2015 Hall of Famer Ken Gill: A Serial Entrepreneur

 

Formation of The Gill Group

In 1973, Gill "started this little equipment company and all of a sudden, we got a major account." With the unbelievably fast growth of the Washington, D.C.-based Gill Company, Gill walked away from the financial planning company to focus on the equipment dealership full-time.

"The equipment company really took off mainly because there were two really old, established companies, one I had worked for, that both closed during the same summer, and that left the whole market wide open," he says. "The entire sales and marketing teams on both sides wanted to come work for me."

"My lawyer and I structured our terms much like closing on a home — all of the money went into escrow to protect the cash flow," says Gill. The plan worked.

"We were going along OK, and then the federal government asked me to sit on a committee to investigate whether to put foodservice equipment on the GSA procurement schedule," Gill says. The timing couldn't have been more perfect. Gill Company, once focused primarily on independent restaurants and hotels saw even more rapid growth, now in the noncommercial sector.

There was so much growth that Gill split off the divisions into separate legal entities: Gill Company, a conventional dealership handling all other segments of the foodservice industry; Gill Marketing, handling government and military contracts; and Gill Manufacturing, a custom fabrication arm supporting both divisions.

The '70s and early '80s saw continued growth, with Gill Company expanding into large, multi-unit chain (Wendy's, for one), and large national contracts. In 1984, FE&S presented Gill Company Inc. with its Dealer of the Year Award.

The award was well deserved: the Gill Company grew from $450,000 and 5 employees in 1975 to more than $25 million and 75 employees in 1984. The most rapid growth occurred in 1982, when the company's sales jumped from $6.2 million and 39 employees to a whopping $20.3 million, mainly due to the expanded government and chain work.

Laura-Gill“Through each relationship with my father as daughter, employee, partner and friend, his character, intelligence and kindness have been guiding lights. He taught me that compassion, responsibility and commitment would make me a better human being. He continues to strive to make a difference and he does so with such humility that his generosity is accepted as who and what he is. There is no greater honor than to be referred to as Ken Gill’s daughter.” —Laura Gill Pastrana, TriMark Gill Group. Photo by KRRphotography.com By 1984, Gill Company had specialists in all areas of the business, from service to warehouse management to installation. But at the same time, everyone was proficient at sales with the ability to handle work in different departments.

Robin Ashton, then FE&S' editor, pointed out Gill's key steps to success in an article on the award-winning dealership, and they still apply today: "the realization that the company is first and foremost a sales and marketing organization with every single employee skilled in that art; tight financial and management oversight combined with great line-level freedom and responsibility; an unusually close relationship with suppliers; and a systematic approach to new markets."

"In 1976, I began to understand the round hole/peg theory," Gill said in the article about the award. "You must have the right people. And the job must be good for the person and the company."

Gill Company Grows

Just two years after winning the award, Sara Lee initiated an offer to buy all three parts of the Gill Group Company, Gill Marketing and Gill Manufacturing (by then under the umbrella name of The Gill Group) as part of a strategy to expand the equipment dealership side of the business under the PYA/Monarch, now US Foods, division.

"Being an entrepreneur, this was a struggle for me because they put me in charge of five-year planning on the board of directors," says Gill. "A lot of people thought that would be fine, but they didn't realize all my planning about what I was going to do that day came over the first cup of coffee in the morning."

The big corporation thing just wasn't his scene, it turned out. Luckily enough, the whole equipment dealership thing wasn't Sara Lee's scene either. So in 1988 Gill negotiated to take Gill Marketing back from Sara Lee.

In the following three years, Gill Group grew even more exponentially. "We were probably grossing $100 million dollars and also doing a lot of international work," Gill says, adding that he picked up another couple offices in the U.S., thanks to US Foods closing its E&S division.

In 1990, Gill had a health scare and asked Kim Gill if she wanted to leave the Phoenix-based manufacturers' rep firm she was working for and return to Maryland to take over Gill Marketing. At the time, Kim Gill had already clocked a couple of years working for Hobart out of
Phoenix and had worked as a national accounts manager for Louise O'Sullivan at Groen prior to moving to O'Sullivan's rep firm.

"She ran it so successfully to the point that, when I did get well, she was running her own operation, and Laura, who had earned her law degree, wanted to get in the business too," says Ken Gill. Laura  eventually took over the commercial side of Gill Company with Kim running the government contracts under Gill Marketing.

