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FE&SEditorial Archives2002May — Cover Story

Dealer of the Year

2002 Dealer of the Year

Under the co-direction of Alan (left) and Rodney, members of the third generation to lead their family firm, The Wasserstrom Co. has established E&S distribution, manufacturing and sales locations in eight U.S. states and South America. In the early days of the 20th Century, however, the Wasserstroms also operated a bar and sold brewing supplies and restaurant fixtures in Columbus, where the family has done business for 100 years.

For the past 100 years, four generations of the Wasserstrom family have reinvented and relentlessly diversified a firm whose current national and international market presence is maintained by a culture based on 'no exceptions' customer service and continuous improvement. In the following main story and sidebars, we profile the people, practices and principles that have made The Wasserstrom Company FE&S' first-ever two-time Dealer of the Year.

Theirs is the immigrants' story, a chapter of American history shared by millions who traveled here in search of newer, freer social conditions and a chance at prosperity. The family of Nathan and Rebecca Wasserstrom, who founded, built and have managed The Wasserstrom Company for 100 years, across four generations, came to the United States from what is now the Czech Republic before 1900, a small "tribe" of two parents and 12 children willing to labor unstintingly to earn a livelihood in the industrial free economy. Beginning with Nathan, who brought four sons into the business, and a third generation that includes Rodney and Alan Wasserstrom who now run the company and their children, Wasserstroms learn early and are taught not to forget that if you give customers exactly what they want, instead of what you have to offer, you'll find the success you help engender for others will become your own.

The Wasserstrom family has worked together over four generations to develop one of the nation's leading E&S distribution and manufacturing organizations. Patriarch and company founder Nathan, along with wife Rebecca and their children posed for this group portrait (top) in the early 1920s. Currently nine Wasserstroms hold positions in the firm, including (from lower right) Alan, Rodney, Jon, Bruce, Reid, Brad, Eric, Laura and Cheri.
Photo courtesy of The Wasserstrom Company

To try to understand a firm that has grown steadily and diversified relentlessly over the course of the entire past century, as has FE&S' 2002 Dealer of the Year, it helps to grasp the forces that brought it into being. The first has been a rarely erring entrepreneurial judgment and enthusiasm for business-building that has impelled the Wasserstrom family to found companies in the beer-making supplies, bar supply, foodservice equipment, wine distribution, wholesale lumber, millwork, restaurant franchising, office furnishings, custom fabrication and restaurant furniture industries. And, in addition to being industrious and strategic in their investment initiatives, the Wasserstroms have also been numerous and close-knit, allowing a cohesive corporate culture to be developed and maintained by brothers, uncles and cousins who grew up and entered the business together, helping the current Wasserstrom Company to operate according to common values and practices throughout its many expansions.

And expand it has. By any applicable measurement, Wasserstrom has become one of the true titans of foodservice E&S sales, distribution (and manufacturing). Ranked second again this year among FE&S' Distribution Giants with annual dealership sales of $255 million, The Wasserstrom Company employs more than 1,100 associates, has cash 'n carry, warehousing, manufacturing and/or sales locations in eight U.S. states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Nevada and Arizona) and a distribution facility and factory in Caracas, Venezuela. Headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, Wasserstrom currently does 1,300 equipment installations and 2,000 smallwares installations a year, provides services at some 12,000 restaurants annually and helps to open a new restaurant every 25 hours, all year long. The company manages over 150,000 different items and parts a year and maintains an inventory of 15,000 equipment SKUs and 25,000 smallwares SKUs. To maintain logistical control and allow inter-departmental business unit teams to service individual customers wherever they do business, Wasserstrom is organized into National and Regional Equipment and Smallwares divisions (serving chain and independent accounts, respectively), that, along with the distribution company's sales offices, warehouses, three domestic distribution centers and cash 'n carry superstores - and manufacturing's various enterprises - operate out of 27 locations while working with accounts in all 50 states and 10 foreign countries. The simple scale of the manufacturing division's activities is also impressive, as the com-pany's N. Wasserstrom & Sons entity is extensively involved in making standard and custom-fabricated items for foodservice and supermarket customers that include an immense array of wire-goods, hot and cold food make-up, holding and transport equipment and sinks, and wood products ranging from equipment cabinets to booth seating. Just the basic sales, administrative, IT, cash 'n carry, distribution and manufacturing activities The Wasserstrom Company engages in Columbus alone require more than 1-million-square-feet of real estate.

Positioned atop the organizational chart of this vast enterprise are two third-generation cousins: Rodney Wasserstrom, 59, who oversees the sales, administrative and distribution functions as president and CEO of The Wasserstrom Company; and Alan Wasserstrom, 61, who runs the N. Wasserstrom & Sons manufacturing entity as president and CEO.

Rodney, who joined the company in 1961 as a warehouseman and shipping clerk, still exudes enthusiasm for his job, in part, he said, because of the support he receives from his legion of colleagues. "I continue to love what I do thanks to the efforts of thousands of associates who have been and remain principally responsible for the growth of this business and our ability to give all our customers the products and services that work best for them," he elaborated. "Since Alan and I can't micro-manage the large number of projects and departments in the organization, we rely on company associates to help us continually improve the installation services, operational systems and manufacturing efforts we provide to fulfill different customers' needs." (For more on the backgrounds, responsibilities and accomplishments of The Wasserstrom Company's key managers, see the sidebars throughout this feature.)

