just part of it, you’re gonna have things that work and things that don’t work. And what you try to do, I think, on the failures, first and foremost, learn from them, you know, secondly, don’t let them bankrupt you – maybe I should reverse one and two. But also, don’t be afraid to take the risks. And, you know, I have two very short examples that I can tell you about. The very first one I go back to when I was 22 years old, and I’m interviewing with NCR. And I’m on my third interview, and the guy tells me it’s like, you know, I know you’ve applied to be in our hospitality division selling point of sale systems, blah, blah, blah, I still remember this conversation. He goes, you know, we have a financial services division. And, you know, we’re going to be, launching a big sales team, we’re going to be out selling, ATMs. I think that might be a good place for you. And I’m like, wow, you know, I spent sort of my college years in high school years working in restaurants. I’m really kind of interested in the hospitality industry. And so, failure number one came at, you know, May of 1985, two weeks after I graduated college because that guy basically said ATMs and I’m thinking who’s gonna want to take money out of a machine? I love my teller, you know?
David Hernandez (18:34)
You were literally at the gates of a revolution and said, “No, that’s okay.”
David Rhodes (18:40)
“No, it’s okay. I don’t want to walk through it.” Yeah. And I still remember being at NCR used to call point calls. At the end of the month, you’d stand up and say, your sales work for the month you know, the ATM, people are like, I’m 7,000% of quota, and blah, blah, blah, blah. And like, Dave, how’s things going over and hospitality? I’m like, 7%. And I’m going, “Wow, that was a mistake right out of the gate.” Oh, my goodness. So, we’re not always going to make the right choices. But you know, it took me three years to make a pivot. And so, I think one is recognizing mistakes, not being afraid of them, and two when you feel like you’ve made one, don’t hang on for too long in that bad role, or with that bad mistake and trying to make the pivot faster. Don’t just say this is going to work. It’s going to work now. And so anyway, that’s probably the best example. There have been other things along the way, things that have worked, things that have not worked, whether it be you know, a particular client or somebody we’ve hired that we thought would be great, that didn’t work, and you know, unfortunately, some of those mistakes they still happen. I mean, we’ll still onboard a client occasionally, and things just for whatever reason, the fit isn’t right. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen very often, but it still does happen. So, you know, it’s part of life and business.
David Hernandez (20:19)
Absolutely, because we’re working with human beings. At the end of the day, behind that brand, there are people. And that’s just, as you said, that’s part of life with a capital L, whether it’s personal or professional. Sometimes things work with people, and sometimes they don’t, right? I want to kind of move a little bit away from the professional to the personal with everything that you do, and just having TurnSKU, along with a mature rep firm, being the president, how do you find balance?
David Rhodes (20:59)
What’s the next question? That’s a question. The reality is it’s something I still need to be working on. Clearly, I do find, you know, time for what you mentioned in my bio. I get out for pickup basketball one to two nights a week, still, again, at this stage of my basketball career that you would find is a lot of clutching and grabbing. And it’s all done with a smile and there my friends. And so, they realized after three trips down the floor, the fourth one isn’t going to be quite at the pace of the last shoot. But I would say that that’s probably my biggest outlet right now. And then, you know, as the season gets a little warmer out here, you know, I’ve got friends that I play golf with. I just got back from a really nice trip with my family, we were fortunate enough to go visit my daughter studying abroad in Italy, so that’s seeing some travel and, you know, really trying to do the best I possibly can with it. But you know, with everything that’s going on professionally, it’s a hard business to completely disconnect from for periods of time, and I’ve just sort of, for me, the trade-off, and the independence, I’m okay with that. You know, I’ll take that nine o’clock phone call you know, from a client if it’s really important. And it’s still a good trade-off. I’m blessed and fortunate. It’s a great life, I wouldn’t trade it.
David Hernandez (22:43)
That’s so refreshing and honest to hear. This kind of makes me think about the other side of this, which is, you look at the trade-offs, and you go for me, those trade-offs are okay, I’m good with that. What do you tell those young David Rhodes out there? What can you tell them in terms of advice about this type of career, this existence that you’ve had, and this profession that you’ve built?
David Rhodes (23:11)
I think our industry is under I wouldn’t call it necessarily pressure, but we’ve got certainly changing consumer buying habits, there are a lot more direct-to-consumer products, you go on Instagram, Facebook, those kinds of things, people are going DTC they’re going right to the customer bypassing retail together, but our industry won’t go away. Physical retail, despite the fact it’s contracting, and there are fewer retailers like Bed Bath and Beyond just went out of business, there is still an element and will always be an element, I believe that people who want to go to physical stores, it’s just it’s an experience. And some people just like to shop. So, while physical retail may not be, you know, growing, you know, per se in terms of more shelf space and more retailers, it will be here, and it will be here for a long period of time. And then you’ve got some firms that have started to specialize in doing things like helping with direct to consumer, and, and they’ve sort of pivoted into that direction, too. So, there are firms that are doing a little bit of a hybrid approach, doing some retail, doing a little bit of online, and helping some clients with the DTC, and that approach to for people like looking at the rep industry. I know a lot of buyers have sort of at some point in their life shifted over we have two I know you’ve talked to a lot of other manufacturers’ rep firms, people who have left the buying role have kind of pivoted over to that. The people I’ve talked to, most are pretty happy that they made the change and like it on the other side of the desk, so to speak. So, I guess you know, from a big-picture view I would be encouraging and still optimistic about the business. As there are always new products coming, there are always new companies forming. There are always existing companies that are, you know, not getting sort of the shelf space and placement that they feel like they deserve. And so there will always be a place for reps. That’s my belief.
David Hernandez (25:16)
As long as you attach those qualities that we talked about earlier, especially the one about making sure that you’ve got persistence as part of your toolkit.
David Rhodes (25:29)
Yeah, absolutely. That’s probably the number one driver. If you can’t be sort of one and done on trying to secure placement on a retailer, you’ve just got apt to look at it, sometimes two, or three or four different lenses, trying to figure out a way.
David Hernandez (25:48)
Completely agree. There’s more than one way. And I have one more question for you. And it ties back to the title of the podcast, There’s Always a Lyric. So, if there was a song title or lyric that captures you, David, or your story, maybe your view on life, what would that be?
David Rhodes (26:15)
So, you’re probably ready for a sarcastic answer, which I promised I wouldn’t give you because I had 10 that were flooded, but I scribbled them all out. And I ended up picking Go Your Own Way by Fleetwood Mac. I just thought that as the song goes on, “you can call it another lonely day, you can go your own way.” Because when you do go your own way, there’s going to be those lonely days. And I just thought that sort of that’s really captured the essence of whatever it is, whether it be the rep business, the PR business or you know, or starting a SaaS company or whatever.
David Hernandez (26:55)
That’s a great way to twist the meaning of that song into something completely different. That’s great. I love that. Thank you. Great. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much for joining me today. This has just been a pleasure as I knew it would be. You’re such a great person to just hang out with.
David Rhodes (27:15)
The feeling is mutual.
David Hernandez (27:17)
Yeah, and I’m glad that we’ve gotten the opportunity to work together over the years. It’s been some of the best and funniest times in my profession.
David Rhodes (27:27)
For sure, and many more to come. And thank you so much for having me on your podcast. I appreciate it.
David Hernandez (27:32)