Joel Kaplan counts himself lucky despite the fact that he was laid off from his first job post-college after only two months due to a recession. This unfortunate start led him to his current career in project sales and management at E. Friedman Associates, Inc.
"I realized I hadn't been happy just sitting in an office," Kaplan says. "I mentioned to a friend that I was seeking a position where I could really roll up my sleeves and take a much more active role." His friend led him to E. Friedman, where Kaplan has worked for the last 22 years.
At first, the job entailed all aspects of office management, helping with purchasing and customer service, estimating and sales. Within a few months, Kaplan was managing a large commissary project for an air force base. "I then landed and oversaw a $700,000 project for the New Jersey Veteran's Administration and, by that time, was hooked on this business," Kaplan says.
His current client base ranges from small ice cream shops to multimillion dollar hotels. Kaplan's biggest project to date was the installation of a 40,000-square-foot kitchen that he was told was the largest non-central kitchen in the country.
FE&S: You got to know how the business runs before becoming a salesperson. How does that help you in your current role?
JK: Having pretty much worn every hat in the company is a huge benefit, since I understand what it takes to do each job and appreciate what my co-workers do on a daily basis.
FE&S: Yours is a diverse customer base. Have you learned any lessons serving one type of customer that helps you better serve a customer from a different segment?
JK: As with anything, the more experience you accrue, the more tools you have to apply when similar circumstances arise in the future. About five years into my career, I had the opportunity to do a system-wide renovation for the New York Department of Corrections' foodservice operations. This entailed working in 15 different jails and coordinating the installation of new heavy-duty equipment in all locations. There were huge logistical issues that I needed to handle with my installation team, including security requirements and dealing with sizable equipment that required removal of welded door bucks. We had a 70-day timeline and our work hours were 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. during the winter. We finished the job in just 67 days to the client's satisfaction. One thing I love about this business is that you learn most by doing. In that way, every previous client and segment, teaches you lessons that translate well across the board.
FE&S: You serve as a single point of contact for your customers. Why is that important?
JK: This has always been a major part of my business philosophy and something my clients love. They know that from initial contact to final installation they can always count on one knowledgeable primary point of contact with a wonderful team backing me up.
FE&S: What's the most important lesson you've learned?
JK: I've learned to take ownership. When I take on a project, my existing clients know, and new clients find out quickly, that they haven't just hired a foodservice contractor. Instead, I constantly look at a project through the eyes of the owner. Clients feel the sincerity that comes through when you really step into their shoes and always have their best interests at heart. Beyond industry knowledge, this is a business of building relationships.