Luke Green admits 2016 was crazy: A couple of big design-build contracts he'd been nurturing for a while landed, and throughout the year, he juggled 17 active projects. It was a hair-raising, bar-raising experience — but one that proved decisively that Green has the professionalism, creativity, management skills and commitment to client satisfaction required to perform on that type of career-defining stage.
And this year? Well, things have quieted down a bit. Green has about a dozen active projects in the works. The majority of his accounts reside in the corridor between Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and Waterloo, Iowa. He also does business throughout the state and as far away as South Dakota and Minnesota's Twin Cities. All of Green's customers have come to him through word of mouth or personal referrals.
His current projects span kitchen upgrades at several Panera Bread locations to support the chain's 2.0 prototype; custom design and install of a 6,000-square-foot, -15-degree freezer for a Hunt Brothers Pizza distribution center; and a reconfiguration for Brewhemia, a local third-wave coffee shop/cafe that was looking to squeeze a new warewasher into its tiny kitchen. Green expects to wrap up 2017 with sales of $3.5 to $4 million, a level he's confident he can maintain going forward.
Not bad for a guy who worked his way up from the warehouse and who, six years into his current position, still can't help but bristle a bit at the notion of being a sales rep. That's because in Green's mind, and in the minds of his biggest accounts, he isn't a sales rep. Rather, he's a knowledgeable consultant, a creative and cerebral problem solver, and a steady, unflappable guy who treats every project like it's his own.
Green's work last year for the University of Iowa's Elizabeth Catlett Residence Hall in Iowa City is a marquee example of his hands-on, end-to-end approach and his ability to multitask at the highest level.
The $2.8 million project, the largest in Rapids' history, is part of a new 12-story, $95 million dormitory that opened for the 2017-2018 school year housing slightly more than 1,000 students. It includes a state-of-the-art marketplace-style dining facility, an after-hours grab-and-go station, and a small third-floor kitchen for residents' use.
"This was a project where we had an existing relationship with the general contractor, Miron Construction, and they brought me on board early to help with budget estimates," Green says. "I also collaborated with the design firm, Rippe Associates, to write specs, etc. It all happened really quickly. Our contract was signed in December of last year, and we had to complete the spec book, drawings and have everything ordered before March 15 of this year."
In all, Green oversaw design aspects, procurement, delivery and installation of 28 truckloads of equipment for the project's kitchens — all of which came in on time and on budget. He continues to assist with follow-up, tweaking and training to ensure the operation runs smoothly for its new residents and the staff that serves them.
Kelli Haught, who manages operations at the facility, says Green's extensive knowledge of equipment and design, his foresight and problem-solving skills, and his responsiveness have been invaluable. "He put a lot of time and hard work into this, and he continues to, by regularly checking back to make sure that things are working properly and that our staff is well trained in how to use the various pieces of equipment," she notes. "We really appreciate that he's so detail-oriented and hands-on."
Green brings those key qualities to all of his projects, according to Joe Schmitt, president and co-owner of Rapids Foodservice Contract and Design. "Normally, on a project like Elizabeth Catlett, you've got the DSR involved in overseeing things, but then also a field person or project manager in the field," Schmitt says. "But Luke did probably 95 percent of his own field management on that job. He really stays involved at every level and with every detail."
Stacy Fish, nutrition services manager for the Linn-Mar Community School District, has also learned that fact about Green. She, along with her recently retired predecessor Susan Knight, worked with him from the earliest planning stages through the last gasps of a dramatic, home-run renovation of the Linn-Mar High School cafeteria in Marion.
Featured as FE&S' April 2017 Facility Design Project of the Month, the renovation was a project that came through at the same time Green was immersed in the Elizabeth Catlett Residence Hall contract development, and the time frame was similarly tight. He started the design in December 2015 and had the bidding process underway less than a month later. The contract ultimately was signed March 15, 2016, and the project required start-to-finish execution between May 30 and August 12.
"The school had far outgrown the capacity of the kitchen to serve the students. I'd been working with Susan and Stacy, trying to figure out ways to increase their serving capacity," Green says. "With the old design, which was a traditional 1960s-style cafeteria, it took about 25 minutes to get the first group of students through, leaving them just a few minutes to eat. With the new design, they can get that same group of 400 to 500 students through in 5 minutes."
