Course Teachings Inspire New Ideas at
Elliott Food Equipment and Canadian Restaurant Supply

After completing four days of training at the University of Innovative Distribution (UID), Ron Bennett, manager for Elliott Food Equipment, knew what had to be done: tear down and rebuild the company’s showroom.

Bennett was inspired after sitting in on a session by strategic planning for distributors headed by Steve Deist, chief strategy officer for Ewing Irrigation and Landscape Supply. The class offered a different way of looking at market strategy than what Bennett had done before. Instead of going out and replicating what competitors were doing, the session urged distributors to ask their customers directly what they wanted. It was a new way of thinking that Bennett immediately put to use when he returned to Elliott’s headquarters in Lansing, Mich. After speaking with customers, Elliott decided it needed to update its showroom.

“The strategy came out of that session,” Bennett explained. “Instead of having all of my commissioned sales guys on the street, I bring all my customers into the building by having a better showroom.” Once there, customers can see a wider selection of Elliott’s catalog and have more contact with the products. In addition to increased sales, the company expects to see lower overhead since it will rely less on commissioned salespeople once the showroom opens later this month.

The UID is an annual education program for wholesale-distributors held in Indianapolis. The program is sponsored by leading distribution trade associations, including FEDA, and is in cooperation with the Innovative Distribution Program at Purdue University. This year, 613 people from 40 sponsoring associations, including 35 people from FEDA member companies, attended the UID.

UID has grown continuously since its inception in 1994 and this year was the most well-attended yet, according to UID Program Director Vincent Moulden. Keeping that pace requires regularly refreshing the syllabus and this year’s program offered new courses from business strategist Amy Kinnaird on goal driven process improvements and Pam Krivda, chief HR officer at Taft, on human resources best practices. Both courses covered topics attendees had previously shown interest in and helped UID to introduce new voices. “We are trying to create a more diverse faculty so we wanted to incorporate new perspectives,” Moulden said.

Courses are classroom-style and, depending on the subject, presented as lectures or more interactive discussions. Bennett’s favorite instructor was New York Times bestselling author Steve McClatchy, who hosted two sessions: “Decide: Work Smarter, Reduce Your Stress, and Lead by Example” and “Leading Relationships.” The sessions were high-energy, interactive, and covered ways to use technology throughout the workday to become more organized.

Bennett was so impressed with the course that he immediately bought McClatchy’s book, “Decide,” and gifted it to his wife. “He’s probably been the best seminar I’ve ever sat and listened to,” he said.

Like Bennett, Mark Wallace, general sales manager of Canadian Restaurant Supply, was attending UID for the first time. “My expectations were fairly open as the only real knowledge I had of the course ahead of time was that it was a business-based course,” Wallace said. “There was a lot of good information about running a business profitably and it was great at reinforcing concepts that are easy to slip away from in the business of our day-to-day leading the company.”

Upon returning to Canadian Restaurant Supply, Wallace came up with 10 action steps (prompted by the questions below) to help the company improve, several of which that have already been implemented in manager and staff meetings. Three of those steps are:

  • What makes it hard or complicated for people to do business with us? How do we change that?
  • What are our competitors doing to keep us on our toes? How do we learn and adapt from this?
  • Use the multi-attribute decision making process for tough decisions. 

For his own role, the classes that touched on profit-first planning were the most helpful because there is nothing more important when budgeting and forecasting.

Both Wallace and Bennett said they would urge others in the industry to attend the UID program. “If anybody can spare the time, they should go or they should send the people that they want to see grow into different roles in their organization,” Bennett noted.

Both men’s positives experiences were reflected by the overall attendee list. For the first time in UID history, 100 percent of respondents to UID’s post-event survey said the program met, exceeded, or highly exceeded expectations. “Last year was 99 percent, so I don’t know what we did to get that 1 percent,” Moulden jokes.

Despite the favorable reviews, he said UID will not sit pat as it begins to plot its 2020 course lineup. “We have a lot of planning to do and some shakeups planned,” he said.