T here is an old saying: If you want to make God laugh, make a plan.
It didn’t take Ben Nystrom very long to discover that sometimes even life-long plans do not turn out quite the way you expect — and you are better off for the change in direction.
Today Nystrom is national sales manager of MWI Components. But, growing up, he dreamed of a career in music.
At age 18, he left home in Spencer, Iowa, to move to Boston and attend the Berklee College of Music.
“I had spent a summer semester there when I was 17,” Nystrom says. “I liked the city more than the school, but music was what I was focused on. I played drums, the piano and assorted instruments.”
However, before he could attend Berklee, he spent enough time at a smaller school and got an associate degree in general business and wandered into the music business. “I worked for Tower Records while I went to college, and I merged with a lot of Berklee kids,” he says. “A lot of Berklee grads were working the same job I was, and that didn’t make sense to me.”
After three years in Boston, Nystrom returned home to Spencer to work with his dad, Bruce. That time at home led him in pursuit of another career path.
Creativity takes another form
“I worked in AutoCAD that summer and I got really interested in design,” says Nystrom, 34. He decided to pursue design at a school in Arizona. However, after a year at the school, Ben discovered the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. He was prepared to transfer to the school when he got news that redirected his career path for good.
“All of a sudden my dad made a decision. I say he dropped a bomb,” Nystrom laughs. “He was a private label manufacturer for one of the biggest component suppliers in the post-frame industry. And he decided to break away from the distributor. I was very concerned and wondered why he was doing this.”
Like many kids, Ben had worked for his dad’s company since he was a boy. He felt the pull to join the family business.
What emerged from Nystrom’s “bomb” is MWI Components, which specializes in products related to the post-frame building industry. MWI supplies the Metal Work’s brand cupola and Ridg-Vent roof ventilators.
There are also lines of horse stall systems products, stall doors, latch options, grill selections, stall components, dutch and bale doors and other products.
Ventilation products, says the younger Nystrom, were the “core business for about 20 years.” MWI still manufactures these products, but it has morphed into components that are color specific for post-frame buildings. MWI Components offers virtually everything for a post-frame building except the steel panels.
Coming up with a plan
As the new business got started, Ben explains, his dad set up warehouses in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Harrisburg, Pa., and needed someone to run them.
Ben saw himself there and he volunteered. “I looked at that as my opportunity to help out the family business.”
In 1998, MWI Components established itself in Harrisburg, with Ben in charge. “I had no sales experience, and I had to go out and sell,” he says. “It was hard, but I had a lot of faith in what I was doing and a lot of faith in my product.”
About two years into this venture, he adds, others began to see MWI Components as serious competition. Nystrom had the opportunity to hire a rep to handle the eastern territory, the warehouse was sold, and he returned to the Midwest. He took on the territory covering Minnesota and Wisconsin.
These days, however, Ben’s phone caller ID shows a Pennsylvania area code. “The interesting part of this is that I met my wife in Pennsylvania,” he says. “We moved to Minnesota and started our family there. About five years ago, when my wife became pregnant with our third child, we moved back to Pennsylvania so we could be closer to her family.”
At the same time, Nystrom’s father wanted him to take on a greater role in management. “I became the acting sales manager,” he says. “I’m now responsible for nine sales people. We work together with pricing, dealing with customers and generating business.”
He’s kept the Midwest territory, though. “I think it’s important to keep a pulse on the sales side of things as well as the management side of things,” he says.
Not an easy transition
Although Nystrom has been successful, the move into sales was tough. “I was frightened in terms of public speaking, like most people,” he says. “I was used to performance to some degree because of the music, but this move was a gradual process.”
“I believe that you need to do what other people won’t do, and that fits sales to some degree. Most people don’t want to go into sales.
“But I believe that the secret is believing in what you are selling,” he adds. “If you believe in that and you believe that the customer needs what you are selling, then it comes down to personality and how you sell yourself. In this industry, people are going to buy from someone who keeps his word and is trustworthy.”
“My upbringing, in a nutshell, is to work hard so you can play hard,” says Nystrom, “but I discovered it was equally important to work hard but work smart. Sales allowed me to do that.”
If there’s a down side, he says frankly, it’s that the industry is geared to lean manufacturing. “I understand the accounting side that wants to keep materials and inventory low. But I’m also a salesman who hates selling out of an ‘empty wagon,’” he says, knowing that companies that survive these tough economic times have to keep their “wagons” fairly empty. That is, having too much inventory is risky, as well as costly. Yet, there’s always that anxiety about “will I have enough inventory to ship this order.”
“The lean economy makes (this challenge) 10 times worse than a year or two ago,” he says.
Whether it’s the components business or the concert stage, the happiest people are those with passion for what they do. And now that Nystrom has learned to enjoy selling, he enjoys what he does. He especially likes being in business with his dad.
Customers are big part of his satisfaction. Says Nystrom, “A lot of them have become friends.”
“I love this industry,” says Nystrom. “I love that it’s environmentally conscious, that everyone is aware of the need to manufacture and market green. We have to do that. We believe in it; the public believes in it.”
So while it’s perhaps not playing out the way a young musician once dreamed, Nystrom enjoys his job.
As he says, the secret is believing in what you are doing.