Since 1892

1992 Agency Magazine

hist_agencyMATHEWS & COMPANY HITS 100

Bob Mathews Plans Carefully For The Next Hundred Years

Many agencies have interesting pasts, but we don't know of any that can claim a more colorful history than these two MANA member agencies: Erikson-Howard, Inc. and Insulation Components Associates. Both companies, located in San Clemente, California, are owned by Bob Mathews and will change their names to Mathews & Company this month as they celebrate their one hundredth birthday. The firm grew from several successful companies to its present state by the efforts of hard-working and dedicated people. Today, the agency is headed by Bob Mathews, himself, a hard-working and dedicated guy, but, more to the point, a man who has not only learned from history, but who is writing it himself.

It was one hundred years ago that Bill Hughson and Lou Merton started a company in San Francisco, California, to represent hardware manufacturers in the rapidly expanding West. Back then, San Francisco had a population of 300,000, and was truly a prosperous place.

As the story goes, Hughson and Merton started their company with three chairs and two kitchen tables in a loft at 109 California Street.

Their early years, and the last years of the century, were rewarding. They had to move twice to larger offices.

In 1906 disaster struck everyone in San Francisco. The earthquake and fire that destroyed most of the city took its toll on the Hughson and Merton enterprise. They were completely wiped out.
However, a few years earlier, Bill Hughson had become the world's first Ford automobile dealer in addition to running his other business. It seems that Bill had met Henry Ford at a bicycle show in 1903, and the two had hit it off well. Sadly, though, Bill Hughson had declined Henry Ford's offer of stock in his budding automobile company.

This enterprising manufacturers' agent/automobile dealer had a stock of cars, and he generously turned them over to do the heavy relief work that was needed after the quake. When things settled down a bit and people realized how much Hughson had helped, the local authorities built an office for Hughson and Merton at Battery and Market Streets. This was the first building put up after the fire.

Needless to say, these two gentlemen were in a perfect position to expand their business and help their neighbors as well. And, as a result, they continued to prosper.

In 1910, Lou Merton opened another office, this one in Seattle, Washington, which he ran until 1916. He then turned over the management of the office to someone else and returned to San Francisco. It was only a year later that Mr. Merton died. In 1922, Lou Merton's wife joined the organization and took an active part in management until 1928, when she, too, died.

In due time, the company had branch offices in Los Angeles, California; Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Denver, Colorado and several other western cities. Later, it became apparent that it would be simpler if each office operated autonomously, and the changes were made.

Subsequently, the San Francisco office fell on hard times and management was transferred to Los Angeles.

During the disastrous thirties, Joe Wilson bought the Los Angeles office. He sold to Ed Erikson and Dick Howard upon his retirement in 1969.

The name of the agency was later changed to Erikson-Howard. When Ed Erikson died, Dick Howard sold the business to Bob Mathews, himself a successful agent, who continued to run the agency under the Erikson-Howard banner until this month which marks the one hundredth anniversary of the firm.

The firm is now known as Mathews & Company.

Writing the history of one-hundred- year-old sales agency, especially one that has been as active as this one, gives you insight that is seldom seen with agencies that have not survived so many economic ups and downs. It's especially interesting and instructive when the agency is run by a man like Bob Mathews. After establishing himself firmly in the corporate world, Bob Mathews started his agency in Overland Park, Kansas. The year was 1964.

In 1978, he acquired the Erikson-Howard Company and added his name and his Kansas agency to the company's distinguished roster. Today the agency employs fourteen people, seven of whom are on the road actively selling their principals' products, four who currently handle inside sales plus three support people.

The agency covers California, Hawaii, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and overseas it does business in Ireland and Germany. And if you wanted to place an order with the agency in just about any foreign language, you could do it. Bob told us that people on his staff speak German, Italian, Spanish, French, and Finnish and, as he put it, "We play at Japanese and Chinese." Further, this talented crew has degrees in engineering, business administration, and communications. And as Bob proudly points out, "We have 275 years of sales experience among us."

The Next 100 Years

Someone once said that getting there is half the fun. This has to be the case with Bob Mathews, because we suspect that he's got the next hundred years very carefully planned. But planning and good business sense are only two of the characteristics of this man that stand out. The other is that he is a man who cares about others. For example, Bob has developed two seminars: "Transition From Direct Sales To Manufacturers' Representatives," and "How To Start As A Manufacturers' Representative." When fees are charged for the presentation of either of these seminars, he donates the proceeds to the Salvation Army at the Camp Pendleton (California) Marine base. His goal is to help the dependents of the Marines stationed there. He also does seminars for college students to help them find jobs, and to help them quit jobs with dignity for the employer and employee.

