2014 Dealer of the Year: Wasserstrom

Leveraging its core values of integrity, accountability and consistency keeps Columbus, Ohio-based Wasserstrom flexible enough to adapt to the ever-changing foodservice industry landscape while remaining true to the company’s 112-year history.

Brad-Wasserstrom-openerThe more things change, the more they stay the same at Wasserstrom.

The Columbus, Ohio-based foodservice equipment and supplies dealership's past is a true American success story. In 1902 immigrant Nathan Wasserstrom began selling sundry items door to door, working hard to support his family. By providing personalized service, things took off for the entrepreneur. The company continued to grow and evolve and eight of Nathan's nine sons eventually followed him into the business. After a few twists and turns, the company entered the brewing supplies business but prohibition sent the fledgling firm back to the drawing board. Nathan and his sons adjusted their business model and value proposition and those efforts begat the version of Wasserstrom that many members of the foodservice industry know today.

Understanding Wasserstrom's past is paramount to understanding the spirit that shapes the company today and will drive it forward for generations to come. The company may have evolved and grown considerably since its early days but what remains constant is Wasserstrom's ability to roll with the changes and keep creating value on the customers' terms. The company does this by embracing what made it successful in the past: listening to customers, reinvesting in the business to ensure relevancy for years to come and hiring and retaining the right people.

"It's all wrapped around this culture that respects doing the right thing," says Todd Slawson, senior vice president of client services for national equipment chain accounts. "It's all about leadership. The company's culture and family leadership spans many decades. And the company leaders have always tried to service the client and have the right associate base in place to accomplish that. And that approach is good for everyone involved."

Ursula-VermillionWe are a very flexible company and pride ourselves on that. We morph into whatever we need to be to service that customer. Ursula Vermillion Executive Vice President, National Smallwares Further contributing to the company's resiliency is the diverse nature of its revenue streams, which include its highly renowned national smallwares group; the traditional dealership, which handles street sales and individual projects and based solely on revenue would be a top 20 dealer; retail sales, 6 locations strong; the multi-unit project management group; and a burgeoning e-commerce component. In addition, Wasserstrom recently entered the data storage business, essentially serving as a cloud computing source for some clients. Naturally, this came about in response to a specific customer need.

In 2013, Wasserstrom reported revenues of $586 million, making it the industry's third largest foodservice equipment and supplies dealer. At 112 years old, it's also one of the 3 fastest growing foodservice equipment and supplies dealerships in the country. Despite how large it has become, Wasserstrom somehow maintains a small company feel. In fact, walk through any of its facilities with Brad, Bruce or Eric — the three company presidents that run the day-to-day business — and they will address the vast majority of the company's employees by name.

The fact that Wasserstrom is a family-run business and that the family remains active in the business helps facilitate its warm, cohesive atmosphere. "The members of the Wasserstrom family that lead the business give people the responsibility and let them run with it," says Gary Mangelson, executive vice president and chief financial officer. "They see the best in people and give them a chance."

It's no coincidence that Wasserstrom goes to market in such a consistent manner. "Over the years it has become a more holistic view about serving the customer together," says Robert Hudgins, senior vice president of administration and chief financial officer.

Gary MangelsonIntegrity. Accountability. Consistency: Do you believe in those core values? If you do, those core values become who you are. Gary Mangelson, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial OfficerAs a result, the company has a reputation for providing customers with the same high-level experience regardless of which of the dealership's different divisions they interact with. "Twenty-eight years ago, the divisions were pretty independent and we have since really come together," Hudgins says. "It's been a period of continuous reinvention and innovation without taking away from our focus on the industry we serve."

Everyone in the company seemingly knows their role and embraces the concept that they are all stronger together than they would be apart. "We are our customers' eyes and ears and we make suggestions to help them improve," says Art Waters, vice president of new customer development for the multiunit project management division. "It's nice when we are almost invisible, though, because that means we made it easy for the customer, which allows them to focus on other parts of their jobs."

To make the whole thing work, Wasserstrom uses multiple enterprise systems to run its business, ranging from project management to order fulfillment to full blown e-commerce. But at the core of the company are its values of integrity, accountability and consistency, which confer a premium on customer service. "The company culture is around service, collaboration and respect," says Mangelson.

