Stoutner has had measurable success applying that lesson at Appliance Installation and Service Corp., in Buffalo, N.Y. The 42-year-old president, his business partner Paul Glowacki and the company's 40 employees have served some 25,000 customers throughout upstate New York. Until the recession took hold late last year, the company's 20 technicians made nearly four calls a day, compared to the industry average of three, Stoutner says.
Efficiently repairing and installing equipment only partly explains the service agency's good fortune. A straightforward quid pro quo accounts for the rest. "One reason we have been successful to this point is because we've developed a lot of relationships for warranty contracts with manufacturers, manufacturer reps and local dealers," Stoutner explains. "They provide us with leads and we provide them with leads on the sales side of the process."
Stoutner didn't set out to own a company. One of his first introduction's to the foodservice industry came when his mother and stepfather, who had no industry experience, purchased a restaurant in 1983 in Stoutner's hometown of Johnstown, N.Y. "My stepfather was laid off at IBM and my mother was a manager at a hotel when a restaurant was put up for sale. They're still in business," he says.
Graduating from high school shortly thereafter, Stoutner bypassed college to join the army. He counted on the G.I. Bill to foot his post-secondary tuition in the event he got interested in education. He asked to be shipped to Germany, but changed his mind just before the time came to ship out. "It was too far away," he recalls.
He did his entire duty at Fort Polk in Louisiana, a base known for advanced combat training. Despite his title as a "combat engineer," Stoutner landed a desk job attending to higher-ups. "I was like the Radar character on the television series 'M.A.S.H.,'" he says. "I was right-hand man for the commander."
By the time he was discharged, Stoutner had made sergeant. "I did my time and got my G.I. Bill, and went back to my parents' restaurant to work." He also enrolled at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Six months before getting his B.S. degree in business management and accounting, Stoutner was delivering pizzas for Domino's and contemplating what do to with the rest of his life.
One day, classmate Paul Glowacki, who worked as a service manager in Buffalo, dropped by Stoutner's unit to check on a faulty oven. Glowacki asked Stoutner why he was delivering pizzas before offering him a job as an assistant service manager at Appliance Installation & Service Corp.
Stoutner accepted Glowacki's offer and moved swiftly through the ranks at AISC, managing an outpost in Rochester, N.Y., before becoming a regional manager. "There was a lot of learning and a lot of luck," Stoutner says of his rapid career ascent.
In 2001 he and Glowacki earned MBAs from State University of Buffalo, a condition they had to fulfill in order to buy the company from its previous owner. "He said degree would come in handy," recalls Stoutner, adding the owner also financed the deal. A year after taking ownership of the company, Stoutner and Glowacki created a second company, Express Commercial Services, a specialist in the installation of hoods and refrigerators.
Throughout his career, Stoutner has immersed himself in the CFSP certification program and today he sits on the CFSP board of directors. "One thing that's nice now is that I can share my mistakes with members, particularly on the installation side of the business. Installation is something service agencies are being asked more and more from manufacturers," he says.
In fact, Stoutner has spent the last two years designing training programs for members. Today, the association offers a curriculum that includes seminars on gas, electric, refrigeration, and installation. Members can thank Stoutner for the latter. "Two years ago manufacturers said they'd like service agents to learn more about installation. So we took it upon ourselves to develop a whole course. We've trained a couple of classes so far," he says.
Of course, business is not what it used to be. The economy has wreaked havoc on foodservice establishments and, in turn, service agents suffer along with them. Stoutner, for example, recently learned a unit of national chain wasn't fixing two of its four fryers. Its volumes didn't warrant the repair, he says.
"I'm hearing people in the industry say volumes of service calls are way down. This is the first time in 15 years we've seen anything like this," he says, adding calls to his own business are down 15 percent. As a result, Stoutner has stepped up marketing efforts.
Nonetheless, he spots a glimmer of a silver lining. "On bright side of it, when the economy turns around, it will be great for service agencies because all those places that neglected repairs will be turning around, too. The question is: Who is going make it to that point?"