Service Is A Chain Reaction

If servicing customers is all-important at The Wasserstrom Co. - and it is - then servicing chain customers is all the more important, for an obvious reason - the com-pany does 80% of its $255 million annual sales with multi-unit customers.

Top executives like (left to right) Vice President of Marketing and Sales for National Multi-Unit Development Equipment Sales Eric Wasserstrom, Group Sales Manager for the Smallwares Division Mark Thomas, Assistant Vice President of Sales Art Waters and Executive Vice President of the National Smallwares Group Ursula Vermillion regularly combine talents and experience to provide seamless service for Wasserstrom's growing list of chain customers.

"What we do, basically, is develop customized smallwares distribution programs for multi-unit operators," said Ursula Vermillion, executive vice president of Wasserstrom's National Smallwares Group. "Our customers include supermarkets, healthcare institutions, fast-feeders and casual-dining restaurants."

This is no small job. Vermillion, who came to Wasserstrom two decades ago and began her stint as a group sales manager, oversees a department that accounts for about 85% of the company's total smallwares sales, and 40% of all sales.

Vermillion's group is now hard at work developing yet another generation of customer initiatives. "Staffing properly and providing the procedures that allow us to maximize sales opportunities with each customer are things that are ongoing," she explained.

"We are bringing a larger group of product offerings up onto our internet site to reach a broader base of customers," she said, holding court, and clearly comfortable doing so, in the august surroundings of the company's Brewmaster's conference room. "We're also continuing to provide more internet ordering capability to our customer base. Those are our major initiatives for this year."

Eric Wasserstrom, vice president of marketing and sales for National Multi-Unit Development Equipment Sales, defined his role as, "making sure all our customers on the equipment side of the business are serviced to the best of our ability, and to make sure that we are continuing to grow our portfolio of customers." In this role, Eric reports to Executive Vice President and COO John McCormick.

Wasserstrom, a fourth-generation member of the company, who smiles easily but is all business when discussing the family enterprise, also works hand in hand with Assistant Vice President of Sales Art Waters "getting involved with as much of the detail as necessary to ensure our service to existing customers, including manufacturing schedules, engineering schedules, general customer service issues and financial discussions. I'll also sit down with customers on a one-on-one basis to make sure we are meeting their needs. Because we are already looking around the corner toward what their needs are going to be, we're not only focusing on meeting their current concerns, but also on setting up our personnel and systems to make sure that we are going to be able to give them what they want tomorrow."

His greatest challenge, Eric Wasserstrom noted, is one that seems to consume all of his colleagues, as well - making sure customers are taken care of.

"My ultimate job is making sure that the people who are in charge of taking care of our customers - business unit directors, account managers, coordinators - have all the resources they need to do that on a daily basis," he said. "My job is not to get involved personally with every account, although I do so on an as-needed basis. My core mission is to make sure that every day, all of those people who are 'touching' customers have the resources they need to provide whatever business requires."

His primary goal for 2002 is to make sure that those business unit directors, account managers and coordinators "continue to be trained and empowered to make more customer-service decisions on the fly so that customers receive quicker responses." Waters, who came to The Wasserstrom Co. in 1983 after 15 years in restaurant operations, said his most pressing current responsibility is an extended one.

"It's not something where you make a sales call today and have the account tomorrow," he noted. "New customer development can take anywhere from six months to - I've had conversations go on for as long as 10 years - before you get an account." Added Waters, "I think I have the best job in the company. What I get to do is tailor a program for a potential customer and work with the tools that Wasserstrom has given me, like the communications and information systems and customer service network, which no other dealer has. What I get to do is I pick what I need and present that to the customer. It really makes my job a lot of fun, and the joy that it is."

A 10-year Wasserstrom veteran who started in customer service and worked his way up through the ranks, Mark Thomas, group sales manager for the Smallwares division, is responsible for developing new business, as well as servicing existing accounts through his group sales force.

Asked what had led to Wasserstrom's repeat performance as Dealer of the Year, Thomas declared, leaning forward over a long conference room desk to emphasize his point, "We have a good group of people. We have a lot of long tenures here, and a lot of people who enjoy what they're doing and who are getting the tools to go out and sell. There's nothing that I'm telling them that makes me uncomfortable or that we can't make happen and get done at the highest level."

Asked to offer her own rationale for Wasserstrom's stature, longevity and capacity for self-renewal, Vermillion pointed to the fact that, "We've continued to lead in technology and putting resources into developing new procedures. We've also looked to differentiate ourselves from others by having well-trained people, well-developed procedures and a very, very active customer base."

There is, she concluded, "so much change going on in our industry that to be able to work for [a company] that has our kind of stability, even as a new generation is entering it, does give us some comfort that Wasserstrom will never be 'here today and gone tomorrow.' It's the ability to adapt and succeed over time that makes this organization so very special." -HR

Alan Wasserstrom, who started in the firm in 1963 as a welder and spent his first two years operating manufacturing equipment on the shop floor, concurred with his cousin, noting, "Rodney and I both believe in fairness, family and people, values that we try to communicate to all our department leaders and business unit heads. Because they also make these principles their own, our managers are able to pass them on to their people by training and individual mentoring, giving us a unity of purpose that's rare in such a large and diverse organization."

