2009 FE&S Hall of Fame Inductee: Bill Boelter

Incorporating a servant-leader philosophy, Bill Boelter has created a dealership that has helped influence the foodservice industry.

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There are not many in the foodservice industry, or even in the business world today, that have found their calling and stayed with the same company throughout their career.

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FE&S Hall of Fame - Bill Boelter, The Boelter Companies
Bringing the Outside In: The building design uses a glass curtain wall facade against an extruded aluminum horizontal frame. This innovative combination enhances the view of the building from different angles and promotes the use of daylight to supplement indoor lighting. Photo courtesy of Greg Gent Studios.

Chairman Bill Boelter was gifted The Boelter Companies by his father, Fred, but much of what the company has become can be attributed to Bill’s unique leadership. His tremendous passion for the industry and determination to do right by his customers and employees are amongst the many attributes that set apart FE&S’ 2009 Hall of Fame recipient from other business leaders.

Boelter has strong ties to the industry, serving as FEDA’s youngest president from 1976 to 1978 and as president of the ABC buying group in the early 1980s.

The company also has received much recognition over the years. FE&S honored The Boelter Companies in the past as a Dealer All-Star in 2004 and Dealer of the Year in 1990 and 2005 as well as the 2007 Wisconsin Family Business of the Year Award.

As the Waukesha, Wis.-based company’s more than 300 employees celebrate the organization’s 80-year anniversary, Boelter can be credited for instituting a forward-thinking business model that has helped shape the company into one of the most successful of its kind in the industry.

In the Beginning
Though Boelter became involved in the company driving trucks and working in the warehouse as a teenager during summer vacation, he didn’t join the business full-time until after college. After graduating from Indiana’s Valparaiso University in 1961, Boelter received an MBA from Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania in 1963.

Foodservice equipment displayed at The Boelter Companies
Seen from the mezzanine, which houses the contract design department, spotlights highlight the displays, also complimented by plenty of ambient lighting. A 28-foot perimeter ceiling and 14-foot mezzanine offer many interior design options. Also visible here are two of three different floor treatments: the highly polished black race track aisle and the polished concrete perimeter. Photo courtesy of Greg Gent Studios.

During this time, his father, Fred, patiently waited for Boelter to join him at the company. “In many ways, my father let me know that he couldn’t wait for me to get out of college,” Boelter says. “He was a little let down when I went to graduate school.”

The standing joke is that Boelter’s father gave him a leadership title in the firm as a teen. “At that time, I didn’t really know anything about the business. My father needed me, because there was no leadership team during that period. The timing was right,” Boelter says.

Following graduation, Boelter worked in purchasing, which helped him learn the important principals of the business. He then traveled with salespeople, personally working with six accounts at a time. “These were typically people that wanted to do business with us,” he says.

In 1970, Boelter oversaw the installation of the company’s first computer system. From this point on, he took more of a leadership role in running the business.

Boelter describes his father as one of a kind. “He was a person of faith and conviction. I remember how much attention he paid to detail,” he says.

Although the reporting methods were basically manual Boelter’s father devised his own system that kept him informed about what was happening in all aspects of the business. “He had so many words of wisdom, and even today they’re almost like eternal truths. My father’s philosophy was, ‘do the right thing and the rewards will follow’,” Boelter says. “He never thought further than one year ahead, and I tend to think that way, too.”

A Business Evolution
After Boelter joined the company, many changes occurred, as the scope of the business evolved. The transformation began during the 1970s, when the company started a beverage group, which handles the distribution of branded glassware and other items for various organizations.

One of the biggest changes occurred in 1986, when Boelter sought to overhaul the company’s internal organizational structure. It almost happened by accident, after the company moved from its original south side of Milwaukee location to a former General Electric distribution center on the city’s northwest side.

At that time, the company culture had Boelter setting the pace and making almost all decisions. “It was a very top down style,” he says.

Service area and checkout counter at The Boelter Companies
Upon entering the store from the door on the left, customers first come upon the service area, which also serves as the checkout counter and gives staff the opportunity to welcome visitors. The race track layout enhances customer flow through the store with its infield and perimeter outfield. All merchandise has high visibility with no clutter. Photo courtesy of Greg Gent Studios.

But the business was growing rapidly and Boelter, along with his employees, was overwhelmed. The realization hit that a change was necessary. “We assembled our leaders together, actually thirty-six associates, to figure out what type of company we wanted this to be. Everyone was asked what type of company they wanted to work for.”

During this time, a number of books were published on how to create a successful company that can set itself apart in the marketplace. For the next year and a half Boelter and thirty-six other associates immersed themselves in many of these books. (See sidebar.) “We shared these findings with this group of associates. It was so interesting looking at other successful companies and learning about how they do things,” Boelter says.

