In an industry as vast and diverse as foodservice, one can measure success in countless ways. From significant sales growth to a lasting impact on markets served, to giving back to the foodservice industry at-large, FE&S' 2009 class of Top Achievers continues to accomplish all of these feats and much more.
Each of our Top Achievers found their own way into the foodservice industry, but their individual success stories share many common traits. Chief among them is an unwavering passion for the industry and an unflinching focus on customer care. They excel when it comes to forming relationships with their peers and other industry partners, which also plays an integral role in the success of our Top Achievers.
Although at different stages of their careers, the collective legacy of our Top Achievers will be one of innovation, professionalism and dedication. Beyond their customers and business partners, the foodservice industry remains the primary beneficiary of their efforts.
For these reasons and many more, it is with great pleasure that FE&S presents its 2009 class of Top Achievers.
Tricia Powers Dambrauskas loves going out to dinner with family and friends. Good thing, too. “My job gives me the opportunity to go to a different restaurant each night. That way I am supporting my customer base,” she says.
As part owner, vice president and chief financial officer of B&G Restaurant Supply in Pittsfield, Mass., Dambrauskas oversees a growing number of customers, particularly in upstate New York. The company's two-year-old outpost in Albany, N.Y., added 50 new accounts this year alone, most of which are restaurants.
Dambrauskas, however, isn't counting on the commercial foodservice side to provide B&G's future bread and butter. She predicts the bulk of the dealership's revenues, some $11 million in 2008, will come from noncommercial foodservice operators–schools, hospitals, nursing homes, correctional facilities, and the government. B&G, for example, sells the U.S. military foodservice equipment that its staff uses to feed soldiers in Afghanistan.
Stability makes the noncommercial foodservice segment attractive. “It's where the guaranteed money is. If we do business with a school, we may not get paid in 30 days, but we know that money is coming. Commercial operations, on the other hand, might get financing for the initial equipment but as far as the future goes, we must hope the business does well and they don't run out of money,” Dambrauskas explains.
Dambrauskas, 31, is a master of practicality. She once briefly entertained the notion of owning a restaurant, having studied entrepreneurship at Babson College, inWellesley, Mass., where she earned a master's degree in business administration. But Dambrauskas soon realized that despite loving the dining trade she would probably hate its hours. Instead, Dambrauskas joined the business her mother founded 25 years ago in Pittsfield. It was part of the foodservice supply chain and, more importantly, the dealership needed Dambrauskas' strengths, namely her ability to work across disciplines.
“I figured at that point my skills were definitely those things they were not focusing on at the time,” Dambrauskas recalls. Older brother, Bobby, who has worked for the family business since high school, was president and oversaw sales and operations. Dad Bernie, co-CEO, managed most of B&G's projects; and co-CEO, founder and mother, Gloria, purchased smallwares.
So in 2005, Dambrauskas began overseeing information technology, accounting, human resources and finance. “I took away all those extra things that my mom, brother and father didn't have time to do,” she recalls.
At that time, B&G had revenues of only about $7.5 million, but it easily competed with larger competitors by virtue of its strong customer-service platform. Unencumbered by the need to manage by “hard numbers,” the business endeared itself by showing loyalty to its customers.
Shayne Varnum, a Derry, N.H.-based territory sales manager for Hobart-Traulsen, sees Dambrauskas taking the same approach. “Tricia has an absolute dedication to getting things right for customers. She is very cooperative, courteous and kind,” he notes.
Strong customer focus gives the dealership an edge with foodservice operators. “Maybe the dealer they were doing business with has implemented a minimum delivery requirement. Maybe they needed something right away but the dealer didn't ship right away. We can make a decision quickly,” Dambrauskas says. “That's the great thing about a family business. We don't have to answer to a higher power.”
As recently as 2005, B&G's web site was bare-bones, many employees worked without e-mail, and accounting was mostly paper-based. Dambrauskas' arrival changed that. She immediately beefed up legal documents, upgraded the web site and bought an e-mail server.
“I made everything electronic, because it is easier for employees to share information,” recalls Dambrauskas. “That was something I did from day one.”
Two years ago, Dambrauskas and her brother, who run B&G day-to-day, opened a second showroom in Albany, N.Y., a 40-minute drive from Pittsfield. It was the riskiest move the company had ever undertaken, she admits. But it was necessary if the company were to boost profits and enter the lucrative New England market.