Achieving A Harmony Of Systems

Susan Coffman, Wasserstrom's restaurant supply superstore manager; Doug Fahrenholz, vice president, Regional Smallwares, Equipment & Bid (center); and Joe Keel, assistant vice president, Food Service Group, all credit Rodney Wasserstrom with setting the can-do tone that helps fuel the company's growing retail division.

The further melding of disparate systems and processes within the Wasserstrom organization, which is a vital part of its growth plan for this year, parallels the gentle blending of family members and associates that has created a unified "extended family" at this company.

Susan Coffman, Wasserstrom's superstores manager, related that her division is hard at work adding a variety of new and different SKUs for customers to choose among. "We're in the process of making room in both the Dayton and Cincinnati facilities to try and add the SKUs," she noted.

Coffman, as sober when talking numbers as she is charming when greeting a walk-in customer, came to The Wasserstrom Co. a year-and-a-half ago, following a stint as a store manager in Columbus working for Gordon Foodservice. She is charged with running the company's three equipment, smallwares and supplies superstores - located in Dayton, Cincinnati and Columbus - as well as another retail outlet, also in Columbus, that carries used restaurant equipment.

The retail operations are an important cog in the machine, to be sure, contributing as much as 2.5% of Wasserstrom's overall revenue, including sales of both national and regional smallwares and equipment.

High on Coffman's to-do list, in addition to adding more equipment and smallwares products to her inventory, is merging all of the facilities, two of which were purchased in an acquisition in late July 2001 of the Quality Restaurant Co. dealership in Dayton, into a single, seamless system.

Part of that plan is to bring more standardization to the product offerings. A core of signature items will be inventoried at all locations. That way, Coffman explained, "a customer will be able to go into all three locations and find the same basic items at the same prices. We're trying to merge and blend the different cultures of three different operations in three cities into one cohesive, powerful retail unit."

Combining the operating systems is vital. "Right now in Columbus, I have one POS system," said Coffman. "The Dayton and Cincinnati stores have a different POS system, and then we also have our main operating system for the company." The initiative going forward is to take the base operating system that is in use in Cincinnati and Dayton, "bring that here, and then tie it to our main operating system. That way, we can run more efficiently and be able to serve our customers better," she added.

Coffman, who reports to Assistant Vice President, Food Service Group Joe Keel, credited Wasserstrom's corporate culture as being a prime ingredient in its success and she began by giving credit to those at the top. "I think we're successful because of our leadership. During the time I've spent with Rodney [Wasserstrom], his energy, enthusiasm and the passion that he shows for customers and the business have been extraordinary." Such zeal, she suggested, "has to come from the top, and Rodney shows that every day. He comes in with that hunger and passion after all these years, so how can you not constantly want to do your best and try to change or grow with that example as a leadership model?"

"Rodney is a 'roll your sleeves up' kind of guy," added Keel. "He'll come down and stock shelves, take care of a customer, go out with a sales executive or one of the salespeople to call on a customer. That expresses our culture, that Wasserstrom family culture. And, as we continue to grow as an organization, it becomes more difficult to perpetuate our culture. But Rodney and Alan [Wasserstrom] do a very good job of that by working with family members throughout the organization."

Keel, who is one year short of a decade with Wasserstrom, has a background in credit and accounting. In fact, he started on the credit side of the business when he arrived at Wasserstrom nine years ago and has come up through the organization and into operations. He reports to Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Dennis Blank.

Keel's job, he quipped with a barely concealed smile, is "to keep Sue and Doug Fahrenholz [vice president, Regional Smallwares, Equipment & Bid], happy. I'm responsible for all the non-sales-related functions and activities within the regional group business' operational side: customer service, the order data process, the logistical side of warehousing, installations, telecoms and IT. Anything in direct support of the sales functions, in-house or out of house is, ultimately, my responsibility."

"Our focus for 2002 is to enhance our services to our customer," said Fahrenholz. "To do this, we intend to re-evaluate and revisit each customer to determine which additional products they may be able to introduce into their business cycles. Also, we're going to be looking at those niche [regional] businesses with which we can grow our sales."

An 18-year Wasserstrom veteran, Fahrenholz's prior experience was garnered in the hospitality/country club market. He started with the dealer in a sales training position in the Columbus showroom, and assumed his current post six years ago. He reports directly to Rodney Wasserstrom.

Fahrenholz's responsibilities are geared more toward regional customers or, as he put it, "the non-national chains. We do equipment, design, layout and smallwares distribution for them." He confided that he doesn't feel Wasserstrom deserved to win the DOY award twice in 19 years. "It should be Wasserstrom every year," he joked. "Wasserstrom is a unique company. First, it's a family, which is a function of the leadership shown by the Wasserstroms and the dedication, demonstrated in particular by Alan and Rodney, which is highly contagious.

"I call it the trickle-down effect that goes all the way through out organization," he continued. "Because we emulate Rodney and Alan, we're a genuinely humble company. We take excellent care of our associates and, at the same time, we provide a high service level to our customers."

Keel agreed that the integration of the two stores acquired from Quality last year is crucial. "We're working to bring those locations under one umbrella, so we can operate more efficiently. The integration of new systems and enhancement of existing ones to create greater efficiencies in our groups is a big push for this year."

