Sales Engineer, a Non Traditional Career for an Engineering School Graduate –Mentor, Tim McFerrin
Tim McFerrin is a graduate of the School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Kansas and the President and CEO of the Myers-Aubrey Company headquartered in Tulsa, OK. Myers-Aubrey is a Manufacturer’s Representative with 30 employees spread over six offices in the Midwest. The company has been in business for 86 years and Tim is only the 4th President. In his article, he shares with you some of the life lessons he has learned. If you follow this Mentor’s suggestions, your chances of building a successful career in any field you ultimately choose will increase dramatically.
I want to tell young people about a career that most would consider non-traditional for a graduate from an Engineering School, a manufactures sales representative. Nothing happens in this world until something is sold. Think about this – what company is successful without Sales? Every company has a product to sell and I guarantee not one of them will be successful if someone or some company does not buy their product. The world revolves around things being bought and sold. Yet sales is one of the most misunderstood careers that exist today. Engineering School requires a tremendous amount of hard work and discipline in order to graduate. I don’t care which flavor of engineering you study – they all are difficult and time consuming. Theories and principles are taught in engineering that lay the foundation of how the scientific world works. The majority of people pursuing engineering have graduated High School towards the top of their class. I would also guess that many had a very strong mentor in their life somewhere along the line who was an Engineer. I certainly did and that was one of the main reasons I chose Engineering. The problem was I really did not know what that meant at the time. If you ask 100 people what Engineers do you will probably get 100 different answers. My wife tells people
I drive trains. Well that is not exactly correct. I personally have friends that are Doctors, Patent Attorneys, Bankers, and Financial Advisors that all have an undergraduate degree in Engineering. The Fortune 500 list of largest companies is dominated by CEO’s with engineering backgrounds. By graduating with an engineering degree you are setting yourself up to have a very long and successful career in whatever you choose to do. You are also guaranteeing yourself a life of tech support for family and friends from troubleshooting computers, plumbing, installing ceiling fans, or any other task that your friends and relatives figure you are more capable of doing because you are an Engineer.
I graduated in the spring of 1989. That year the job market was terrible – no two ways about it. On top of that all my close friends and study partners were enrolling in Law School because the job market was so bad. I thought about pursuing an MBA. I applied and was accepted to several schools – University of Colorado, Dartmouth, and KU to name a few. In hindsight, that would have been the worst thing I could have done. I was burned out on school and honestly needed to get a job and make some money. But by the time of graduation, it was very evident to me that life as a traditional Engineer was not going to suit me well. We called Engineering Pre Business back then and I knew there was more for me that was outside of Engineering. I just did not know what.
Lesson #1 – Know what your strengths and weaknesses are and exploit them. You will ultimately be judged by how well you do the things you are the worst at.
My Father, Step Father, Father in Law, Uncles, Grandparents, were all Entrepreneurs and/or Business owners of some type. They started and ran businesses that were very successful. But I was stubborn and wanted to do something different than any of them and did not want to work in the “Family Business”. It was a fall back if all else failed. But I wanted to make it on my own. I know my Father did not exactly understand my line of thinking. But he supported me 100%.
Engineering School teaches you how to think and prepares you for many different things, most notably how to solve problems in a logical and structured way. Again, looking at the Fortune 500 list of CEO’s there are more Engineers than any other educational discipline. The problem is you can’t just start out being a CEO unless you have a really good idea like Bill Gates or the Google guys. By the way, have you seen the movie “The Internship”, the one with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson applying for a summer internship at Google? I watched it recently (with my 12 year olds – it was a little uncomfortable in spots!) and it really hit home. In case you haven’t seen it the two main characters are old, washed up Salesmen that decide to try and make it at Google through their summer internship program. They are put on a team and they have nothing in common with the “kids” who are also on the team. The only thing that saves the day in the end is that these two old Salesmen adapt and use their Sales skills to win the ultimate prize – a job at Google. If you haven’t seen the movie, watch it after you read my article. It will reinforce what I am trying to get across to you that sales is a critical element in the business world today. Even cutting edge companies like Google needs Sales.
