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DSR of the Month, Oct. 2006: Ross Cohen, Advanced Contract & Design Services, Minneapolis

Ross Cohen, president and managing partner of Advanced Contract & Design Services Inc., a Minneapolis-based division of Rapids Wholesale Equipment in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, looks after his clients' best interests — and they appreciate it.

“I treat my customers' projects like they're my projects,” said Cohen, who has spent 22 of his 30 years in the foodservice business in sales. Among his best customers are several larger contract operators. “Their job is to sell an account and operate their foodservice; they don't want to design restaurants and kitchens. I represent the people who brought me to the table in such a way that the service I provide is seamless. That way we come in together; I'm a consultant who is looking for them to achieve what they want to achieve.”

About 60 percent of Cohen's accounts are institutional operators, including nursing homes, employee cafeterias, churches and daycare centers. He developed this specialty almost inadvertently — doing someone a favor 14 years ago — while working as a contract salesman for a broadline distributor.

“A friend had a wedding to go to, and asked me to deliver some smallwares to an account of his,” Cohen recalled. “I found a truck and a couple of guys and schlepped in there with a bunch of pots and pans. This guy came up to me and said, ‘Who are you?' I said, ‘I'm a salesman for the broadliner; my friend was awarded the bid for these smallwares, and I'm just here helping him.'”

Though they had a brand new kitchen they were having trouble getting their steamer going. “I helped him fix it, and took care of a lot of little things,” Cohen added. “On Monday morning they were able to get open without any problems. He said, ‘I've never met anyone who just showed up and jumped right in and started helping.' Today, every time an opportunity comes up with that operator, I get a chance to work on it.”

This year, Cohen said he expects to account for $1.5 million to $2 million in sales among his 30 clients.

Among the former colleagues who have had the greatest impact on Cohen has been Chuck Jackman, an outside salesman with whom he worked 20 years ago at a used equipment dealership in Minneapolis. “He taught me to qualify the customer up front,” Cohen recalled. “He said to make sure you can help your customer. If you can't help them, then it is time to find a different customer. He also taught me to be honest with people and treat them with respect.”

Cohen said his role has not changed over the last two decades for a simple reason. “I choose customers that need my help, therefore, I get paid for my hard work,” he said. “I don't spend time trying to get customers who don't appreciate the value we can provide and are not willing to pay for it. I don't get into bidding wars.”

Cohen said he sees too many DSRs today “fighting over price, and [few] of them are able to make enough money to send their kids to college and drive a nice car and maybe take a vacation.”

Cohen advises DSRs to “be honest with people, especially the small operator. If, after qualifying them, you find out that they don't have the means and the ability to be successful, tell them that. I hate to say don't do business with them, but don't do business with them. One of the values I bring to my customers is that I know how much it costs per square foot to both provide foodservice equipment and design and engineer architectural and construction costs. If I sit down with a customer and find that, based on their method of prep, project size and menu, it's going to cost them $450,000 to get their place open, and they say we only have $250,000, I tell them not to do it. I think other people should, too.”

Cohen and his wife of 15 years, Gail — who works for Rapids part-time as a project manager — live in Eden Prairie, Minn., with their teenaged daughters, Elizabeth and Jessica.

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