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FE&SEditorial Archives2004 — May — Cover Story

2004 Dealer of the Year
Beltram Foodservice Group
Market Masters From An Entrepreneurial College

Founder, president and "dean" of the Beltram Foodservice Group, Daniel Beltram has developed a market-mastering full-service dealership based on his remarkable aptitude for nurturing new businesses and business leaders. The result is an FE&S Dealer of the Year that is as internally dedicated to autonomous management and staff skill-building as it is externally focused on delivering extraordinary customer service.

Respectful of the tenets and beliefs of his parents (pictured at left), Beltram tries to instill these values in his children (above). Photos by Robert Thompson

It is 1981 and, at the Beltram Foodservice Group in Tampa, Fla., Quirino Beltram is in his habitual workspace, hand-grinding new edges on cleavers, scissors, razors and other utensils in the firm's knife-sharpening service center. Across a narrow street stands a second building, this one filled to the ceiling with staged jobs and inventory belonging to the company's nine-year-old E&S dealer division, founded and run by Quirino's son, 30-year-old Daniel Beltram. Before anyone is aware of a problem, smoke begins to billow from the E&S warehouse; it has just been set afire by a pyromanical new hire and will shortly be engulfed in flames. Alarms sound, aroused Beltram employees contact the fire department and trucks are dispatched, TV crews arrive in vans and begin filming, and a helicopter circles over the scene as the first pumper crews arrive to battle the blaze.

Dan Beltram starts most workdays by meeting with Secretary of the Corporation Xio Polewaski (far left) in his Tampa office to review his agenda and appointments.

Just yards from the devastation, chaos and rescue efforts, Quirino Beltram remains at his grinding wheel, composed and focused, as is his life-long custom, on the job before him, content to leave the rest of the world, flaming company building and all, in the hands of a God in Whom he has an abiding and unquestioning faith.

"That warehouse burnt to the ground and we lost everything in it. And, of course, we had no insurance on it," Dan Beltram recounted recently during a visit by FE&S. "That wasn't my father's way, to put the assurances of man over the protection of his Lord. So, we took a total loss, which was kind of ironic, because just a few days before our accountant had told me we might have a problem with [too much] retained earnings." Beltram laughed, a deep throaty chuckle, and offered one of his rare, broad grins. "Well, that problem went away in a hurry, but the fire forced us to borrow money for the first time and that experience led me to take a new look about how we wanted to grow this business."

Recognizing that he found the act of borrowing distasteful, certain that he wanted never to be "at the mercy of anyone or anything" and determined to build a vertically integrated dealership with multiple, independently managed components, Beltram spent much of the next 20 years planning and developing his organization. Today, FE&S' 2004 Dealer of the Year has some 130 employees, locations in Tampa, Tarpon Springs and Ft. Myers, operates a millworking shop and a stainless-steel fabrication plant, has a thriving design/build and contract business, serves a broad range of chain, independent and noncommercial customers, and recorded sales last year of some $36.2 million (after selling off three profitable company divisions over the past three years). (For a close-up look at the people and departments that comprise Beltram and are responsible for its success, see the side stories on the following pages.)

The fire that wiped out much of what Dan Beltram had built on the E&S distribution side, that forced him to rethink what he wanted his business to be like and to start basically anew, also helped to cast into sharp contrast the different approaches to life expressed by this son and his father. Born in Europe at the end of the 19th Century, Quirino Beltram came to America and devoted his life to his faith, his family and his work to a degree that excluded almost all other interests. He believed in the tenets of his faith, trusted his Lord to determine the outcome of his efforts and taught Dan, his older sister Jackie and older brother Andy to work unstintingly, avoid shirking as a sin and never to complain if events turned against them. Molded from stern stock, Dan Beltram nevertheless grew up motivated, as well, by restless competitive energies that drove him to participate in the secular world and to prove himself against new challenges at every opportunity. So, when the '81 fire set them back, Quirino endured, stuck to his tried and true ways, and continued the knife-sharpening and servicing business he had operated since 1951 until at last retiring at 91. Dan, however, began to study foodservice E&S markets, other distribution businesses and, most importantly, his customers, to ascertain the sorts of products and services that would most closely match their needs. What he also learned, from life experience and adversity alike, was that more often than not, "bad" events simply provide chances to do things better.

"I've always believed that how you choose to look at a situation will determine how you respond to it. If you take a negative attitude, you'll see a problem; if you have a positive perception, you'll find an opportunity," he remarked while touring his Tampa headquarters facility with his visitor. "Over the past year or so, for example, we've lost several account managers to the chain customers we've been serving; they saw someone who understood their business and hired them over. Now, is that a loss for us?" he asked rhetorically. "From one perspective, it might be. But it also seems to me that our people are doing a hell of a good job for our business partners, that now we have folks working on the customer side who know and appreciate our resources and services, and that we're likely, therefore, to do even more business with those chain accounts. And just as important," Beltram added, satisfaction evident in his voice, "I get to promote rising young stars within our organization to take over for those who've left."

This willingness to trust and promote employees is central to both Beltram's business ethos and the culture of the company he has helped to create. "We don't believe in micro-managing or rigid procedures," he explained. "The model we've tried to develop is more along the lines of an entrepreneurial college, where promising E&S professionals can come in with a business idea or the skills to grow a business line. My role, as 'dean,' if you will, is to give my managers whichever tools they need to operate more effectively than our competitors.

