Foodservice Equipment Reports
Publisher's Viewpoint

The Evolution Of Manufacturers’ Reps

The biennial Manufacturers’ Agents Association for the Foodservice Industry’s Business Development Conference, held last month in Phoenix, was very interesting. For more than 30 years, I have been keenly aware that manufacturers’ reps are in the middle of everything. And that can be both good and bad for them.

Reps suffered as much or more than any other E&S industry function during the Great Recession. When sales decline, so do commissions. At the same time, they were under great pressure to generate business and were dealing with a revolution in communications technology. The rep “roll-ups” driven by the big E&S conglomerates continued. Their customers were highly stressed too. It wasn’t much fun. There were mergers and buy-outs and change.

But the stresses of the recession were temporary. What is not temporary is the continuing nationalization and even internationalization of the operator landscape and E&S channels. How the various functions align with that reality is the existential challenge of most of the organizations providing E&S services to foodservice end-users. Dealers and service functions are dealing with the same stresses. But they seem to be a bit ahead in that alignment. By definition, independent, multi-line manufacturers’ reps have territories. And there’s the rub.

Two things we saw at MAFSI’s meeting brought this dynamic clearly to mind. One was Martin Cowley’s presentation. Cowley, Senior Manager, Design & Standards for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts and an old friend of many in the room including those of us at FER, spiritedly affirmed the value of good reps even to global multiunit giants such as Disney. He detailed how reps have evolved during the past two or three decades from sales organizations to highly valuable multi-faceted resources even for the biggest players.

“They’ve added corporate chefs, test kitchens and they run education seminars; the good ones have become experts in food science,” Cowley noted. “I go to reps I trust and ask them to guide me through how a potential piece of equipment is going to interact with what we are trying to do on the menu side. Sometimes I don’t even make a purchase, but it becomes a true partnership. I rely on them, and they know I will spec and buy when the equipment they have fits the job.”

Another event at MAFSI presents one-way rep groups will choose to deal with the nationalization of the market. Three well-known rep firms—Zink Foodservice Group in the Midwest, Kain-McArthur Inc. in the Great Plains and the RedStone Group in the Intermountain and Southwest regions—announced they are affiliating through an overlying organization they call Paradigm. It is not a merger, they said. The affiliated groups, who deal with a lot of chains and chain-oriented dealers, hope to provide factories, channel players and operator customers an expanded base of services in a wider area of the country. And they will work together in internal ways, too.

It’s not easy to figure out how to move from being a local player—in a market that defines success on a local, by-project basis—to becoming a resource in a multiunit, global landscape. Both Cowley’s dependence on reps and Paradigm’s formation show how reps are moving to make that happen.

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