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Forward Solutions Curating a New Rep Group

The consolidation bug bit the manufacturers’ rep community the week of April 17.

That’s when Forward Solutions merged with both BSE Reps and Lund Iorio. The name Forward Solutions may be unfamiliar to some who operate in the foodservice equipment and supplies arena, but it won’t be that way for long. The company appears poised to play a bigger role in the changing rep landscape.

Forward Solutions is an umbrella organization with five manufacturers’ rep groups that fill five related verticals: Avision: facility supplies and foodservice disposables; Curate: foodservice equipment and supplies; OneSolution, industrial and construction related products; RelyPak, industrial packaging and Struxur, power utility and telecom. As a result of the two acquisitions, BSE and Lund Iorio will be part of Forward Solutions’ Curate unit, which made its public debut in February 2022 with the merger of Apex Commercial Kitchen Co. and TRC Marketing.

All five of Forward Solutions’ organizations outsource sales and marketing for factories, and all go through distribution partners and dealers to get products to the end user. “Even though we are working in different verticals and channels, we are able to share resources because our businesses are structured the same way. And even though we are working with different distribution partners, we are often arriving at the same end user,” says Katie Stowe, president of Curate. “While there are different business units, there are opportunities for us to collaborate and offer broader solutions for our customers.”

Similar to Apex and TRC before them, the BSE and Lund Iorio brand names will eventually give way to Curate, but nothing is imminent. “Making a quick change in a name could cause some disruption but down the road we will look to go to market under one brand,” Stowe says. “There’s a lot of local and regional brand heritage built into those names.”

Just like its Forward Solutions siblings, though, Curate will continue to expand its footprint to eventually become national in terms of its coverage. “We have a similar desire to the other brands in our portfolio that are able to offer a national footprint. We are looking for partners that have a similar vision,” Stowe says. Adding BSE and Lund Iorio made sense because “both organizations were eager to embrace change and continue to evolve.” 

When Curate first formed it had a presence in 16 states. The additions of BSE and Lund Iorio allowed it to expand along both the East and West regions. The states where BSE has a presence include New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Connecticut. Lund Iorio serves both Southern California and Southern Nevada. “We will continue to grow our footprint where it makes sense with like-minded partners,” Stowe adds.

The interest in national expansion comes, in part, as a response to the ongoing consolidation the foodservice industry has seen among equipment manufacturers, dealers and even reps. “We see it and we recognize that if we are going to keep up, we are going to need to scale and resource our businesses appropriately,” Stowe says. 

But the desire to expand Curate’s footprint is not solely in response to supply chain consolidation. It’s also a nod to changes happening at the operator level. “That way some of our customers who are growing larger in scope, we will be able to support them lock step,” Stowe says.

In other words, Curate will need to be able to adapt to the unique needs of customers both national and regional in scope. Stowe believes the company remains up for the challenge. “Some customers and brands are interested in what we can do for them on a local and regional level, and we will be able to serve them as well. And the people that serve those markets know the local economies and the customers they serve. We are in no way interested in undoing all the good they have done by serving those local markets for a long time. So, we are committed to their serving those local communities and pulling resources from the national entity.”

Forward Solutions made these moves as the foodservice industry continues to contend with significant economic headwinds in the form of inflation, supply chain challenges and more. “There is uncertainty and changes that none of us have ever seen globally or economically,” Stowe says. “What has not changed is we are a very efficient way for factories to get their products to market. We offer a very solid, economically proven model that continues to demonstrate value to the manufacturers. All of us coming together creates more efficiency, thus creating more economic advantage. With the resources we have in finance and technology, for example, we are able to do more in an efficient and economically sound way. Yes, there’s more economic uncertainty than there has been in the past, but we can continue to be more efficient. And that will require staying on a path of evolution and innovation.”

As part of its plans moving forward, Curate will continue to invest in the geographic markets it serves in a variety of ways. Notably, on May 4, the company plans to open a new test kitchen in Kansas City, Mo. This downtown location will include a fully functioning bar, commercial kitchen, prep kitchen, warewashing area, and a 25-foot wall for smallwares and tabletop design.

Of course, this is not the first time a company has tried to roll up rep groups to form a national organization, and for the most part those efforts fell short of their goals. So why will Curate be different? “I was a student of all of that and watched how those rollups were working,” Stowe says. “We look to stay in the lane and do what we do best. All of our efforts and resources will be focused on our core competencies. The members who comprise Curate are experts in foodservice equipment and supplies. We won’t have them dip their toes in other arenas Forward Solutions serves.”

Forward Solutions carefully chose its wording when announcing these deals, specifically classifying them as mergers. That’s because leaders from both BSE and Lund Iorio have “joined the ownership group.” From BSE this includes Jeff Hessel, Dan Pino, Anthony Muzia, Ed Soehngen, and Joe Niedzwiecki. From Lund Iorio it includes Scott Lund, Greg Iorio, Joel Dishno, Mark Micallef, Harry Carter and Tyler Jenkins.

“It’s part of our overall strategy,” Stowe says. “We are all legacy manufacturers’ reps who were historically geographically bound. And we got to know how to best serve those geographic markets. For us to acquire an agency in a part of the country we are not from and don’t have that history or those relationships, taking out those leaders did not make sense to us. We are interested in building a leadership team in Curate as we’ve done in other areas of our business.”

And there’s benefits to the owners of the rep firms being acquired, Stowe points out. “That’s a great thing for a business owner to join an organization like this and be able to check off succession planning for the next five years. We want their voices and opinions involved in our organization, as long as that makes sense.

“The advantage for both sides is that we were all independent business owners before and we all know that it’s different when you have skin in the game, so to speak,” Stowe adds. “It’s motivational. It helps folks make the best decisions for our factories and customers at every turn. Plus, some of these companies are multi-generational and it is nice to still have a part of it. From a business perspective we have people who are driven for all of the right reasons.”