"The way we do this, and I honestly don't know if this is a strength or a weakness in our organization, is to give all our enterprise managers nearly total autonomy," Beltram continued. "We've always had a large number of businesses and each has been self-funding since start-up because the managers and employees are free to do their jobs the best way they know how, without me looking over their shoulders. They are responsible for their own success, and my role is mostly that of a consultant and a banker. What's positive for us about this is we have also learned to be responsible to each other. Our managers are putting their feet in the shoes of their employees every day and making sure that they get opportunities to grow, their ideas are heard and they advance as they deserve."

Then, what's the weakness in an empowered, autonomously managed organization? Beltram was asked.

"It comes from the fact that each of our divisions operates according to its own procedures, which creates individual strengths and weaknesses and makes it hard to share best practices," he related. "Also, over time, you always have some managers who are less skillful at truly being in charge than others, who may not believe or want to believe that the buck actually stops with them when it comes to their own enterprise. It takes a certain breed to succeed here."

One sure way to help promulgate accountability and a readiness to turn problems into opportunities is to lead by example. Beltram himself undertook this responsibility recently by taking on the role of de facto account manager when the company's largest customer, a chain with which the dealership had been doing business for a decade, unexpectedly announced that it was planning to split its business among several suppliers. "Could we still lose some or even all of that customer's E&S orders? Sure," Beltram told his guest. "But the way I choose to look at it, this situation gives us a chance to find ways to increase the value we add to the relationship and to step up our game and take our services to the next level."

It is interesting to note that the rapidly adaptive culture and purposefully loose organizational structure that defines the Beltram Foodservice Group today both have their roots in a strongly authoritarian tradition. Dan's father, Quirino, was born in Austria in 1898, during the twilight of the imperial Austro-Hungarian Empire. Raised in rural surroundings, he first worked as a herdsman and rancher, but also gained skill as a blade-sharpener and utensil repairman from his father, who was also a grinder. In 1914, when he was 16, Quirino Beltram came to America to seek his fortune, all but penniless and with no command of English. Nonetheless, he established a knife-sharpening business in New Jersey. Quirino married Eliane Gruet in 1945 and maintained his business in the Garden State until 1949. "At that time, Dad's employees reportedly voted to unionize the shop, very much against his wishes," Beltram remarked. "He took it as a sign from God that his time in New Jersey had run its course, so he chose to leave and relocate to Florida."

The Beltrams settled into a mid-sized ranch outside of Zephyrhills, Fla., where Dan was born in 1951. Though proclaiming himself "retired," Quirino kept right on working and earning for his family, both as a farmer and rancher and, inevitably, as a grinder, resuming this work at first in the garage of his home. When knife-sharpening, scissor-tightening and related tasks once more grew into his primary money-earning occupation, Quirino took a small work space, barely big enough for his grinding and polishing wheels, in a former grocery on North Florida Avenue, a location that, while greatly expanded over the years, has served ever since as the headquarters for all subsequent Beltram businesses.

Because hard work and contributions to the family livelihood were a given in the Beltram household, Dan was only eight when he started working alongside his father, spending many hours after school and often all day on Saturdays washing the animal fat off butcher knives and adding fine edges to blades with a polishing wheel and honing stone. "The name of that business was Beltram Edge Tool Supply and that also stood for 'Brings Every Tool Sharp,' because that was what it took to please the people we worked for," he explained. "It was a very hard way to earn a living, and for all the respect and admiration I had for my Dad, I knew I wasn't going to do that for my whole life."

It was, in fact, during Dan's career at local Hillsborough High School that the qualities that most distinguished him from his father, and which continue to define him today, were first made manifest. Dan excelled at school, earning top marks, being elected student body president and accomplishing so much as an All-State athlete on the football team that he was named his division's player of the year as a senior. "I've always been very, very competitive. Whatever I try to do, I want to win, be the best, whether that was on the field or today when I'm trying to make a new sale," he related. "It may be a personal weakness, but I have always found myself drawn to taking on the next challenge that presented itself in my life."

Although he had earned widespread recognition and nearly every award available to a high-school football player in Florida, at five-foot nine-inches tall and about 160 pounds, Dan Beltram knew that a future in intercollegiate and professional sports was unlikely. With characteristic adaptability, he dedicated himself to surmounting a new challenge: mastering a pre-med curriculum when he enrolled at the local University of South Florida. This, Beltram accomplished with aplomb, gaining a B.S. degree in three years and planning a prospective career in medical group management as his professional future.

"I knew from the beginning that my greatest talents didn't lie in scientific research or even the practice of medicine," he admitted. "Business was in my blood, I'd been a trader of stocks since I was a kid, so I could see myself using my understanding of markets to develop a multi-physician medical group or perhaps lease real estate to doctors."

In pursuit of this plan after completing his pre-med studies, Dan interviewed practicing physicians at Northwestern and Johns Hopkins while preparing to apply to med school. Before returning to the academic grind, however, he decided first to spend a few months in Alaska visiting his older sister Jackie who had already passed the bar and opened a law office. It was during this sojourn that Dan received a phone call that, literally, changed his life.

"I took the phone and it was Dad. This was in 1973, he was 75. He said to me, 'I think the end is near.' It turned out he thought he had cancer. I knew he needed some help," Beltram recalled quietly, "so I decided to fly back the next day, spend some time with him, get him proper medical help and, if necessary, help him sell his business."

