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FE&SEditorial Archives2003May — Cover Story
2003 Dealer of the Year TriMark United East
A Successful Culmination Of Thoughtful Investments

Over 56 years, the firm now known as TriMark United East has grown to become New England's dominant traditional E&S dealer by regularly investing in its people, training programs and systems, adding high-value services and taking on an increasing variety of customers. Here's how it was done.

Every company comes to life as a result of the inspiration and efforts of a single individual or founding partners. However, it is equally true that no business can grow, establish itself and prosper without the contributions of dedicated managers and staff - and a strategy that emphasizes the importance of thoughtful internal investments and continuous commitment to process improvement and customer service.

These circumstances help to define the origins and development of TriMark United East, FE&S' 2003 Dealer of the Year. The company was brought to life by Harry Halpern, an Austrian-born son of cattle farmers who came to the United States at the age of two. Halpern grew up in Milford, Mass., graduated from night school at Northeastern University in Boston and entered the workforce during Prohibition selling home-brewing equipment, hops and malt to those Americans looking to overcome privately the government ban on commercial beer and liquor.

When Prohibition was repealed at the end of the 1920s, Harry Halpern took a job with his brother-in-law's paper goods firm, where the young salesman created a new market niche by calling on small bars and restaurants.

"My dad was also the first member of the firm to add restaurant supplies, which he sold to diners and taverns in the 1930s," commented Bob Halpern, who served as president of United East from 1975 to 2000 and is now CEO of its parent company, TriMark USA.

During World War II, the company Harry Halpern and his relatives had built sourced stainless-steel products for their customers, despite war-time shortages. However, in 1947, the family decided to conclude its paper goods business and Harry Halpern decided to strike out on his own, founding a new restaurant supplies and equipment firm called United Restaurant Equipment with two salespeople and an 8,000-square-foot facility in Providence, R.I. (Halpern's company changed its name to United East in 1994.)

Fittingly shown in a TriMark United East headquarters'corridor decorated with many of the wall treatments and floor coverings the dealership installs in customers' dining spaces are Interior Design Director Suzanne Staples (center) and departmental colleagues Jennifer Roberts (left) and Nancy Laurienzo (right).

Photos by Dave Bradley Photography

Universally acknowledged by colleagues, customers and relations alike to have been a paragon of hard work and astute business judgment, Harry Halpern built his E&S distribution company to nearly $5 million in annual sales with a staff of 12 employees by the opening of the 1960s. It was at that time that Bob Halpern, the middle of three children born to Harry and Katherine Halpern, graduated in 1961 from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania with a BA in Marketing and joined the family firm.

While growing up with his parents and two sisters in Woonsocket, R.I., Bob Halpern had been aware of the prevailing role his family's business played in its day-to-day life for nearly as long as he could recall. "I remember going into the store when I was as young as six," he remarked recently in his understated office in TriMark USA's/United East's combined headquarters. "By the time I was nine, I was going to work with my dad on Saturday mornings; my first job was to count packaged toothpicks to be sure we had the same number that was printed on the boxes. When I was a teen-ager, I worked for the business part-time, putting up orders and making deliveries.

"I also vividly recall watching my dad working long hours at home, on our dining table, going over inventory records and price lists for different customers," Halpern continued. "He had an immensely strong work ethic, like other pioneering dealers of his generation. He was a company-builder and he made it easier for all of us who followed him. I admired him and it was his example, I guess, that convinced me when I was very young that this was naturally right for me, that I was going to follow him into the company."

In TriMark United East's Engineering department, Bob Halpern, Jerry Hyman and Engineer Ray Carmadello III (right to left) review examples of the 3-D kitchen and dining room renderings the company has recently begun to turn out. Being able to move past 2-D floorplans and offer design clients more realistic and comprehensible views of their projects helps TriMark United East sustain a competitive advantage.

Photos by Dave Bradley Photography

A New Generation Arrives
Though only 21 when he joined the firm in 1961, Bob was already married and the father of a young child, and he brought his own willingness "to do whatever it took, whatever needed to be done," to the job. While Harry spear-headed the company's outside sales efforts, Bob took over buying responsibilities and managed shipping activities, on his way to becoming overall operations manager. He was also soon involved in project sales and became the first member of the company to be able to draft kitchen layouts and front-of-the-house designs. "You have to wear a lot of hats when you're trying to build a business," he stressed.

Joining Bob Halpern during the 1960s to provide the next generation of principal leadership at the family dealership were his two sisters' husbands - Bernard Goldberg, who managed the company's finances from 1963 to 1995; and Norman Bean, who held several posts before settling in as VP of Contract Sales, and who consistently contributed to the development of the organization, along with Goldberg, from 1967 to his retirement in 2001. "We've always had a close extended family and, like all families we've had our ups and downs," commented Halpern, "but at the end of the day we all worked together to grow the enterprise."

