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FE&SEditorial Archives2006June — Events

Our 2006 Top Achievers

What do you think of when you hear the words “Top Achiever”?

We’ll tell you what we think: individuals or companies that maybe tried something different, took on a new challenge, branched out a little, or shook things up a bit internally to achieve not only a boost in their bottom line, but also in their reputation among the E&S community.

These four individuals and their companies did just that, and we recognize their achievements this year. We chose them from four industry sectors: dealers, design consultants, manufacturers’ representatives and service agents.

This year’s Top Achievers had one big thing in common — no one wanted to take sole credit for their work. They all had a modest attitude and raved about others — either the people who came before them — such as fathers who started the business — and/or the people working with them.

But, to give our Top Achievers a little credit, we will say this: All of them work incredibly hard and are dedicated, not only to their business, but also to keeping the distribution channel strong. We also found that they are all very open to changing with the times, whether it means trying out a new market, implementing technology to meet customer demands, or responding to changing needs of clients.

And, of course, the group fits our “criteria” for the definition of a Top Achiever:

  • Learning how to anticipate customers’ needs to keep sales growing.
  • Building market-responsive organizations that provide the maximum number of profitable products and services.
  • Continuing their professional education and skill-building.

But perhaps the most important part of being a Top Achiever is assuming the role of a leader and pioneer, paving the way for future growth, not only in their companies, but also in the E&S industry as a whole.

Dealer Award: Company Owners, R.W. Smith & Co.

R.W. Smith & Co. is not your typical dealer. OK, the San Diego-based dealership had been typical since 1935 when Smith family founded it. But in 1997, the founder’s son was looking for an exit strategy and brought up the idea of employee ownership. It was then that the modern R.W. Smith was born.

When all of the employees became employee/owners, a trust bought the company in the form of an ESOP, which is a retirement trust governed by laws similar to 401K plans. That meant that if the employees wanted the company to grow, they were directly responsible for it, especially if they wanted to retire comfortably. The motivational factor of employees having a financial future and very personal stake in their company has paid dividends. In just five years, R.W. Smith eliminated its 14-year debt thanks to hard work and dedication. The company’s sales in 2005 were an estimated $54.97 million, according to FE&S’ Distribution Giants survey. In addition, the staff have grown in size from slightly less than 70 in the late ’90s to the current total of 163.

“What happened was the employees realized they were owners so they started acting like owners,” says Allan Keck, current president of the company. “There’s a direct link between the productivity of the people and the productivity of the company.”

Despite Keck’s title as president, he is quick to say he doesn’t want to take all the credit for the dealership’s success. Rather, it’s been a team effort, with all employee/owners taking part in the strategic and long-range planning of the company. Three months before the fiscal year ends, Keck presents a list of six goals for the upcoming year at a town hall meeting, and every employee has the chance to input their ideas. Those ideas are crucial to the company’s success.

Some of the goals from the last meeting include long-term ones, like continuing the same high growth rate from the last nine years, as well as shorter-term ones such as expanding to different geographic areas and markets. Keck wouldn’t get into details about those potential markets, but says that R.W. Smith salespeople continue to call on current and prospective customers up and down California. The dealership has offices serving all of California as well as sales/owners living and working in Las Vegas; Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz.; Houston; New Orleans; Dallas; and as far east as Florida. The dealership also has two distribution facilities, one in San Diego and another in Dallas, to serve its customer base on a next-day delivery basis.

R.W. Smith focuses on middle to high-end foodservice operations, from white-tablecloth restaurants to corporate cafeterias, healthcare facilities, casinos and sports venues. Independent operators account for 60 percent of the dealership’s customer base, while the remaining 40 percent are chains. That same breakdown applies to the types of products they sell — business is roughly 60 percent smallwares and 40 percent heavy equipment.

“We have the full-service capability of design from front of the house to back, and our backlog of design work is at an all-time high,” Keck says. “We spend a great deal of time and energy designing and selling new installations that include new kitchens for an emerging chain to new china, glass and silver for a large convention center.”

Keck says that one of the greatest challenges R.W. Smith faces is that the dealer’s typical customers are so much “bigger” than they used to be. Thirty years ago, it was the dealer that was much bigger in size because most operators were independent.

“Our customer base is corporate-America,” Keck says. “The customer is pushing the envelope as far as technology. We need to keep up with the customer base, and be the light ahead of them rather than the caboose being pulled by them. They want to stay in business just as badly as we do.”

R.W. Smith’s mission statement reflects just that mentality. “To profitably provide customers with ideas, services and products that will enhance their businesses and their lives,” it reads. A good dealer, Keck says, knows what the customer wants and needs, and then determines the most economical way to provide that. “Ideas first, services second, and third is delivering a quality product,” he adds.

Keck explains that the company applies three values to its mission: 1) believing in the ESOP culture; 2) treating people with integrity, honesty and respect; and 3) generating profits to sustain the company for years to come.

“We are extremely focused as a company on what the end goal is,” Keck says. “One of the advantages is that our employees have a way of actually bubbling to the top any strategic ideas that will help grow our customers and our business.”

