Young Distribution Professionals Explain the Programs and Training Events They Found Valuable as They Began Their Foodservice Equipment Careers

Rapids Foodservice installed an innovation development program that encourages small teams of employees to create and champion their own business ideas.

By Tim O'Connor
Associate Editor

One of the primary challenges employers are finding with Millennials and Generation Z employees is getting them to stick around. A 2016 study by networking site LinkedIn found that job-hopping has nearly doubled in the last 20 years. People who graduated between 1986 and 1990 averaged about 1.6 jobs in the five-year period after graduation while that number has increased to 2.85 jobs for those graduating between 2006 and 2010. The trend becomes even more pronounced when stretched to a decade following graduation, with graduates from 2001-2005 having worked for nearly four different companies on average, compared to only about 2.5 for those graduating between 1986 and 1990.

Many FEDA members say they have been affected by this job-hopping as well. While some chalk it up to a generational difference in attitude toward employment, others are looking into what motivates younger staff members to leave. Often, it is a lack of opportunities for advancement and inadequate training to prepare them for leadership roles. According to a recent report from research firm Visier, millennial managers who have not received a promotion leave at a rate that is 5.2 percentage points higher than average, while those who have been promoted in the last 24 months resign 3.1 percent left often.

But before someone can step into a leadership role, they need the proper training. The foodservice equipment distribution industry can be especially difficult to learn, says Eric Schmitt, vice president of Rapids Foodservice Contract and Design. College can prepare someone to specialize in journalism or the financial services industry, but to grasp foodservice equipment distribution they must become experts in everything from sales and logistics to construction management and design. “You have a lot of different areas that touch on it, but it’s an industry that’s really niche in terms of what it offers,” Schmitt says. “There are specific skills that are required to be great at foodservice equipment and supplies, and training is not readily available in those areas.”

He knows firsthand how difficult it is to get up to speed. Even having been born a Schmitt and being able to learn about various pieces of equipment from his father, President Joe Schmitt, he didn’t truly understand the complexities of the market or what the equipment actually does when he started with the company in 2013 as a project manager. It took Schmitt two years of hands-on sales training and experience before he became comfortable providing customers with answers and solutions on his own. 

Developing leaders is not only about attending summits and conferences, Schmitt explains. It’s more important that dealers and distributors put their people in a position to learn as much as possible. “Without direct exposure to every aspect of the business, it is hard to develop a complete leader,” he says.

Rapids is developing programs aimed at giving new employees a holistic understanding of everything the company does, from contract sales to leasing and installation. The goal is to morph an entry-level employee into a successful salesperson by the end of the third year. It’s critical, Schmitt says, for millennials like him to feel like they are making a lasting impact. If someone doesn’t understand the company’s processes, their talents are not being maximized and it’s likely they will leave for another industry. “It shouldn’t take somebody 30 years to be great at something,” Schmitt states. “A big focus for us is developing a pathway for people that come into our company.”

Enhancing Exposure
Sometimes that pathway must come from experiences outside the company. Activities such as FEDA’s Young Industry Leaders (YIL) group can help up-and-coming professionals develop management skills and connect with foodservice equipment leaders. Schmitt, who is part of the YIL’s steering committee, says the group is a valuable way for people to “build a network of peers where individuals feel as if they can communicate back and forth.”

The YIL formed earlier this year and held its first member retreat at Metro in Pennsylvania in early November. A second retreat is scheduled for December at ITW in the Chicago suburbs. Each event includes a discussion between participants and the CEO of the host manufacturer, such as Metro CEO John Nackley, on what makes for a good leader and how to prepare for leadership roles, followed by a tour of the facility and a nighttime event designed to encourage attendees to get to know each other. (Read more about the first YIL retreat on page 43)

Leadership programs have benefited Alyse Wilson, director of procurement at Bargreen Ellingson. Like Schmitt, Wilson is still early in her career in foodservice equipment having started out in the pharmaceutical industry. The two fields share similar selling and marketing processes, but Wilson notes she had to learn a completely different product portfolio when she joined Bargreen Ellingson in 2016 while at the same time moving from a sales to procurement role. To help with the transition, Wilson has relied heavily on her internal relationships to provide mentorship in her transition. She also credits attending manufacturing and buying group product education sessions, tradeshows, and rep trainings.

Participating in those programs and events has given Wilson an edge in business interactions. Team members who don’t understand the changing business climate are often at a disadvantage and have trouble closing sales. “We’re all seeing the internet as a bigger obstacle to contend with,” she says. “The value of having a well-trained sales force that’s extremely knowledgeable in the product line they’re selling is vital in bringing a level of service the internet can’t compete with. Customers are doing their own research prior to the sales call; they sometimes already have a product in mind. It takes a different sales approach to sell a product to someone who thinks they know what they want. We have to be consultants, not order takers”.