B&G had an edge. The company already was piling up revenues by re-distributing equipment to another dealer in the area, who in turn sold them to end users. (Re-distribution sales account for about one-fourth of the dealership's total revenues.) But the margins on the equipment that B&G sold were thinner than if it had sold them directly. So, when that other dealership closed, brother and sister moved into the area.
“We opened a showroom, which hadn't existed,” Dambrauskas says. In addition, existing customers referred the dealership to others. And, coincidentally, the Albany, N.Y. area gave B&G access to a second set of manufacturer's reps; as a result, B&G could now leverage better prices from equipment makers.
The rest isn't quite history. B&G's margins remain under pressure because of the economy. “Customers are shopping on prices more and more,” says Dambrauskas. “It doesn't allow us to have the margins we once used to.” Yet she believes the customer-focused company can weather the downturn. “We are not looking to cut margins because we need to pay our bills. We want to do the right thing for customers, to make sure they are there in the long run.”
John Cornyn, FCSI, recalls putting his bachelor's degree in hotel and restaurant management to the test almost immediately as a fresh-out-of-college, second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
“At Fort Benning I wound up spending more time dealing with officers' wives because they organized the catering events,” he recalls. “I remember one who was organizing a luncheon for the officers' wives in her husband's command. She said, “Lieutenant, if you screw this up, I will rip your heart out.” The luncheon came off absolutely perfectly.”
Arranging such events provided an important lesson in organization, and one that has stayed with the 64-year-old management advisory services consultant ever since. “You might think that all that attention to detail and protocol and how everything needed to go by rank as mechanical and boring. But there was a reason for it,” he explains.
Cornyn moved to Portland, Ore. to be closer to his daughter after a divorce, later re-marrying Joyce Fasano. Today, 34 years and two-million air miles after founding The Cornyn Fasano Group with Fasano, the twosome is among the foodservice industry's top problem-solvers. And, their help appears badly in need given current economic circumstances. “Clients are looking to cut costs or increase revenues in any way they can,” Cornyn says.
Cornyn got his first big break doing just that. Hired by a large technology business to stem losses in an employee cafeteria, he wound up saving the company a bundle. In doing so, Cornyn says he called upon his experience at Zenith, where he worked after leaving the service, to resolve the problem.
His second break arrived when a new jail opened nearby. “It was a brand new, high-rise correctional facility in downtown Portland and the kitchen was on the 10th floor,” he remembers. “They had decided to implement a cook-chill and re-therm process similar to an airline system. But they didn't know how to do it.” Trouble was, neither did Cornyn at the time, so he turned the project down. However, state officials told him no one else in the area could do it, and he eventually relented. “We never worked so hard in our lives,” he recalls. In an unexpected pay-off, a national trade magazine covered the project, and overnight it seemed, the firm apparently became an expert in the corrections field. Since then, The Cornyn Fasano Group has worked for more than two dozen such facilities.
Meanwhile, Cornyn joined the Foodservice Consultants Society International, a worldwide professional organization. Through networking with members, he landed a crucial consulting job at the University of California, San Diego that helped build his firm's reputation in school and university foodservice. He has been an active an FSCI member ever since.
Cornyn is now in his second year as president of the newly created FCSI – The Americas Division, overseeing the activities of some 660 members in Canada, the U.S. and Latin America. “You get to a point where you want to give back,” he declares. “With the assistance and support of my partner, I opted to run for trustee and later moved up the chain.”
Involved he has been. “You don't realize how much time you're away. At the same time, when you get involved, you have a professional obligation to practice what you preach,” Cornyn explains.
By working with the other board members to help establish independence for The Americas division, now the largest of FCSI's three divisions, Cornyn has given its members their own budget and, ultimately, responsibility for their organization. “In the past, we were given a budget and politely told to live with it. Now we are free to have our own path,” he says.
In the last couple of years, the group has been funding and organizing “super-regional” meetings, or mini-conferences taking place during the course of just a day-and-half to ease members' travel time. “You don't have to take a whole week out of calendar to attend this event,” Cornyn says. “We're simply dealing with the reality of everyone's life-style and work challenges.” To help alleviate the workload associated with putting on these events, Cornyn has hired another company to manage FCSI – The Americas' business dealings.