Efficiency, however, is not the whole story. "I've been in the corporate world," concluded Keel, "and I've been in this world, and I love this world. And I love this company." -HR

Though The Wasserstrom Company has now established national E&S market penetration, not least through its longstanding working relationships with some of the nation's largest and best-known restaurant chains, which now account for fully 80% of the firm's annual sales volume, and has been active in the (now troubled) Venezuelan market since 1998, the road to such economic heights was neither short nor easy. The first steps on this road were taken back in 1902, when Nathan Wasserstrom, ostensibly seeking a gentler climate and better business opportunities than were to be found in his first U.S. home, New York City, moved his family to Columbus and founded a housewares and sundries business. In 1916, Nathan opened a bar that was converted into a restaurant in 1919, when Prohibition came into effect. This business was soon transformed into a hops, malt and home-brewing supplies shop during the Twenties, and was the first firm to operate under the family name.

This company operated profitably until the early 1930s, when Prohibition was repealed, and the Wasserstrom family again showed its adaptability by laying out plans to reinvent their business as a distributor of equipment and supplies to the (soon to revive) bar and restaurant industry. With both first- and second-generation Wasserstroms by then involved, including four of Nathan's seven sons - Sidney (Rodney's father), Albert, Emil and Sam - N. Wasserstrom & Sons Fixture and Supply Co. next expanded into sales of its own building supplies and millwork products, formalizing its practice of manufacturing a significant percentage of the E&S it distributes. (Nathan's other three sons, William [Alan's father], Leonard and Stanley, all provided advice and counsel to the company throughout their lives.)

As World War II approached, these second-generation Wasserstrom brothers, who reportedly spent as much time planning new business ventures and investments while visiting each other's homes and socializing as they did at work, took on positions of additional responsibility at the company. Notably, they led an expansion into metal-products fabrication and developed the ability to sell and install complete restaurant E&S packages.

During the 1950s, Wasserstrom's E&S-related volume entered a period of more rapid growth as the U.S. foodservice industry began to expand into its modern form, and the company added its first stainless steel-fabrication facilities and began training its sales force to seek out and serve customers across the national market. As the Sixties began, and the first regional family- and fast-food-restaurant chains were brought into being, Wasserstrom geared up to meet their equipment and supplies needs, starting by forging enduring relationships with some of the founding developers of multi-unit restaurant companies.

Manufacturers In Service To Process Improvement

Unprecedented continuous improvement - not just in technology and operational processes but, also, in customer and employee satisfaction - are what Wasserstrom's manufacturing professionals are busy planning.

"Here, we do heavy manufacturing work for chain restaurants," said John McCormick, executive vice president and chief operating officer (COO). " I oversee all the manufacturing and engineering. I'm responsible for this division, for making sure that the products are built properly."

Susan Coffman, Wasserstrom's restaurant supply superstore manager; Doug Fahrenholz, vice president, Regional Smallwares, Equipment & Bid (center); and Joe Keel, assistant vice president, Food Service Group, all credit Rodney Wasserstrom with setting the can-do tone that helps fuel the company's growing retail division.

McCormick, who has three sons working with him at Wasserstrom, signed on with the company 40 years ago as a factory machine operator. He assumed his current post - one that his nuts-and-bolts demeanor seems naturally suited for - a decade ago, and answers directly to N. Wasserstrom & Sons President and CEO Alan Wasserstrom.

Despite his executive status, his greatest day-to-day challenge, in McCormick's view, is intensely pragmatic. "It's getting the work done and getting everybody here every day. That, I think, is a big issue today. Absenteeism in many work areas is one thing that we have to wrestle with, along with getting the quality people we need to run our operations."

McCormick's day is full, fast-paced and varied. After arriving at his office at 7:30, he will check e-mails and phone messages, and meet with all division managers. "I'm the operations guy," he said by way of explanation. "I've got to find out where they're at with their schedules and if they have any problems."

The rest of McCormick's day includes consultations with plant managers, and a few hours on the phone speaking to customers and sales personnel.

Wasserstrom's manufacturing division is also cooking up ways to get more automation to different areas, to upgrade its plant equipment and engineering processes - from press brakes to laser-cutting, parametric engineering and other, similar approaches - and to "do things that we didn't do 40 years ago," noted McCormick, "or even last year." Such changes, added this knowledgeable veteran, will help to ensure time and quality improvements.

Director of Business Systems Bob Sackerman, having left General Motors where he'd served on the Saturn start-up team, decided a little over three-and-a-half years ago to join Wasserstrom. As he recently noted, that change was "pretty significant in my paradigm of manufacturing and how to do business."

Sackerman views his main personal challenges as responding to "the dynamics of a changing industry, and the competitive requirements to reduce cycle times, as well as meeting the demands of customers, which are different today than they were five, 10 or 20 years ago.

"I find that the whole integration of technology, people, systems and processes really is entering a new stage within the foodservice equipment industry," he explained. "I'm very challenged by being a part of that and contributing."

Sackerman serves as the interface with all of the functional departments. "I'm the bridge," he noted, "the linkage, the conduit that joins the system together. I really reach out and touch every facet and function, including sales, manufacturing, engineering, purchasing and scheduling."

It comes as little surprise that Assistant Vice President of Operations Brad Wasserstrom, like many a Wasserstrom before him, got where he is today by starting in the business at a tender age.