As events transpired, Quirino Beltram was found to be cancer-free and returned to his knife-sharpening work. Though he had not planned on working alongside his father, Dan was again restless for a new challenge and soon put himself out on the road, opening up new knife-sharpening accounts. "As I understood it, our mission was to please our customers," he commented. "So, since we were already out there in their businesses, bringing in sharp knives and taking away dull ones, when they asked me to get them other items they needed to run their operations, I said, 'Yes, of course.' We started selling smallwares and everything up to slicing machines, that side of the business grew bigger and bigger, and what started out as a sideline became our primary activity, even though we had never planned it that way."

In the years that followed, Beltram continued to build up his new E&S organization, becoming a distributor of slicers, ice machines and microwaves. In 1981, he formed Food Equipment Distributors Inc., a wholesale distribution company that sold these lines of equipment to dealers. He also kept on growing his sales of E&S (and sharpening services) to operators in central and north Florida. "We had to learn how to be traditional dealers, how to order and inventory, and how to negotiate win-win relationships with factories," Beltram pointed out. "Starting up down here, then, there was nobody around to teach us how to do these things, so I gathered E&S product knowledge as I went along and relied on the business lessons I had learned while working with my Dad."

One of these business lessons included the admonition to "do all jobs right, to the best of your ability and strength. Dad also taught me never to look down on little accounts, to treat all customers the same and to be faithful in the execution of small responsibilities, because then people will trust you with larger ones," he added.

After recovering from the 1981 fire, Beltram began to apply his beliefs and management principles across a broader range of businesses. In 1984, for example, he put into an operation a millworking company called Creative Woodworking Concepts by bank-rolling two former wood-workers "whose business plan I didn't like but whose character I did." That same year, Beltram opened its first branch location, Beltram Supply Inc., which included its own showroom and warehouse in Tarpon Springs. "The reason we went to Tarpon was that it was becoming a growth market with enough year-round business to support our physical presence. Just as important," he related, "we had some people here who were ready for a new challenge and I wanted to give them their own game."

This expansion was followed in 1986 by Beltram's formation of a branch of Food Equipment Distributors, which was situated in Orlando to facilitate the parent company's wholesale equipment distribution business in that booming central Florida market. In 1987, Beltram started up Tarpon Stainless Fabricators Inc., his stainless fabrication plant, to add another layer of vertical integration and to position his company better to offer complete solutions, from smallwares to custom FFE manufacturing, to customers.

Beltram's drive to grow and further diversify his company continued throughout the 1980s. In 1991, he partnered with Danny Skipper to open Beltram South Inc., the firm's third location, in Ft. Myers. Though Beltram and Skipper are notably dissimilar (the former is urbane, intense and devoted to sales, while the latter is rural, genial and an expert at facility design) and had never done business together before opening the branch location, their mutual trust and the autonomy Ft. Myers' personnel enjoy to find the best ways to meet the needs of their market has allowed this location to prosper since its inception.

Also in 1989, Beltram created Perky's Foodservice Concepts Inc., which sold patented pizza-making equipment modules to non-conventional pizza operators. With the help of Secretary of the Corporation Xio Polewaski, who developed and ran the international side of the business, Beltram built Perky's into the largest pizza chain in Central and South America and the Caribbean, establishing over 800 units in the United States and in 28 countries before the firm was sold.

Having put the components of his company in place during the '80s, Beltram groomed their management teams during the subsequent years, raising company sales above $35 million and, equally important, refining the practices and systems that directed the business. One important move was the decision to join the EDI buying group in 1988. Beltram's affiliations with EDI and FEDA, and the networking they have fostered, have helped him form a clearer understanding about the role of the traditional E&S dealer and how he and his peers can best remain essential in the distribution channel.

(L-R) Warehouse Manager Eric Gonzalez, DSR Roy Durlewanger and Reconditioned Equipment Specialist Leonard Coutinho are all key to the success of Beltram's reconditioned equipment business.

"Our relations with customers are the most valuable things we have to offer our manufacturers, because they want to be a part of those relationships," he noted. "So, the more we add value for our customers, control the buy and have discretion over where we take it, the more valuable we will be perceived to be in the channel.

"On the other hand," Beltram continued, "it's up to us as dealers to prove to our manufacturers that we care about them, too. We cannot have success unless they do. That's one of the reasons I so passionately support the new 'preferred vendor' guidelines EDI has just initiated, because it demonstrates our commitment to the suppliers with which we most want to do business."

Though Beltram is reasonably certain that traditional dealers will retain their primacy as E&S distribution outlets over the long-term, he is much less sanguine about short-term industry prospects. "We are still facing a required cleansing, at both the manufacturer and dealer levels," he stressed. "We have too much capacity, too many sources of supply for the status quo to continue, so I believe a certain amount of attrition is inevitable. In addition, rank and file E&S dealers are already being starved by erosion of their margins, so charging and getting new revenue for services are going to be the ultimate challenges for many of us in the immediate future. It does look to me that lax dealers will not survive."

To ensure that his company is best prepared for more difficult economic times, Beltram has taken several key steps. As far back as 2000, when the latest downturn began to hit hospitality market sectors, he started selling off a couple of his companies, including Food Equipment Distributors and Perky's, and liquidating a portion of the real estate portfolio he had spent decades assembling. "I felt it was time to go to cash," he said. "I feel there's going to be a need to ride out some tough times and I wanted us to have the liquidity to be prepared."