Changing the Game

The fact that Wasserstrom takes a long view in running its business, placing an emphasis on relationships, service and value, helped the company weather the economic storm that rocked the foodservice industry in 2007, according to Joe Keel, vice president of the foodservice group. "The value and the service we provide sure was a positive during that time," recalls Keel, who heads up Wasserstrom's six retail locations. "But we had to address ways to do it faster and add more value."

Doug-FarnholzToday there is more consultative selling than before. So you align yourself with the clients, their needs and issues. Then you try to resolve those needs. Doug Farenholz, Vice President of Regional Smallwares, Equipment & BidThat philosophy may have led to some short-term stability but Wassertrom's management and associates quickly realized the organization would need to change to remain viable. "That year — 2007 — was a game changer," says Doug Farenholz, vice president of regional smallwares, equipment and bid. "Everyone took a step back and evaluated their teams. And we very aggressively planted the seeds that yielded future rewards."

Wasserstrom also turned to its customers to help identify their needs in this rapidly changing landscape. From there, Wasserstrom sprang into action. "Customers were downsizing and that meant they needed us to do more," recalls Ursula Vermillion, executive vice president of national smallwares. "Operators had to reinvent themselves to drive traffic. This meant shifting from new store development to remodeling existing locations and new menu development. And, as part of this there was more of an emphasis on cost containment. Our account managers have become business consultants and in the past that's not something they had to do. But when the customers' emphasis became on driving costs out we had to go to them with systems and new ideas about how to gain efficiencies. It became a different mindset."

Waters agrees and adds, "The industry used to be a lot more simple. Now it's more complex and we had to adjust."

The net result was that Wasserstrom had to invest heavily in updating existing systems — an exercise that affected the entire enterprise. "We had some systems that were older and in the last 12 years there has been a big change in those systems, which has really helped us," says Mangelson. "We had to spend a lot of time understanding processes and getting them systemized. It was a great learning exercise that helped us get better."

As the individual members of the company sought to define what services and products customers would value, something became abundantly clear to them about Wasserstrom. "We learned there was a great amount of resiliency in the organization and that helped us make a lot of hard decisions," Slawson says. "It helped us create trust that we are doing things for the right reasons. We asked people to do some things differently so we would be ready to take advantage of better times."

Brenda-WagnerWe are the point of contact for the customer and we need to help resolve their issues no matter what they are. Brenda Wagner, Vice President, National Smallwares Customer ServiceWasserstrom began studying more closely the ways customers interact with the company, including what they purchase, when they place orders and more. "The center of the plate makes operators money but smallwares and equipment are an expense to them. It is just a means to an end, but it is important because it helps create that experience and the product," Vermillion says.

As a result, Wasserstrom became a source of business intelligence for its many customers. This approach extends beyond the ordering process and includes assisting with concept development, after-sales support and more. "The organization does the right thing for the clients and they treat the associates right," Slawson says. "Once you get to know the organization better, the better you see the vision of its senior leaders."

The company had to evolve not just to maintain market share but also to grow. "Changing capabilities allowed us to go after business we had not considered before," Waters says. "It needed to be done and the investment was made to be successful."

Slawson adds, "We needed to change some things to improve because we had a new way of doing business."

Thanks to the growing impact of technology, the way Wasserstrom interacts with many of its customers has changed dramatically. For example, many smallwares customers use online tools to place their orders instead of faxing or phoning them in as in years past. While Wasserstrom has offered some type of online ordering for more than a decade, this aspect of its business continues to evolve quickly. "In the old days, it was basically an online ordering form. If you knew the SKU number and name you could place an order," says Dale Edman, vice president of e-commerce.

Today, Wasserstrom customers ordering online have access to a variety of information and applications, including the ability to view past orders, review invoices and even pay invoices online. "It's really trying to give the customer the tools they need and want to place orders," Edman says.

Art-WatersIt’s not our mission to tell our customers what they need. It’s our job to supply them with what they need to be successful. Art Waters Vice President of New Customer Development, Multiunit Project Management DivisionAs a result of these efforts, content management as it relates to Wasserstrom's website has become paramount to the dealer's online success. "Any given week we will add 100 to 200 products to the website, depending on customer demand. It takes a lot of work to coordinate information and images with the manufacturers. And then we have to customize the information for each customer," Edman says. "It's been a lot of work and we continue to push at it. That's why we have our content team in place and we feel they give us a great advantage."