Brad Wasserstrom began working full-time for the company nine years ago, with a focus squarely on operations. Specifically, he works closely with Bob Sackerman supervising the Venezuela operation; oversees Human Resources; is involved in the company's CBC (Construction Building Components) division; and has direct responsibility, along with Jane Van Meter, "to be sure our vendor contracts are as good as they can be." He reports to John McCormick.

Brad is looking hard in 2002 at ways to improve Wasserstrom's supply chain management and programs with vendors, as well as scrutinizing the company's satellite operations in Phoenix, Oklahoma City, Greenville, S.C., and Columbus. "We have to make sure we're utilizing those contracts as well as possible and putting our volume in those factory partners who are helping us out the most. That's a big push for me this year."

"Also, one of the things our industry is dealing with right now is cycle-time reduction, decreasing the time it takes to turn a job back to customers," observed Sackerman. "Business is now at the speed of light. That means we've got to be more effective, more efficient in terms of our ability to take [what a customer wants] and be able to design it, engineer it, manufacture it and ship it in less and less time. Customers want instantaneous results, and so we have to change the way we design our processes and how we train our people." -HR

"In 1962, Dave Thomas walked into our dealership looking to buy equipment and supplies for some bankrupt local Kentucky Fried Chicken units he was converting, and asked us for a one-day line of credit," recalled Rodney, who was working the service desk that day. "Though that wasn't our usual practice, we gave Dave his credit, were paid the next day and Dave became good friends with my father, who he introduced to Col. Harlan Sanders." Rodney added that in 1964 he joined his father on a "getting to know you" visit to Col. and Mrs. Sanders in their Shelbyville, Ky., home, and observed another long-standing relationship being born, with Wasserstrom starting out by doing fabrication work for the chicken chain, then adding smallwares sales and continuing to serve KFC and parent Tricon to the current day.

Alan Wasserstrom, too, had an early experience that demonstrated how chain business could help the company grow and expand its former limits. "During the mid-'60s, we were given a chance to meet with the early Burger Boy Foodarama chain to discuss doing some opening packages for them," he recounted. "Before I went into the meeting, my Uncle Sidney told me to say 'Yes,' no matter what the contract requirements were, which shows you how quickly our second-generation leaders grasped the potential of chain business. Well, we got the chance to provide six complete store opening packages for Burger Boy, which was our biggest one-time order to date, but the chain had to have all of them finished inside two months. In manufacturing, we were scared to death we wouldn't be able to produce, deliver and install the packages on time, but we did, and the relationship grew from there."

Changing Employees, Changing Employers

Shelly Myers, executive vice president, Human Resources, helps Alan (seated) and Rodney Wasserstrom tailor personnel policies and programs to a changing employee base.

Shelly Myers, Wasserstrom Co.'s executive vice president of Human Resources since joining the firm in 1992, finds herself presiding over a period of change - yet another evolution in Wasserstrom's culture that will more fully engage her fellow employees in their own careers than ever before.

Over a span of years, Americans tend to begin to look for different types of gratification in their lives and their careers. As demographers and social psychologists explain, roles, expectations and priorities all evolve. And it is within this changing landscape that human resources professionals in general, and Myers in particular, must match corporate needs and human abilities. Certainly, the employees celebrating Wasserstrom's centennial are different than those who helped raise the flag for its 50th anniversary.

Yes, she said, people have become more complex in their needs and goals, and, ultimately, harder to meld into a pre-existing corporate culture, even one as accommodating as Wasserstrom's. "We've got a new generation of folks coming into our company, with different philosophies, probably, than older employees have grown up with," she explained.

"We are a family-oriented company all the way," said Myers. "We feel that family is important, so we need to accommodate that in our work practices. That's the number-one priority for any associate who works here - to become more flexible and more diversified to meet their career objectives, customer-service responsibilities and personal goals."

Her greatest challenge, in fact, is helping others gain added flexibility. Then, there are the usual day-to-day challenges that have existed since day one. Hiring the very best people is clearly the starting point of any corporation's campaign toward excellence. Said Myers, "It's hard to find people who have that passion for service."

In addition, Myers and her staff are working "very hard and fast to introduce some innovations regarding healthcare and the healthcare benefits for our associates in our companies.

"There are a lot of companies struggling with healthcare coverage costs, (and) that is a big initiative that we are working on right now," Meyers confirmed. While she preferred not to provide too many specifics, Myers characterized her department's new plan as "something that is going to be totally different than we've ever done in the past. It's definitely leading edge, and it has to do with involving the associates, the covered participants, as active, involved consumers. They will play a significant role in directing their own healthcare expenses."

Once the plan is complete and the program in place, she added, "the end result will be advantageous to both participants and our companies." Such ahead-of-the-curve thinking has become synonymous with Wasserstrom planning which, once again, helps to account for its Dealer of the Year recognition. "I believe we were selected again this year because we are absolutely top notch when it comes to product quality and service," she noted. "I don't feel any other dealer can compare with the service that we provide. I'm in touch with the entire organization and the service we extend to our customers is just beyond comparison - not just in our industry, but in other industries, as well. I believe this based on my experience working with other vendors and people who provide services to us, and the best among them also have our level of expectation." -HR

It is interesting to note that two of the Burger Boy chain founders, former independent restaurateurs, had done business with Wasserstrom before and had thought enough of its practices to ask for the firm's help when launching their concept. "Our fathers, uncles, all of our relatives, taught us early on that taking proper care of our customers and doing nothing to harm the reputation of the family or the business was a sacred trust," Rodney related solemnly. "It's why, of the 1,600 restaurant managers we did business with last year, 1,590 would say they had no problems and the other 10 would say that their problems were fixed. It's also why we've never haggled over small sums or who's accountable for a problem; if customers tell us that they are dissatisfied, we'll do whatever we have to make it right for them as quickly as possible."

