Bill Kelly is a 30-year veteran of the foodservice industry who began his career with Libbey Glass in 1980 as an account manager in Seattle and in 1981 was transferred to the Midwest. He founded his own manufacturer’s rep firm in Chicago in January of 1985 before relocating to Seattle in 1988. Currently Bill and his partners Jim and Dave Mincks run an independent manufacturers’ rep firm that covers the states of Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Montana, Idaho and Hawaii.
FE&S: What was your first job in foodservice?
Bill Kelly: During college I was a tour guide for Olympia Brewing Company. One day I was serving beer in the tap room and these two guys from Libbey Glass came in and left me their business cards. I sent them my resume and started hounding them. It was late 1979 and the economy was tough back then. I was very proactive about my job search. Thankfully, I ended up getting hired by Libbey that next year.
FE&S: Who was the person that influenced your career most?
Bill Kelly: The guy who hired me away from Libbey Glass was named Paul Hirschberg. Paul was an amazing salesperson and he was one of the very early manufacturer’s reps. He was a founding member of MAFSI. Paul was in his late sixties when he hired me so I only worked with him for a couple years but he was an amazing guy who had great insight about the industry.
And then there was a director of purchasing at Edward Don. His name was Walter Lavine. He taught me a lot. At the time I repped Rubbermaid and Robot Coupe — two significant lines for a young guy like myself. Walter really took the time to mentor me. One of the things Walter was really passionate about was that reps should earn their commissions on the Edward Don business and not just collect checks. Walter taught me how to truly be successful calling on Edward Don.
There are the many other companies that helped me in my early years, like Schweppe, Marlinn Supply, which is now a TriMark company, and Boelter in Milwaukee to name a few. I’ve been blessed to have worked with a lot of good people.
FE&S: What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Bill Kelly: Besides working hard? Probably not to burn bridges. I try really hard not to do that. I also try really hard to return phone calls and do what I say I’m going to do. One of the things Paul Hirschberg passed on to me was that I should be able to look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day. It is also important to me that I go to bed at night with the same number of friends I woke up with...or more!
FE&S: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in the foodservice industry?
Bill Kelly: It doesn’t matter if you’re a consultant, service agent, dealer or rep, success is about doing what you say you’re going to do. It’s about returning phone calls and getting back to people. It doesn’t have to be as complicated as we sometimes make it.
FE&S: How do think the role of manufacturers’ rep has changed over the years?
Bill Kelly: Each segment of the industry has evolved tremendously. In the old days, manufacturers’ reps were mainly sales guys and we were paid to sell. I think now we do more functions than we’re actually being paid for. Some people rely on manufacturer’s reps to be more marketing than sales. And technology has really changed things. I remember getting my first fax machine in Chicago. And I remember my first cell phone, which was also when I was in Chicago. And then our first PC — it was so slow it was ridiculous. All these tools have really sped up the pace and I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing honestly.
Pre-1985, when you were away from the office, you were out making sales calls. You weren’t immediately accessible to people. Now the car is my office on wheels, literally. We’re working harder and, in this economy, we’re working harder for less. But a lot of people are that way right now, not just manufacturers’ reps. I remember many years back when my son was about 12 at the time he said to me, “What’s so hard about your job? All you do is drive around and talk on the phone.”
FE&S: If I were just starting out in the foodservice industry, what advice would you give me?
Bill Kelly: Someone told me this once: The difference in a horse race between first and second place is sometimes a nose. There are many really good competitors in our industry so it is a battle every day. You don’t have to be twice as good as someone else, you just have to be a little bit better than the next guy. Working a little harder — sometimes that makes a world of a difference. It’s like football — it can be a game of inches.
Click here to read part one of the interview with Bill Kelly.
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