In complementary fashion, to help assure that Beltram Foodservice Group can function as cost-effectively and efficiently as any competitor, Beltram has consolidated three former inventory-stocking locations into a single central warehouse. He and his IT managers have also rolled out over the past three years a new enterprise resource planning system that ties sales to accounting and inventorying and automatically generates new orders. "It was a struggle to get the new software to function seamlessly across all our branches and locations, especially given our autonomous management structure and lack of centralized systems," he admitted. "Now, however, we have a better understanding of our sales and inventory turns and we can provide more detailed order histories for customers." The next IT-driven productivity enhancements at Beltram will most likely include an upgrade of the company's web site to enable e-commerce and development of a company-wide wireless intranet to allow more real-time data-sharing by employees in the field and at locations.

Beltram himself begins his workdays by about 7 a.m., meeting first with Polewaski, who also functions as his executive assistant, to review his agenda and prioritize his meetings and calls. "Dan literally works with his door open and there are days when salespeople and suppliers are lined up to see him," Polewaski advised. "He also spends a lot of time on the phone taking calls from the branch managers and participating in EDI business. After a brief lunch break, Dan goes back to work until past five, when he frequently eats dinner out with his managers or suppliers. He often returns to the office after dinner, too." Asked how Beltram has changed since she began working with him 13 years ago, Polewaski replied, "He's definitely more mature, more settled in his judgment and a little bit more conservative than he used to be. We're not as quick to start new business ventures as we were before Dan decided to go to cash, but he's still very entrepreneurial and willing to invest in good salespeople and find new opportunities for our co-workers to grow into. I think Dan gets his greatest pleasure at work from helping colleagues put their ideas into action and enabling their success."

(L-R) Mike Herstone, Henry Alvarez, Gary Chliver, John Cafferata, part of Beltram's inside sales team, at the firm's Tampa showroom.

To ensure that the self-guided efforts of his managers and employees are in fact producing the results the company requires to reach its goals, Beltram still spends many hours reviewing a wide variety of key reports ranging from daily financial statements from all his companies to sales tallies and analyses of Service department productivity broken down by man-hour. Unusual for a chief executive, Beltram will also habitually seek the advice of those whose opinions he trusts before making a new hire or financial decision, including older sister Jackie (who has been his life-long confidant), Polewaski, CPA Jim Decker and his business managers.

Although he is now spending more time in the office than in previous years, when he can get away Beltram heads most often to a ranch in rural Montana he originally bought at the beginning of the 1990s and is now developing into a resort. The Montana spread also offers Beltram another locale to which he can fly the Beechcraft airplane he enjoys piloting and pursue his love of fishing and gun- and bow-hunting (as witnessed by the trophies in his Tampa office), as well as to spend time with his wife and two children. Beltram first met his wife Andrea in 1993 in Tampa when she had come from her native Hungary to visit her brother in the States. So smitten was he with his new acquaintance that Beltram made an unannounced trip to Hungary in July 1994 to woo Andrea in her native village of Balaton. The couple now has two children, eight-year-old D.Q. and four-year-old Jacqueline.

Having attained a measure of security in both his professional and personal lives, yet still eager to find new opportunities for success for those who look to him for leadership, Dan Beltram is now aware of the legacy he expects to leave. "First, the rule we all try to follow is, 'In all things, give thanks,' because any other behavior is not wise," he stated. "I think we are and always will be seen as a company where customers, suppliers and employees have been treated with equal respect and consideration. I'd also like to be thought of as a smart, hard-working, competitive and successful businessman but, most of all, I'd like people to know that I was an entrepreneur who taught and made it possible for others to have fun and become fellow entrepreneurs."

Cabinet-Makers To Entrepreneurs
If there are any two qualities that define Beltram Foodservice Group, they are the firm's ability to provide operators with a "one-stop-shop" for all their E&S needs and the entrepreneurial nature of the individuals who manage its various components/divisions.

These attributes are perhaps nowhere better exemplified than in the firm's millworking business, Creative Woodworking Concepts, based in Tarpon Springs, Fla.

Both structurally and operationally, CWC is a separate entity from Beltram Foodservice Group. It is a stand-alone company with its own sales team, its own back-office programs and its own objectives.

This history of autonomy began at CWC about 20 years ago. At the time, the firm's two leaders, Hal Roenick and Bill Shadrick, were running a millworking facility in Florida owned by Morrison's Cafeterias, a commercial division of Morrison's Management Systems. As part of their duties, Roenick and Shadrick regularly did business with area equipment dealers.

While working on a project with Beltram Foodservice Group, Shadrick mentioned to Dan Beltram that he and Roenick were considering striking-out on their own.

Beltram quickly expressed an interest in backing their venture. After some discussions, he agreed to provide the financing required to start CWC. "Dan gave us an opportunity," recalled Roenick, sitting in his Tarpon Springs office, its walls lined with carpet to dampen the noise of the busy millworking shop just outside. "During the discussions, it came out that Dan saw the possibility of CWC helping Beltram grow by being more of a full-service supplier. Besides what he saw in us as people, that was a principal reason why he was willing to invest money in us."