Fasano, also an active FCSI member, says the changes have been stressful for Cornyn. “It was a lot to take on in one term as president. But both the creation of the new division and new management company went hand in hand,” she says.
Add to that, the firm's work. Cornyn and Fasano, for example, are planning two restaurants at the Chicago Lyric Opera House.
How long can the duo maintain the pace? “As long as we can physically get on and off airplanes,” Cornyn explains. “Foodservice consulting is really an up-close-and-personal process.”
Those contemplating climbing the heights of service-agent success should heed the words of Wayne Stoutner. “People don't get out of this industry,” he says. “If you are doing a real good job for a regional manager at one chain, say, and that person moves to another multi-unit operator, this individual might bring the business from this new company to you.”
A good job consists of many factors, Stoutner concedes, but he insists foodservice technicians understand one important point: When they finish, they wipe their fingerprints off equipment and clean up after themselves. “That's the kind of professionalism that differentiates us from those who may charge less,” he explains. Translation: Don't behave like the guys in the beat-up vans.
Stoutner has had measurable success applying that lesson at Appliance Installation and Service Corp., in Buffalo, N.Y. The 42-year-old president, his business partner Paul Glowacki and the company's 40 employees have served some 25,000 customers throughout upstate New York. Until the recession took hold late last year, the company's 20 technicians made nearly four calls a day, compared to the industry average of three, Stoutner says.
Efficiently repairing and installing equipment only partly explains the service agency's good fortune. A straightforward quid pro quo accounts for the rest. “One reason we have been successful to this point is because we've developed a lot of relationships for warranty contracts with manufacturers, manufacturer reps and local dealers,” Stoutner explains. “They provide us with leads and we provide them with leads on the sales side of the process.”
Stoutner didn't set out to own a company. One of his first introductions to the foodservice industry came when his mother and stepfather, who had no industry experience, purchased a restaurant in 1983 in Stoutner's hometown of Johnstown, N.Y. “My stepfather was laid off at IBM and my mother was a manager at a hotel when a restaurant was put up for sale. They're still in business,” he says.
Graduating from high school shortly thereafter, Stoutner bypassed college to join the army. He counted on the G.I. Bill to foot his post-secondary tuition in the event he became interested in education. He asked to be shipped to Germany, but changed his mind just before the time came to go. “It was too far away,” he recalls.
He did his entire duty at Fort Polk in Louisiana, a base known for advanced combat training. Despite his title as a “combat engineer,” Stoutner landed a desk job attending to higher-ups. “I was like the Radar character on the television series 'M.A.S.H.,'” he says. “I was right-hand man for the commander.”
By the time he was discharged, Stoutner had made sergeant. “I did my time and got my G.I. Bill, and went back to my parents' restaurant to work.” He also enrolled at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Six months before getting his B.S. degree in business management and accounting, Stoutner was delivering pizzas for Domino's and contemplating what to do with the rest of his life.
One day, classmate Paul Glowacki, who worked as a service manager in Buffalo, dropped by Stoutner's unit to check on a faulty oven. Glowacki asked Stoutner why he was delivering pizzas, and offered him a job as an assistant service manager at Appliance Installation & Service Corp.
Stoutner accepted the offer and moved swiftly through the ranks at AISC, managing an outpost in Rochester, N.Y., before becominga regional manager. “There was a lot of learning and a lot of luck,” Stoutner says of his rapid ascent.
In 2001 he and Glowacki earned MBAs from State University of Buffalo, a condition they had to fulfill in order to buy the company. “He said a degree would come in handy,” Stoutner says of the company's owner at the time, who also financed the deal. A year after taking ownership, Stoutner and Glowacki created a second company, Express Commercial Services, now a specialist in the installation of hoods and refrigerators.
Throughout his career, Stoutner has immersed himself in the CFESA certification program and today he sits on the CFESA board of directors. “One thing that's nice now is that I can share my mistakes with members, particularly on the installation side of the business. Installation is something service agencies are being asked to do more and more from manufacturers,” he says.
In fact, Stoutner has spent the last two years designing training programs for members. Today, the association offers seminars on refrigeration and installation for both gas and electric appliances. Members can thank Stoutner for the latter. “Two years ago manufacturers said they'd like service agents to learn more about installation. So we took it upon ourselves to develop a whole course. We've trained a couple of classes so far,” he says.
