If you would like to know what makes Gordon Marsh a top-flight dealer sales representative, and how he generates so much repeat business for Edward Don & Company, this anecdote goes a long way toward explaining it.
The time: 2012, Marsh’s first year with Edward Don.
The place: Fogo de Chão, the Brazilian steakhouse then under construction in Rosemont, Ill.
The players: Marsh. His boss, William Davis. And the client, Fogo’s Fernando Barrett.
“Gordon was not yet a project manager,” Davis explains. “But the project manager for this job had left, and so I assigned Gordon to finish the job.”
On this particular day, an issue arose with the restaurant’s hood system. Davis and Barrett were discussing the situation, and Davis feared that the HVAC contractor was going to stick the restaurant with an extra charge.
“While we were talking, Gordon left,” recalls Davis, regional sales manager at Edward Don. “He went up on the scissor lift, a story and a half up, crawled out on the ductwork and found out what the problem was — and it wasn’t ours or the owner’s. From that moment on, Fernando wanted Gordon on the job.”
But Marsh wasn’t through demonstrating his worth. Later, he went head-to-head with a carpenter who challenged the newly minted project manager on a couple of proposed changes — not knowing Marsh was a card-carrying member of the Chicago Carpenters Union Local 1185.
“The carpenter said, ‘Oh, sorry,’” Davis remembers. “We keep that card updated every year for that reason; to prove that Gordon knows his stuff.”
That day is a microcosm of exactly who Gordon Marsh is. Knowledgeable, with a background in construction that few other DSRs can match. Confident enough to speak his mind when he needs to. Determined to see a project become profitable — even if it was a losing proposition when he inherited it, as was the case with Fogo de Chão. Willing to go the extra mile for his customers, including riding a scissors lift and climbing out on ductwork to diagnose a problem. Add to that the drafting ability to design a project from scratch, and you have a complete picture of what cements his place as an FE&S DSR of the Year.
Making a List
Juggling 12 to 14 clients at any one time is challenging for anyone, especially if your memory isn’t great. But Gordon Marsh has trained himself to get past that. “When I was younger, I thought I had really bad short-term memory,” he explains. “One of the companies I worked for was a millwork company, and my boss taught me early on to have a to-do list. Write down everything you want to achieve, and as you do it, cross it off. That is what trained my memory. I have people around me now who tell me that I never forget anything.”
The financial figures serve as the frame that surrounds that picture: Over the past five years, Marsh has generated an average of $5 million per year in sales for Woodridge, Ill.-based Edward Don & Company. His 2021 sales goal of $5 million is impressive enough, considering the country is still trying to recover from a pandemic that shut down much of the foodservice industry for the better part of a year. The fact that his first-half sales totaled $4.5 million, or 90% of his goal for 2021, is mind-blowing, especially when you realize Marsh spends virtually no time cold-calling for potential business. One reason for that is because when Marsh lands clients, he usually doesn’t lose them. He doesn’t want to work with clients on just one project, he wants to work with them on all of their projects.
“I’m not in the business to get rich off of one project with [a client] — I’m here to get rich from doing all of your projects,” Marsh explains.
That’s where Marsh’s problem-solving skills serve him well. Customers learned Marsh rarely wastes time placing blame for a problem because he’s too busy figuring out a way to solve it. “There is no such thing as ‘no,’” Marsh says. “If it can’t be done, let’s figure out how it can get done. Let’s come to people with solutions, not problems.”
“Gordon shines most when things go wrong,” says Anthony Ruffolo, territory manager at Redco Foodservice Equipment, a manufacturers’ rep firm in Bloomingdale, Ill. “It’s very easy to sell things when everything goes right. I think he’s best when mistakes happen and he fixes them, and it doesn’t matter whose fault it is.”
Marsh’s boss echoes that sentiment.
“They like the fact that with Gordon, they know it’s going to get done,” says Davis. “He’s not going to let, say, a plumber come back to the owner and say, ‘Look, we drew this wrong, so there’s going to be an extra coming your way. He’s not going to let that happen. If we make a mistake, he’s the first one who’s going to step up and say so. They really like that. He’s also really good at spotting mistakes in advance and making sure they don’t happen.”
Marsh doesn’t like errors, and he is a stickler for detail. The nephew of two carpenter uncles, and one himself for a few years before he joined Edward Don, Marsh is a firm believer in the carpenters’ adage, “Measure twice, cut once.”
“You learn that really quick when you’re working on pieces of wood that cost more money than some people make in six months,” Marsh explains. “Mistakes have to be minimal, and when they occur, they have to be able to be fixed so that no one knows they happened.”
