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Difference Makers: Deep in the Heartland

River City Sales goes the extra mile for its mom-and-pop businesses, while encouraging retailers to embrace integration as technology continues to transform.


In North America, the largest river system is primarily composed of Missouri’s two big rivers. The Mississippi and the Missouri rivers together form the fourth-longest river in the world, stretching more than 3,800 miles from Montana to the Gulf of Mexico.

Knowing that, there couldn’t be a more fitting name for St. Louis, Mo.- based rep/distribution firm River City Sales. Founded by Brett Phelps and Gary Cooley in 2014, the company covers the territory known as the MINK states—Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas.

“If you look at the territory, it’s anchored by Kansas City and St. Louis on each side of the Missouri,” Phelps said. “So we have an office in Kansas City and our main office in St. Louis. It’s where Gary and I are stationed and where we have our inside sales support, Lori Beyer.” Beyer, he said, deals with incoming calls and managing accounts—whether it’s taking orders or handling shipping or credit issues, overseeing return authorizations, or anything that helps while the reps are out in the field.

Rounding out the team is Ray Smith, who covers western Iowa, western Nebraska, Kansas and northwest Missouri.

A Territory of Mom-and-Pop Retailers

The four states, deep in America’s heartland, are a wide swath to cover. “We jokingly say we have more miles than smiles,” Phelps said. For the most part, the territory is all mom-and-pop retailers. Prior to 2000, the composition was more diverse, but an expansion of national chains affected the retail landscape dramatically.

The Internet has also had an impact on retailers figuring out how to do business. “It’s a real challenge,” Phelps said, adding that the Internet has refocused retailers on how to go to market, how to do daily business, how to advertise and how to attract people who are shopping online. “As an industry, it’s kind of interesting. You’ve got satellite radio, Pandora, Spotify, Tidal, Internet radio. The days of placing an ad on a local radio station to get people in your store are over.”

For River City Sales to work with a dealer, there are a number of things to be River City Sales covers the MINK states—Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas. Pictured from left to right: Brett Phelps, Lori Beyer and Gary Cooley.

River City Sales was awarded the Rep of the Year Award from KENWOOD. Pictured left to right: Mike Roberts of KENWOOD USA, Brett Phelps and Ray Smith of River City Sales.

considered. “We look for 12-volt professionals and we look for people who aren’t just planning to be in it for 18 months and then disappear,” Phelps said. MECP certification is very important to the firm. “I’m not saying you have to have the prettiest showroom or the best-dressed staff because that doesn’t make any difference when it comes to your product, vehicle and industry knowledge. You don’t want to enable someone who isn’t qualified and have them install things because all it does is hurt the industry.”

What it comes down to, continued Phelps, is a retailer having a certain professionalism and understanding of the industry. “We like to do business with people we can trust,” he said. The size of the company makes no difference, he added, because the firm enjoys nurturing smaller accounts into something bigger. “There is nothing more satisfying than watching someone become successful in a field he really loves and that we really love. It’s great to help someone live out their dreams.”

Focused On Embracing Integration

Phelps is first to admit the company’s line card is very selective and River City takes very seriously who they want to have onboard as vendors. “We are very picky and very focused,” he added. River City Sales counts ADS/iDatalink Maestro, Kenwood, Rydeen, Silencer Security (Magnadyne) and VAIS Technology as its vendor partners.

“We deal with ADS/iDatalink Maestro because they simply make the best product on the market,” he said. This is because of integration, he added, and the fact that many cars being purchased today now have screens in the dashboard. Customers have become accustomed to this feature. “Once they have it, they don’t want to go back to not having one. But screens don’t last forever—and that customer is not going to spend $3,000 at the

GM or Ford dealership to replace it. So where are they going to go? To the independent retailer. That’s why companies like ADS are so important because they’re focused on integration.”

Phelps said that retailers who are not embracing integration, and more importantly, change, are going to fall behind the curve. He used single-DIN sales as an example, noting that sales of these products have dropped considerably, while double-DIN sales increase.

“We as an industry have to embrace new technologies and what the future holds,” he said, adding that retailers should prepare for the next wave. “It’s like when subwoofers came out. At some point in the buying cycle, we’re going to get an opportunity to deal with these customers, and between integration and what we can do with sound processing, we are in one of the most exciting times in car stereo. We just have to get better as an industry at telling people. We have to go back to the way it was before as grassroots evangelists.”