Despite the growing popularity of online ordering, Wasserstrom understands this is merely another tactic by which to serve customers and draws on its longstanding culture to help guide the company's activities. "It's all about how you present yourself to the customer," Farenholz adds.

With online ordering becoming more popular for customers across all operator segments, the relationship between Wasserstrom's customer service team and its clients has shifted from a transactional nature to one that's based more on research and problem-solving. And that means the amount of time customer service associates spend on the phone is greater than before — for the right reasons. "They are not just taking quick orders anymore. They are solving problems and troubleshooting things," says Edman. "We want them to call us. Our phone number is on the website and we are not shying away from working with them. We want them to call if they have any questions and work through them whenever possible."

This also means experience has become even more important than before. "Customer service is more involved than it used to be and for that reason customer service agents need to be better trained than before," says Brenda Wagner, vice president of national smallwares customer service. "We are a point of contact for the customer and we need to help resolve their issues no matter what they are. And customers expect the same level of service whether they call or send an email."

Of course, with new customer dynamics come new opportunities. "When you help them resolve a problem it can help you develop a better relationship with your clients because what you have done is more meaningful," Vermillion says. "But the key is that you have to help take away their problems."

Todd-SlawsonWe want to have a successful relationship by having the utmost integrity with our clients. When there is mutual trust between both parties, we can work through anything else together. Todd Slawson Senior Vice President of Client Services, National Chain AccountsAs Wasserstrom's customer relationships continue to evolve so, too, does the way the company interacts with its vendor partners. In fact, within the last year Wasserstrom brought on Chris Littlefield to serve as executive vice president of operations. Littlefield's main role is to improve the company's supply chain, which is no small task given Wasserstrom's large and diverse customer base. But it's all part of the dealership's approach to continuous improvement. "Effectively working every piece of that supply chain has a direct impact on the way we service the customer," he says.

Again, it all comes back to how the company's culture shapes not only its customer relationships but its vendor relationships, too. "Our culture is integrity. Do what you say you are going to do and do the right thing," Farenholz says. "And that applies to our customer and factory partners. It all has to play the same."

Back to the Future

Wasserstrom's 1,500-plus employees are scattered across 20 locations and work on some of the foodservice equipment and supplies industry's most sophisticated systems. Despite having a big company appearance, Wasserstrom maintains a warm feeling usually found in smaller organizations. That's because despite its continued growth, the company remains true to its core values of integrity, accountability and consistency. These three words are easy to say but are way more complicated to practice, yet Wasserstrom continues to do it.

How? Well everyone from the top down continues to embody Nathan's entrepreneurial spirit. "The company gives us the ability to cultivate our own entrepreneurial spirit," Vermillion says. "Today everyone wants to do it their own way. And everyone here is engaged in the excitement of doing their job for our customers. We find a way to make it happen and that approach grabs you and makes you want to be a part of that. And it is a real joy to work with so many people really focused on getting it done right for the customer. It becomes a really close-knit group."

Wasserstrom-by-the-numbersMore to the point, each associate feels like a valued part of the team. "You can influence the outcome of the company's activities for the day," Waters says. "Plus, the company has a certain sense of loyalty to the associates. The leadership cares and if you have a problem, they will help you work it out."

In other words, it's all about the people. "Many of the products we sell into the industry are the same that others can sell. So what's the point of differentiation? Our people care in a real way and not a superficial way about each and every transaction," says Alan Wasserstrom, who serves as a CEO for the company. "They understand every customer is a market of one. We try to provide service to one customer at a time."

And, as is the case in so many other aspects of life, it's not the impact on the bottom line that's important. Rather, it's the impact a person or an organization has on those around it.

"We are not perfect but the one thing we are good at is taking care of situations where we have not been perfect. The moment we know there is a situation our people know how to handle it," says Rodney Wasserstrom, also a company CEO. "I am most proud of what we have been able to do in the communities because of how successful the company has been. My life is filled with joy because of the things we have been able to accomplish because our business has done so well. We have passed on the ability to care for others. That's the only way you can get to where we are."

And that approach will guide Wasserstrom for generations to come.