It was one of the coolest things the sales rep had ever seen. It happened when his boss at Zeeland Lumber, A.J. Konynenbelt, was talking with a builder and concluding that, even at the terms offered, the builder and Zeeland would be a bad fit.

So Konynenbelt walked away. “The builder couldn’t believe it,” the Zeeland rep recalled. “But it was the right decision. I have a feeling that customer will be calling us one day—to do business on our terms.”

For most sales managers, the idea that you should refuse a bad deal is a slogan that many will mouth but few will commit to. Konynenbelt’s willingness to walk—and the underlying reasons why—reveal why I think he’s one of the best sales managers today, and a role model worth emulating.

At just 33, Anthony Joseph Konynenbelt (pronounced Kah-NINE-en-belt) possesses the vision, attitude, coaching skills, and eye for data and detail that help explain why Zeeland dominates western Michigan. “He has a growth mindset you can’t teach,” CEO Mike Dykstra says.

But while Konynenbelt is great at steering the boat, you need to credit the vessel, too. Talk to any leader at Zeeland Lumber and you’ll hear the same refrain: “How will this affect our customer?” Konynenbelt excels there because his personality fits the company’s culture so well. As Dykstra puts it: “He leads with a servant heart and focuses continually on what’s best for the customer and employee.”

Craig J Vander Lende Konynenbelt with Dean DeHoog, director of truss and components, at Zeeland’s truss plant.

The Big Picture

Konynenbelt’s backstory at Zeeland is common: first summer job in 1997 at age 15; full-time employment fresh out of college in 2005; stints in several departments; becoming “a cold-calling machine” when he switched to outside sales rep at the market’s bottom in 2008; building a $4 million book of business by the time he became vice president of sales in January 2016.

Along with fellow VP Shane Soules, Konynenbelt manages 23 sales reps, project coordinators, estimators, and related help. It’s a diverse group because Zeeland is diverse: It pursues custom home builders, high-end remodelers, multifamily project developers, and production builders. There also are framing and installed sales divisions. During my recent visit, one sales rep waited outside Konynenbelt’s office to discuss the deals he had just closed for hundreds of multifamily units while another salesman was in his office discussing the proposal for a resort home on Lake Michigan.

Konynenbelt wears a calm, easy smile that belies the competitive intensity necessary for team leadership. “He keeps his cool,” says Mark Vandenbosch, now vice president of business development, who stepped aside as sales manager when Konynenbelt asked to take on a larger role in the organization. “You know what you’re going to get with him, and that’s good for our sales team.”

Individual Treatment

Although Konynenbelt built a sales model that worked well for him and is employed by many of his salespeople, he consistently seeks to tailor his managing to the strengths and goals of each sales performer. One rep might be better selling the intimate relationship necessary to shepherd a custom home builder, while another salesperson’s technical skills are a perfect fit for the mass production builder. I’ve found that this sort of awareness is crucial to being a good sales coach, and it’s a skill that’s doesn’t come naturally to many top sales performers.

Just as a lot of star athletes fail as coaches, many top salespeople stumble as managers. Often this is because a star sales rep presumes his or her staff possess the same skills that often came to the star instinctively. So rather than systematically develop the right practices in salespeople, the manager pressures them to produce instant results. And during sales calls, the sales manager takes over as a means to do the selling instead of transferring skills.

Konynenbelt is different. “It’s amazing what A.J. does during sales calls,” says one of Zeeland’s recent hires in the sales department. “He watches me and lets me do my thing. Sometimes he interjects, but it’s usually to help me see a better approach. Mostly he just waits until we’re back in the car after a sales call and then he replays it with me. We always find ways to improve.

“I remember one time,” the rookie salesman adds, “we left a sales call and he said, ‘I blew it.’ I was amazed and said, ‘But we got the order.’ A.J. said, ‘Yes, but I should have handled his question a different way.’ A.J. is always thinking about the sales strategy. He’s great to work for and learn from.”

Instead of commands, Konynenbelt leads with questions to nudge the rep toward best practices. Take the time he discovered a sales rep failed to alert a customer regarding an upcoming delivery problem. When asked, the salesperson agreed the alert was important but said, “I haven’t had time to get to it.”

