At 87 years old, Hal Block, principal of YBR Marketing, is still going strong with more than five decades as a manufacturers’ rep.
FE&S: What keeps you active and avoiding retirement?
HB: It’s hard for me to walk away from this industry, mostly because of the people and the challenges that the industry presents. After so many years, I have many business associates who have become my friends. The manufacturers we represent are a part of our team, and I enjoy the close bond we have made with them. It’s difficult for me to stop; the business energizes me and keeps me going. I enjoy showing my customers new products and educating them on what’s out there.
FE&S: Your business has changed names over time — what’s the most recent change?
HB: My business partner of 14 years, Rick Rivera, and I co-founded YBR Marketing (which stands for Young Block Rivera Marketing). We decided on this name change to show the change in leadership. We are co-owners, and we are growing. At present, we have four salespeople on the street. Prior to that, the firm was known as Young Block Associates, which was founded by Philip R. Young in 1960.
FE&S: You have been a manufacturers’ rep for more than five decades. How do you feel your role has changed over the years?
HB: When I first started and the dealer wanted a quotation on a job, we needed to go to the dealer with pencil and onion-skin paper and do a tracing. This would be snail-mailed to the factory. If you were lucky, you would receive the quote back in a week. Then came the miracle of all miracles — that was the photocopier and the fax machine. Now we all have computers, tablets and smartphones, along with sophisticated software, all of which have changed the way we go to market. The information for the jobs now gets emailed to us, instead of our always having to visit the site. The new technology has enabled us to work faster and be more efficient. The representatives still need to present and educate the marketplace on the features of their manufacturers’ products face to face.
FE&S: It seems manufacturers’ reps have to be more collaborative these days as well. What’s your take on that?
HB: You are correct. We, as reps, must continue to learn from each other, and the perfect vehicle for this is MAFSI (Manufacturers’ Agents Association for the Foodservice Industry), the only professional organization dedicated to improving the role of the food service rep. It gives us a chance to have a dialogue with each other, not just on a local basis but nationally. It enables us to forecast current and future industry trends. MAFSI provides us with many tools, which enable us in so many ways to better serve our customers and manufacturers. The industry is a dynamic one, which is constantly changing with so many mergers and acquisitions, both by the manufacturers and representatives. As this takes place, it becomes more important that reps communicate more effectively with each other.
FE&S: How do you envision the future of the manufacturers’ rep role?
HB: The rep’s role will always be necessary. There is nothing that can take the place of face-to-face selling and the interpersonal relationships that form. Today’s rep firms are equipped with all the necessary hardware and software to properly handle the marketplace, and they will continue to make these investments. The manufacturers’ rep has been and always will be a strong force in the industry, despite everything else. We are the tool when it comes to educating and selling new products. The future is a bright one for reps — and a challenging one.
FE&S: What would you say are some old-school lessons that still apply today?
HB: Follow through. Be honest. Know your product. These are basic and fundamental. We need to keep abreast of current trends, network and become true partners with our manufacturers.
FE&S: What are some of the more remarkable innovations in equipment you have seen?
HB: I think the combi oven is one of the better innovations of our time and has changed the way people cook and produce food. I remember when the microwave came along and that was a drastic new innovation. They were water cooled and had radiators — really expensive at first and initially frowned upon; today, they are in almost every foodservice establishment. I foresee the combi oven becoming even more popular in restaurant kitchens and eventually in homes. Similar to that is the rapid-cook oven being used in many kitchens, retail and coffee shops. Also, ventilation systems have changed tremendously. Automation has already begun in our industry, and it will be quite interesting to see how kitchens will change.
FE&S: How do you stay on top of the latest and greatest equipment?
HB: I always like to find something new that no one else has yet. When I go to The NAFEM Show or the National Restaurant Association Show, I seek out the areas assigned to those who have not previously shown, and many times, we have found new and exciting products. MAFSI is also a great resource for learning about new equipment. Our team has been going to The NAFEM Show since its inception, and we have discovered many new and exciting products.
FE&S: What advice would you give to future generations in the foodservice industry?
HB: Enjoy your business; work hard at it. But make sure that somewhere along the line, you develop hobbies or other things you can use later in life. Play golf, tennis, cards; develop an interest which will last you a lifetime. It’s nice to say I’ve spent my whole life in this industry, but now, look at me — I can’t leave (but I love it)! Also, the best advice I was given was to be honest, truthful and kind to people and try to encourage others to do the same. I try to speak to someone new every day and try to brighten someone’s day and put a smile on their face.
FE&S: So, now that you admitted you do nothing other than work, do you have a family life?
HB: I do — a great one. I have a wonderful wife, who has put up with me for 60 years. We have done quite a bit of traveling. We have two married children, a daughter and son, as well as 18-year-old and 17-year-old grandsons and a 9-year-old granddaughter and a bunch of grand-dogs. We see each other often as we compete all over the country with our prize-winning dogs. We also visit our son and daughter-in-law and grandchildren in South Carolina.