By 1972, the company was doing $12 million in sales annually and, thanks to a steady program of internal investments in a recently expanded sales force, a larger inventory, greater penetration of the Massachusetts and Connecticut markets, and better A/R management, the company was able to buy a 20-acre site in North Smithfield, R.I., and construct a new 32,000-square-foot building. (This site was eventually expanded twice to a final total of 65,000-square-feet.)

"This facility was a showplace of its time and really helped to put us on the map," Halpern recalled. "Putting it up was a big stretch for our company, though, and we had a lot of empty shelves in the building at first, but we were able to work productively there until 2001, when our growth required us to move to our current South Attleboro location."

It was also during the '70s that United East joined the ABC buying group and first introduced computers (running BASIC 4 software) to help manage distribution functions. "I had been reading about how wholesale grocery distributors had been computerizing and felt that if we could adapt their systems we could gain a competitive advantage over other E&S dealers," Halpern explained.

By the middle of that decade, how-ever, the company had embarked on an even greater transition, when founder Harry Halpern, after almost 30 years of non-stop, hands-on leadership, decided it was time to "step back" and take more of an advisory role, allowing Bob Halpern to take over as company president.

Jerry Joins Up
Under his leadership, the firm quickly added its first sales administrators, hiring both a VP of Sales and several managers, initiated sales staff training programs and expanded its selection of paper products. In 1980, the company opened its Interior Design department to augment its existing, and thriving, kitchen design business. The next year, Halpern decided to offer a showroom sales trainee's position to an obviously over-qualified but eager and willing young job applicant. The new hire was Jerry Hyman who, in less than two decades, would work his way up through the company's ranks to become, in 2000, president of TriMark United East.

Born in Providence, R.I., Hyman attended Cornell University, graduating in 1977 from its College of Arts and Sciences with a degree in psychology. "I had fully intended to make a career in the mental health profession," he related to a visitor during a recent tour of the pristine facility in South Attleboro.

"However, I had tended bar part-time during my last two years at Cornell and, once I graduated, the bar owner made me a better job offer than I received from anyone else, despite," he added with a laugh, "my fancy Ivy League degree." Starting out as a manager, within a year Hyman was offered a sweat-equity partnership and soon helped to design, build and open a second bar with his partner, this one in Binghamton, N.Y., near the state university. "I was 24, single, part-owner of two bars and I was having a blast," he commented with a smile. "I stayed in that position for five years, until 1981, but by then I'd realized that everyone I knew in the bar business was a divorced alcoholic, and I decided that wasn't for me. I sold my 50% stake back to the founding partner and returned to Rhode Island to figure out my next move."

Learning The E&S Side
With money not a pressing concern (thanks to the sale of his partnership), Hyman decided that he wanted to learn the E&S distribution side of the business and was able to arrange an appointment with Bob Halpern to discuss the vacant sales trainee position. "Bob really didn't understand why I wanted that job," Hyman noted, "but I explained that I didn't need a big salary and could afford to spend time learning and developing a new area of expertise. And, since I had purchased E&S while running the bars, I believed I could succeed over on the distribution side because I understood the needs of an operator."

Armed with experience and a determination to advance in his new career, Hyman (like Halpern and so many others at United East) undertook a variety of responsibilities during his early years with the firm. Having worked as a dispatcher, estimator and buyer, by 1986 Hyman had earned the position of sales manager. Though he described himself as a salesman at heart, with the self-confidence to believe that "if I could get in front of a customer, I could usually make the sale," the then-31-year-old, new-minted manager faced another sort of challenge when he assumed his first leadership position at the firm.

"At that time, most of our salespeople were long-tenured and between 50 and 60 years old. As a relative kid, and the newcomer, I had to gain their respect and prove my legitimacy," Hyman remarked. "I learned very quickly how to win a 20-year sales veteran's allegiance: I put new money in his pocket. I went out on sales calls with the staff and sold something for them, something big. Before long, those guys were inviting me back on their calls and we began to grow together."

By 1990, Hyman was promoted to VP of Sales and, over the next decade, he worked side by side with Bob Halpern to help lead the company. At the time he joined corporate administration, United East was doing about $18 million in annual sales. During the 1980s, the company had supported its investment in sales training programs with upgrades of its original computer resources and the introduction of a state-of-the-art remote order entry system.

'Our Forté Is Calling On Customers'
"All the improvements we tried to make internally were designed to ensure a strong street sales presence," Halpern commented. "Because my dad started out with a paper company, he always believed in staying in front of customers and seeing them in their places of business as often as possible. That's one reason why we've kept our disposables business growing. When you go and see customers often enough, you eventually learn the names of their children, form close ties and become part of their extended families, so they want to keep doing business with you.