With two daughters running two successful businesses and his health in good shape, Gill had a little more time on his hands. Retirement didn't work out as mentioned, so he went to England for six months and did some entrepreneurial things there, he says.

Overseas, he caught up with his old friend Horst Herbert, a previous Hobart Germany executive, to whom he sold a side business he had started in the '70s in Germany. Food Equipment Marketing (FEM), based in Frankfurt, sold equipment to U.S. facilities in Europe. After a few years Gill sold the company to Herbert basically on a handshake. Over the course of 10 years Herbert paid every last dime off — a quarter of a million dollars.

Gill also caught up with Luciano Berti, his old friend and now the head of Ali Group, who back in the '70s had offered Gill the opportunity to buy a little ole company called Champion Dishwashers.

Coming back to the States, Gill says he "got bored and needed another business . . . again." Ira Kaplan, now the Irinox president and a close friend, suggested he start a buying group for manufacturers. Gill was skeptical, given the competitive nature of his manufacturer friends, but he partnered with O'Sullivan ("who was also bored") and established a buying group for supplying componentry to food equipment manufacturers. That became Prime Advantage.

"We took all the orders and were able to create bulk discounts," says Gill. Eventually a private equity firm bought out the business and O'Sullivan stayed on as president, later buying the company back out.

The Big Sale

The year was 2007. Gill Group was humming along great, but there was a growing change in the foodservice equipment industry — private equity groups started rolling up smaller dealerships, and there were other nationwide buyouts on the landscape. In September, TriMark, the nation's third-largest distributor at the time (with more than $4 million in revenues and 700 employees) acquired Gill Group, then based in Crofton, Md., and Gill Marketing in Phoenix. Both Gill companies joined TriMark USA's six additional divisions. Kim, Laura and the entire management team remain in place today.

Having the Gill Companies as the burgeoning dealer's seventh operating division gave TriMark an entrée into an additional sector of business, government purchases, and expanded the contract capabilities of all locations. SS Kemp was TriMark's other big buyout around that time.

"To Jerry's credit, not one president of all of the companies he has bought has left," says Gill of his good friend. "That's a real tribute to his management skills. Everything TriMark said they would do verbally, they executed, and my daughters still enjoy the business — running their own divisions and they enjoy it."

Hyman has good things to say about Gill, and he's certainly not the only one (see "Letters from the Gill Family" on the previous pages).

Beyond Gill Group

Over the course of his storied career, Gill has spent time working with a variety of companies and serving FEDA as its president and even helped start the FEDA Educational Foundation. FEDA was also where he made close friends. FEDA honored him with a lifetime achievement award
in 2010.

Today, Gill serves on the board of trustees for McDaniel College, formerly Western Maryland College (his alma mater), and has served on various other boards, including that of Anne Arundel Medical Center, in Annapolis, Md., one of the top medical centers in the country. One of the newly built structures even bears Gill's name.

And (retirement, what?) he's also gotten involved in two more businesses: an age redox supplement company and a commercial real estate firm with daughter Kim's husband in Phoenix, where he now resides. Looks like Gill's drinking the redox "punch" he's invested in — that, plus eating less meat and working out regularly, his skin literally glows. He's also an impeccable dresser.

Of course, his real estate office is situated right on top of a golf course, so he can indulge one of his many passions off the clock. Oh, by the way, Gill at one point owned a 50-acre golf and family entertainment center in Maryland, which he bought at the suggestion of a former golf instructor. The business did very well, but not long ago Gill handed it over to the golf pro — then a 15 percent investor — the entire business supports his family.

So what do you have to do to succeed in this industry, as Gill clearly has? "You have to be willing to work extremely hard, but you also need to be lucky," he says. I'm not convinced luck has played that big of a part — seems like this whole time Gill has made his own luck. Or at the very least, his energy and optimistic outlook have put him in the position of having positive experiences that could be construed as luck.

Either way, his world is a good place to be.

Gill is a happy man, on or off the clock. That became evident in just the first hour we spent together, when he stopped to smile or chuckle or simply to take a sip of water or eat his lunch. He's the type many see as their friend, investor, confidant, mentor — and of course, he's a father and grandfather to seven.

"There's no better compliment than to see your children and grandchildren grow into beautiful, smart and lovely people," he says. "Knowing how respected Kim and Laura are in the industry and how well their brother is doing — there is nothing better than that."