The books that had the biggest impact on Boelter were, first and foremost Leadership is an Art, by Max Dupree, Thriving on Chaos, by Tom Peters, The Customer Comes Second, by Rosenbluth and McFerrin, and The Case for Servant Leadership, by Kent Keith. These books introduced us to the servant-leadership concept, which states that a business should serve its frontline people first to ensure that customers get served the best. “This concept is basically an upside down triangle, where the company’s leaders are serving frontline people and not the other way around,” Boelter says.

Two employee groups, consisting of 18 people each, came together to write both a mission and vision statement for the company. “When they came out with the final product, it was perfect. I don’t think I changed a single word,” Boelter says.

The real challenge was making sure that everyone at Boelter understood the concept and its significance. “Our business philosophy was often unfamiliar to the new people we were bringing in, so we did a lot of research and spent extra time hiring the right people who had the attitudes that were consistent with our culture,” Boelter says. “Mistakes were made but we stayed the course and are stronger for it.”

The company recently hired its first human resources staff member, who will ensure that there’s follow through in terms of instilling the corporate culture in new hires and existing associates. “It’s a challenge, but this comes with the territory,” Boelter says. “Servant leadership is not for the faint of heart. It requires a huge ongoing commitment from all leaders.”

The Boelter Companies - Easy-to-view displays of smallwares, flatware and china
Looking from left to right, this infield view shows easy-to-view displays of smallwares, flatware and china. Photo courtesy of Greg Gent Studios.

In Boelter’s view, dealerships that don’t include people who help set the business apart are just selling commodities and price. He strives to create a culture that shows his frontline people that management wants them to be successful. “If we provide them with the tools to be successful, then they will have a positive attitude towards customers because they feel good about their company,” Boelter says. “We want the message that our business philosophy is different to resonate throughout the industry.”

After company leaders established the servant-leadership culture, things began falling into place. Bill became so vested in this philosophy, that he wrote an orientation book detailing the process. “It has so many positive aspects. For example, it helps in times like this when all companies are making cut backs. A Servant-leadership environment built on trust and caring about the individual minimizes the difficulties we are all facing,” he says.

Boelter credits Dick Campion with starting the company’s equipment division and John O’Brien with getting the company involved in disposables. “We have always emphasized a sense of urgency and I think that came from salespeople like Campion and O’Brien. My dad hired these super dynamic people, back in the early fifties, who were adored in the marketplace, but were merciless on their inside support people, including myself. They put a lot of demands on the organization to get things done,” Boelter says. “The sense of urgency is still there but contrary to Campion and O’Brien’s style, it comes from an inherent desire to support the front line people and their customers.”

Despite these challenging economic times, Eric and Rick Boelter keep propelling the organization forward. “Eric and Rick are doing excellent in the day to day leadership of their areas of responsibility,” Bill says.

The Boelter Stores - Customer friendly by design
The infield area displays china, accessories, linens, flatware, and cutlery. In the foreground, custom-made modular displays highlight glassware selections. Note how the banners tend to bring down the ceiling above the infield. The signage over the race track highlights images of product categories located on the perimeter. Photo courtesy of Greg Gent Studios.

Last year, when its lease ran out, The Boelter Companies moved its headquarters into a state-of-the-art, 200,000 sq. ft. building, which doubled its existing space. “We looked for a location that was within 10 minutes of downtown Milwaukee, since the city was being revitalized and there have been many restaurant openings. We also sought to be on a corridor with excellent visibility,” Boelter says. “I am still involved but in a different way.”

“I look for projects which are removed from the day to day responsibilities. Examples are looking for cost savings and ways to do things more effectively. The new SuperStore was my new project for 2007-2008. Our showroom had previously been pretty much an afterthought. We now had to make a decision – close it down or make it very special. We had plenty of space and being semi-retired I had the time to make it a success.”

The new site is seven minutes from downtown and located on a major traffic corridor. “I often think whether I would have made the move knowing then what I know now about the economy. But then, our lease had expired and calculated risk-taking was something we successfully did in the past,” Boelter says.

The idea of creating a SuperStore quickly took shape with the help of Catherine Donnelly, Boelter’s Strategic Brand and Communications Consultant “What gave me so much confidence going into this was Catherine, who has worked on our strategic marketing concepts for the last 10 years,” Boelter says. “She had contributed a lot of great thoughts on the business in the past and I knew that a superstore would be magnificent under her direction.”

The result garnered The Boelter Companies a Gold Award in interior design from the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), the society’s highest honor. “When a company can make a statement and set itself apart from others, that’s good for business,” Boelter says.