Let me say something to you about computers at this point. I was very interested in computers as I had been exposed to them late in my High School education. There was no such thing as a Macintosh in 1982 – the Apple 2e was cutting edge and the Commodore VIC20 was something you could buy at your local Sears or JC Penney’s store. The Mac was only a dream in Steve Job’s mind and would not be around for another 5 years or so. Back in the dark ages of 1989 there was no Internet as Al Gore had not invented it yet for the mainstream. There also was no such thing as e-mail or cell phones that were commercially available. I started college using 5.25 floppies and then 3.5” disks came into being about my Junior Year. This was a significant upgrade from punch cards and FORTRAN compilers, which fortunately I did not have to use. 300 baud modems were the standard as was the Motorola 80286 processor. Anyone care to guess how big the first hard drive I had in a PC? 20 Megabytes. I remember thinking I had it made when I actually had my own PC that could talk to the Engineering Mainframe from my apartment. That was my 5th year when I finally was able to do work from home and not go to the computer center. I even had a dot matrix printer that I could use to print out projects and reports. I could even entice my now wife to come over to my apartment and use my PC for papers and video games!
When I was looking for a job for after graduation the system was not very high tech. There was literally a corkboard in the engineering building with job opportunities and interview schedules listed on signup sheets. I had participated in several on campus interviews with companies like IBM, Intergraph, Phillips 66, and Applied Automation to name a few. The companies that I thought would be most interesting like Black & Veatch and Burns & McDonnell I did not qualify for because of my GPA. (By the way I still think that is wrong and very short sighted – I have never put a GPA requirement on any of my company’s job postings for that reason) Fortunately for me, I answered an interview posting for a Sales Engineer position at Myers-Aubrey Co. in Tulsa, OK. I had no idea what a Sales Engineer was but it sounded to me like something I might be able to do. Having a 20 question interview with the Personnel Manager in a small white room did not appeal to me at all. What do you want to do in life? What is your greatest strength and weakness? What is your GPA? What are your salary requirements? Yuck! So I applied for the job, sent a resume through the mail (no fax or email remember) and I ended up getting a call back from a person at Myers-Aubrey Company by the name of George Milleret. George, as I found out later, graduated from KU in 1971 and was calling to set up an interview with me. I remember George saying - I will be in Lawrence later this week. Let’s go have lunch at Perkin’s on 23rd and talk. (We used to go and study there because they had unlimited coffee!) I remember thinking that this was different. There was actually some person who not only wanted to interview me but would also buy me lunch. What could be wrong with that? I met George at our prearranged time and proceeded to get interviewed over lunch at Perkins from a guy who told me what a Sales Engineer was. I had no idea what a Sales Engineer was and even more I had no idea that I was talking to the President of Company. At some point during the interview I asked him if he was the Personal Director or HR Manager since his card had no title. I’m not sure why I asked that question other than the fact that he was doing most of the talking and was asking me very few questions. What was really happening was he was actually educating me about this job opportunity and in a way selling me on the idea that being a Sales Engineer was an opportunity that I should consider. He then handed me another card, which had the title of President on it. I remember thinking this was pretty cool that the President of the Company was interested enough to interview potential candidates and was certainly different than my other experience to date with interviewing. By the way, I interview every person that comes to work for my company and I do not hand them a card that says President to begin with. I also like to interview people over dinner or drinks as you can tell a lot about a person by the manners they have.
Lesson #2 – Learn good manners and use them – you never know who is watching. Good manners never go out of style.
George invited me to come to Tulsa for an in person interview and to see the office and meet some other people. He flew me down to Tulsa and he picked me up on a Sunday afternoon. I interviewed the next morning and he end up offering me a job starting at $33,000 a year plus a bonus. George had asked me how much I wanted to make and I told him the same as my peers (which was around $31,000 at the time). True to form, he was prepared and said that he had checked on starting salaries coming out of KU, OU, and OSU and that I was correct in my number. He then told me that he liked paying his people more than average! I was sold. Little did I know that I was making the best move of my life.