Left to right: Beltram, Bill Shadrick and Hal Roenick stand by a custom-made wine cabinet built in CWC's millworking facility.
Since one of the intentions in starting CWC was to provide Beltram Foodservice Group with another resource to offer its customers, the two firms have always interacted regularly, though CWC has established customer relationships independent of its dealer co-owner, according to Roenick. CWC and Beltram will pass leads back and forth and recommend each other when there are synergies in projects. "Sometimes, contract specs will call for wooden shelves to be built into stainless-steel units and we'll make those for them. Other times, Beltram salespeople will sell a kitchen and bring us the millwork, but all our transactions are handled as between individual corporations," Roenick asserted.

Indeed, while Beltram provided the firm's initial financing, he now acts primarily as a silent partner in the millworking company, supplying its leaders with business advice as needed.

"Dan's an extremely successful and savvy businessman," commented Roenick. "As a partner, he's a person who is very good to bounce things off of and consult with when we have business questions, especially in the areas of finance, banking and sales. He's extremely well-versed in those areas."

With Beltram taking a hands-off approach to the day-to-day management of CWC's business, as he does with so many of his companies, the shop's operational success is due primarily to the efforts of Shadrick and Roenick.

Both trained as cabinet-makers in the Washington, D.C., area and they had less than five years of managerial experience between them when CWC was founded. Now, Roenick handles most of the operational responsibilities - including writing back-office and cutting-machine programs and designing some specialty millworking equipment - while Shadrick is responsible for sales and acts as the public face of the company.

According to Roenick, one of CWC's primary challenges and goals arises from a lack of people entering its primary trades. "Because we can't get all the people we need, we have to increase productivity via equipment," he stated. "We also have to be able to grow to keep up with our orders while we try to bring our costs down. The only way we have to do all that is by automating some of the processes out in the shop."

Still, during the 20-years since its founding, CWC has evolved from a simple millworking facility to, today, a high-end interior-finishing company that works with a number of different materials, including wood, metals and glass.

"Bill and I were cabinet-makers; we had very little operational and sales experience," recalled Roenick, who seemed justifiably proud when explaining what he and Shadrick have accomplished over the past two decades. "Now, we build pieces such as custom wine storage units, bars and specialty cabinets for the healthcare industry, hotels, restaurants, riverboat casinos, hospitals and banks - every environment in which there is a call for millwork."

Spelling Improvements With An 'IT'
Every dealer that attains a high level of success does so in large part by maintaining an intense focus on providing customers with first-quality service. In 2001, the leaders of Beltram Foodservice Group concluded that the company's computer systems were preventing the firm from offering the level of service it could provide, spurring the company to undertake a major overhaul of its information technology resources.

The company's mission to provide the best possible service to its customers and also consolidate some of its back-office functions were just a few of the challenges that lay ahead, however. Any changes Beltram made to its IT systems also had to have the ability to expand it into an enterprise-wide solution capable of being controlled and managed from one central location. Now, three years later, the result is that Beltram's key business functions are supported by a fully integrated enterprise resource planning (ERP) system: a single, large computer program with several different modules that communicate with one another and handle most of the business' key functions, such as accounting, warehousing, inventory, pick-tickets, purchase orders and customer history, among others.

According to Pedro Cabrera, director of IT for Beltram, the system that the firm uses was developed by a Florida-based ERP provider that made its first foray into foodservice with Beltram.

"Some of the main advantages that we've seen [with the new system] are historical," he commented. "We are able to track more and more different types of information than we ever did before."

For instance, explained Cabrera, the company has several chain accounts to which it now supplies, via its ERP system, monthly reports outlining their total purchase volume for the past month, volume by individual store, volume by manufacturer and volume by manufacturer by store.

Marc O'Rourke (left), Beltram's network administrator, and Pedro Cabrera, director of IT, stand in front of a server bank, as well as a computer monitor displaying the firm's web site.

Such account information, noted Cabrera, is made available to Beltram's customers online and is also at the fingertips of the dealer's customer-service personnel, further enhancing these employees' responsiveness and problem-solving capabilities.

Similarly, Beltram now has the ability, through its ERP system, to analyze all of its sales, its purchases from manufacturers and the sales and turnover history of individual SKUs. The firm is already able to put this information to a number of uses, including cutting better deals with manufacturers, analyzing its inventory levels and tracking customer payment patterns.

In addition to providing an array of analytical and service tools, Beltram's ERP system has also introduced new efficiencies into the firm's back-office practices. For instance, when a DSR enters an order into the system, it now is automatically sent to accounts receivable for billing and inventory for par-level tracking. Each order also automatically produces an invoice and a pick-ticket to guide the work of warehouse employees.

According to Eric Gonzalez, Beltram's warehouse manager, the IT upgrade has made the management of the dealer's orders and shipments significantly more efficient.

"If I get a phone call from a customer wanting to know the status of a particular piece of equipment, I can tell him when it went out, the truck number and I can see who signed for it. Then I can print that information out and fax it to him," he said.

While Beltram's ERP system was designed to handle generic functions that apply to most industries, such as accounting and customer histories, the firm that wrote the original software has also created modules that are specific to foodservice E&S distribution.

One of the main modules is an interface with AutoQuotes. According to Cabrera, when DSRs generate an order using AutoQuotes, the information that they enter into that program can be automatically transferred to the company's ERP system without any additional data entry, eliminating potential inputting errors, as well as the need to retype the same information.