Bob is not the kind of guy who wears his heart on his sleeve. But when pressed about the things he does - besides running a very successful sales agency - he will tell you somewhat cryptically that life is like a loan from the bank.  He knows that life's loan will be recalled and he feels that interest must be paid in advance on that department. He does this through service to others and mission support. On the academic side, Bob Mathews has impressive credentials. His Bachelor of Science is from Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Missouri, and he has done postgraduate work at the University of Kansas, Southern Methodist University, University of Missouri, University of Denver and the Wharton School of Finance. Bob's an instrument rated private pilot with more than 5000 hours in the air.

What does a man with impressive credentials and an agency with a long and distinguished history think will be the key to success for the next 100 years of his agency? Many things, but first and foremost he talks of such practical things as finding niches and filling them. As Bob told us, "Finding niches and filling them means being able to open your eyes as you visit plants and manufacturing facilities to see what they are doing, and what they could and should be doing. Then, you mentally come up with ways to reduce their costs by the use of new innovations. In other words, you see a need for something new, and you either come up with something yourself or you help a supplier solve the problem. You can also look at the niche from a market perspective, determining what a principal can supply in different areas." Because of the history of his agency - selling eastern-made products to westerners at the turn of the century, Bob feels that looking at business from this perspective can be very productive.

When we talked with Bob, we had recently read an article in a California newspaper about the cost of doing business in the largest of America's states. We asked Bob whether this was an important factor in his plans for the years to come. "It certainly is," he replied. "The cost of doing business in California has risen much more dramatically than it has in most other states, mainly because of taxes. The government puts a heavy load on us, and, of course, the costs of getting around the state are very high. An agent in New York City may be able to see five or six customers in a day simply by getting on a bus or taxi. But in Los Angeles, with our gridlock problem, we're much more restricted. Freeway accidents can lop off about 20% of the transportation availability. So our costs go up. Our costs per call are high and are going higher."

Despite rising costs and the problems of covering a lot of territory, Bob Mathews sees the years to come as the best. However, in characteristic modest style, Bob says that the future is so bright mainly because of the great lines his agency represents. "We have the greatest portfolio of quality suppliers that exists," he said, quite sincerely. "When I call a customer on the phone, or visit face-to-face, they never doubt that what I'm saying is the truth and is in their best interests. They know that I have chosen the companies I represent very carefully because they have to see all of us in the best possible light. I visit a prospective principal's facilities carefully to be totally satisfied that they can do exactly what they say they can. We have spent a lot of time developing our line of manufacturers, and we represent all of them with a lot of pride. In fact our objective is to be the top agent for each of the manufacturers we represent. We have achieved that goal in many cases, but the nature of the territory in some cases won't permit it in others. However, in these cases, we're up there with the best of them."

Adapting to Change is Key to Success

Nothing stays the same, and those who don't adapt are left by the wayside. Bob feels this is a critical element in the success of his agency. "As an agent, if you think about change as it takes place, you have an opportunity to make it work for you, not against you," he told us. He continued, "Companies with outmoded management are going to have trouble in the years to come. By the time they discover what the trends are, they are ten years behind the times. We maintain an ongoing trend watch to program our operations and to alert our principals to changes we feel will impact on their business."

The years in business have reinforced Bob's feelings that success belongs to those agencies and manufacturers who view their relationship as a partnership. "I want to ability to turn on a dime to fill important niches. We're both allocating strong and expensive resources, and it's important to make the most of the total effort."  Looking at people and business, Bob Mathews makes some interesting and relevant observations. "We abolished slavery a long time ago," he said, "but many people are slaves and don't really know it. They have become slaves to a different thing... money. They literally sell their souls for money. It's very sad to see, and I've seen it more in the last generation than I have ever seen it." Bob acknowledges that money is important, but he emphasizes that it's not the be-all and end-all of life. This, we feel, is a good attitude to have and to pass along to future agents.

Speaking of future agents, Bob Mathews has something to say on this subject, too. He admits to being impressed by the sayings of the Army and the Marine Corps. And he says that he has taken their lines, "The Marines need a few good men," and "Be all you can," and combined them into, "We want a few good people who can be all they can." Not a bad thought at all, and one which we're sure the Army and the Marine Corps would be pleased to share.

When a sales agency reaches one hundred, it's a red letter day for the agency as well as for agents in general. Mathews & Company got there by working hard, working smart... and believing in people. All agencies today have the chance to reach one hundred if they adhere to these precepts. Just ask Bob Mathews.

California Office
PO BOX 7263
Laguna Niguel CA 92607
Ph. 949-813-1511

Kansas Office
2379 W. Hazelwood St.
Olathe, KS 66061
Ph. 913-642-9063