The new facility further inculcates design into the company’s culture. It is quickly evident to those walking into the showroom that Boelter knows design. The layout is best described as a race track concept with an infield and outfield. Items are departmentalized, with like items being grouped together. Perimeter aisles are at 45-degree angles, so customers have a clear view of all products.

“I remember speaking with Fred Singer when his company built their facility. He said if they had to do it all over again, they would have had an owner’s representative working with the general contractor. We did that, and it was great advice,” Boelter says.

People That Matter
Customers vote with their orders, and this is a measurement of success, along with keeping the banks happy, Boelter says. “It’s pretty simple. Success can also be measured by what customers say about your people and the organization,” he says. “When people go out of their way to write complimentary letters and e-mails, that’s a good sign of success. We I always let associates know about the positive comments we I receive.”

From a personal standpoint, Boelter credits the late Lee Scruggs, former president of Scruggs Inc., now a division of Strategic Equipment & Supply with influencing him in the past ten years. “I knew him well in the last few years of his life and learned about his values. Lee was a terrific person who I have great respect for,” Boelter says.

The Boelter Companies - A wide range of appeal
Looking from left to right, this infield view shows easy-to-view displays of smallwares, flatware and china. Photo courtesy of Greg Gent Studios.Robert Halpern, former president of TriMark USA, also provided insight about the industry and the dealer business. “Even though we both went in different directions, we’ve always kept the lines of communication open.” Boelter says.

Boelter says he is most indebted to his wife of 45 years, Priscilla, who always reminds him of what is most important in life. She understood the industry being on a first name basis with many customers, and virtually all suppliers and dealers in the industry. Over a 35 year span, she may have missed one industry convention at the most.

When Boelter’s sons Rick and Eric were coming into the business, Boelter included Priscilla in the discussions. “We talked about that a lot. I can’t compartmentalize the business like some people. That’s just not me. So I would bring work issues home and Priscilla would be my sounding board,” he says.

Unlike their father, both Rick and Eric did not immediately join the company after college. Following graduation from Indiana University, Rick continued on to receive his MBA in marketing. He then worked for two years at Kimberly Clark, prior to joining his father’s company. He now serves as president of Boelter Beverage group.

After college, Eric found work in Atlanta. When he was considering a one-year assignment with IBM, Bill asked Eric to join the business. “We were looking for someone to conduct statistical process control, measuring different benchmarks, so that’s when Eric came on board,” Boelter says. Later on, Eric received his MBA at the University of Chicago. He now heads The Boelter Companies’ E&S distribution arm.

Boelter says his sons’ exposure to different companies has been beneficial, and he is proud of their contributions to the business during the last 15 years. “At this point, my sons’ love for the business comes from within. There’s nothing I can do to add to how they feel about the company. They, like myself, are excited and enthusiastic, and want to see it grow,” he says.

Boelter doesn’t think about his comfort level as a business person. Instead, his objective is to do the right thing and let people judge him on his contributions as well as his character. For those who know Bill Boelter, he personifies what a hall of famer should be.


The Boelter Culture by the Book

Bill Boelter credits a number of books that have helped build the company’s servant-leadership culture.

Quality is Free by Philip B. Crosby
This book was a terrific resource for us when our company became involved in the quality movement,” Boelter says.

The Tom Peters Seminar: Thriving on Chaos and Crazy Times Call for Crazy Organizations by Tom Peters
“Tom’s books were published in the mid to late 80s and provided us with a great deal of inspiration,” Boelter says.

Leadership is an Art by Max Depree
“Written by the founder of the Herman Miller Furniture Co., this book discussed how companies are getting away from the traditional management concept and more towards a leadership model,” Boelter says.

Competing Against Time: How Time-Based Competition is Reshaping Global Markets
“This book is all about the sense of urgency needed in business today,” Boelter says.
Service America in the New Economy by Karl Albrecht and Ron Zemke: This was a series of books that provided good insight.

The Case of Servant Leadership by Kent Keith
“Provides the foundation for implementing a servant leadership culture.”

The Customer Comes Second by Hal F. Rosenbluth and Diane McFerrin
“The methods of this book were incorporated into our business model. The idea here is to serve frontline people first in order for customers to get the best service. The servant-leadership concept grew out of this,” Boelter says.


Spotlight on the SuperStore

The Boelter SuperStore represents more than a foodservice equipment dealer’s showroom: It’s a testimony to the company’s commitment to design, according to Bill Boelter. The innovative design and attention to detail create an inviting atmosphere for customers to shop on their own or meet with company sales reps. In doing so, customers have the opportunity to interact with and explore various types of foodservice items ranging from equipment to supplies to disposables.

The company’s SuperStore showroom won a Gold Award in interior design from the American Society of Interior Designers, the society’s highest honor.

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