Also specific to foodservice E&S distribution is a project management interface, which tracks a project's complete history, including goods sold to the customer, goods paid for and all other costs associated with a contract job. Using this module, Cabrera stated, a project's total income, outlays and profitability can be tracked at any point before or after its completion.

With Beltram's ERP system now firmly in place, the next step, said Cabrera, will be to take its workforce wireless. Already the company has a system that allows employees working at a remote location to have their complete office desktops available via their laptops, which then communicate directly with the company's main computer system via a standard wireless telephone network. This capability allows project managers working at a job site, for example, to enter new information and orders into Beltram's headquarters' computer systems without returning to the office or dictating information to another staff member.

It's worth noting that Beltram would not today be able to serve customers more effectively and manage data more intelligently if Dan Beltram and the company's leadership had not made the decision three years ago to commit to an upgrade of their IT system. "The impact of a fully integrated ERP system for Beltram compared to where we were previously has been as dramatic a move as quoting by catalog vs. using AutoQuotes," Dan Beltram commented. "It has allowed our multiple divisions to operate as one cohesive unit and made expansion into future markets easy."

Beltram's Southern Designs
While most successful dealers have multiple locations, rarely is a branch structured so differently and operated so independently from its parent as is Beltram South.

Located in Ft. Myers, Fla., two hours and some 120 miles south of Beltram Foodservice Group's Tampa headquarters, the branch known as Beltram South has been led since 1991 by Dan Skipper.

Beltram South serves, in part, as the com-pany's beachhead in the South Florida market. It employs about 22 people and accounts for approximately 20% of Beltram Foodservice Group's total sales (though both Skipper and Dan Beltram want to increase that percentage).

Like most ventures within Beltram Foodservice Group, the identity of Beltram South has been formed largely by its co-founding (with Dan Beltram) leader. Skipper is a Floridian with a rural background, a pronounced southern twang and an affinity for taking customers and colleagues hunting and fishing for recreation. Professionally, he entered the foodservice industry during the late 1960s and has spent much of the ensuing time as a designer, though he has worked in other capacities, including sales and installation.

The main focus of Beltram South, therefore, is its thriving design/build department. This group, according to Skipper, handles between 70 to 80 projects per year, mostly mom-and-pop restaurants, regional chains and country clubs. "We are a consultant, as well as a dealer," Skipper stated, "and we do charge for our drawings."

His division, however, does more than design/build work. A full-service dealership in its own right, Beltram South offers equipment installation, a cash 'n carry operation from a full and recently upgraded showroom and has its own warehouse.

Beltram South Manager Dan Skipper stands in the branch's recently upgraded showroom. In response to the seasonal nature of the South Florida E&S market, Beltram South is now putting a heavy emphasis on its cash 'n carry operation.

Naturally, employees seek to take advantage of some of the synergies between Beltram Foodservice Group and Beltram South. If the need arises to fill a rush order, for example, Beltram South will take products from the company's central warehouse in Tampa, and the parent and branch organizations do order most goods together, though Beltram South will purchase independently for time-sensitive jobs.

Otherwise, though, said Skipper, Beltram South operates fairly autonomously from the company's headquarters.

"Sometimes, Dan and I talk every day for a week," noted Skipper. "Other times, we won't talk for maybe a month."

Doubtless, part of the reason Beltram South enjoys such autonomy is the way the South Florida E&S market differs from the Tampa one. With Ft. Myers' cyclical resort and tourism industry, Beltram South's business is highly seasonal in nature.

"As we've really looked at it," stated Beltram, "having salesmen on the street who have to be followed by delivery vehicles and the folks who collect the receivables they generate is profitable in the winter, but we've found that that model doesn't work year-round, most especially during the summer." In response to these market conditions, Skipper said he has restructured the way in which Beltram South goes to market. The firm, he said, has reduced its number of street salespeople and is putting a greater emphasis on its cash 'n carry operation.

Another goal, which is also a significant challenge, Skipper noted, is to recruit more well-qualified people into the business, including a couple of tabletop and smallwares specialists, areas in which he admits Beltram South can still grow.

Despite these challenges, however, Skipper estimated that his branch's sales in 2004 were up by 10% over 2003 through the first quarter, growth he attributed to the high quality of the employees he already has.

"The people here now have been a tremendous reason why we've been able to grow from a base of zero business 13 years ago," he stated. "They're the ones who've done it."

The Salesperson's View
By nature or necessity, successful salespeople, especially those who work on a commission-only basis, are a self-motivated, independent-minded bunch. At Beltram Foodservice Group, this quality is encouraged to the point that DSRs seek out the business areas they feel most passionately about and make them their own.

Among the market segments focused on by the firm's salespeople, for instance, are reconditioned equipment, chain accounts, turnkey operation support and airline catering kitchens.

According to Julie Walden, a DSR based at Beltram's Tarpon Springs location, this diversity and ability to focus on specific markets are key reasons for the firm's success. "We're not all cookie-cutter," she stressed. "Each one of us is different from the next and we've gone out and gotten our customers based on our personalities. I think that's a strong suit for Beltram."

In Walden's case, her niche is chain accounts and her clients are on the verge of making 2004 her most successful year ever. Walden's primary customer is set to open more than 20 new units this year, helping to increase her total sales by 35% over last, she estimated.