I had done several internships over the years while in college of which one had nothing to do with Engineering. I decided to have a fun summer and ended up working in a liquor store in Vail, CO. One of the questions that George asked me in the second interview was how did I like selling liquor and beer? This was something I had done that last summer of college and it was on my resume. He was hiring me as a Sales Engineer and wanted to know how I liked selling. The fact of the matter is I did like selling, probably too much. I had actually tried to convince my parents that taking a year off from college and working in Vail at the liquor store would actually be a good thing. Fortunately I was not successful in this conversation. Funny thing is George asked me zero questions about the other internships that had way more to do with Engineering and was only interested in my short sales career.
Lesson #3 – You never know what is going to interest someone in an interview. Be prepared to answer anything.
The Rest is history. I accepted the position, worked 1 year in Tulsa, transferred to our Kansas City office for 5 years and was given an opportunity to open a new office in Dallas. I was there for 12 years and then came back to Tulsa to begin the transition process of running the company.
Lesson #4 – Things happen for a reason. Accept them and move on.
After my move to Dallas and starting the office there, I asked George what my future was at Myers- Aubrey Co. The office had become very successful in 4 short years and I felt like there was more for me at Myers-Aubrey Co. I had always dreamed of being a business owner and this was an opportunity I could not pass up. I asked him about my future on a chairlift in Vail in December of 1998. It was a very nervous moment as I honestly did not know what his answer might be. His response was “I’m glad you asked because I was not going to ask you”.
Lesson #5 – If you want something you got to ask.
George indicated that he and his business partner had thought I had what it would take to run the company in the future. We had a meeting in Colorado (lots of things happened to me in Colorado for some reason) and I was offered the opportunity to become an equity partner of theirs with the eventual outcome that I would buy them out completely over time. I started buying into the company in early 1999 and I ended up buying George and his partner out completely in 2009. By the time I plan on retiring from Myers-Aubrey, I will have spent 40 years with one company (that would be 2029 and the company will be celebrating its 100th year in business). It is almost unheard of anymore to work for one company your entire career. Funny thing is we have several more people at our company that will retire with us that it will be there only job as well.
Lesson #6 – Be flexible and look for ways to stand out above the crowd in a positive way. Don’t limit yourself to having to stay in one location or one job description. Take chances that are well thought out and that will set you apart.
At this point you might ask what is a Manufacturer’s Representative? What is a Sales Engineer? How does Engineering fit into all of this? Let me give you an example. Let’s assume you are an Engineer that has just accepted a job at a company designing widgets. It does not matter what the widget is but your team has just designed the best widget that the world has ever seen. How do you think that world-class widget gets to market? This widget is really complex and needs to be applied in certain ways to make it work correctly and most efficiently. It has to be sized and designed to fit a particular widget application in a plant someplace in the world. It is a really great widget. But how do you get someone to buy it? Let me give you a hint, you don’t go to Best Buy or Amazon or even the company’s web site to buy this widget. It is far too complex for that. All the people that work at this company designing this widget are really smart engineers like yourself or some manager type that does spreadsheets and reports that go up to the corporate office telling some other manager type how good the product is if only they could sell more of them. That manager is worried about getting the next report out to the CFO who then reports to the CEO who has the task of talking to Wall Street and investors and telling them why the stock price is not where it should be. If only we could sell more widgets is a common phrase heard. People do actually believe products can sell themselves and they forget about the most important aspect of all. If for some reason the product does not sell itself, who is going to do it. Get the picture?
Lesson #7 – Just because you have an MBA or other advanced degree does not make it a given you know how things work in the real world. The world is filled with talented failures.
So what to do now? You have a great product but no way to get it to market. That is a problem. The company you work for could hire a Sales staff. But the CFO is too worried about the bottom line and the stock price. So you can’t go and hire a bunch of high priced Salesman with all the costs that go along with them like entertainment, golf, company cars, 3 martini lunches, etc. There is a need for a sales team and in steps a Manufacturer’s Representative like Myers-Aubrey Co. A Manufacturer’s Representative is a company that is for all intents and purposes is a Sales Department. Companies like mine will contract exclusively with widget companies that have a product or products they want to get into the market. Typically a Manufacturer’s Rep will represent about 10 – 20 different companies and have an exclusive territory where they sell those products. Myers-Aubrey, for example, represents about 15 companies and we have 6 offices throughout the Midwest that cover all or part of 11 states. We sell products that are typically found in the Energy Sector - (Oil & Gas), Chemical, Food & Beverage, and Power Utilities market. If you went through our customer list there would be many companies you have heard of – Black & Veatch, Koch Industries, Phillips 66, Chevron, Anhueser Busch, and DuPont to name a few. We sell highly engineered equipment to these companies that makes their plants more efficient, safer, and therefore more profitable. We are selling products that have a value proposition. It is part of our job to convince other Engineers that our widget is the best for the application. Let me give you a real life example of how all of this works.