Another principle Rodney and Alan were taught to follow by their forebears was that to lead a company effectively you had to know how to do almost every job in it, and do them right. While Alan progressed over 12 years from the shop floor to engineering systems development and manufacturing management, Rodney moved up over 18 years from packing orders to inside sales, outside sales and, eventually, sales management. It was only then that both men were considered, and considered themselves to be, sufficiently experienced to hold the top position in their respective divisions.

Looking Beyond The Bottom Line

The chief financial officers of The Wasserstrom Co. do more than simply keep track of the dollars that flow in and out. They are and always have been an integral part of the team that continues to reinvent stan-dards of excellence for the company.

Dennis Blank, executive vice president and chief financial officer (CFO) for The Wasserstrom Co., has been with the company since October 1976, when he joined as corporate group controller and was responsible for closing the financial statements on monthly, quarterly and yearly bases.

"I play sort of a dual role," Blank said, leaning reflectively back in the chair in his office. "I'm in the operational part of the business, so I have responsibilities in distribution, warehousing and purchasing. From a financial point of view, I'm also responsible for the accounting, accounts payable, credit and those typical kinds of financial and banking relationships."

Blank divides his challenges according to operational and financial responsibilities, as well. On the operations side, he said, "my strongest ongoing concern is in the area of distribution and trying to keep up with the growth of the business. Sales is always ahead of us, and we've opened up two more distribution centers in the last two or so years. That's why trying to get the costs in line with where they should be is a major objective."

From an accounting perspective, he noted, "Our greatest challenge is in the area of purchasing - the negotiations and trying to work closely and develop programs with our vendors. From an accounting standpoint, I'm also responsible for the consolidation of all the entities into our holding company." The key goal in this area: "is to get information on a timely basis from our other companies and present it to the bank and shareholders of this company."

Blank and his colleagues are presently looking at implementing software that will help analyze sales data. "We're testing a program that can basically slice and dice all the data generated by our sales and our sales customers." After testing, the next step will be to try to get that information down to the sales-staff level "so they can understand the impact of negotiating with their customers."

Robert Hudgins, CFO for N. Wasserstrom & Sons Inc., came aboard a decade after Blank from Kinnear Manufacturing in Columbus. He became CFO in 1996, and oversees that company's various business units from a financial perspective. "My job," said Hudgins, "is primarily making sure everyone is on the same page and keeping an eye on our overall financial objectives."

Simply put, Blank serves as CFO for the distribution side of the business. Hudgins is his counterpart on the manufacturing side.

With the growth of the company, said Hudgins, has come geographic expansion. "So, now, we have these locations all over the country. Overseeing their financial operations requires a lot of travel. I have to be at sites on a regular basis with the people out in the field, so, just keeping up with that can be challenging."

Hudgins and the rest of Wasserstrom's executive team have been working quite a bit lately on "analyzing the company in terms of business units," he explained. "We've been moving toward that over the past year and, for the next year, we're going to be fine-tuning that process and helping people running those business units to get the most they can out of their operations. [My role is] to serve as an internal financial consultant for them."

The year ahead will be challenging, Hudgins predicted with a smile, "but I think it's also going to be very rewarding in terms of bringing a process to our business units that some of the managers haven't had before." -HR

"Between us, we know first-hand what it takes to do just about everything that has to be done in this firm; it's the centerpiece of what Rodney and I bring to the table," Alan remarked. "Our exposure to many jobs and the mentoring we received from our predecessors all serve to make us better teachers and coaches, and more able to help associates work through problems and grow into their own opportunities here."

Both third-generation Wasserstrom leaders began to make significant marks within the company during the early- and mid-1970s, as sales surged across the foodservice industry and the firm, once again, added new resources to keep pace. For example, Wasserstrom initiated its first professional training program, known as Wasserstrom University, in 1972 to teach associates new business planning and project management skills. With Alan ascending to his current position in 1975, and Rodney taking over the leadership of the distribution organization in 1979, The Wasserstrom Company began to automate many processes with the timely introduction of computers and networks, created separate equipment and smallwares divisions, extended its E&S manufacturing and distribution ties with prominent and fast-growing restaurant chains, opened its first locations outside Ohio and entered the supermarket industry with self-produced retail fixtures and food display equipment.

By 1983, such accomplishments had brought Wasserstrom both a leading national sales presence and the endorsement of the E&S industry, as evidenced by the company's first selection as Dealer of the Year by this magazine. During the next two decades, Wasserstrom continued to increase its volume and scope, both by organic sales growth and acquisitions, including the purchase of Designers Choice Stainless in Phoenix, where fourth-generation family members Eric, Brad and Laura began their careers with the company in 1996.