In With the New

What has been encouraging for Phelps is to see the next wave of store owners in his territory—a group of guys who are young and ambitious and who get it. “We River City Roster Gary Cooley, Rep Principal, handles distribution and administration, bringing over 40 years of consumer electronics expertise to the table. Based in St. Louis, he has been in all aspects of the business—installation, retail manager, merchandise buyer, distribution manager, manufacturer rep, sales rep and independent store owner. Brett Phelps, Rep Principal, is the outside manufacturer sales rep for Missouri, Eastern Iowa and Southern Illinois. He has over 30 years of audio/video, 12-volt and marine experience. He began in sales, then became a retail store manager and a merchandise buyer before becoming a manufacturers’ representative. Ray Smith is the outside manufacturer sales rep for Northwest Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Western Iowa, and also has over 30 years of audio/video experience. Ray has worked in retail sales and management, marketing and product development, individual/small corporate sales, as an independent business owner, and as an independent manufacturers’ representative. Lori Beyer is the inside sales contact for all of River City Sales’ territory. Lori, who has over 30 years of experience in sales, marketing, administrative and business management, also assists in distribution and administration for the company. had some turnover of older, more established retailers selling to younger people,” Phelps said. “We also had some situations where kids took over their parents’ stores. And would you want to take a guess whether the business went up or down? If you guessed it went up, you are right. Absolutely.”

For instance, when Phelps showed the new Kenwood line to some folks in the last few months, he talked up high-resolution audio, but found some dealers were indifferent to it. “I carry a portable high-res audio player and a set of $1,000 headphones,” Phelps said. “When I play a high-res track and a regular track, I can hear the difference. But when you try to demo it or explain, some retailers will say, ‘My customers aren’t asking for this.’ My response is: when is the last time you told them they should ask for it?” Instead, he added, a retailer might be advertising a 1,000-watt amp for $99. “It’s not 1985 anymore and all he’s doing is cannibalizing the 1,000-watt amps out there that are priced at $499.”

While some of the old-guard may be set in their ways, Phelps has some younger folks who are taking the reins and doing things differently. He mentioned a young man in Lincoln, Neb. who just took over a retail business. After Phelps spent hours on the phone with him, he said the man went out and bought a truck, put a system in it and started attending events. “He’s young enough that he can walk the walk and talk the talk—and the bottom line is that his business is thriving,” Phelps added.

He offered another example. In Overland, Kan., Phelps said another young man purchased a business. “The previous owners wanted to retire and sold the company to him,” he said. “This guy is really into the motorcycle side and sound quality. For the first time in the 20 years I’ve had the account, that store made it on a Kenwood trip. They never did that before.”

In Des Moines, he said, there is yet another business in which the son of the original owner is changing things. “They also qualified for the Kenwood trip this year for the first time,” Phelps said, noting that the business is continuing to grow. “When I sit down and go over new product with these guys and I talk to them, they get it and understand it.”

For River City Sales, it’s not just about helping retailers today. According to Phelps, it’s about making sure they’re around tomorrow. “My job is not just to sell retailers something but to help them keep their doors open and to be viable in the marketplace,” he added.

In the Field and On the Show Floor

According to Phelps, getting out on the road and seeing accounts is vital but it also varies among dealers. “We try to see everybody once a month if we can,” he said. “There are accounts that require visits every six weeks. Some dealers can go eight weeks and others just need a phone call.”

When it comes to visiting shops, Phelps said they work on a schedule of itineraries so as to respect everyone’s time. His only mission might be to work with a new salesperson, he said, adding that it depends on what needs to be done at that point. “Maybe I need to visit a dealer who wants to have a meeting because sales numbers are down. Our job is to help our dealers. If they have an event and need us there, we do what we can to get t-shirts, POP, and whatever else is necessary,” he added.

River City also gets involved in the trade show circuit, including CES and KnowledgeFest in Indianapolis and Dallas.

Aside from the big industry shows, it’s the little things that can make a huge difference. Every Monday and Tuesday, he said, Lori Beyer sends out an update on numbers, “so the dealer can see what he’s purchased so far for the quarter and what his target is,” Phelps explained. “It’s valuable information to help keep them on track.” The updates keep the retailers focused, he said, but the rep also receives them. “Then the rep can call the dealer, follow up and make sure they saw the report.”

Listen to the Music

Phelps said he thinks the months ahead will prove interesting. “With the election coming up, it could be brutal, and then there’s the coronavirus,” he added. “Our products are coming from China, and the factories are going to be impacted.” Even with these circumstances, Phelps is optimistic for 2020. “I’m predicting a good year,” he said. “Kenwood has some exciting products coming out, so we’re happy about that. With great product, it’s up to us as an industry to keep the dealers excited and focused.”

What is most encouraging to Phelps is the example the new guard is setting. Young store owners, he said, have a lot of enthusiasm and are demonstrating the industry isn’t dead. “Far from it,” Phelps added. “These guys are the future.” It’s also about the music, he said. “Whenever you hear a song, it takes you back. We can help people capture that memory. For whatever reason retailers or vendors or reps found their way into this industry, it still comes down to the same thing. It’s about the power of music. Even though the factory radio sounds better than it ever sounded, it’s still not as magical as what our dealers can put in a car. We can’t forget that. And we need to get the word out.”