"Another reason we've emphasized disposables since our early days is because that helped to distinguish us from other dealers," he added. "Further, sale of these products helps to create rapid, frequent re-orders and supports sales of higher-priced items, as well as justifies the expense of a sales force, which we have to invest in to keep growing." Halpern also noted that, "Our philosophy has always been to go get business, not to wait for the phones to ring. Our forté is calling on customers, not cash and carry, and that's worked for us because the longer we're in the marketplace, the more operators know us, talk about us and recommend our salespeople to colleagues and new bosses when they change jobs."

Other corporate values that Halpern espouses, and Hyman endorses and promulgates throughout United East, include maintaining a large inventory so the company can respond immediately to customers' product requests. This means that some $4 million in goods is currently stored in United East's 122,000-square-foot warehouse, which is turned over some 12 to 13 times a year. This dealership's leaders also believe in stocking the largest possible variety of products, from interior design décor items and janitorial products to heavy equipment (the company carries some 7,000 SKUs). They further focus on staying competitive in glassware sales, despite mark-ups, again to help offset the cost of account calls. Regular dissemination of marketing materials to reinforce United East's brand identity to more than 3,000 current customers is another cardinal tenet, as are aggressively seeking interior and kitchen design work, maintaining an in-house installation crew and ensuring that smallwares can be received and shipped on a daily basis.

"Our other business keys are to pursue sales in healthcare because it's virtually recession-proof, to partner with third-party financing and leasing specialists, and to make sure that customer-service personnel support our salespeople by taking care of warranty work," Halpern stressed.

Changing To Compete
All of these principles were applied during the 1990s, when United East underwent some of the most significant changes in its history. It was during this time that the company first made laptops available to sales personnel, began to develop ties with and sales to chain restaurants and entered into a roll-up with four other dealers to form what is now known as TriMark USA. "We did no chain business at all until about eight years ago," Hyman recounted. "Like many dealers, we believed they were extraordinarily demanding and difficult to make money with. Nonetheless, as chains finally began entering New England in force during the '90s, we first began doing projects for locally based regional companies and then, more recently, with area franchisees of national organizations. With most of our chain accounts, we are the exclusive supplier, and that includes proprietary non-foodservice items such as training manuals and customer comment cards. As a result, though they represent less than 30% of our total volume, chain work is now the fastest growing sector of our business."

As befits a dealership that has become the dominant dealer design house in its region, United East's services for its multi-unit customers include the co-development of new units and prototypes; mocked-up kitchen layouts and equipment packages are put together in the company's warehouse and then reviewed and revised by United East project managers and chains' representatives. The company has also invested in a three-tier communication system for use by chain customers, offering them fax ordering, dedicated touch-tone phone networks and accessible order histories and ordering mechanisms on the web. Though it has continued to evolve in original ways, Hyman emphasized that United East is committed to retaining its historic position as the market-leading supplier to independent restaurants in its geographic area.

A Reinforced Presence, Rolled Up
"We do business with just about all the leading independents in Rhode Island and, over the years, we've overcome the label of being a 'one-state company' and partnered with most of the notable independent restaurants in Boston, as well," Hyman stated. "I've made a point of dining out there as often as I can, always at a customer's facility, to do what I can to reinforce our presence in that market."

The last transformative event that occurred for United East during the '90s was its entry in 1998 into a roll-up created by Bradford Equities along with fellow dealers Marlinn, Raygal, Foodcraft and Robert Clark. Currently, all five dealers continue to operate with their original brand identities, under the TriMark banner, and collectively farm out certain back-office functions (such as insurance, 401(k) fund management and payroll) to outside service specialists, as well as share to the greatest extent possible their best practices. For example, as president of TriMark United East, Hyman meets periodically with his fellow company presidents, with their discussions focusing most recently on the most effective ways for their firms to improve existing purchasing and accounting processes.

Bob Halpern, who helped lead the roll-up's formation and now administers its overall operations (while reporting to a board of directors), said that the consolidation represented a culmination of two generations of his family's efforts to ensure that United East remained a viable and thriving business.

A Platform For Growth
"The roll-up gave us a chance to be a platform company for a new organization that helped us maintain growth, reduce risk and protect the assets we had built," he stated. "I believe such consolidations will be helpful if we're going to become less fragmented as an industry and gain the chance to be bigger, better companies than we could have become on our own. That's why I think that, down the road, as the economy improves, we'll see more companies joining the roll-ups and more acquisitions."

