Gary Potvin knows the importance of "life or death" timelines.
The 26-year foodservice industry veteran started out in healthcare as a technician for a company that provides delivery of and education on homecare equipment and supplies. The lessons learned in that segment propelled Potivin even further in foodservice, including his first job in the industry, working as a service agent for a local equipment and supplies dealership.
"I treated every call as a life or death situation like I did with my old job," says Potvin, recalling having to set up monitors and educate caregivers on how to use them to help prevent sudden infant death syndrome and the tough times meeting children with Cystic Fibrosis. "People thought moving with such a sense of urgency was such a novel idea at the time, because when I got in the industry in the late 1980s customers would usually wait three or four days to get things fixed. So I just applied the business model of taking care of patients who couldn't wait."
That sense of urgency and dedication has helped Potvin earn the respect of his customers and accelerated the growth of his business, Pine Tree Food Equipment, which he founded in 1989. In fact, one of Pine Tree's hallmarks is its same-day (or at least 24-hour) service guarantee, no small feat in the sprawling state of Maine.
"Maine is a big state with few people and has some logistics problems," he says. "It can be hard to get around. We have a number of mountain ranges and large lakes to travel around, the roads aren't great and there are approximately 3,800 miles of coast line. Sometimes it seems like you can throw a baseball to your next service call but it will take you over an hour to get there."
Due to the geographic challenges, Potvin says he's careful not to burnout his technicians by backing off from work in other New England states and by using subcontractors. Potvin also focuses on strategically placing his employees in different areas throughout the state and giving them full reign over those territories. No micromanaging here, just a lot of ground coverage.
Successfully managing logistics in this way also helps set Pine Tree apart from its competition. Though Maine only has a few service agent companies — and only one other company that's a CFESA member — competition is actually fierce because it's really an either/or market. So if a company makes a mistake they may not get that customer back.
Potvin's first customers consisted of grocery chains and bakeries — a segment Pine Tree still heavily services. In 1996, though, Pine Tree Food Equipment experienced exponential growth. Potvin purchased a small service agency specializing in restaurant equipment with large chain accounts, including Pizza Hut, McDonald's and Burger King. It was a whole new world for Potvin, one that he embraced wholeheartedly with the help of Dan Poulin, the grandson of the former owner of that company, who was just 16 years old at the time. "We just kept growing from there," Potvin says.
That's an understatement. Now, Pine Tree services the equipment made by more than 120 manufacturers, each with their own multiple chain accounts, and draws in revenues of about $4 million a year. In 2012, Potvin opened a second office, this one in Brewer, Maine. The company already served the Northern part of the state and it was time to take root there. "We always had a big account in that area, but wanted to have a more visible presence so people would see that we were local," he says.
The challenging logistics of operating in Maine have also forced Pine Tree to expand its inventory to about $500,000 worth of parts so that customers can get what they need as quickly as possible. While other service agents might balk at a large-scale inventory in this era of anything, anywhere shipments, Pine Tree's collection only helps boost its reputation for timely service. When it comes to chains, that sense of urgency is paramount, says Potvin.
Though Potvin inherited some large chain accounts with the small business acquisition, many others have reached out to him due to positive word of mouth. Potvin also attends industry shows and conferences to network with new or potential customers, and to stay active with CFESA.
Potvin also remains actively involved with the Restaurant Facility Management Association, representing CFESA at its conferences as well as at the Maine School Nutrition Association and the Maine Restaurant Association, for which he currently serves as a board member.
Potvin says he couldn't do all this alone and that, in fact, he would be nowhere without his team. "My favorite thing about this business is empowering my employees. I love taking people and giving them the tools to be the best they can be. It's all about coaching. I often feel I'm not in business to make money; I'm in business to empower others and bring out the best in them. Money is something that happens because our people work well together."
Even outside of work, Potvin has helped many others. Through an international apostolate of the Catholic Church, he and his wife Diane serve as a presenting couple for Worldwide Marriage Encounter weekends. "We want to help others grow by sharing some of the tools we have used to keep our relationship a priority," Potvin says.
When it comes to new Pine Tree recruits — of which there are only a couple because of the company's low turnover — Potvin always looks first at their potential and values. The training part is easy. "It's more important for me to get team players than getting that star player who has a problem," he says. "I look for people who take an initiative, almost volunteering for challenges."
Jan Castagna, Pine Tree's office manager and Potvin's "right hand woman" can vouch for these statements. "If you came into our office on any given day, it might not be immediately evident that Gary is the owner," she says. "He has a real roll-up-your-sleeves kind of attitude. He coaches by jumping in and working with employees to model expectations. He could be working with the dispatchers to ensure the best deployment of resources, driving a forklift or helping a customer bring a microwave into the building. Gary's philosophy is to always take care of the customer. End of story. He has set the bar for exceptional service and we try to meet or exceed that challenge every day. It's been a privilege to work for a natural leader who isn't afraid to get his hands dirty."
Poulin agrees and adds, "Gary is somebody who believes in always doing the right thing, even if it may not benefit him or the company. It is those core values that he has built this company on and instilled into his employees."
Pine Tree's team mentality also stems from Potvin's open book policy. "We have meetings every two weeks and I share all the financials," he says. "We go over everything and then ask ourselves how can we be better? The ideas for moving Pine Tree forward don't come from Gary Potvin; they come from my employees. Ideas get pushed up the ladder, not down the ladder."
To help spur these ideas, Potvin invests heavily in continuing education and training for his team, regularly sending his technicians to factory training sessions, and managers and office personnel to Priority Learning, a local think tank for businesses. Training from Maine means employees are always traveling great distances, he says. "For every dollar I spend on training I get it back tenfold," he says. "If you yourself become more of an expert, you empower others to move forward and that has helped raise the bar for our company."
Never satisfied with the status quo, Potvin's been a natural leader in the industry as well. As a CFESA board member he chaired an ad hoc committee, which was instrumental in amending bylaws to give more voice to its members and open up more opportunities for new, fresh leadership. In doing so Potvin actually ended up kicking himself out of the running for another term on the board, but did so with his eyes open in view of a larger goal.
When it comes to the future of the industry, Potvin sees better communication as the key to positive change. "I'd like to see more communication between manufacturers, reps and dealers," he says. "If we look at it from the perspective that we're all in this together, we can provide better service to the end-user. And that is a goal we all share."
Embracing technology is key as well. Though you might expect the opposite from a company operating in a large rural state, Pine Tree stays ahead of the curve when it comes to the latest devices; equipping each and every one of its technicians with touchscreen tablets loaded with software they can use to stay connected, communicate in real time and automatically push through orders and other transactions.
"Our customers have become more educated in the past few years and are demanding better service, more qualified and better trained people," he says. "As a company, we're constantly finding ways to become more razor sharp and to continually strive to provide world class service. We have had to stay ahead of the game in order to thrive."