Marsh says he has always been good with his hands, and he considered becoming an auto mechanic until he realized he hated getting grease under his fingernails. So he turned to carpentry, which appealed to his creative nature. “I always liked sketching in high school,” he says. “With carpentry, I liked the creative process, starting with a blank slate and turning wood into something that is beautiful and everybody likes. I also liked the self-gratification when you sit back and say, ‘Yeah, I made that.’”
Marsh pursued carpentry via trade school and worked at a couple of companies — a millwork company and a cabinetry business, but it soon became apparent to him that a carpenter’s career is not necessarily financially conducive to raising a family. “I was looking for a way to transition from the trenches to being in more of a corporate/office environment,” he explains. “The office guys are always working in December and January and February when all of us in the field are sitting at home because there’s nothing to do. I realized that if I was going to have a family, I didn’t want to have to worry about being off work three months of the year.”
While he studied at Joliet Junior College in Illinois for an associate’s degree in computer-aided design, Marsh also took classes in project management and construction management.
“What impresses me most about Gordon is that he is multitalented,” says Bill Beshilas, senior territory manager for rep firm Zink Foodservice Group, Worthington, Ohio. “He is not a one-dimensional person. That, and his customer-first attitude, is what has gotten him where he is today.”
All of this caught Davis’s eye when he came across Marsh’s resume in 2012.
“I liked the fact that he was in construction and he was taking classes to better himself and his family,” Davis remembers. “At the time he wanted to be an architect, which was a good aspiration. I thought, with his construction background, CAD classes and management classes, that he had some good potential in our industry.”
Davis brought Marsh into the fold, and then seemingly threw him to the wolves with the Fogo de Chão project. Marsh still has vivid memories of that construction.
“It was a very custom project on a tight time frame,” Marsh recalls. “The custom stainless-steel package on it was one of the toughest I’ve seen. I inherited the job from a project manager who had left the company, and there were a bunch of land mines, such as someone forgot to figure sales tax into the project.”
To make matters worse, when Marsh took on the job, it was running at a loss, not a good sign for someone who works on commission. Fortunately, Marsh says, “I was on a guarantee from Edward Don, so I was safe from the damage. But I also saw that, if we could make it profitable, it could be very lucrative.”
So Marsh began studying the project, looking for ways to turn things around. He met with vendors to try to negotiate deals on equipment that could save a penny here and there. In the end, he succeeded, and with the success came the understanding that Marsh had found his niche.
“That’s when the hook set in my cheek,” he says, using the old fishing metaphor. “When you see that you have the power to turn what could have been a nightmare into something that is actually pretty good, it’s fun. At the end of the day, when it comes out great and the client likes what he sees and everybody makes money on it, it’s that same feeling as when you’re building that cabinet and watching the creation happen.”
Success stories like this are one reason Marsh doesn’t have to rely on cold calling. He earns repeat business often, which in turn generates loyalty among his clients. But people who know Marsh say he returns that loyalty tenfold.
“He is extremely loyal, which is kind of a dying quality in our industry,” says Carl Boutilier, a principal at PB&J Commercial Agents, a rep firm in Wheaton, Ill. “He is loyal to his customers, he is loyal to his vendors, and he’s super loyal to Edward Don. He will go to battle for his customers — he’s like a pit bull when it comes to that. He gets a better deal for clients because of that loyalty.”
Marsh also is unflaggingly honest with customers, another reason his clients come back to him time and again. “I’m not trying to hide anything,” he explains. “I would rather tell you this equipment costs what it costs, rather than throw a number up above the line, and then below the line there are these extra costs. It’s unfortunate that there are people in this industry who play some games when it comes to that. Besides, you don’t want to design a $2 million restaurant for someone who’s looking to spend only $500,000.”
Ruffolo notes that Marsh also never hesitates to speak his mind. “I like that he’ll get a spec, but he’s not afraid to put in the product he likes,” Ruffolo says. “He will say, ‘I like this product better,’ and his customers learn to rely on his expertise, versus going with what was specced in the first place. He is one of the better ones in that respect.”
Marsh’s ability to generate repeat business manifested itself earlier this year in Los Angeles, when Marsh was hired to work on the Citizen-News building project in Hollywood. The historic art deco landmark, once home to the Citizen-News daily newspaper, is being converted into restaurants and an events space. The foodservice consultant on the project is Burlington, Vt.-based Kitchen, Restaurant + Bar Specialists (KRBS).
Thompson Hotel, roughly a block away from the Citizen-News project. The Thompson Hotel features several restaurants and bars, including a rooftop bar.Marsh proved himself to KRBS in 2019 when he worked with them on the
“This is how most of my projects go,” Marsh explains. “I get my foot in the door with a client and then blow them out of the water with customer service, always trying to do even the impossible tasks clients ask. I proved myself to KRBS and gained their trust. I was told about Citizen-News a few times while I was working on Thompson, and I had to get it.”