Shortly after helping to create TriMark USA, United East moved its headquarters from North Smithfield, R.I., to South Attleboro, Mass., setting up shop in a 152,000-square-foot facility that includes a 122,000-square-foot warehouse and 30,000-square-feet of office, test kitchen and showroom space. The company now employs 152 staff (including 25 outside salespeople, six contract sales personnel and two sales executives), had 2002 revenue of nearly $56 million and will come close to earning $60 million this year. The company moved into this location in January 2001, shortly after Hyman had been named president of United East and Halpern had taken over as the chief executive of TriMark USA.

Bob Halpern reviews a new promotional piece with son Gary who, as VP of Marketing, works for both TriMark USA and TriMark United East. Gary's chief goal is to expand industry awareness of the TriMark identity and brand.

In a dealership this large, diverse and dedicated to providing a full array of customer-valued services, an efficient organizational structure helps to make the difference between profitable and unprofitable sales. As Hyman explained, United East is run by a "management team." This team consists of two senior VPs, one for national accounts and one for territory sales, and the CFO; VPs of supply purchasing and contract sales; directors of operations, warehouse, trucking, contract administration and data processing; and managers in charge of supplies purchasing and contract purchasing. (For information on the people who fill these positions and their contributions to TriMark United East, see sidebars, beginning on p. 42.)

"The on-going development of the company is causing our internal structure to evolve," Hyman said. "An example: We only created our senior sales vice presidents positions at the beginning of the year. We clearly recognize that effective sales management and performance are the foundation of our success; if those guys don't deliver the business, there's no one to whom they can pass the responsibility."

During his recent conversations with FE&S, Hyman also spoke proudly of the extensive (and expensive) sales training program United East currently conducts. Each new salesperson, he related, receives one to two years of hands-on instruction, first working for a week at a time alongside veteran employees in each company department to gain knowledge and prepare to field customer requests. This initial process usually takes from six to nine months before new hires can graduate to going on "ride alongs" with fellow salespeople, as well as company engineers and designers. Between their outside excursions, fledgling salespeople typically spend another week or two working in inside departments, "absorbing what they've learned," according to Hyman. These new hires remain in inside sales until a territory opens up. At that time, they are given a company car and their sales are tracked as if they were on commission. They continue to receive a salary until their earnings generate potential commissions equal to or greater than their wages, at which point their compensation switches over to straight sales profit percentages.

A Showcase Of Design
Another point of pride for Hyman is the layout and design of United East's current facility, in whose planning he was deeply involved. At this dealership, every department has its own fax machine, copier and water cooler; every manager's office has a lengthy vertical window in its door so they can see out and be seen; and conference rooms were located near the reception area so meetings with visitors can be conducted on the periphery of operations. Spaces in this complex were also decorated with an eclectic sampling of the same colors, lighting fixtures, finishes, carpeting examples and fabrics United East installs in its customers' dining spaces, allowing the building to serve as, in Hyman's words, "a showcase of our design skills and resources." This image is further reinforced by the sparkling display of colorful tableware in the company's showroom and the in-context mixture of E&S in its adjoining test kitchen.

Commanding such a multi-part organization, maintaining management control of all its workings and reinforcing its heritage and values in all interactions with colleagues so fills the days of Halpern and Hyman that neither man usually breaks for lunch. Hyman, a self-described "creature of habit," arrives daily at work at 7:40 a.m. Once in his office, he first spends time reviewing over-night shipping reports (United East will send out as many as 500 orders consisting of some 4,500 packages just to independent restaurants on a single "good" night) and meeting with his senior VPs before returning to study sales, back-order, cash and receivables reports. When he's not MBWA (Managing By Wandering Around), Hyman is responding to phone messages and e-mail and reviewing contracts and correspondence. In addition to his duties leading TriMark USA's largest company, Hyman also serves on the board and Marketing Focus committee of ABC (to which all the companies in the roll-up belong) and was just named to FEDA's board in March. His top objectives for his own firm this year include making further investments to improve information management and technology to enhance intra-corporate communications, adding bar coding in the warehouse and "selling more so we can save more on the bottom line and protect our margins while maintaining consistent sales growth and profitability." When his workday is done some time around 6 p.m., Hyman returns to his Rhode Island home where he spends as much time as possible with his wife, Susan, and their three children.

Back in 1972, the Halpern family (including Katherine, Harry and Bob, at right), their colleagues and relatives in top management listened to a building dedication read by (then) Congressman Fred St. Germaine during a ribbon-cutting ceremony that marked the opening of United East's North Smithfield, R.I., headquarters.