Most managers would tell the salesperson they made a mistake and focus on criticism. Instead, Konynenbelt asked: “How long would it take to write a two-line email? It’s your customer, so you decide. But how would you feel if you were the customer and didn’t receive this important information from your salesman?” Predictably, the salesperson soon took the two minutes to write the valuable communication update.

Craig J Vander Lende Konynenbelt, here checking progress on a Zeeland manufacturing project, has worked just about every job in the company, and his training program for new hires is similarly wide-ranging.

Do the Right Thing

This customer-centric attitude is instilled into Zeeland staffers from the start, as part of a structured orientation process. Each salesperson spends time in the estimating department and six months or more as an inside sales representative. When it’s time to hit the road, each sales rep is expected to prospect and track that effort. Because he’s done it all, Konynenbelt can help newcomers all along the way, from phone prospecting methods to sales calls.

Many dealers try to grow by stealing sales reps from competitors. Konynenbelt manufactures his team. Like its boss, Zeeland’s sales reps are younger than the industry average, but Konynenbelt makes sure they’re trained the right way.

Interviews with his sales team validate that his empathetic approach and coaching skills help salespeople improve. One remarked that he handled a difficult situation with an important customer by accepting a return on a substantial order of windows, stating that Konynenbelt said, “It’s the right thing for the customer.” It was a decision the salesperson couldn’t make on his own.

Planting the right seeds with new hires is one thing; reshaping attitudes of old hands is another. One of the best ways Konynenbelt shows he knows the difference involves how he and Zeeland have embraced data to track progress and plot improvements.

At Zeeland Lumber, measurement gets done … every day. On Monday mornings, the leadership team meets to discuss key performance indicators (KPIs) in every division of the company. The numbers are color-coded to illustrate where things are going right and highlight potential problems and critical gaps in performance. Inside the sales office, Konynenbelt’s team has adopted a prospecting pipeline structure that enables the reps to successfully predict sales outcomes.

Konynenbelt is flexible on his measurement demands. He accepts that some of his old dogs have their methods, and he gives them the latitude to work their markets in ways that historically have created success—all while finding small opportunities for coaching moments here and there. For new hires, there is less negotiation. KPIs for prospecting, quote logs, closing ratios, and sales activity all are part of the sales plan.

He proudly shows me the dashboard of metrics he uses to correlate the sales performance he observes in the field with the numbers he sees on his computer screen. The metrics include prospecting activity based on potential volume, project status, closing ratios, and cross-selling opportunities.

Notably, Konynenbelt has achieved something rare in sales management measurement: He has salespeople reporting to themselves. One rep tracked me down during my visit because he felt compelled to tell me about his successful pipeline measurement practices. He swears by the practice and is a devotee. That is the type of sales performance you can get only by empowering the right people to do things that will benefit their careers.

The Cultured Pearl

Of course, finding the right people is paramount. It’s common for a candidate to sit for interviews with four or more leaders in the company and even meet for a meal prior to making an offer. New hires need to recognize the power of customer satisfaction.

It’s clear that Dykstra’s mantra—“How will this affect the customer?”—lies at the core of every organizational decision. Konynenbelt constantly says, “It’s about the customer.” Dean DeHoog, director of truss and components, says, “I’m the only one empowered to say ‘no’ in the design department. It’s all about the customer.” Vandenbosch says, “It’s about removing hurdles … for our customers.”

It would be easy to believe this customer-centric focus threatens profit margins, but the opposite is true. Zeeland Lumber will not publicize it sales volume or profits, but my review found it owns a huge share of its market sales and is at the extreme high end of industry benchmarks for profitability.

So, do sales create organizational profitability or do great organizations produce sales profitability? Zeeland Lumber and A.J. Konynenbelt demonstrate what I have continually observed about the best organizations in our industry over many years: The answer is yes, to both.

Sales leadership is both a process and a culture, one that must permeate the entire chain of command. No matter how talented a sales manager is, and no matter how good a team that manager leads, that person cannot be expected to drive profits without getting the operational resources needed to help contractors manage their total cost of doing business. Zeeland Lumber does that. And with Konynenbelt running the sales room, the company gets a larger share of the pie.