There's no Doubt that Julie Johnson, CMP, CMM, director of events and incentives for Lennox International Worldwide Heating & Cooling, Richardson, Texas, has earned the proverbial seat at the table.

But for Johnson, that not only means that she is included in meeting strategy discussions, but also that she literally sits at the dinner table with the winners during the company's incentive trips. She has developed such close bonds with some of her company's 7,000 dealers that she has even been invited into their homes. And on the opening night of the incentive trip, the welcome address isn't given by the CEO — it's given by her or a member of her staff.

“You could say we're very visible,” she says — clearly, an understatement.

A Business Plan for the Meeting Department

Johnson joined Lennox about 10 years ago, one of two meeting planners who, she freely admits, “were basically just logistics planners.” With the company growing, it was clear, Johnson says, that her small department needed to shift away from logistics and become more strategic.

A confluence of events enabled Johnson to help the company move the department forward. Lennox became a publicly held company in 1999 and was united with sister company Armstrong Air under one corporate umbrella several years later. At the same time, Johnson was going for her CMM, a Global Certification in Meeting Management through Meeting Professionals International, and part of the program involved writing a business plan. “So I introduced the concept of consolidation. I did a lot of legwork and came up with the plan at just the right time, when all eyes were on enhancing the bottom line.”

Johnson had no trouble selling her business plan, and, within a short period of time, her department had turned into a dynamic, strategically relevant component of Lennox.

It helped, Johnson says, that she was the one who had aggressively pushed for consolidation in the first place. “It has established my credibility in what essentially is an all-male business,” she says. “It showed them that we weren't just the ‘party people’ anymore, and that we knew about a lot more than just feeding and flying people.”

On the Front Lines

Johnson's evolving role is a testament to the company's small-town, mom-and-pop heritage. Lennox came into existence in 1895 when Dave Lennox built the first steel-riveted furnace in his machine shop in Marshalltown, Iowa. It's now a global corporation with more than 16,000 employees.

Yet working for the company remains a pretty intimate experience, Johnson says. “Our first plant was in Marshalltown, and our [recently retired] Chairman of the Board John Norris brought that Midwest small town feel into Lennox. It's shaped the company, and our dealers see that. They're not just buying a product — it's very much a relationship.”

Lennox runs two levels of annual incentive trips for its top dealers. The lower-end trips include destinations such as Lake Tahoe in 2006 and Cancun this year, while the high-end incentives took dealers on a Mediterranean cruise out of Venice last year and will send them to Panama this year. While the qualification criteria vary depending on the sales district, the end result, Johnson says, is that the high-end incentive trips are attended by dealership owners or general managers.

Johnson and her staff never stay behind the scenes during these trips. “From what I understand, as our incentive programs first came into place 15 or 20 years ago, our customers saw us sitting in the background during dinners and just thought that was wrong, and that we should be sitting with them,” Johnson says. “They see our value. We're the ones who can answer their questions or solve their problems, not the sales folks they usually deal with.”

Mike Campbell, owner and operator of M. Campbell and Company, a Lennox dealer in Pasco, Wash., shares a funny story about one trip he attended where Julie was put on the spot.

“It was during the Dave Lennox Award [an incentive for the top 25 Lennox Dealers in North America],” recalls Campbell. “They set up a really nice dinner by the edge of this infinity pool, and Julie is talking. A vice president, one of the main guys at Lennox, takes a step back and falls into the pool. There's a lot of screaming and a lot of commotion. Julie doesn't flinch. She goes over, reaches in, and helps to pull him out.

“She cruised right through it,” he says. “Stuff happens, and Julie has the ability to deal with it.”

Johnson is a constant presence during the Lennox events, Campbell says, “always up early in the morning, and going to bed late at night. And she just knows everybody. You've been traveling all day to get to the incentive, and you finally arrive, and she's there to give you a big greeting. It really makes you feel like part of a big extended family.”

Building Relationships

In fact, her relationship with many of the company's 7,000 dealers has become quite close. She has been invited into their homes, gets personal correspondence, and receives pictures of their children and grandchildren.

The relationship has become “personalized,” Johnson says, particularly when it comes to customers' spouses. During a trip last year, for example, Johnson says, one of her staff mentioned to a customer that she liked a certain writer. The next week she received a box of books from that customer's spouse. “They're just great people,” she says.

This close-knit planner-dealer relationship also makes it easier to manage the trips, Johnson says. “Sometimes a customer [dealer] will try to get some extra concessions out of his salesperson, and then he or she will come to us,” Johnson says. “If I know them, I can say, ‘Hey, come on, that's not how it works.’ They know our limits, and they'll accept it. It's the ones we don't have the relationships with who may not understand a certain process.”

Johnson also uses the relationship to help her with competitive intelligence. “The customers are more than willing to share what our competitors are doing when it comes to trips,” Johnson says. “I don't really care what Carrier and Trane [Lennox's primary competitors] are doing, but it's a good way of getting more of an indication of what our customers like and dislike from a trip.”

Know the Business

In addition to dealing with the dealers and planning the incentive program, Johnson sits in on executive team meetings and receives the company's financial reports. She was even invited on a tour of the company's plant in Marshalltown in conjunction with an annual road show that the company holds. The marketing department was putting together a video to be used with the road show, says Johnson, “and since I work with the vice president of marketing on content, he wanted me at the plant.”

It's clear that she knows much more about the business side of the company than the average planner. During a recent meeting, executives talked about the rising price of copper. “Ten years ago I wouldn't have known what that meant for the company,” Johnson says. “But now I know that it makes a big difference. It's going to affect production costs, and it will impact meetings. As planners, we need to understand that.

“A successful planner needs to know the company's objectives, mission, and the direction in which it is heading,” she says. “If you know the business, if you can read the company financials, understand them, and provide input that has some value, then you're going to get a seat at the table.”