Refining that approach often comes through Bargreen Ellingson’s internal training, Wilson says. The company holds weekly training events with vendor reps at each of its 20 branch locations along with annual sales training. “A considerable amount of learning occurs on the job through mentorship from managers and colleagues. Who better to teach than those who have been successful living it every day”.

Therefore, those employees that demonstrate leadership abilities and an interest in growing their careers are paired with more established employees to work on projects that might further develop their skillset for a leadership role. This coaching relationship gives the team member an opportunity to learn the position and culture until they are ready to take over the reins when an opportunity presents. “Bargreen Ellingson has a wealth of tenured employees who have retirement on the horizon,” Wilson says. “As a result, we are committed to developing people in our organization and, when necessary, outside the organization and industry.”

Next year’s annual FEDA conference, which will take place April 3-6 in Phoenix, aims to prepare senior management and frontline staff for the kinds of looming evolution that Wilson describes. The conference’s afternoon breakout sessions and education programs are shaped around five key areas: omni-channel capabilities, data analytics, product mix strategy, value-added services, and quality content.

“Thanks to leaps in the digital marketplace, new competitors are entering complementary spaces and seeking to add new lines of business,” says Stacy Ward, who in her new role as FEDA’s director of programs and research has helped design the conference’s afternoon breakout sessions. “FEDA distributors and dealers must arm themselves with the necessary tools and resources to compete successfully in a changing landscape driven by a deluge of data and customers’ desire to interface on multiple platforms.”

Schmitt praises the FEDA conference as one of the best opportunities each year for industry members to learn from one another. “This has regularly served as a place to network, share ideas, learn about larger industry opportunities and threats, and develop partnerships with your peers that cannot be achieved in any other place,” he says. “The smaller size of the conference makes it easier to spend quality time with this knowledgeable and important group of leaders in the equipment and supplies industry.”

Similarly, events like The NAFEM Show and the National Restaurant Show provide opportunities to visit with manufacturers one-on-one—an important experience for those early in their careers. “You have the chance to talk with key personnel within manufacturers and discuss critical issues you may be working through,” Schmitt says.

Empowering Employees
Combining those annual events with internal programs can reinforce learning and prepare employees for future roles. In recognizing this, Rapids followed a model developed by Dirk Beveridge, founder of UnleashWD, to create an innovation development program that encourages personnel to be captains of their own business ideas. The program is comprised of small groups that meet every two weeks to think up innovative practices and review how other industries are tackling challenges. The team then develops structured business plans around the best ideas, resulting in new procedures and policies. One change stemming from the program is that after a sale, Rapids now sends each customer a thank-you package stuffed with products that can be used to maintain their new equipment, creating a stronger connection with the buyer.

“This program allows team members to be the champion of their innovations and work with a team to develop and execute on these ideas,” Schmitt says. “Through these efforts, all employees are given an opportunity to discover leadership skills and practices that are hard to come across in other organizations.”

Another invaluable development tool for Rapids is manufacturer training—especially events that are held near distributors at local test kitchens. “It has given our team members a chance to learn about the wider portfolio of manufacturers such as Welbilt in a single event and without having to sacrifice critical work hours for travel,” Schmitt says. “While this isn’t as robust as training at the factory, it certainly allows us to get more of our team members exposed to the experts on these equipment lines in a few hours rather than several days.”

The time savings is key, Schmitt notes, because it enables Rapids to include more staff while limiting the loss of working hours. “Taking days out to travel and learn items that can be covered in a more convenient format is more difficult than ever,” he says. “The more you can expose dealer sales staff to bite-size chunks of valuable training, the more likely they will be to retain the information.”

Shows, training programs, and leadership academies help employees develop skills over time. Schmitt says they must become a regular and repeated part of a person’s development if they are going to create change. “One seminar, one conference, it’s tough to build a habit out of that because it’s two or three days then you’re back in your regular habit,” he adds. 

Rapids is fortunate the it has the resources and enough personnel to cover an employee’s regular workload while they are participating in development programs, but Schmitt acknowledges that smaller distributors often struggle to find time for training in their daily operations. Still, he believes all FEDA members must prioritize the growth of their employees to create a healthy talent pipeline. “Companies should dedicate time on a regular basis—weekly or monthly—to sit and discuss the development plan of their personnel and also involve them in the strategic planning for their organization,” he says.

Five years after he joined his family’s company, Schmitt is proof that investing in employee development works. Now, through his work within Rapids and through FEDA’s YIL group, he’s ensuring others across the industry have those same opportunities