Back in the initial days of becoming employee-owned, Keck says, the staff took risks and did things other people may not have wanted to try. Those risks included going into new territories where operators were not dying to have a new source of supply.

Another risk was trying out a new market. R.W. Smith dabbled in the biotech industry when the dealer built rooms to control temperature, humidity and light for research.

“We got into it when somebody called us and said, ‘I know you can keep beer cold, can you build a room to remain at body temperature?” Keck says. “We liked the challenge of doing something new, so we started using our engineering capability in a new industry.”

In addition to taking risks, hiring the right people has had a huge impact on the dealership’s success.

“The No. 1 thing we look for is attitude,” Keck says. “Are they a part of our team? Do they want to be a part of our team? Do they want to get in the mud and do the things necessary to be successful?”

No. 2 is training for skills.

“You’ve got to work hard,” Keck says. “The ESOP is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Dedication to our customers’ success is what will keep R.W. Smith successful for a long time.”

Consultant Award: Mark Godward, Strategic Restaurant Engineering

As a child growing up in Argentina, Mark Godward found building and assembling things fascinating. The idea that people could build cars, planes, boats and even blenders, inspired him. That fascination led Godward to study industrial engineering in college. Now, as president of Strategic Restaurant Engineering (SRE), it’s no coincidence that the word “engineer” is in the company’s name. To Godward, being a consultant doesn’t just mean listing out specifications in a giant book for operators and dealers to sort through. It means engineering a kitchen for optimal performance.

SRE uses industrial engineering’s quantitative techniques in working with operator customers. “I’ve always been very attracted to the idea of making things more efficient, and just making things in general,” Godward says. “And of course I love food so I can’t complain about the industry I’m working in.”

This is probably why multi-unit chain operators, especially those with at least 50 units, are the “bread and butter” of SRE, which he founded 11 years ago.

“The more units the better for the techniques we apply,” he says. “There’s a very high interest in squeezing more profitability out of the chains.”

Godward studied industrial engineering at the University of Buenos Aires, and North Carolina State University, where he got his masters degree. He went on to work for Ford Motor Co., the U.S. birthplace of the modern assembly line, and “the temple” of industrial engineering. He eventually joined Taco Bell, where he created a new industrial engineering niche by adapting related practices for the foodservice environment.

To simplify operations, Godward will rework the processes and equipment to function like an assembly line. This requires an approach that analyzes how the equipment, the workstations, the processes and the labor interact. Doing so allows chains to save money by reducing labor costs and service times. In addition, the more efficient a kitchen, the faster tables will turn.

Essentially, Godward views kitchens like small manufacturing facilities. A cookline can be thought of as an assembly line, which is a fundamental technique for streamlining assembly processes. “For the most part, casual-dining kitchens are set up with a battery of cooking equipment on the back wall, and all the assembly happens on the front line,” Godward explains.

“A cook could be at one end and have to get steak from another end of the line and fries from another and pasta for that same order in the middle, so you have cooks running across the kitchen. Once you analyze the work flow and you show how the products circulate in the kitchen, you see a big maze and you say, ‘Wow, this doesn’t make sense.’

“Improving turn times from 65 to 62 minutes may sound trivial to a customer, but the operator will see a bump of 5 percent in sales a day,” Godward says.

Hiring the right people to do this type of work is an extremely important part of Godward’s business. He prefers to snatch up industrial engineering graduates and train them in SRE’s methodologies, which are based on research and quantitative techniques.

Clients will tell SRE what they want to accomplish, such as increasing their speed of service, or improving their labor utilization, and then SRE will work with them to develop ways to achieve those goals.

Typically, SRE will build a model kitchen with plywood and real equipment and have chefs run actual tickets to see how a design works — refining on the spot. The test kitchen often will be located at a warehouse, usually close to the client’s headquarters, so executives can watch or review processes.

After thorough research and testing, the end-product is a highly efficient design. But here’s where challenges often come into play. Sometimes, Godward’s suggestion for a new piece of equipment or kitchen method will go against their historical practices or preconceived ideas about what customers want.

For example, Godward may recommend to a pizza chain that it use a conveyor oven to speed up kitchen operations, or suggest that another chain use pre-chopped vegetables to save labor. All may be great ideas, but many chains initially fret about changing their ways. In the end, Godward resolves the situation by demonstrating by his ideas and the improvement on the client’s bottom line, labor costs and overall success.

“It’s so important to keep in mind what is best for the client,” Godward says. “You can be lulled into thinking, ‘Well, this is what the client wanted,’ but at the end of the day there has to be some positive change in the way they perform as a business. If the client spends money on you, and you’ve not impacted their numbers, they’ll never hire you again.”

Godward will take on about 30 to 40 projects a year, some that last four to five weeks and others six months. SRE will often collaborate with WD Partners, its parent company, to develop integrated back- and front-of-house prototypes. Other times, SRE will work on a project alone, to retrofit improvements into existing operations. Typical clients include major chains like Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, Cosi, Chipotle, Darden Restaurants and Cracker Barrel.