Beltram DSRs Roger Peterson (left) and Tony Almengual review project blueprints.

Roger Peterson's focus is even more specialized. Peterson, an affable transplanted New Yorker who has spent his entire professional life in foodservice E&S in one capacity or another, joined Beltram just three years ago. At the time a DSR with another dealer, he was working with a La Guardia Airport flight kitchen operated by LSG Sky Chefs.

During this period, the operator's E&S ordering was almost completely decentralized, with its 60-plus U.S.-based kitchens doing their own ordering from their own dealers of choice. Peterson realized that there was an opportunity to win the entire Sky Chefs account by developing for the operator the buying power and efficiencies of centralized ordering.

The main challenge, then, was finding a dealer who understood what Peterson was trying to accomplish and had the ability to handle such a complex account. According to Peterson, Dan Beltram, whom he had met through the EDI buying group, came quickly to mind.

"Danny had all the tools that I needed in order to service this account," he stated. "He has the buying power, is commited to the Sky Chefs customer support team and has an ERP system that allows me to service Sky Chefs the way an account of this magnitude requires. He understood what I was looking to achieve....I probably could have gone to other dealers, but I didn't feel that I would have the resources with them that I gained by joining Danny."

While Beltram's DSRs all have their own specific areas of expertise, during separate conversations with them common themes emerged. To a person, every DSR who was interviewed for this article stated that they have so much autonomy it is as if they are running their own small businesses within the larger organization.

The case of Roy Durlewanger, a 17-year veteran with Beltram who "finds [his] passion" working with reconditioned equipment, clearly demonstrates this circumstance.

"[Beltram can] take a customer with a $150,000 job and find enough savings in our way of doing things to bring that price down to maybe $130,000," stated Durlewanger, who has the self-assurance of a long-time successful salesperson.

"Then, if I put in the right couple of pieces, things that I can control, that won't make operators perceive any lack of quality, maybe we can get that job down to $100,000. In this day and age, customers are really listening to that." In keeping with his area of entrepreneurial expertise, Durlewanger not only sells reconditioned equipment to operators, he is in charge of evaluating pieces of used equipment, as well. Once a piece is acquired, the firm does a top-to-bottom reconditioning, checking every part and replacing those that are not up to snuff.

Beltram's equipment reconditioning department, led by Leonard Coutinho, has reached such a level of proficiency, in fact, that one top-tier manufacturer offers a one-year parts and labor warranty on Beltram's reconditioned equipment. Another subject often mentioned by Beltram's DSRs was margins, which are under constant pressure due to competition and the amount of information available to end-users.

"One of our biggest challenges is profit margins," affirmed Tony Almengual, a salesman with Beltram and FE&S' DSR of the Month for November 2003. "The end-user is more educated, so I focus on building relationships and getting commitments."

The very structure of Beltram Foodservice Group, in fact, with its millworking, stainless-steel fabrication, interior design and other value-adding departments, is one that helps build such relationships.

According to Valerie Klein-Tobin, the head of Beltram's interior design department, "When a customer calls and needs an interior designer, the fact that they can bring me in can help build that person's confidence in our entire organization."

For 2004, the goal of Beltram's DSRs is the same as that of every salesperson in every industry: To sell more than last year. It's how they are allowed to go about achieving this goal that sets Beltram Foodservice Group apart.

"Dan's a great boss," stated Walden. "He gives you the opportunity to drive your own business in your own fashion. He lets you find your path, what works for you. As long as you're successful, he's very supportive."

Owning The Output At TSF
One of the clear goals of Beltram Foodservice Group is to be a vertical supplier capable of offering complete solutions to end-user customers. It was with this in mind that, in 1987, Dan Beltram founded the company's stainless-steel fabrication arm, Tarpon Stainless Fabricators.

In the years since, TSF's output has grown to include custom-made carts, worktables and sinks; toolboxes for use on fire trucks; and decorative front-of-the-house items, such as counter panels and hoods with unique patterns impressed into the steel.

According to Steven Armentrout, director of sales and engineering for TSF, the impetus for the company's founding, however, was the poor service Beltram Foodservice Group had received from some of the companies to which it had contracted fab work, and how this shortfall was affecting Beltram's ability to serve and keep its promises to customers.

"Back in the late-1980s, Dan was doing a large hotel project and, just a few weeks before the fabricator was supposed to ship its finished products, the company called and said, 'We've decided not to do [this job]. Here's your PO,'" Armentrout recalled. "The fabricator I worked for at the time ended up picking up the job for Beltram, but I think that was the straw that broke the camel's back."

Steven Armentrout (left), TSF's director of sales and engineering, and Mark Werner, director of manufacturing, in front of a laser-guided stainless-steel cutting machine.

Indeed, having control over the logistics and scheduling of a fab plant's operations is one of the main benefits of owning such a facility in the first place. Scheduling production at stainless-steel fabrication facilities so jobs are finished when they need to be, Armentrout said, is extremely difficult given that several outside factors can affect a work plan. When contracted for a project to support construction of a new operation, for instance, the frequent changes in construction schedules that often occur may throw off a fab plant's entire operational schedule for several weeks.

Recognizing that dependable scheduling can provide a significant point of differentiation, Armentrout noted, motivates TSF personnel to make every effort to fulfill time-critical promises to customers. "One of the things we pride ourselves on is that when we give a delivery date, we stick to it. One way or another, we'll have the goods there on time," he stressed.