Of course, business is not what it used to be. The economy has wreaked havoc on foodservice establishments and, in turn, service agents suffer along with them. Stoutner, for example, recently learned a national chain wasn't fixing two of its four fryers at a particular location. According to Stoutner, its volumes didn't warrant the repairs. “I'm hearing people in the industry say volumes of service calls are way down. This is the first time in 15 years we've seen anything like this,” he says, adding that calls to his own business are down 15 percent. As a result, Stoutner has stepped up marketing efforts.
Still, he sees a glimmer of hope. “On the bright side of it, when the economy turns around, it will be great for service agencies because all those places that neglected repairs will be turning around, too. The question is when?”
“It was just us girls,” recalls Sean Girard of the spring day in 1999 when he and Paul Swanson Jr. opened their foodservice manufacturers' rep group, Swanson-Girard and Associates, in Charlotte, N.C. “Representing just two product lines, we were sitting around praying for the fax machine to ring. Every order was a celebration.”
Fast forward ten years and the partners continue to celebrate. Swanson-Girard's revenues now total $28 million annually, boosted by a 2005 acquisition that doubled the number of the firm's employees. Not content to rest on their success, the duo continues to invest in the company, updating their document storage system and signing an agreement with a popular chef to demonstrate the equipment lines they sell.
One could argue their success was inevitable. After all, Swanson and Girard had known each other years before launching their business, and their parents are close friends. In fact, their dads work in the same industry: Paul's father is as a manufacturing executive, and Sean's father is as a manufacturer's rep. Paul's grandfather once ran an A&W Root Beer shop.
“This partnership was engineered by our parents, indirectly,” says Girard, 36. Like an arranged marriage? “Honestly, that what it's sounding like more and more, to tell the truth.”
“It couldn't have worked out any better,” the 35-year-old Swanson boasts. “We grew from $2 million to $28 million in annual revenue in less than 10 years, so a lot of good things have happened.”
Among the positive developments for Swanson-Girard was the merger with a successful manufacturer's rep group owned by Dave Collins, a respected veteran who was ready to slow down but lacked a suitable successor within his organization. “He adopted Sean and me,” says Swanson, half-jokingly.
The deal added six employees to the company, including Collins, who still manages a territory but more importantly, the partners say, acts as their guru. “People always ask us about the A-list lines we picked up from Dave, but what they don't understand is that we immediately had a mentor. We get his take on situations he faced every day.”
Swanson and Girard regularly tap the expertise of more experienced industry vets, many of whom are friends of their fathers. Jerry Hennebaul, Swanson's first boss, remains a positive influence on him to this day. And David Kuelpman, co-founder of Anaheim, Calif.-based KLH Marketing and a friend of Don Girard, recently advised them on database management systems. “One of the best things about these guys is they have sought out and listened to people who have been there to try to avoid pitfalls,” Kuelpman says.
One pitfall Girard and Swanson want to avoid is losing market share during the recession. Although they concede business is slower and orders smaller, they've decided to step up marketing efforts, hoping to maintain their customers' loyalty.
“It's easy to back off. But we just hosted a dealer social night that costs us $1,500,” Swanson says. “It makes more sense to do more when the economy is sluggish.” In January Swanson-Girard and Associates hired Chef Doug Allen, a local culinarian who works with dealers and manufacturers to demonstrate equipment and generate leads.
Allen's expertise is crucial. “Chefs speak the lingo. They wear whites. They know how to prep food. There's professionalism and validity to what they do. Doug makes our equipment look better,” Swanson says.
Not everything is going swimmingly, however. The men worry about conglomerates encroaching on their business. Manufacturers who will not hesitate to exploit the relationships Swanson and Girard have nurtured with end-users represent their biggest fear. This becomes particularly worrisome when it comes to restaurant chains, which may end up buying directly from the factory.
“We are seeing a trend to take therelationship out of the hands of the reps. Ithas gotten to the point where manufacturers feel if there's national-account potential they might as well manage it out of headquarters,” Girard says.
Girard predicts reps of tomorrow will have to discover ways to become much more useful and innovative. “Not to the manufacturer, but to the end-user,” he adds.
The pair claims the design of their decade-old partnership allows it to withstand these threats and others because of their own unique relationship. “We are 50-50 partners contractually and really in every sense of the word. That's not typical,” Swanson explains. “This kind only works when you have a brotherly relationship.”