It will mark 21 years next month (May) that third-generation manufacturer's rep Chris Jeens has dominated the Canadian marketplace since taking over W.D. Colledge Co. Ltd. The company was founded in 1953 by his maternal grandfather William Colledge and succeeded by his father Neville Jeens in 1976. Jeens would never use the word "dominated," however; the soft-spoken and humble industry vet remains just as close with his competitors as he does with his colleagues, first through the Canadian chapter for the Manufacturers' Agents Association for the Foodservice Industry (MAFSI) and now as vice president of MAFSI.
Headquartered in Toronto with sales offices across the country in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Montreal and Halifax, W.D. Colledge represents many leading brands, from heavy-duty commercial kitchen appliances to small kitchen tools, tableware and even chef apparel. Jeens' extensive knowledge base in all segments of the industry, from restaurant chains and big-name hotels to healthcare, correctional, military and other sectors, has earned him the highest level of respect from industry peers and clients.
After working high school summers for his father, who was running the firm at the time, and upon graduation from Wilfrid Laurier University, Jeens officially joined W.D. Colledge in 1995. He started in inside sales and warehouse operations, later working all aspects of the business.
"I was always exposed to the business growing up, and I saw my father succeed and have an ambitious and happy lifestyle," Jeens says. "Then the opportunity came for me."
In 2007, Jeens' father passed him the torch, and he took over as managing partner alongside business partners Duane Gunn and Bob Morrison.
Mild-mannered Jeens is certainly no micromanager at the now 24-person-strong W.D. Colledge. "We let people focus on what they're good at," Jeens says. "We have always had a great culture, and that hasn't changed just because I'm more involved in management. Some of the same people have been working here for 20-plus years, and I'm very proud of our longevity. I just try to lead by example."
The one thing he insists on, however, is education. In fact, Jeens has been traveling Canada coast to coast to support sales efforts and training. A certified professional manufacturer's representative (CPMR), he helps others learn as much as possible about the brands W.D. Colledge represents in Canada.
"We all work hard, but I believe it's important for us to have a strong knowledge base about the products we represent so the factories are pleased with our performance, but also so that we can best help our customers and they are satisfied," says Jeens, who stays on top of new products by reading through newsletters and other information from the factories and attending training sessions when possible. He always makes an effort to pass on that information.
"We are looked at as experts," he says. "It's our job to be as informed and educated as we can be."
Jeens also works with his team and clients in W.D. Colledge's state-of-the-art test kitchen at the Toronto office. In fact, it could be said the firm was ahead of its time, building the test kitchen 17 years ago. It recently added two young chefs to the now three-person team to offer their culinary expertise. With a 10-foot hood, quick change gas and electric connections and plenty of equipment on wheels, it's easy to roll new products in and out for testing. Some factories have hosted training sessions at the test kitchen.
"We've become sort of a home base for our training in Canada; it's a lot easier for people who are local to get here rather than always traveling out of the country," Jeens says. And they're busy — working with customers in the kitchen at least three days a week and hosting company-run seminars six times a year, bringing in new people each time so clients from different segments of the market can test out different products.
Aside from education, when it comes to working with customers, communication, naturally, is just as key. "The number one thing is to listen and try to understand our clients' businesses before we even visit with them," he says. "Our reputation is pretty good for being responsive to opportunities and to problems."
But not everything works perfectly all the time. And that's where listening, again, becomes crucial. "As long as we are all responsive in trying to help correct the problem as quickly as possible, I'm happy with our performance," Jeens says. "No one knows we're good at what we do until there is a problem and we can help solve it for them."
Lately, the manufacturer's rep firm has bumped up its focus on multiunit chain representation as that segment continues to grow exponentially throughout Canada. "We strive for diversity among our employees between different segments of the market so we can help all types of customers," Jeens says.
W.D. Colledge has also been one to leverage online technology to conduct business, from hosting webinars for staff and clients to equipping reps with tablets to bring with them in the field for presentations and product education. "As a company, we have tried to diversify with our representation of technology as opposed to just different equipment lines," Jeens says.
Mention Jeens' name to anyone in MAFSI — or to anyone in the industry, for that matter — and you'll instantly be met with a smile. For years, Jeens has been lauded for his enthusiastic, active engagements in rep councils, buying groups and, of course, MAFSI.
"MAFSI has shaped me as a business person, and I have been able to learn so much from the many friends I've met in this industry," Jeens says. "It's also become an incredible resource for education, data, industry trends and other constantly evolving information. We're a tight group of independent businesspeople with similar goals and respect for one another, and I'm proud to be a part of the group."
Though Jeens says the role of a successful manufacturer's rep has changed over the years to include more requirements for education in the form of training, test kitchens and beyond, he's embraced it.
"It's an exciting time for manufacturer's reps," he says. "It's great that as a rep with different product lines, I can visit anyone at any time and have something to talk about that is invaluable. We can walk into a dealer, and if they're not interested in one specific brand, there's always other products we can talk about, and I can learn about other products with them."
Jeens says some of the best advice he's ever received was to remain optimistic and open to learning in this way, without getting too stressed out. "My father used to tell me that if there was a problem and you solve it, put a penny in a jar," he says. "That way, the problems won't linger and the only memory is a jar filled with pennies. If there was something we did that made someone's business better, that makes me happy."