As a third generation dealer sales rep, Robert E. Alban has foodservice equipment in his blood.
E&A Supply Corp. in Plainfield, N.J.His grandfather founded Alban's Restaurant Equipment in Elizabeth, N.J., which his father ran until his death in 1963. Although the dealership is no longer in business, Alban has remained in the family career for four decades, the last 25-plus years with
Known for being very folksy and warm with people, Alban's colleagues say he has excellent product knowledge and works well with supply chain partners. His client mix consists of independent restaurants, hospitals, correctional foodservice, senior care and schools, where he sells heavy equipment as part of the bid process and as replacement sales.
FE&S: You're known for taking a consultative approach to working with your customers. How do you approach a replacement sale?
RA: I approach it pretty much in the same way as any sale. I look at their needs to see if anything new is coming out. I've learned to take a couple extra minutes to listen to the customer. We're so quick to go in with new things in the market. You can always work down, but can't work your way up when starting with the cheapest product.
FE&S: You are known for having excellent equipment knowledge. How do you stay current?
RA: I utilize the Internet, trade shows and factory training. I also rely on factory reps. There are four rep firms that I do about 90 percent of my business with. I have found it's best to narrow down the number of people you're dealing with because it's easier to ask for favors when it comes to things like service issues and expediting orders.
FE&S: Why is it important to maintain good working relationships with reps, consultants and other supply chain partners?
RA: It's a two-way street. I bring my rep into the picture, along with his lines, if there is a new restaurant in town. By the same token, reps will bring jobs my way if someone is looking for a dealer.
FE&S: You have been in the industry a long time. How has it changed for the better since you first got started?
RA: Technology has changed everything. I don't have to carry catalogs around anymore, since everything is done on a laptop. This also has taken some of the human element out of it, which is a downside to me. I'm old school. In the past, we would always have face-to-face meetings with customers, but now the majority of business is handled by e-mail. I had one customer spend more than $1 million with me for an export order, and I never met him. Technology takes the human element out of it. I like to see who I'm dealing with.
FE&S: It seems like spending time with your customers is important to you. How does that one-on-one interaction help you and your customer?
RA: One of the biggest benefits is to see a customer's operation and talk to them, because there are things you can't grasp through the Internet. Customers who shop on online are taking a gamble. We can give them the best equipment for their needs, and this is what separates us from the big box stores. It's difficult for customers to educate themselves on what's available. We are more attuned to restaurants' needs, and that comes from many years of hands-on work, but also learning from our mistakes. I spend at least 10 percent of my day fixing Internet mistakes.