Gary Estes entered the foodservice industry in an untraditional way, on the chemical side. His first job out of college was with a large chemical company, where he rose through the ranks to become a sales manager.
After six years, he opened up a restaurant supply company, selling equipment and smallwares to a number of well-known restaurant accounts in New York City. “Over the 23 years of running my company, I developed a close relationship with Sam Tell,” Estes says. “When I decided to sell my company in 2009, joining the company was a logical next step.”
Estes brought his expertise from the chemical side of the business, helping to expand Sam Tell’s offerings.
FE&S spoke with Estes about the many changes in the industry and what it takes for today’s sales reps to maintain their competitive edge.
FE&S: What’s the key to helping a new restaurant location have a smooth opening?
GE: The real answer is communication. When you have large smallwares and equipment quotes, it’s important to get in front of any missing items that are essential to opening a restaurant. It’s important to be willing to substitute items, but waiting too long to provide what’s necessary will lead to big problems.
FE&S: How has the business changed for the better since you first got involved?
GE: The business is completely different, and can’t be compared to 20 years ago. Online sales have changed our industry, profit margins have shrunk and operators feel like they’re making less. In the past, we’d be up against seven area dealers, but now we’re competing against hundreds of online [dealers] from around the nation. At the end of the day, it’s still about service. Maybe there isn’t the opportunity to make as much money on an individual sale and more volume is needed, but operators will never get personal service online. It’s important for sales reps to represent that they add value.
FE&S: You work in a very competitive market. How do you make sure you are providing value on the customer’s terms?
GE: Because today’s business is price driven, it’s important to start with a fair, but not necessarily the lowest, price. I don’t sell anything that my customers can’t see online, so the only way to make a sale is to develop a personal relationship with customers. If they can buy from anyone, they’ll choose to do business with someone they like and trust.
FE&S: When something does not go as planned with an order or a project, what’s the best way to resolve the issue?
GE: It’s not about the mistakes, but how you react to them. It’s important to rally all the forces, see what situations are critical and put forth the time and effort to solve the problem. It’s not about making a phone call to a manufacturer or rep and expecting to be done with it. The key is to follow all the way through.
FE&S: What’s the most important lesson you learned?
GE: The customer’s needs come first. If you can find a way to make their job easier, you’ll have a customer for life.
FE&S: What gets you most excited about today’s foodservice industry?
GE: It’s important to find ways to market our products and services to customers through social media or e-mails and to never be detached from customers. These days, customers are always in touch with us. With the current technology, we also have a much greater reach today than in the past.