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DSR of the Year, 2006: Michael Gold, Edward Don & Co., North Riverside, Il.

Michael Gold is what some would call a foodservice lifer, having started in the business during his formative years at the age of 15 by taking a job in a local restaurant. But what started out as a teenage dalliance has evolved into a passionate love affair that takes a back seat only to his wife and children. And that passion helped Gold become Foodservice Equipment & Supplies' 2006 Dealer Sales Representative of the Year.

During his career, Gold has held various odd jobs such as busboy, waiter and prep cook. He spent the summers of his college years working for a well-regarded Chicago area pizzeria making pastas and pies for its customers. Upon graduation from the University of Iowa, from which he earned a degree in psychology, Gold returned home to north suburban Chicago and went back to his summer job making Chicago-style pies. With the desire to build a different career for himself burning hotter than the pizzeria's ovens, Gold acknowledged the need to broaden his experience base. So, he took a job as a line cook at a local deli owned and operated by Levy Restaurants. “Given that the restaurant business was all I knew, I was not going to pursue a career in psychology,” Gold says.

Within five months of starting with Levy, Gold became assistant kitchen manager, a position he taught himself. Gold earned a promotion to chef, with his only training coming from time spent on the job. During his tenure at Levy the operator entered the contract foodservice arena and Gold was part of the opening team at Chicago's McCormick Place.

Some 12 years ago while still working for Levy's contract division, Gold got married and he and his bride, Mindi, made plans to start a family. “The only way I could do that and stay in the business I have been in my whole life and have a passion for was to change my angle,” Gold recalls. So, he reached out to a childhood friend who was working for Edward Don & Co. and this person helped arrange for the interview that led to Gold's career change in October of 1995.

Feet on the Street
Gold got his start as a street salesperson but has seen his role at Edward Don evolve over the years. In his present position as key accounts manager, Gold estimates that 80 percent of his business comes from multi-unit operators, for which he puts together special programs and packages.

While managing an estimated 50 to 60 active customers at any one time, Gold does not have a defined geographical territory. But he does have clients from Bethesda, Md., to Costa Mesa, Calif. How often he sees those clients is up to them and their needs. Some clients he will see in person once or twice a week, while others he might not see at all, instead maintaining a relationship via the phone and e-mail.

Given the amount of geographic overlap with other Edward Don & Co. sales reps, recruiting new business can be a very delicate task for Gold. “I can't just cruise up and down the streets looking for new business, so I rely on word of mouth,” Gold says.“People who work for current clients sometimes leave their current employers and call me looking for help because I have established a relationship with them and have become their go-to guy.” Gold enters each day with his cell phone clipped to his belt, which is right next to his pager. He also carries a tape measure, personal digital organizer and a company-issued laptop, which connects wirelessly to the Edward Don & Co. network.

Between sales calls Gold personally redefines the notion of multitasking, leaving no second wasted. While driving his manual transmission car down a busy Chicago area highway, Gold simultaneously calls back to Edward Don & Co. headquarters to check inventory, taking notes on a small pad of standard restaurant checks and looking up client contact numbers on his handheld personal digital organizer.

When asked about his unique notepad, Gold smiles and adds, “It's a great conversation starter.”

And when he first arrives at a client's location, Gold zips through the place checking inventory levels of various items, jotting notes down on his pad and chatting with anyone who crosses his path. They all seem to know him and he knows them. When it comes time to place an order, Gold lets them know what they have in stock and what their most recent purchase patterns have been for those items. And most of this information seemingly comes off the top of his head and occasionally from his trusty laptop, which is never too far away.

One customer, Gary Baca, chef and partner, Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crab in Chicago, describes Gold as “very responsive” and someone who moves “with a great sense of urgency. He asks good questions to understand my urgency and need so he can deal with it the right way.”

But one factor that makes Gold unique from other vendors calling on Joe's is the fact that he physically comes into the restaurant to take its order. “He's the only one that does that,” adds Greg Mohr, general manager, Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crab.

Doing so allows Gold to become closer to his clients and create a more cohesive bond with them that allows him to grow the business from his existing roster of clients. “You have to know your customer, know your vendors and know your competition,” Gold says. “So, I have to monitor which vendors my customers have relationships with so I know where my advantages are.”

Bonding Experience
The fact that he had no formal sales training prior to coming to Edward Don & Co., is something that Gold feels works in his favor. Rather than spending his formative years learning sales techniques, Gold was learning the ins and outs of the fast-paced life in a foodservice environment.

When asked about the best way to introduce someone to a career as a DSR, Gold strikes a more philosophical pose. “Is it easier to take a seasoned salesperson and teach them our industry or approach things the other way?” Gold asks rhetorically. “I think it is easier to take someone who knows the industry and teach them the sales role.

“I have a common bond with my customers because I have been there and felt their pain. That allows me to have a certain connection with them.”