Like Creative Woodworking Concepts, Beltram's millworking arm located next door, TSF is a separate legal entity from Beltram Foodservice Group. TSF, however, has a slightly closer relationship with the dealer than CWC has.

For instance, with the exception of Armentrout, TSF does not have its own sales force. Instead, it relies heavily upon Beltram DSRs to act as its sales team, presenting the company and its services to the operator community. This, of course, benefits not only TSF, but Beltram, as well.

"When Beltram is trying to close a job or when a chain has a special need, the DSRs can bring the customers here and show them the full extent of the resources we have under the same corporate umbrella," stated Armentrout. "That allows us to identify the specific requirements of the customers and design and fabricate solutions to meet their specific needs. That makes it easier for us to sell complete packages."

Although TSF keeps its overhead down by relying on Beltram's salespeople, the firm does have aspirations outside of foodservice.

According to Armentrout, the fabricator is looking to expand its customer base to include companies outside of the hospitality sector, possibly in the medical or marine industries.

Such a move would be beneficial for a couple of reasons: A more diverse customer base would help to stabilize TSF's revenue stream through the ups and downs of the economy; and the tight margins available from foodservice jobs, especially chain work, could be augmented by more profitable work.

According to Mark Werner, director of manufacturing for TSF, "We make money on chain work and that helps to pay our bills," but the work won't take TSF to a high level of profitability. "I'd like us to get some more custom work. With those sorts of jobs, we stay fresher and make more money, because the projects are more intensive," in the time required to design and produce the products, allowing the firm to charge at a higher dollar and margin level.

Another financial pressure-point for TSF is the sky-rocketing cost of stainless steel. According to Armentrout, the total cost of this most essential raw material, including tariffs and surcharges, was about $1 per pound at the end of 2003, a figure that itself was up from the preceding months. Now, a pound of the same stainless costs more than $1.50.

Fortunately for TSF, at the end of last year Armentrout heard rumblings in the market of possible stainless cost spikes, leading him to purchase "a couple of hundred thousand dollars worth" of sheet stock. This supply should carry TSF through the first half of 2004 and slightly beyond, at which time he expects steel prices will have eased back slightly. "If prices decline, and I think they will in the next couple of months," he stated, "it would be just about perfect timing."

Changing To Serve Contract Customers Better
Meeting the needs of customers is not a static goal that, once accomplished, can be permanently marked off a to-do list. As markets change, companies must change to fulfill customer demands.

So, although contract sales has long been a strong point in Beltram's portfolio of service offerings, this department's team is currently evolving their organization's structure and the types of jobs they pursue, all in the name of becoming a more efficient and customer-oriented group.

One of the key recent changes has been in the group's leadership. Carol Stanford, a 16-year Beltram veteran, has recently expanded her role with the company from vice president of Institutional Sales to include heading the dealer's Contract department.

(L-R) Carol Stanford, head of Beltram's Contract/Institutional Sales division, at work in Beltram's bar-area showroom with Rita Nurdin, Jim Sisson and Donna Koczor.

According to Stanford, the change, which was prompted by the departure of Beltram's previous Contract V.P., is logical given the crossover between the two types of business. "When you think about it," she stated, "contract and institutional sales are extremely similar."

In keeping with that point of view, the two departments themselves are being combined into one unit with nine total employees. This, indicated Stanford, has allowed the departments to eliminate duplication of certain efforts. In turn, Beltram's Contract/Institutional Sales team can now dedicate some individuals to particular market segments and pursue jobs that it might not otherwise have gone after.

"We're now trying to venture out into some areas we haven't focused on because we weren't unified as a group," confirmed Stanford, a friendly individual with a gracious and forthright demeanor. "Now, that we're unified, I can have one person focus on prisons, another on schools and another on healthcare, for example."

Beltram is now focusing on larger projects in these markets and other sectors. According to Stanford, Beltram's staff is confident that it is ready to take this step. "If you add up the total years of service that we have in this department, you'll find that there is a lot of experience here....We know we can do the projects. We've got the staff to accomplish [them] and we have the buying power through EDI, our buying group, to be competitive. If you're going to get in the game, you need to play, and we feel comfortable playing."

Indeed, Stanford's team's many years of experience are driving some of the changes in Beltram's Contract division. According to Joe Santos, a project manager/designer with the firm, Beltram has built relationships with some operators and general contractors who are now encouraging the company to pursue larger jobs.

"We all sell the same [E&S products]," commented Santos. "What we try to do is sell ourselves. We use whatever tools we have as knowledgeable professionals to get customers to the point where they feel comfortable with us. For example, we strive to close jobs with as much drive and passion as when we opened them. That's usually a weak point, because everybody gets burned out and is ready to go on to something different. But as a group, that's something we've really been focusing on. It's a matter of organization and mental concentration."

This constant drive to provide quality customer service is one of the primary attributes of Beltram Foodservice Group's Contract department. Every project, for instance, is assigned two project mangers, helping to ensure that customers can always find assistance when they need it, Stanford said.

"When I was on vacation, I had somebody taking care of my projects," she stated. "When customers called in, they didn't have to wait until I came back to be taken care of. That approach has really helped us secure a lot of projects because customers know that they'll always be covered."

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