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Alumni · Pat Morden

Sell Well

Dec 1, 2013


A sometimes underrated business function, sales has offered many Ivey grads meaningful and rewarding careers.

The David Mamet play Glengarry Glen Ross depicts a group of despairing real estate salesmen who are willing to do virtually anything to make a sale. The manager, memorably played by Alec Baldwin in the 1992 movie, browbeats and abuses the men. “A-B-C,” he snarls. “A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing. Always be closing. ALWAYS BE CLOSING!”

The play taps into our worst suspicions about sales. But of course, the reality is quite different. Tim Fowler, MBA ’95, formerly Sales Vice President at Tropicana for PepsiCo, sees successful selling as a critical business function and a proud career choice. “At the end of the day, everybody else’s work doesn’t translate into profits until somebody sells something,” he says. “Sales are a foundation of every business, and salespeople are the face of the company for customers.” Don Johnson, MBA ’90, Vice President Chevrolet Sales and Service, puts it more simply: “If you don’t sell anything, you don’t get to put anything on that revenue line!”

Many Ivey alumni have made successful careers in sales and continue to rejoice in its challenges and rewards. Sherry Chris, EMBA ’01, is President and CEO of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate. She spent the first two years of her career in banking, but after buying her first home became fascinated by the sales process and decided to make a change. After two years in consumer sales, she has spent the rest of her career supporting other people to sell real estate. “What I enjoy about sales,” she says, “is that you’re providing a service to someone you truly believe needs that service and will be better off for having purchased it. When our agents help consumers buy a house, they’re really helping that family begin the next phase of their lives.”

Sebastian Choquette, MBA ’02, Sales Director, Continental Europe for Helly Hansen, has a similar view of his role. Choquette joined the European division of the company when sales were declining and losses were piling up. He helped turn the company around, and it was recently sold to prestigious institutional investor Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. At Helly Hansen, sales is respected as a key function, and the sales team has input on everything from pricing strategy and marketing to product development and distribution. “The type of product we are selling is very high quality and the industry that we’re in is a very positive one,” says Choquette. “We’re promoting activity, getting outdoors, doing sports. When my sales teams goes out, we feel that we’re doing a great service to consumers.”

Fowler says he chose his career path because “I wanted to do something a computer couldn’t replace!” After Ivey, he spent three years in consulting and then joined PepsiCo in finance. When two Canadian PepsiCo companies merged, he happily stepped out of his CFO role and into sales management. “To me sales is about solving problems, listening to customers and working collaboratively with them to develop and buy into the solutions you’ve created together.”

Linda Cecchin-Ronan, HBA ’01, first experienced the allure of sales when as an Ivey student she was required to shadow a salesperson. “It was great to be hands-on with something,” she remembers. “I really liked the autonomy, the variety and the ability to use creative problem-solving skills.” Today, Cecchin-Ronan is a Regional Sales Manager with Ferrero Canada. She too sees sales as a core strategic activity. “It’s all about engaging with the right customer, collaborating with that customer to develop a solution that works for them, defending against competitors, evaluating your results, and modifying your tactics to do it all over again.”

Don Johnson trained as a mechanical engineer and started his career with GM in engineering. A few years in, he was given the opportunity to try sales as preparation for a more senior role in engineering, and he has never looked back. “I found that I really enjoyed being out talking to dealers and customers and learning about their needs,” he says. “Sales is not about golfing and having dinners — it’s about building trusting relationships, and driving business results for your customer and your company.”

So what makes a salesperson successful? A combination of innate personality and acquired skills, says Fowler. Good listening, the ability to define the problem, analytical skills and presentation skills are all critical, he says. “I look for people who can solve problems and get things done,” Johnson says. “A good salesperson has the insight and empathy to really dig in and understand what the customer’s needs are, even when it’s a need the customer doesn’t see.” Adding value by solving problems helps move the focus from price, he adds. “You can’t forget that salespeople today are very important guardians of margin.”

Chris says that real estate agents must be self-starters with good time management and communication skills and lots of drive. “We look for people who want to make money. After all, sales really is an unlimited income opportunity.” She recalls a top salesperson she knew well in Mississauga who had a simple approach: each morning he put 50 business cards in his pocket and then he handed them out during the day wherever he happened to be until they were gone. “Sales doesn’t have to be complicated,” says Chris. “You just find a way to interact with people and sell them something that they really want to buy.”

Choquette adds that salespeople have to be able to handle rejection. “It’s like hitting in baseball — you’re doing well when you’re unsuccessful seven out of 10 times. On the other hand, every salesperson will tell you about the rush when you close the deal.” Cecchin-Ronan adds, “People who do well in sales are able to check their ego at the door, put their heads down and do what it takes to get the job done.”

When Choquette is hiring, he looks for people with innate ability, but more importantly, with the willingness to learn and grow. He sees sales as a “craft” — one that is learned through experience and dedication. Sales also requires a strategic perspective, says Johnson. “You have to be able to see the long-term value of a relationship, and understand where the company is going, so that what you’re doing today supports what the company is trying to do.”

Are the skills of sales outdated in the era of e-commerce? Chris maintains that internet shopping has only changed the point at which the salesperson becomes relevant. “People start looking and dreaming by themselves, because they have access to information online,” she says. “But they reach a point where they need to have an interaction with a human being to take it to the next level.”

At PepsiCo, that moment is when all the data is collected and somebody has to make sense of it. “It’s important to be very focused and simple,” says Fowler. “You have to take the data and turn it into real insights that show why the solution you’re proposing is the right one.”

Fowler urges recent graduates to let go of any negative impressions of sales and if they think they have the right stuff, to go for it. “Be proud of choosing sales as a career and don’t let anybody tell you it’s not important.” Choquette agrees, adding that sales skills are applicable beyond the professional arena. “You’re always selling something — an idea, a suggestion, yourself.”

Cecchin-Ronan sees sales as a training ground for broader leadership roles. “You touch so many parts of the business that you’re really like a general manager. I think the skill set translates itself into leadership down the road.” Sherry Chris’s career path certainly supports that view. She looks back on more than 30 years in sales and says simply, “I’ve loved every minute of it.”

Photos: Nation Wong
Art Direction: Greg Salmela, Aegis

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