A Day In A Leader's Life
Bob Halpern (who served as ABC president from 1983 to 1986) typically drives to the TriMark USA/United East headquarters from his Cranston, R.I., home in time to arrive between 7:00 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. He'll spend most of the early hours of his day going over voice- and e-mail, and getting together with Hyman, son Gary (who, as VP of Marketing works for both TriMark USA and United East) and his CFO. He also spends much time in conference calls or direct conversations with vendors and executives at other TriMark companies, evaluating the qualifications of potential new hires and reviewing sales opportunities. "Though I do a lot of 'executive' work now, I still know what's happening at United East from A to Z," Halpern affirmed. "I still meet every new employee the company hires and, since everyone knows that Jerry consults with me, we've maintained continuity of management despite the company's complex transition into Trimark USA."

Halpern, too, is fond of weeknight dinners at home with his family, these days represented by his wife of 43 years, Marcia. (In addition to Gary, the couple also has two younger grown children, a daughter and son, and four grand- children.) He leaves his office usually by 6:30 p.m., though, as he pointed out, "There are no clocks for foodservice professionals - or for those who serve them." With his retirement not yet in sight, the 63-year-old Halpern still shares with all his colleagues some of the enduring management values he learned from his father.

"You've got to nurture a company like a baby and do whatever is necessary to ensure that it survives, but you've got to run it without emotion," he advised. "The key is to put the right people in the positions where they're most likely to succeed, and then train them and give them what they need to develop. Making sure that everyone else is prepared to help the company grow is the most important responsibility a corporate leader can take on."

Senior Vice President of Sales Joseph Christie Jr. (left) and Senior Vice President of National Accounts Jeffrey Oppenheim go over the numbers.

Top Management's Take
If a company is only as good as its people, then it's a firm's senior managers - the people near the very top - who should have the clearest perspective and be the best judges of the reasons for its success.

"We won Dealer of the Year basically because we are the dealer of the year in New England," asserted Joseph Christie Jr., TriMark United East's senior vice president of sales. "We are good at what we do. We service our customers really well. We make good partnerships and we have a great many services to offer. We're one of the few dealers in New England who delivers four days a week to all of our geographic territories. As compared to the rest of the country, there might be dealers as good as we are. But we do it best in New England."

Christie, by his own account, does three things in his position. "I manage the sales force with the help of district managers. I sell contract projects and help to design kitchens. And, I am also part of the management team." He joined TriMark United East right out of college in 1989.

United East's shift from family business to a component in a corporate entity after its 1999 purchase by Bradford Equities has been, by all accounts, all but imperceptible. "Nothing essential to our customers has changed under the TriMark umbrella," said Christie, his hands clasped firmly together. "We've gotten bigger, we've added a few employees, but we still have the same focus, still offer the same mix of services and products."

Indeed, he credits what he termed TriMark's "community culture" for United East's continued development. "Sales is integrated into every aspect of our company," he explained. "For example, a customer might call and by mistake might be connected to our Engineering or Estimating department. But because everyone has one focus - to sell - the guys there will say, 'Sir, you have the wrong number but is there something I can help you with?' Our whole com-pany is focused that way."

Shifting Into National Accounts
According to those at United East with the broadest perspective, the firm's move into servicing chain restaurants eight years ago was a major turning point in its history.

"Mr. Hyman and Mr. [Bob] Halpern, in their wisdom, looked around in 1995 and felt that the chain business might be something for us to get into," recalled Jeffrey Oppenheim, senior vice president of national accounts, and the man who heads up service for the company's expanding list of chain clients. The timing, he reflected, "couldn't have been better." National and regional chains now account for a "significant portion" of United East's overall business.

"I think we're kind of surfing a rising wave right now," said Opppenheim as he glanced at the snow gathering outside his office window. "We have acquired a great many national and regional chains, and we've been fortunate that the ones we are doing business with are in a tremendous expansion mode. What we've also found is that once we've gotten our foot in the door with some smallwares, we can carve out a niche doing paper resupply. And, since we are something of a niche distributor, we also carry an awful lot of proprietary and custom smallwares and paper items."

Interestingly, Oppenheim was working as a recruiter in 1995 - trying to fill the very position he now holds - when he determined that he himself was the best candidate for the job. Before that, he had formerly held positions with a broadliner.

"I can honestly say that when you look at Bob and Jerry, they're two guys with very high integrity," noted Oppenheim. "Obviously, they're both great negotiators but, at the same time, I personally have experienced the fact that anything they have ever promised anyone they have delivered and stood behind." This year, said Oppenheim, TriMark United East will be introducing its first-ever online digital catalog. "That's going to be a huge breakthrough for us. The picks for the warehouse are automatically going to download directly from our online ordering system. Right now, we have a ton of other ways that people order, but this new vehicle is going to be great for us."

'Cautiously Optimistic'
TriMark United East's top managers remain only "cautiously optimistic" about 2003 "because of the economy and world events," according to George Courtot, who wears two hats as CFO for both TriMark United East and TriMark USA, the holding company for the TriMark group.

