4 Star Reps. Being purposeful has served Higgins well.One apt way to describe Karen Higgins: Purposeful. It’s how she speaks, how she’s handled her career and how she runs her company, Philadelphia-based
Higgins’ path began with her education as a dietician, which included not just courses in clinical nutrition, but community health and foodservice management.
After a short stint on the nutrition end, Higgins started on the foodservice management track, with a focus on healthcare operations. She held a number of roles in this sector, first with Aramark and then with Acts Retirement Life Communities, an operator of senior living facilities. With Acts Retirement, Higgins rose to the post of assistant corporate director for foodservice.
It was in this role that Higgins became familiar with the equipment side of the industry. Her firm was regularly renovating existing facilities and building new ones, putting Higgins in the role of key specifier. It was part of her job that she truly enjoyed.
“When I had the opportunity to spend the day totally immersed in a construction or renovation project, I knew I felt happy. I just felt kind of buzzed. I thought if I could do that every day that would be awesome,” Higgins says.
That would remain just a thought for several years, though. Eventually Higgins left Acts Retirement to run a one-woman healthcare foodservice consultancy. Six years into that job, in 2001, she got a call from BHG Group, a rep firm she’d worked with in her operator days, asking if she’d be interested in joining them.
Higgins found the job and the prospect of guiding foodservice operators appealing. As a former operator, she knew that buying the wrong equipment could make life difficult for everyone who comes close to a kitchen. By helping them make smart choices, she could contribute to efficiency and employee happiness at these operations.
The transition from consultant to rep was a difficult one, though. Not only did Higgins have to learn about all the equipment she never worked with as an operator, she also had to transition from respected consultant to salesperson who still had to prove her worth and honesty to clients. She stuck with the job largely out of a sense of commitment to the company, which was investing a lot of time and money in her professional development. Higgins felt a particular allegiance to the now-retired Andy Bachovin, a partner at BHG. “He was a pioneer in the industry and he was terrific to me. Always patient, always answering my questions every day,” she says.
It took about three years for Higgins to get up to speed in her new role. After that, she quickly proved her worth, so much so that in 2009 the owners of BHG granted her shares in the company to ensure she’d stay with them. Around that same time, the firm changed its name to 4 Star Reps.
Over the years, 4 Star Reps’ other partners retired or left the firm. The last change took place in 2017, with Higgins becoming the company’s sole owner.
One key to the 4 Star Reps success is its culture, Higgins says. “We try and create raving fans. We understand that in order to do that you have to provide a consistent level of service, through all people on the team. I think that culturally we set that bar high about always being honest, always being polite.”
Honest and polite is great, of course, but it will only get you so far. The systems and tools that enable success must be in place as well.
As a principal in the firm, Higgins has worked to make the company more responsive and put its people in a better position to succeed. “I recognized early on that in order to remain relevant, you have to show growth inside your rep firm. We have a lot of different customers and we’re always striving to understand what they’re asking and needing,” she says.
One major initiative that shows both growth and responsiveness was the rollout of a customer relationship management (CRM) system six years ago — ahead of the curve relative to many other rep firms, Higgins notes. The company uses the system to track all outstanding issues, as well as to monitor how it is performing for different factories and with different dealers and specifiers. If a particular dealer sells less of a particular line, 4 Star Reps can use its CRM to pinpoint the challenge, whether it’s with a single DSR or the company as a whole.
This year, 4 Star Reps used the CRM to transition from offering customer service to providing a broader customer experience. “We have been collecting valuable data for years, and we’ve been able to answer questions on the spot because of it. But now it’s time to use that information proactively; I want to answer questions before they are asked,” says Higgins.
The company is also staffed, and staffing up, to be more responsive to customers. DSRs, Higgins says, want quotes and answers to their questions right away. Instead of having them call 4 Star Reps’ street sales team for this info, the firm’s inside team members are trained to handle these requests on an immediate basis. What’s more, two of the company’s inside customer service reps have recently been promoted to full-time inside sales positions, while the firm also added another inside position dedicated to customer service.
This sort of model is only possible, Higgins notes, due to the quality of the people who work at the firm. “My greatest sense of satisfaction and greatest source of happiness is the team we’ve built here, without question. It’s awesome to be able to sit with a group of people with divergent interests and backgrounds and have them happily come together, working cooperatively. It makes the work fun, enjoyable, and profitable.”
Even with all this success, 4 Star Reps is not resting on its laurels. Far from it. Under Higgins’ guidance, the team has adopted a method to help employees accomplish more daily goals instead of spending all their time putting out fires. A daily morning conference call supports this ideal; team members discuss challenges, issues and how they can support one another.
In addition to being deliberate about planning her day, Higgins is being deliberate when it comes to the future of her firm. In particular, she’s been studying the evolution of sister industries to help prepare for possible changes to the equipment and supplies (E&S) sector. “I’m looking at the foodservice brokers, their rapid consolidation and the development of the national rep firm model. I went to the foodservice brokers conference recently so I could talk to them and understand what precipitated that consolidation.”
Though Higgins is quick to say she doesn’t have a crystal ball about the future of the industry, she isn’t sticking her head in the sand and pretending change won’t come. Just like in how she plans her day and manages her company, she’s committed to being purposeful in her career. If history is any guide, her efforts should pay off.
Insights and Anecdotes
- Industry Involvement: MAFSI member
- Career Start: Foodservice management with Aramark
- Career Mission: To earn her keep in the industry by ensuring her work is of value and benefit and to open a pathway of success for her team.
- Influential Life Experience: Every time someone took the time to talk with her about the industry.
- How She Approaches Change: “I typically approach change by educating myself. I read books, I talk to people with experience and I open my eyes to what’s going on around me. I’m not one to bury my head in the sand. After I feel as though I’ve learned a lot from others, I usually spend time (often on weekends) brainstorming my best options. From there, I’m a planner. I write out ideas, I set goals, and I break things down into a step-by-step process to actually facilitate the change that’s needed or desired.”