Therein lies another of Marsh’s qualities: a competitive streak that borders on obsession.
“Everyone is competitive in this business, but Gordon takes it to another level,” says Boutilier. “When he gets his mind on something, and he says, I’m going to win that job, as far as I’m concerned, he’s already won that job. When he sets his sights on something, from a competitive standpoint, it’s his.”
Boutilier remembers Marsh telling him a couple of years ago that he was going to be the top producer at Edward Don. When the dust settled that year, 2019, Marsh had earned the title with $7 million in sales.
Then, of course, the pandemic hit, and the foodservice industry was forced to retrench. But some projects continued, and Marsh and his team kept working, albeit more remotely than usual.
“It was a case of not always looking at the bottom line but thinking how can we do this for the client, no matter what it takes,” says Marsh. “FaceTime, Zoom meetings, conference calls. I would have clients on mobile devices walking me through a project, with me seeing what they were seeing.”
He leaned more heavily on people like his assistant installation manager, Adam Sachok, to be his eyes and ears when he couldn’t be on-site. He also began to understand even more the sense of urgency clients have about their projects.
“I never want to be late on anything, but after doing this [during the pandemic] I realized that a day’s delay in the end user’s eyes is way different from a delay in other people’s eyes. You see it as a day, but they are looking at their dreams being pushed back. It’s their livelihood, and we don’t realize just how important this is for this person. So, I will bend over backward to make things happen.”
During his nine years with Edward Don & Company, Marsh has honed his skills in several areas, none more impressively than his design work.
“Gordon’s drawing and design abilities have improved dramatically,” says Davis. “In the beginning he was doing projects that had been designed by other people. Now, he takes full charge. He’ll take a blank palette and design restaurants from scratch. He can lay out a kitchen that is just very efficient. I don’t know how he does it. That’s very hard to pick up.”
It is a skill that amazes his customers as well.
“We worked together on a job in downtown Chicago, a supermarket called Dom’s,” says Boutilier. “One of the meat-cutting rooms was a very odd-shaped room with a couple of complex angles. Gordon wanted some custom fabrication to fit inside this room. It’s my custom fab so I went in the room to take a look, and it fit like a glove. He was very proud of it, because he had been down there on more than one occasion, measuring to get just the right angles.”
Boutilier also recalls a project in California where Marsh designed a one-off mobile sushi cart that could be used indoors and outdoors. “It was mind-boggling how Gordon came up with this design, because it fit everything the customer wanted,” he notes. “He even included some stuff the customer didn’t know he wanted. He just created this as if from thin air.”
With all of his knowledge, abilities and people skills, one might think that Marsh is destined for bigger and flashier things. But he says that isn’t necessarily the case.
“I like where I am,” Marsh explains. “I like what I’m doing, and I really can’t imagine doing anything else. Five years from now, I think I’ll be right where I am today.”
Facts of Note
- Age: 41
- Hometown: Berwyn, Ill.
- Current town: Romeoville, Ill.
- Edward Don & Company sales: $768 million according to FE&S Distribution Giants
- Average sales volume, past 5 years: $5 million
- Biggest sales year: $7 million (2019)
- 2020 sales: $4 million
- 2021 sales goal: $5 million
- 2021 first-half sales: $4.5 million
- Number of active projects: 12
- Percent of hours spent cold calling: 0
Taking the Bad with the Good
Gordon Marsh on his love-hate relationship with design:
“I will delegate tracking projects any time. I hate tracking projects. I just want someone to tell me everything is in the warehouse and ready to install. Trying to follow it all drives me insane. My favorite part of the job is something I also hate. As much as I love designing projects, it’s a curse. You have a ton of input, and you can specify and do all the design work and layout, but when you design, no matter what, it’s always your fault. You can walk the client through 10 different products and they pick the one they want. And then you deliver it, and they say it’s not the one they wanted. They signed off on it and approved it and we showed them how it worked in the test kitchen, and they will say, ‘Yeah, but I wanted the other one.’ That’s why there is something nice about having a consultant do it all for you, and you just have to follow what he asks for.”
Who’s The Boss?
The client is usually the owner of the project, but Gordon Marsh knows that the real power in a restaurant kitchen lies with the chef. “If they have a chef on board, it’s always best to be engaging with them, because they are going to have the final say,” he says. “The client is the one spending the money, but the chef is going to be the one working in the kitchen. If they don’t have a chef in the beginning, we’re going to be making changes down the road, because I guarantee you the chef isn’t going to like something about the project, but he or she didn’t have input into it. So engaging with the right people early on in the design process is key to being able to get what everyone is looking for.”