"After Sept.11, there was a lull through January and February [2002]; business in both months was pretty quiet," he noted. "Then, the economy seemed to improve a little bit; people seemed to get a grip on the terrible events of Sept. 11 and, with interest rates being so low, a lot of the projects that had been put on hold were put back on schedule."

The second half of '02 was "very strong for us because everybody was trying to play catch-up, trying to get done in six months what they normally had nine months to do," added Courtot, who came to the company in 1996 after having run his own distribution business. "I was actually pleased with the way 2002 finished up. If '03 can be a repeat of '02," he concluded, sitting back in his chair, "I would be happy to see that."

Harry Halpern (far left), his wife Katherine and their son Bob were photographed together in 1972 on the display floor of their new building during an open house held on the day the 32,000-square-foot facility commenced business in North Smithfield, R.I. Photo courtesy of TriMark United East

If You Knew Harry ...
The legacy of United East founder Harry Halpern lives on in the hearts and minds of those fortunate enough to have known and worked with him. "That's his cane over there," said grandson Alan Goldberg, the company's vice president of contract sales, pointing. "He used to hang it on the cabinet when he would come in. He would sit here listening to my phone calls, offering advice and making comments, things of that sort." But, for Goldberg, his grandfather taught best by example.

"He was a hard worker," he recalled. "My grandfather had such a strong work ethic that he would wake up early in the morning and he would start in doing the jobs of the whole company. He would be on the phone as the Purchasing department, the Estimating department, the installer; he would take goods in his station wagon or pick-up truck and make the deliveries. He came out of the school of hard knocks. He worked long days, and I think that's one of the things that kept him alive until he was 93. "As I said, he would still come in here, sometimes earlier than I did, right up to the day he died," Goldberg continued. "He would just open a door if it was closed, sit right down and give us his two cents worth. And we appreciated that, because he knew a lot of history and had a lot of knowledge about how our business was supposed to work."

Learning From A Mentor
"He was a mentor," added Gary Halpern, United East's vice president of marketing and Harry's grandson. "He'd walk around the showroom and say, 'Let's get this done, let's get that done.' He was a pretty sharp guy right to the end. When he was here, he would sit with me, listen to me and monitor what I was doing throughout the day. Then, he'd go in and sit with my cousins, like Alan, and see what they were doing. Whenever I would talk to him, I knew he was always listening, he always heard and understood me, in spite of his deteriorating hearing."

"[Harry] Halpern hired me," reminisced Ray Carmadello Jr., senior contract sales engineer and 30-year company veteran. "A nice man. He was always in perpetual motion. I made sales calls with him on several occasions. When he hired me, it was on a six-month trial basis. I used to joke with him just before he passed away, 30 years later, 'You haven't told me yet, is this permanent?'" Carmadello smiled. "He got a kick out of that."

"He was such a sweetheart," noted MIS Director Barbara Ayers. "When I joined United East, Bob was already running the company. [Harry] would come by and sit down whenever he was around. He was interested in what you were doing, he was still interested in the business. He never lost touch. Never. He would always take an interest in finding out what the company was doing, and he loved computers."

Never Neglect The Margins
"He was very astute for someone in his 90s," said George Courtot, the firm's CFO, straightening in his chair. "We would give him the monthly financial statement for United East and he would take a look at it and come in and sit down and discuss it with us. During one of those conversations - I remember it clear as day - he was sitting right there in this office with his cane, and he said, 'You know, we had a pretty good month, but the margins, we've got to work on the margins. Tell Bobby he's got to work on his margins.' I looked at him and said, 'Harry, maybe you ought to tell Bob he's got to work on his margins.' He was very involved that way.

"Everybody misses Harry," he added. "We really do."

Working Hard To Be The One-Stop Shop
When United East became TriMark United East back in 1998, a variety of things changed - but not the mindset and work ethic of the people who have made it award-worthy.

Since becoming part of the TriMark roll-up, noted Alan Goldberg, CFSP, vice president of contract sales, the company he has grown up with has become "a little more bottom-line oriented. All of a sudden we're dealing with tools like budgets. Back when we were a family-run company, we knew what we had to do and we would go out there and sell and make the deals we had to and, at the end of each month, we'd look to see how profitable we had been. Now, we are more structured."

Goldberg, the son of founder Harry Halpern's son-in-law, Bernard (who also enjoyed a long career at United East), handles mostly new restaurant openings and oversees the work of the Interior Design department.

TriMark United East's managers including, left to right, vice presidents Gary Halpern (Marketing), Robert Meyer (Supply Purchasing) and Alan Goldberg (Contract Sales), and Chief Financial Officer George Courtot, provides a strong blend of experience and expertise.