Today, Rodney and Alan's leadership principles and management style provide familiar guidelines for veteran employees as well as the hundreds of associates who have joined the company in recent years. Though both men work closely together, consulting daily on company plans and projects, their different work routines reflect the particular responsibilities they undertake. Rodney, for instance, tends to arrive at his office in Wasserstrom's South Front Street headquarters as early as 7:30 a.m., and go immediately through his voice and e-mail. "The next thing I look at are our daily sales reports on the corporate intranet, because these reports will tell me who I need to speak with first when I do my walking-around tour of the offices," he explained.

Building To Become A Retail 'Fixture'

Far from content to rest on its laurels, The Wasserstrom Co. continues to seek new frontiers to open - and has now targeted all of retail. And who better to help lead the company into this market than someone integrally connected with its long and illustrious history?

The individual in question, Bruce Wasserstrom, vice president of sales, Supermarket division, seems too youthful to already have spent 26 years in his family's business.

"That's because I started when I was a young buck, I guess you could say," he joked. "I would load and unload trucks and sweep sidewalks back when I was about 10 or 12 years old. On Saturdays, my Uncle Bill and I would go down with my dad [Sidney] and walk through the offices, and he would signal me to go out to the plant and pick up the pop bottles. It was a very important function at that point."

Today, Bruce helps oversee Wasserstrom Co.'s Amtekco division, which works on the supermarket side of the business, manufacturing displays and back-room equipment. He reports to Bill Edgar, Amtekco's president.

"The hardest part of my job today," he explained, "is actually working against and with other firms in the sector. It's become very, very competitive in our marketplace, compared to what it was. Going back 10 to 15 years, there were not a lot of manufacturers like ourselves in the supermarket industry."

That's why, for the remainder of this year and beyond, management at Amtekco has decided to diversify its retail fixture product offerings.

"In fact, we're starting a division that will produce and market retail fixtures," said Wasserstrom. "We're going to expand from foodservice and go into a totally different industry via retail fixtures. For instance, if you were to go into a retail store, you'd see they have stainless-steel or wooden tables, products that we can manufacture." This plan represents, as a matter of fact, Amtekco's first foray into non-foodservice markets, according to Bruce Wasserstrom, yet it is in keeping with the division's ongoing evolution.

"We started by manufacturing fixtures for our sister companies," he recalled. "Then, as time went on, we went into supermarkets and now we're planning to go even beyond that."

Diversifying its product mix in order to serve a wider galaxy of accounts is clearly a mission that stems from Wasserstrom Co.'s cultural commitment to customer service. According to Bruce, it is this enduring concern for others that has allowed his family's enterprise to win FE&S' Dealer of the Year award for an unprecedented second time.

"My belief is that our primary job is taking care of customers and service," he said simply. "We really pride ourselves on caring for customers, on service and, especially, quality." A walk through the company's manufacturing plant, he added, illustrates the quality behind the processes.

Bruce's overriding goal for 2002? "Gaining more business," he advised. "Just looking for more business and doing what we do best, which is taking care of customers." -HR

In addition to sharing sales information and taking colleagues' pulse during private, informal conversations, Rodney spends time reviewing further financial reports, meeting with the firm's credit manager and staying abreast of company performance through discussions with department heads Ursula Vermillion, Doug Fahrenholz, Dennis Blank and Shelly Myers. Every Wednesday morning, Rodney holds a formal staff meeting with all senior managers, who make "state of the company" presentations to corporate officers. "I also go to our new superstores in Dayton and Cincinnati every other week and meet with our distribution center managers in Phoenix, Jacksonville, Fla., and Allentown, Pa., when I travel to their areas," he noted. When his workday is over, Rodney usually dines out or participates in local community activities with his wife, Donna.

Alan also holds regular meetings, including a business unit directors' session every Monday and monthly get-togethers with direct reports to conduct comprehensive reviews of the firm's financial performance. He typically returns to the phone while driving home at day's end, catching up on developments at Wasserstrom's Phoenix and Caracas manufacturing facilities, before spending evenings dining out or playing a late round of golf with his wife, Daina.

Purchasing Driven By Diversity

Wasserstrom Co.'s unsurpassed diversity of customers and products necessitates that all of its departments seek to excel and innovate on a nearly daily basis.

"In addition to independent single-unit operators," noted Paul Kearney, vice president of Purchasing and Materials Management, "we're servicing chains all across the United States. They're huge names and their demands vary greatly. What we're able to do is handle a lot of diversity in customers, in items and in demand requirements. That's what makes it interesting. How many dealers can do that?"

Kearney came to Wasserstrom four years ago from Rubbermaid. He has worked in purchasing and materials management for over 30 years.

"On the purchasing side of the aisle, I'm responsible for making sure that our company has commercial contracts that are as good as possible with all of our suppliers," he pointed out. "On the materials management side, we execute that plan. My job is to acquire as economically as possible whatever we need to support the business. We issue the purchase orders, follow up with suppliers to get products in here, we resolve any differences there may be and measure suppliers' performance so that we can work to improve their delivery."

The job of balancing inventory with service level is a delicate one. It is up to Kearney to ensure there is not too much stock, yet to have enough on hand to support customer service levels. "We offer a wide array - 25,000 smallwares SKUs and 15,000 equipment SKUs. Our inventory turns keep inching up, up, up - that's a good thing - and our service levels keep improving, as well," Kearney said. "So, our balancing act continues, every year, as we keep trying to get a little bit better."