Working with architect Eric Berron, who had led other aspects of a broader remodel at the high school the prior year, Green came up with a plan to transform the space into a contemporary, inviting, scatter-style servery that not only looks great but is also super-efficient. Heavy-use stations such as the pizza corner are equipped and stocked with everything staff needs to prepare and serve students freshly cooked foods quickly. The facility features an overall increase in storage, more efficient equipment in the reconfigured kitchen, and a trough that makes it faster and easier for staff to clean trays coming back into the kitchen.
A grab-and-go hot sandwich station, one of Green's ideas for updating the offerings and speeding throughput, instantly became one of the most popular new options. A salad bar, previously positioned toward the back, is now the first thing students see when they enter the room. Salad consumption has increased considerably, accomplishing one of the operation's key goals.
Overall, the open-campus high school's meal participation increased 15 percent and students' selection of reimbursable meals rose 7 percent during the new facility's first year in operation. Fish attributes the gains "100 percent" to the new design and to Green's creative ideas. "Luke had a vision for totally reimagining our facility and working with the space that we had," she says. "He led the project every step of the way. I love the fact that he personally came in and made sure that every piece of equipment that he ordered came in properly, that we were happy with it and trained on how to use it. His name was on this project, and he really owned it. He was even here the day that we opened to make sure that everything went well, and now, a year later, he continues to check in regularly."
Step-by-Step Progression to Sales
Green's hands-on approach is in part a function of his innate love of noodling complex challenges, putting pencil to paper to devise creative solutions and seeing things through to completion. Whether at work, where design-build projects now take the bulk of his attention, or at play, pursuing his favorite hobby of restoring old MasterCraft ski boats, he's naturally process-oriented and detail-driven.
His approach to sales is also shaped by the experience he gained on the path to becoming a successful DSR.
In the summer of 2005, between his first and second years pursuing an entrepreneurship program at Kirkwood Community College in Marion, Green took a part-time job in Rapids' warehouse. By that time, his career Plan A — to own and operate a marina and boat repair business — had begun to fade as the reality of the investment and work required to make it happen sunk in.
Luckily, a Plan B was already percolating. Green had discovered that he liked the environment and the people at Rapids, especially its leadership, and decided to accept Schmitt's offer of a full-time position. His strong work ethic, mechanical skills and problem-solving abilities soon had Green moving up to a position on the install team, which he later led.
As Rapids' contract business grew, the company shifted its model to outsource most installations. Green, in turn, shifted to providing field support and was ultimately offered a new position as project coordinator. In 2011, Schmitt suggested he give sales a try.
"Luke is the kind of guy who will master something and then be ready to move on to a new challenge," Schmitt says. "He gets it — he understands that moving up takes hard work and that there's reward in doing so. He kept progressing and was always looking to make more money, so I asked him to think about sales. He scoffed at the idea at first, like it was a dirty word, but he liked the notion of being able to be more in control of his own destiny. The transition into sales really was work for him — I honestly worried we might lose him in the first six to nine months — but he's made it work in his own unique way. He's so focused on helping people and has become a go-to guy for our entire sales force. He still shies away a bit because he hates to seem 'salesy,' but he's young, he's coachable and he's a very good listener. He's had a couple of very good years back-to-back, and he'll have another very good year this year."
Shadowing Vice President of Sales Jim Ottmer, who became an important mentor, Green spent the first couple of years figuring out how to apply his strengths and shore up his weaknesses. His experience in installations and field support gave him the confidence and skills he needed to talk with customers, evaluate their needs and determine the right solutions for them. But when it came to some aspects of a salesperson's job, such as closing, Green admits he had "zero idea" what he was doing.
Patience and Fortitude
"I never realized just how long it can take to work through the entire sales process and how tough it can be to just get someone to sign on the dotted line," Green says. "Closing is still pretty hard for me, but it's getting easier because I've learned to focus on the customer's own schedule. I emphasize that if they want to be open or have a project done by a certain date, they need to commit. Giving them hard, factual timelines shifts it from me pressuring them for the sale to them needing to make a decision in order for me to be able to make that happen for them."