And the bond Gold speaks of is apparent to his customers. “He understands, conceptually, how a restaurant works,” says Bill Stavrou, owner, the Valley Lodge, Glenview, Ill. “A lot of salespeople come in here and try to sell a lot of products that don't support my concept. He understands my concept and what products work.

“So when Michael sees something that fits, conceptually, what we do, he will propose it,” Stavrou adds. “And when it's something that I come up with, he will take it and run with it.”

Despite moving farther away from a career in psychology, Gold says he still uses his education to build lasting customer relationships. “You have to have an understanding of people,” he says. “And I have to augment my behavior to help me better work with different people.”

Just like personal relationships, professional ones evolve. “You have to be a little bit more formalized at the beginning but you get to know each other over time,” Gold says. “And as your business relationships blossom, you establish a level of trust.”

And in establishing that level of trust, Gold comes across as being honest and competent in the eyes of his customers. “We expect people to understand the cycle of a business,” Stavrou adds. “I expect them to have an understanding of foodservice. I just don't want it to be about beating a price – anyone can do that. In this business it's about the product.”

One benefit of building solid relationships with his customers is having the ability to have honest and candid conversations with them when need be. “I have to make money for my company and I am not shy about telling them that,” Gold says. “But you also have to be fair with your customers, otherwise you get a bad reputation very quickly.”

Collecting on past-due invoices is another important aspect of Gold's job. “I have people who I have to ask all the time and others where it never comes up,” says Gold taking it all in stride.

What's interesting about Gold's relationship with many of his customers is not just that he knows what products they stock but where they're kept and how they relate to the operator's various menu items. “He's not just an order taker,” Baca says. “Michael has done a great job of getting to know us and our concepts. He knows our schedule and is very thorough.”

In addition, where many DSRs' primary point of contact would be with a chef, general manager or purchasing agent, Gold interacts with employees from all levels of his customer base. Mohr describes Gold as someone who is solution-oriented. “If he can't get it, he will get something that works in the meantime,” Mohr says.

Gold's hands-on and proactive approach to working with his customers helps prevent misunderstandings. “It never comes to that,” Mohr says. “He lets us know if anything happens.”

The sense of immediacy that a world of cell phones, e-mail and pagers brings with it makes for an interesting balancing act between office work and life on the street for Gold as he strives to meet customer expectations on a minute-by-minute basis. Also, two Fridays each month, Gold travels to Don's corporate headquarters in North Riverside, Ill., for vendor demonstrations and training. “You can talk to people on the phone but there's no substitute for face-to-face contact,” he says.

The vendor training consists of a one-hour presentation from each of the three participating vendors. This also serves as a time when Gold can clear up any client questions for specific vendors and learn about new products for his customers to demo.

As a result, when it comes to products Gold has earned his clients' respect. “His product knowledge is extensive and he does not dance around the issues,” Baca says. “If he does not know, he will say so and bring back the information.”

And this perception among his clients is just as Gold would have it. “You tell them what you can do for them instead of what you can't and try to dwell on the positive,” he says.

The Family Way
Since joining Edward Don & Co., Gold and his wife Mindi have followed through on their plans to starting a family and today they have two children: nine-year-old Isaac and six-yearold Maya. To Gold, being a parent is the most important thing in his life and he relishes the responsibility of having to prepare Isaac and Maya to take the next steps in their lives. And this is something that carries over into his professional life.

Gold plays a key role in helping train other Edward Don salespeople. Several times a year, Edward Don sales-rep trainees will ride with Gold and call on customers to gain some hands-on experience. This supplements the other training efforts to ensure that the sales reps are learning all aspects of the job and are ready to hit the street.

“That way, they get to use all of the tools we need to operate in the field,” Gold says. “And the last part of their training is to spend time in the field with a seasoned-sales professional. I really like this aspect of my job.”

Backing up Gold is a team of professionals at Edward Don & Co. And to hear Gold speak with them is like listening to a big brother talk to one of his fellow siblings in that he shows genuine appreciation of their efforts. “It is a huge web of people that you rely upon, some of them you work with directly and others indirectly,” Gold says. “But I couldn't do it all myself. There are only 24 hours in a day and you can't work them all. You get spread too thin and then you don't do anyone any good.”

An integral part to Gold's support web is Mary Dorsey, the customer-service team lead. She serves as his inside sales support. Kelly Karg is Gold's contact in accounts receivable and she helps him with keeping client billing up-to-date and accurate.

Gold also cites his manager, Darwin Claude, as being someone who has helped shape his success. “Our personalities really mesh well together,” Gold says. “He relies on me to get things done and I rely on him.”

In addition, oftentimes Gold works in tandem with Jim Simon, an Edward Don & Co. equipment and design specialist. The duo has worked together to develop several concepts. In doing so, Gold's front-of-the-house expertise has meshed nicely with Simon's solid equipment foundation, bringing out the best in both of them.

Then again, bringing out his best is what Gold does every day working in an industry he loves almost as much as his family.