Darrin Bushong, a manager for C&T Design and Equipment Co. Inc., Columbus, Ohio, is always there for his clients — from a project's kick-off to its completion, and everything in between.
“It's basically a higher level of service that I provide for my clients,” he said. “I try to take a piece of paper that's blank, start in with a concept and go all the way to completion.”
Bushong, 36, joined C&T nine years ago, but has worked in the industry since he was 14. His father, Dan, owns Bushong Restaurant Equipment, a traditional dealership serving the markets of Dayton and Cincinnati. The teenager's initiation into the world of foodservice involved basic tasks like cleaning used fryers, which evolved over the years to working in the warehouse, moving on to the installation crew, manning the showroom, and eventually handling contract business and negotiating deals.
Bushong explained his decision to leave the family business this way. “I went with C&T years ago because it was the type of setup that works for my personality and my expertise. There are auto-CAD draftsmen here, and I work with architects, engineers, construction managers and developers. It just was built better for my personality. Dad's business is a great business, it's just more pots and pans, that kind of stuff. It wasn't that we left on bad terms; I just needed to expand my horizons.”
C&T operates 13 regional offices, with Bushong serving as manager of a staff of three at its Columbus location. The branch handles lots of design/build projects, which Bushong has made a practice of managing from cradle to grave.
“The reason why I'm successful and the customers keep me around is because I'm a single-source manager for that particular project,” he explained. “If there are any issues or questions that need to be answered in the field, I'm the point person. It's one person that they speak to.”
He recently brought three projects to completion in a single month, a task he called “a bear.” He usually completed one a month, though it is not uncommon for him to work on as many as eight projects at any one time — always, of course, “entirely on top of each.”
Selling remains a bigger part of his business than design, and although both often intertwine it is not uncommon for him to sell to a client for whom he does no design. All told, he accounted for slightly less than $3 million in sales last year.
“I had the same client base in 2005, and I was doing the same thing I've been doing for the past nine years,” he said. “I think that the business started picking back up because the economy loosened up a little bit in the third quarter. And this year will definitely be greater than 2005.”
Most of his clients are independent restaurants, but he also has a good number of business and industry accounts. He said he makes a conscious effort to diversify his customer base “so that if there is an unforeseen issue with the economy, my wheel is still turning.”
In fact, he maintains a network of contacts across the country, comprised mainly of architects and engineers, who will alert or bring him into new projects as they arise.
Bushong's customer retention is said to be the stuff of legend, but he attributes it to one simple factor: service. “I believe I take care of the client better than a majority of my competition,” he said. “There is really no worry after we've decided what the design is; they can move onto other processes.”
Bushong advises DSRs to “continue to educate yourselves. I've been doing this for a lot of years, and I still go to classes, I read magazines, I learn about new technologies that are on the horizon so that I can present that information to the customer. And the most important thing that I do on a constant basis, and this is so basic, is to listen to the customer. Hear what the customer's trying to say, and then work within that information to get the best product.”