Selling Everything For The FOH
"We sell everything here except food," he stated. "That includes the window treatments, carpeting, wall coverings, furniture and everything operators need for the front of the house. When it comes to the back of the house, we handle all kitchen equipment, exhaust systems and supplies. What we offer is really one-stop shopping. We also pay attention to the details. We're not always the lowest-priced guy on the block, but our customers are typically willing to pay what we charge because they get value-added services, attention to detail and support of that sort."

"I also think we have an exceptional work ethic," affirmed Gary Halpern, vice president of marketing for both TriMark USA and TriMark United East. "Growing up under and learning the business from my father, Bob, helped to ingrain that work ethic in me. As the years have gone by, I've learned to be satisfied with and confident of my abilities." He has worked for the company on a consistent basis for the past 12 years.

The corporate culture, said Gary Halpern with a nod to his father, "has to come from the boss. With the culture he and my grandfather established, people here work their hardest. They like the culture, otherwise they wouldn't be here. What separates us from other dealers, I think, is our disciplined type of approach to all our processes."

When he started in his position, recalled Halpern, the company "really was in need of marketing direction and focus, which we developed over time. I think I brought that to the company." He accomplished this, he explained, by "including different corporate elements in my advertising, in my promotions; publicizing the company's different strengths and trying to build on those and mold a brand out of it. I've tried to crystallize our brand."

An Answer Man With Resources
Noel Moreira, managing director, contract sales administration, said he has found United East's corporate culture "to be very accessible. Everyone's easy to deal with. Jerry Hyman has an open-door policy that includes everyone from the management team to a warehouse employee. He's always got the time for colleagues. I find it very easy to deal with my co-workers, because everyone here is very willing to help make sales happen."

Moreira is directly responsible for supervising the Engineering, Estimating and Equipment Purchasing departments, as well as the company's project managers. He reports to Hyman.

"I'm an answer man," he said, describing his function. "I try and go back and forth and make sure everyone has the resources they need and keep the information flowing. It seems to keep everything working at a pretty steady pace."

TriMark United East's consistent record of growth and success has stemmed "first and foremost, from the one-stop shopping" it offers, postulated Suzanne Staples, director of Interior Design, who has been with the company for 15 years. Her department works with restaurant, country club and banquet facility operators to design their dining rooms and other customer spaces.

"With the experience and the people we have who have served so many different types of operators," Staples added, "we offer our clients a lot, most notably including a place to come and speak with engineering, speak with design, speak with someone who's knowledgeable about smallwares and supplies. We're also able to do their drawings, help them from an architectural standpoint and then provide them with any design elements that will help express the concept of their operation."

The year ahead will, according to Goldberg, in many respects be one in which he and his colleagues will concentrate on "doing what we do best. We can't lose focus on what has made us the leading dealer in our region," he stressed. "We do a lot of jobs with local restaurateurs, and many of the major, new foodservice openings in the Boston and Providence markets are done with TriMark United East. We want that to continue. If a restaurant opens and we haven't done it, we all feel badly about that."

A Seamless Network Of Support
Not everything that TriMark United East brings to the table shows up on the balance sheet. From numerous value-added services and decades of experience to effective employee training and education programs and cutting-edge technology, the managers of this dealership offer customers nearly everything they could ask for.

For example, Walter Walsh III, a special projects executive, in his own words, "takes a job from conception through to completion. I do the entire consulting function, from concept to finished product." While executing this responsibility, he has seen that perhaps the most important aspect of dealing kitchen equipment is his people's level of knowledge - something TriMark United East has long been committed to continuously improving.

"We've really got a push going on in that area," he confirmed. "We're having a lot more factory people come here to speak with us; we're making trips to our factories to see and actually test their equipment, to understand the difference in performance and why one piece would be preferred to another. At a lot of dealerships, the people who do estimating or engineering don't have the hands-on exposure to equipment their company sells."

Brainstorming around the corporate conference table are, left to right, Director of Engineering Angelo Sodano, MIS Director Barbara Ayers, Senior Contract Sales Engineer Raymond Carmadello Jr., Senior Contract Sales Engineer Al Nunes, Managing Director Contract Sales Administration Noel Moreira, Director of Interior Design Suzanne Staples and Special Projects Executive Walter Walsh III.

That extra effort pays off handsomely in the long run, he added. "The estimators develop a better understanding, so when they're pricing something they know the proper questions to ask, including: 'Would like you this option? Do you need an extra faucet here?'" Indeed, Walsh feels that a lack of detailed product knowledge may be "the weakest point now in our industry.