Many of the chains that hire SRE are mid-size, rapidly growing operations that want to compete with the “big boys.” In the last few years, Godward says he’s noticed more chains going through major financial and structural changes as well, which have led to a bigger demand for his services.

“All those different transitions, whether it’s going from private to public, or public to private, prompt companies getting very proactive about trying to improve things.”

Godward has been married for 19 years, and has a 16-year-old daughter, and three sons, ages 11, 8 and 2.

Manufacturers’ Representative Award: Jim Zink,
Zink Marketing

Jim Zink took a chance when his dad took him out to dinner one night and asked him if he’d like to work for the family business, Zink Marketing, a manufacturers’ representative firm headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. No pressure — it was his decision. Zink, then a twentysomething working in the financial sector, thought, “If I’m going to give it a shot, maybe now is the time. I’m young and if it turns out to be something that I don’t like, I’d rather find out sooner than later.” Plus, not having a family yet meant more freedom to try new things.

Little did Zink realize he would fall in love with the business. “I was given a great opportunity and never looked back,” Zink says.

Zink’s father, Skip, founded the company, originally called Finn-Zink Associates, in 1977. In 1989, the name changed to Zink Marketing, and in 2002, Jim Zink and brother-in-law Mike McGuire purchased the company. Skip remains chief executive officer.

Zink Marketing started out covering MAFSI Region 7 — Ohio, Kentucky, western Pennsylvania and West Virginia — but soon expanded to Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. A full office staff in Columbus, which handles all quoting and administrative functions, frees up the sales team to focus on selling.

“We want our guys out in the field selling every day,” Zink says.

Starting off as a territory manager covering northern Ohio in 1995, Zink moved to the headquarters in Columbus in 2001. Both he and McGuire still handle accounts in central Ohio in addition to steering the company.

“It is very special to work with my dad and brother-in-law,” Zink says. “We’ve got a great group of people in our organization — we all respect each other and we all work very hard.”

Zink is talking about the group of 29 dedicated and driven people with whom he works. McGuire, who Zink says is a “great husband” to Jim’s sister, as well as an “incredible business partner,” has been with the company for 17 years. Aside from McGuire and Skip Zink, Dave Wenger, a 30-year industry veteran, rounds out the management team.

“Skip and Dave are wonderful resources for the company and both are integral to our continued success,” Zink says. “They are great teachers and, because of their experience, they provide solid direction in an ever-changing business environment.”

Since 1998, sales at Zink Marketing have doubled, growing at more than 15 percent a year. “Growth and success in this business take the help of a strong team,” Zink says. “My dad always taught me that you win with people.” He also believes that a strong inside staff was critical to a successful rep organization because it frees up your outside sales force to be in front of the customer selling.

“We have continued to embrace that business model,” Zink says. “Mike and I strive to have the best talent we can on our team — from both an inside sales and outside sales standpoint. We are always searching for ways to get better and provide more value to those we serve.”

Zink has found that one of the biggest challenges to manufacturers’ reps in the E&S community is that they have absorbed some of the functions that used to be provided by the factories. As an increasing number of manufacturers significantly reduced their customer service departments, many manufacturers’ reps have stepped into that role. That means handling inquiries about parts, fielding service calls and dispatching service agents. In essence, many rep firms are providing more services for their factories and dealers today than ever before.

Manufacturers’ rep agencies, as well as the entire E&S community, also face the challenge of quickly advancing technology. As customers expect faster service, Zink Marketing has begun converting all their paper files into a digital format so that when customers call, the sales associate can immediately pull up their record and view the purchase history, all pertinent correspondence, service issues or any other information.

He expects the process to be completed in early 2007. “Utilizing and understanding technology is no longer optional for employees of Zink Marketing,” he says. “All of our salespeople are connected wirelessly at all times. Here in the office, we look to hire people who are technologically savvy. We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve — trying to be more valuable and faster when it comes to getting information from point A to point B.

“It will never get easier than it is today,” Zink says. “Knowing this gives Mike and me the motivation to continually seek methods, processes or ideas that will better serve the manufacturers, dealers, consultants, chains and end-users. Zink Marketing will never be complacent.”

Accomplishing that goal, Zink believes, entails being easily accessible and good listeners to what the manufacturers and customers need as well as being willing to change everything except, of course, the company’s core beliefs. There is a push in the industry to be more efficient, technologically savvy and well-rounded in service.

“Our business creed decries innovation and continuing education in technology to enable us to provide the best service to our customers,” Zink says. “Every day is a new learning experience.”

Manufacturers look to reps not only to be their field sales force, but also to be their eyes and ears in the territory, Zink believes. Good reps need to know what the competitors are doing and understand their role of being on the “front line.” That means always adding value and supporting all segments of the distribution channel.

“I had an idea in my head how this business was before I started, but when I got into it I realized how different and unique it is,” he says. “The relationships and the people-part of this business are what I love.” Referring to the time since he started with the company, “I can’t believe how fast it’s gone,” Zink says.

Zink lives in Columbus with his wife of four years, Karin, and one-year-old daughter Ryan. He holds both a bachelor’s degree and MBA from Notre Dame.

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