With noncommercial accounts making up a significant percentage of his book of business, patience is a lesson Green has had no choice but to learn. David Horsfield, Hospitality Arts department chair at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, says it's one of many qualities he appreciates in Green.
"When we're dealing with larger-ticket items, Luke's very patient and understands the processes that need to play out," Horsfield says. "In the education segment, things can take a long time. It can be six months from the time he gives me a quote before I'm able to pull the trigger, but he never gives me any reason to believe that he's frustrated by that. He's just always steady, incredibly responsive and a pleasure to work with."
Kirkwood Community College's facility sits within Kirkwood Center, a campus just outside of town. Its main building includes a series of teaching kitchens as well as an auditorium with exhibition kitchen, The Class Act fine-dining restaurant and The Hotel at Kirkwood Center, a AAA Four Diamond boutique hotel. Both the restaurant and the hotel are open to the public and serve as teaching operations for the students, who work alongside professionals as part of their educational experience.
Green was involved with the operation even before he transitioned to sales. From 2008 to 2010, while much of the facility was in the planning stages, he worked on specifying and procuring all of its equipment.
"I was a chef-instructor at the time, so I was using the equipment and involved in designing the facility, which opened seven years ago. Luke was always around and always available in the kitchen," Horsfield says. "He'd be measuring and asking a lot of questions about the functionality that we needed. After I moved into this position, I continued to go to him for whatever I needed."
In addition to his patience, Green's penchant for being thorough and inquisitive impresses Horsfield. "If I'm vague about what I'm after, he'll probe and give me multiple options, asking if I've thought of this or that other option. He doesn't just go ahead and do what you ask; he goes farther by saying, 'OK, that's good, but here's maybe a better alternative.' Often, that alternative is better and less costly than what I thought I wanted. From being an installer, he brings such a working knowledge of equipment to his sales role and that really sets him apart. He's more interested in providing great service based on what our needs really are than in just selling the highest-margin item."
That style of service has firmly established Green as a go-to guy at Kirkwood, and not just for equipping its kitchens. From the knife kits that every student entering the culinary arts program must have to the cooking-show-style demonstrations required as part of their final exams, which he helps to evaluate, he plays a personal role in their education.
Each semester, Green is a featured guest presenter offering insights on working with a DSR and on designing and developing restaurant operations. He educates students on products and equipment and helps to bring new staff members up to speed, developing relationships and familiarizing them with his purchasing process so that they can reach out to him as needed.
While certain aspects of sales remain uncomfortable, Green has never regretted making the transition. In particular, he loves the entrepreneurial aspects of building and managing his own book of business. As Green gradually found his footing and increased his sales, the commission checks didn't hurt either.
Green also appreciates the fact that Rapids' leadership gives him free rein to pursue diverse projects and to work so independently, often wearing multiple and sometimes unconventional hats on projects.
Unlike some reps, who brag about prospects and add up their commission as soon as they get an appointment, Green keeps his business close to the vest, Schmitt points out. "He'll very seldom tell me about a project prospect until he knows it's going to happen. I sometimes have to drag information out of him about what's in his pipeline and how things are going. For instance, I had no idea the Hunt Brothers freezer deal was in the works until it was signed. But that's just Luke. He's not a gambler or a bragger and he doesn't get ahead of himself."
Going forward, Green has his sights set on continuing to build his business by providing his own unique brand of service. At age 30, Green knows he has a long and open road ahead of him and, having checked his goal of earning DSR of the Year honors off his bucket list, is thinking about where that road might lead.
For now, though, Green's focused on building more business two hours to the west, in Des Moines, Iowa, and on learning to let go of some of the minutiae of project coordination that he enjoys in order to be able to do so.
"I've always been very hands-on in every aspect of every project," Green says. "But as my business has grown, I've had to let some of that go. It's getting more comfortable. We have great project coordinator support at Rapids, but it's tough to let go. You can't help but worry that someone else won't do it quite like you would."
In Green's case, that's probably true.