As part of a planned leadership succession initiative, Oswalt Restaurant Supply has promoted Huff Harper to serve as president of the Oklahoma-based foodservice equipment and supplies dealer.
Harper, previously the dealer’s vice president of operations, replaces Jim Oswalt, who will remain with the company as a vice president and a member of its board of directors.
“Jim’s the company founder and a mentor to me so it’s a big deal to have his help and support,” Harper says.
A third-generation mechanical contractor by trade, Harper came on board at Oswalt in 1994 to open and run the company’s service department. “Back in the day we were running 25 to 30 service techs, handling installs, residential heating and cooling and more,” he recalls. To better focus the company’s resources, though, Oswalt eventually chose to concentrate the efforts of its technicians on foodservice and they now serve as an in-house delivery and install team.
Harper assumes this leadership role during a historically challenging time as the country and foodservice industry continue to wrestle with COVID-19. But it’s that same challenge that excites Harper. “From an operational standpoint we were forced to make some changes to how we operate and function due to the pandemic. But they may help us in the long run,” he says. “It was exciting to see the team step up. We were thrown this giant curveball, and everyone just accepted the challenge.”
For example, how the company approaches work has evolved. “We social distance when in the office. We tell our team to only come in the office when you have to and work remotely as much as possible,” Harper says.
Not every part of the business, though, can work remotely. The warehouse represents one such example. “Members of the warehouse team stay out in the warehouse and we have a limited warehouse crew,” Harper says. “We have basically kept distance and if someone starts feeling bad, they go home and follow the guidelines.”
The dealer must also approach the way it manages projects and works with other stakeholders in a different way. “In the past, customers would come in or we would meet them on-site. And for a design project you’d come to a meeting with pencil and paper in hand ready to work,” Harper says. “Now you are doing a lot of those meetings via video conferencing. Trying to connect remotely is a lot different than when you are sitting there with them in person.”
The company has had to update its approach toward delivering and installing equipment, too. All in the name of safety, of course. “On the service end, there’s a lot of different guidelines we have to follow in the field,” Harper says. “Historically, we may send two or three crews to a project but now, for safety reasons, we will keep one crew to a specific job.”
While realistic about the challenges in front of the industry, Harper sees a light emerging at the end of the proverbial tunnel. “In terms of the construction world, the competition seems a little greater than before. Everyone is trying to get their share of the pie and it’s a pie that got smaller. We see a lot more activity right now than we had been seeing. Daily transactions among supply customers are on the rise,” he says.