This part of the country where we operate has a significant amount of natural gas production. Pipelines are used to transport this natural gas from one place to another. At locations along these pipelines are what is called custody transfer points. This is where natural gas exchanges ownership between two parties. Remember that sales things? One entity is selling gas to another entity. It just so happens that there is a chance that contaminants are present in the natural gas depending upon where you are. Natural gas is pure methane but you can also have Hydrogen Sulfide, Carbon Dioxide, Water, Nitrogen, and Oxygen present in some concentrations. When you buy natural gas you want to buy methane at a specific BTU content and not contaminants. Therefore the American Gas Association has set limits on what can be present in sales gas. In some cases it is because of BTU degradation (Nitrogen, Carbon Dioxide, and water don’t burn) and in some cases it is for personnel protection (Hydrogen Sulfide higher than a 4 ppm concentration is lethal). So how do you measure these contaminants? Well a number of companies have technologies to do just that based upon what the contaminant you are trying to measure is and at what level. All of these gas analyzers operate on some physical principle and all have strengths and limitations based upon the particular company’s measurement widget. We represented a company now owned by GE that was the state of the art technology for measuring water vapor concentration since the late 1960’s. We sold millions of dollars of this equipment to gas companies for decades. Well, as luck would have it, GE decided they could do a better job selling this widget than we could and they did not renew our contract. This was in 2003. As it turns out about the same time a former Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer named Randy May was going around talking to people in different industries about a widget he had invented for the Mars Lander program. Guess what it was? It was a Tunable Diode Laser based Analyzer that was designed to measure water vapor concentration in the atmosphere of Mars. He knew there was a commercial application for it on earth. He just did not know what it was. Someone fortunately turned him on to the application of measuring water vapor concentration in natural gas and after some product innovation SpectraSensors was born. Randy had hired a Marketing Consultant to search out firms that could sell this equipment. Randy is a really smart engineer that had no idea about selling. He was an inventor and an Engineer. This consultant found my company in early 2004. We jumped at the opportunity to represent a company with cutting edge technology that was better than anything on the market. It took some time to get companies to accept this new technology since it was quite a bit more expensive than what they were used to (value proposition selling). But once they did, it led to exponential growth. The new widget measured water concentration faster, more accurately, and it was a bullet proof design as far as maintenance was concerned. This was significantly different than every other technology on the market. To make matters even better, Randy was able to hire some other very smart Engineers from Stanford and they adapted this widget to be able to measure all sorts of things – Hydrogen Sulfide, Oxygen, Carbon Dioxide, and other contaminants in natural gas. Now Randy had a widget that was really something to show off and Myers-Aubrey Company was in on the ground floor of an opportunity that solved problems AND we made a lot of money doing it. We still are. The company that started off as Mars Lander technology was adapted into an application that solved a problem and everyone wins. It is the American Dream of starting a company, making money, and taking others along for the ride.
One of the best parts about stories and relationships like we have with SpectraSensors is that with an exclusive contract to sell, Myers-Aubrey is the only company that can sell this particular widget in the area we cover. That is called contract exclusivity. We are also often times authorized to repair and maintain these products in the field. Remember these are highly sophisticated pieces of equipment but they do break or go out of calibration and when they do you don’t want just anyone working on them. The best part is that we sell these products at a very high (but fair) profit margin and if we do our job correctly. Maintenance is very profitable and provides another income stream for our company beyond new products sold. Does all of this make sense? The benefit of a relationship like this for the widget company is that they have no direct cost to support this Sales effort other than paying a commission to the company that sells the product. They only pay when the company sells the product. Management is happy as long as sales grow. It is a win/win for them and provides an opportunity for companies like mine to exist.