"When a project gets quoted or designed by others," he continued, "there's too often not enough analysis done early on to ensure that every different connecting angle, every different plumbing faucet, every different drain is addressed."

All those extra things, "nozzles that would be installed in troughs on disposers, things like that, may seem small, but they're critical if you're going to be able to provide value-added services to clients," Walsh concluded.

Always There For Customers
"I think one of the biggest reasons we won Dealer of the Year, besides being known throughout the country with our parent and sister companies, is the way we treat our customers," was the opinion of Angelo Sodano, United East's director of engineering. Sodano, a seven-year company veteran who reports to Noel Moreira, said that he and his colleagues "work with our customers from the day they first meet our salesperson and we don't ever leave them alone. Even after a job is done, we're available. Customers get a full-service package when they come to TriMark."

There have been instances, he related, in which "people would come to us and say, 'Listen, I just want to buy the equipment, and that's all we want from you.' We do that sometimes, but we know that United East doesn't do only that. We like to stick by those we sell to and make sure that the equipment runs right for years. We stick by our customers and our word."

MIS Director Barbara Ayers, who is responsible for all of the company's computers and IT systems, said she sees the continuing expansion of TriMark United East's digital imaging system as a major initiative for herself and her colleagues this year.

Installed about a year ago, the digital imaging system hosts all company documents. Its introduction means that United East is well into the process of eliminating paper copies of invoices, purchase orders and shipping forms, saving countless hours staff formerly spent finding and thumbing through papers and, ultimately, eliminating all pre-printed forms and traditional metal filing cabinets. "That's basically what the digital imaging system is," Ayers pointed out. "It's a big, electronic filing cabinet."

Also on her agenda for 2003, noted Ayers, are upgrading the sales force's remote order-writing system and finding a way to allow customers to get on the internet and input orders. Not only will this initiative render United East's ordering system more efficient, she explained, but "we might attract some new, different types of customers because everybody's in the web, looking around."

Selling Best Value For The Dollar
Even as United East continues to evolve through the use of new technology, it brings decades of experience and value-added customer service along with it. "I'm old-school," said Senior Contract Sales Engineer Ray Carmadello Jr., who joined the company in 1972. "My strategy is the same as it's always been: I sell value. I'm not looking to be the low guy on the street. There are too many low guys on the street. A lot of what I do is service healthcare accounts. These operators are not looking for the lowest price. They understand that in a lot of cases the lowest price is not always good for them. I'm selling best value for the dollar, and it's worked. I've been pretty successful at it. No need to change that now."

However, the company's move away from traditional schematics to virtual 3-D representations of as-yet-unbuilt facilities and equipment layouts will prove a near-revolution, according to Carmadello.

"Our more realistic representations will attract clients, if only due to the simple fact that a lot of people cannot read a floorplan. They need to see, if not a 3-D rendering, at least an elevation, a vertical, top-to-bottom view. In some instances, the engineers will give us elevations of a cooking line or a serving line, so that clients can get a realistic, dimensional view. Looking at their proposed cooking line in that fashion, they can get a better feel versus looking at something flat or in a bird's-eye view. To be able to offer a virtual tour, that was beyond conception years ago."

Coming under the TriMark banner has "helped me out tremendously in regard to our purchasing power," proclaimed Bob Meyer, vice president, supply purchasing. "We have five companies working as allies now instead of operating alone. For instance, we have a sister company, TriMark Raygal, that just supplied all the equipment for the [NFL's New England] Patriots' new football stadium. We followed right in seamlessly behind the equipment project and furnished the large smallwares package for the opening."

The real point, he noted, is that "as far as the Patriots were concerned, we both represented a single company. As George (Courtot, the CFO) put it, 'We have one bank sweep at the end of the day, it all goes into the same account, so we are one company.'"

More Resources, Growth
For this and other reasons, said Meyer, life in the TriMark roll-up has proven "tremendous. We put 'TriMark' in front of each company's name and it has made a huge difference. I see adding purchasing power as creating a big advantage. I've got a list of items of dead stock from one of our sister companies. They told us to search through it and see what we needed, and there were a lot of items in there we did need. Now, we have greater flexibility of inventory than ever before."

Al Nunes, who as senior contract sales engineer designs restaurant kitchens for a living, said a lot of customers have no idea just how great a value they're getting when dealing with TriMark.

"What many customers are unaware of," noted Nunes, "is the number of foodservice projects we design and complete each year, and our level of expertise. We structure our work differently, so that they do get that value-added service." He added, "I've been here for 21 years and it hasn't been because I've hated the job."

Thus far in 2003 said Nunes, he is about 50% ahead of last year in terms of project volume. "In 2002, we had a very slow first quarter, as did everybody. The volume started picking up toward the end of the year, and now it's continuing to explode over into this year."

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