As the mission gets tougher, the processes that support it must, almost by definition, become sharper and more efficient.

"What we're looking closely at right now is improving productivity levels by doing studies on micro-productivity," explained Dave Ritter, Wasserstrom's manager of distribution services (whose responsibilities include overseeing distribution centers in Columbus, Ohio; Phoenix; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Allentown, Pa.). "We've got a very tight operation because we've got some really good managers in our locations. What's more, we are going to create competition between our distribution centers to see which can be the most productive with what they have based on the design of their warehouses."

Ritter, who joined Wasserstrom nine years ago after 12 years with Baxter Healthcare's distribution operation, is charged with overall management of the dealer's four distribution centers. Allentown, the newest, opened last summer. "My job is to make sure we are all running as a cohesive unit," he explained. He reports to Executive Vice President and CFO Dennis Blank.

Ritter, who seems equally at home in the boardroom and the warehouse, had high praise for his management team. Training and education of employees, of course, "is always on top of the list," he added. "We try to run as a cohesive unit, and that can be a challenge. My job recently has been very easy because I've got a long-tenured group of managers running the distribution centers."

The toughest part of his job on a day-to-day basis, Ritter said, is "keeping up with technology. We've got some great technology that we're using now, but there's always something new and exciting out there and, typically, we'll get it." To keep Wasserstrom ahead of competitors, Ritter and colleagues have begun looking at a voice-activated computer system, as well as software that will provide more detailed information on each box being shipped by all distribution centers. -HR

Though Wasserstrom's financials are currently strong and its leaders are focused on sharing with co-workers their belief that "customer service is the essence of what we do," as Rodney put it, the conviction he shares with his cousin that the company must continually improve means that the process of corporate reinvention remains in full swing. "For the near-term future, we've selected four areas of company activity that we want to develop further through continuous improvement initiatives," Rodney advised. "These areas are training, technology, product quality and customer service. I really believe that no matter how good we've become at resolving problems for customers, we still have to dedicate ourselves to finding new ways to be more efficient, consistent and responsive if we're going to maintain our record of never losing an account over a service issue."

Rodney also identified the primary challenge facing his firm (as well as many other dealerships) as "finding enough bright young people whom we can train and offer careers to so they will grow with the company," he stated. "Despite the current uncertainty in our economy and political life, I believe the foodservice E&S industry will endure and prosper, for both chain and independent operators. This means that there will be evolving opportunities for dealers who concentrate on markets in which they can excel and who develop their people by helping them become part of their corporate culture. At this company," he concluded, "we'll continue to leverage our national and international resources in technology, distribution and manufacturing, and give our people a chance to reinvent the history we're all a part of by introducing new and better ways of meeting the needs of our customers." -FE&S

Building Unity And Efficiency Via IS

Information may be power, but only if you can use it to solve problems or make enhancements quickly and efficiently. At Wasserstrom, doing just that has become a corporate priority.

Tom Rush, vice president and chief information officer (standing, right), controls Wasserstrom's vast amounts of data together with Jerry Mets, manager of information systems (left), and Jeff Schmitter, IS manager-distribution (seated).

"The primary thing we're working on now for distribution is to enhance our information tracking," said Tom Rush, vice president and chief information officer (CIO), the individual in charge of Wasserstrom's entire computer infrastructure: hardware, support and networking. "Currently, we're looking at some voice-recognition software that may be applicable in our distribution centers. We already do scanning and bar coding, and we have radio frequency tra

nsmitters that provide a wireless link to our computers." Rush has been a fixture at Wasserstrom since May of 1971, when he started as its data processing manager. As he recalled, the company "decided it was time to buy a computer, and wanted to hire somebody who knew something about them." Fresh out of the service, Rush had been working for a company called IBM and did, indeed, know something about computers. He bought Wasserstrom's first, a System 3, Model 10.

Voice-recognition capabilities, he stressed, will add speed and allow distribution center employees to do more. "Our associates who work in our warehouses do the picking and putting away. [Their headsets] will basically make their duties hands-free. Currently, they have radio-frequency handsets [on which] they're pushing buttons. With a voice-recognition system, they'll have a microphone through which they'll be able to report inventory status. The computer will speak back and tell them, 'Put it here, pick this many.'"

Rush and his associates are also in the early stages of evaluating wireless technology. There are, at present, 35 Wasserstrom staffers in the field with laptops. "Today, they have to get to a telephone and plug in," he noted. "We're looking at acquiring wireless modems, so they can transmit and connect at any point during their day."

Jerry Mets, manager of information systems, joined Wasserstrom a month after Rush, in June of 1971. With a degree in architecture, he started doing layouts and restaurant floorplans, and working closely with customers.

Mets has traveled extensively through Wasserstrom's corporate structure ... from engineering to sales, then on to the warehouse as part of the company's installation group. "I've pretty much done most everything," he said.

His mission upon arriving at IS (Information Services) has been "to manage the department, all our data collection and all the information our system provides to satisfy our customers' needs. With our diverse customer base, people want different types and formats of information. We take the data and format it in such a way that if this customer wants to see it 'this' way, we'll do it that way for him. We are pretty flexible in how we present all the data we collect to all our different customers." -HR

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