Now let’s stop for a second and talk about Salesmen. I know every person has their idea of what a Salesman is. My guess is that your impression is not positive. A Salesman sells shoes or cars or insurance. They are old white guys that wear ties and bad suits. They are probably only doing sales because they crashed out of a legitimate career somewhere else about 10 years ago. Am I right? Well I can tell you 25 years ago that is precisely what I thought. I was above that. I was an Engineer. I worked my butt off for 5 years while all my friends played and went to bars every other night. I had to have a respectable job that made use of my degree. I had to make my parents proud and even more I could not face my friends who had legitimate jobs and tell them I was a salesman.
Lesson # 8 – Don’t ever jump to conclusions without knowing the entire story.
In the beginning I questioned my new boss George about Sales and my take on the career. It all sounded good when he interviewed me. I needed a job and now the reality was setting in that I was going to be a Salesman! After I was in the job, I could not have been more wrong about being a Salesman. First of all, you are not a Salesman you’re a Sales Engineer. There is a big difference. You are going to take that Engineering degree and apply your knowledge to specify products to another Engineer for a particular application (that by the way has no idea about your product – he just knows he needs a widget to make something happen) and then you are going to close the sale. Then your company will collect money for this sale and will pay you part of the gross profit. And then for years after, your company is going to maintain that widget and make money doing so. You will also get a part of the profit on maintenance. Does this sound like a shoe salesman? And by the way, the product or system that you have just specified and sold very well could mean the difference between something blowing up and killing people or saving the day and making a better and safer workplace for everyone. This entire process is what I like to call Consultative Sales.
Lesson #9 - A Sales Engineer selling technical highly engineered products is every bit as important as the person who designed it in the first place. One cannot live without the other.
Let’s talk about Engineers a bit. Everyone knows the stereotypical Engineer – they are geeks and nerds and they can’t talk with normal people because they have no social skills. They have the “knack” if you know that from Dilbert (if you don’t go Google Dilbert the Knack and it will give you a good laugh). I always talk about the difference between introverted and extroverted engineers. Do you know the difference? The introverted engineer looks at his shoes when he is talking to you. The extroverted engineer looks at your shoes! All kidding aside, I have every ounce of respect for the person who gets through Engineering School and the goes out and applies their education to design and build the next great widget. Maybe they can’t talk to other people. Maybe they are happiest in a small cube in the corner. It does not matter. They are good at what they do and the world needs these people and more of them. I will tell you that was not me. I tell people I am an Engineer by education but a terrible Engineer in practice. I was not cut out to be that person and I am guessing that many young people are looking for something more as well. I am not saying that Sales is for everyone. However, according to the Wall Street Journal, Engineering Sales is an unbelievable field to pursue. Let me give you statistics from an article that was just in the Journal:
- Median Annual wage in 2012 - $74,970 (twice as much as median for all workers)
- 41 days to fill technical sales jobs versus 33 for all other jobs (Sales Engineers are in demand)
- Large upside potential in salary and career path (perfect example is me – started as a Sales Engineer and now own the company)
- 56% of Sales jobs require Bachelor’s degree but only 43% of employees have that currently. So there is a big upside to differentiate yourself if you are a degreed engineer.
- 101 Universities now offer Sales Curricula in their engineering programs up from 44 in 2007.
For someone who wants to be a Technical Sales Engineer, it is not only a legitimate Engineering job but also a very lucrative one and one that is in high demand. Again, I will repeat, sales is not for everyone. People often site the stigma of sales and the lack of guaranteed money as the reason they would not want to choose this career. My response to that is you can make as much money as you want and Sales Engineering is more and more an in demand job. The only negatives of being in a sales position are in your head and based on preconceived notions of the stereotypical Salesman. If you are into comparing salaries with your friends I guarantee you will have the last laugh. Companies like mine typically pay their Sales Engineers in both a fixed salary and a bonus. The bonus is tied to how much gross profit you bring into the company. For example, I had a young Sales Engineer three years out of school make a high six figure salary and bonus last year. He earned every penny of it and I was happy to pay him. His future is bright. There will be some years that he makes more and some less. So goes the sales game. My highest paid Sales Engineer last year made well over 250K and the lowest still made six figures. Bottom line is that this is a lucrative field. The #1 thing you have to ask yourself is are you the kind of person that Risk/Reward is appealing to? If your personality is on the side that you need structure and someone pointing you in the right direction, then this career is probably not for you. If you tend to the other end of the spectrum then Engineering Sales is something you should consider strongly.
Lesson #10 – Money is not everything.
One of things I always talk to prospective Sales Engineers about is work environment and schedules. If you think about it, a Sales Engineer has a territory and he is tasked with selling a product to any company within that territory. He (or she – I do not want to exclude women from this conversation although I will tell you that historically this has been a male dominated field. I will also suggest a Female Engineer in this field can and will do well. My wife told me to say a woman would rock this job!) has to establish relationships with customers, make sales calls, do product quotations, and close sales. It is a sales job at its core and therefore typical work hours really do not apply. There is usually some travel but typically you set that schedule yourself. You are essentially running your own little business and at the end of the year you add it up and get paid on the gross profit. We like to use the term “you eat what you kill” when it comes to this business. You determine what effort you put in and the results of your effort is what you get paid on. If you are a hardworking, organized, self-starter that can multitask with the best of them then Sales may be your game. You set the hours and how hard you work and the result is directly proportional to your efforts. Attitude and activity is everything. Again, you eat what you kill, simple as that.
If you are looking for a career that is fast, different every day, challenging, and that your individual efforts are truly rewarded then a Sales Engineer should be a career path that you consider. If you like flexibility in your work day and the ability to set your own schedule you should be very interested in this career. If you don’t like being stuck in an office and enjoy talking to people then this would be an ideal job. Lastly, if you like the thought of controlling your own destiny, i.e. money, then this is absolutely the job for you. When I am interviewing a prospective Sales Engineer I always tell them, in addition to the money you will earn from sales, you will also have a component of your job that you cannot place a value on. That is the freedom and ability to set your own schedule. When we hire people that have worked in jobs that do not have this ability to set their own schedule – i.e. a desk job – almost to a person this freedom is the most important aspect of their job second only to their salary.
As it turned out being a Sales Engineer was perfect match for me. I would have not made a good Research Engineer or Designer. I will again say I have the utmost respect for people who do choose that path. I was very fortunate to find George Milleret and Myers Aubrey Company 25 years ago. Little did I know that I would one day own the Company. It has been a great ride for me and I hope in this article I shared something with you that spurs you on to looking into this non -traditional opportunity. For the right person the career can’t be beat.
Summary of My 10 Life Lessons
- Know what your strengths and weaknesses are and exploit them. You will ultimately be judged by how well you do the things you are the worst at.
- Learn good manners and use them – you never know who is watching. Good manner never go out of style.
- You never know what is going to interest someone in an interview. Be prepared to answer anything.
- Things happen for a reason. Accept them and move on.
- If you want something you got to ask.
- Be flexible and look for ways to stand out above the crowd in a positive way. Don’t limit yourself to having to stay in one location or one job description. Take chances that are well thought out and that will set you apart.
- Just because you have an MBA or other advanced degree does not make it a given you know how things work in the real world. The world is filled with talented failures.
- Don’t ever jump to conclusions without knowing the entire story.
- I am here to tell you that a Sales Engineer selling technical highly engineered products is every bit as important as the person who designed it in the first place. One cannot live without the other.
- Money is not everything.
I lied when I said I had 10 life lessons. Here are just a few more thoughts that I feel are very important.
Never stop learning and remember, when you are facing a difficult class or project or time in your life, smooth waters never make a good sailor. Let me repeat that one, smooth waters never make a good sailor. I kind of think that is an important saying. By the way, my Step Dad told me that a long time ago and I stole it from him.
And finally, make your future employers pleased with their choice in hiring you. Do more than what is expected, always do your best, show up on time for work and meetings, never celebrate your successes too much or dwell on your failures too long. Lastly, just keep things in perspective. People stress and worry way too much and many times whatever it is you are stressed about never happens.
If you do these things I have suggested in this article, your chances for a successful life and career go way up.