Independent manufacturers' reps remain a key component in helping facilitate the flow of foodservice equipment and supplies from factory to dealer to end user. But as the foodservice industry matures and consolidates, the role of the rep continues to evolve. Realizing this, Zink Foodservice, along with Kain McArthur and the Redstone Group, became a founding member of Paradigm in 2016, a strategic alliance of rep agencies that now includes Vader and Landgraf Inc., and Preferred Marketing Group. As his company celebrates its 40th anniversary, Jim Zink, managing partner of Zink Foodservice, discusses the role of the rep in the future and looks back on how the industry has changed.

FE&S: How has Zink Foodservice evolved?

Jim ZinkJim Zink, Managing Partner, Zink FoodserviceJZ: As our company has grown it has afforded us the opportunity to become much more focused from both an organizational and a go-to-market standpoint. We now operate three distinct sales teams: equipment, tabletop/smallwares, and healthcare/education. We have also expanded our culinary team, our distribution and installation division, and our in-house marketing group. Collectively, these units present a coverage model that we feel is a significant differentiator from our competition. However, the real key to our success is — and always will be — our culture and our people.

FE&S: What changes have you tried to bring about?

JZ: We took over a very successful business in 2001, but Mike and I felt an obligation to take it to the next level. We immediately evaluated the business and got to work on writing some crude 3-, 5- and 10-year plans. We made a decision to invest heavily in our people, our systems and our facilities. We took some risks and purchased three agencies over a three-year period. In fact, we acquired a large smallwares group in 2007 right before the recession hit. Those were some tough times but we persevered.

FE&S: How do you feel you were able to persevere?

JZ: We have been fortunate to attract and develop a tremendous team, and leadership within that team. We are always asking ourselves, 'aside from changing our core beliefs and values, what should we consider doing differently to provide more value to those we serve?' We pride ourselves on never being complacent. Our team knows that both personally and professionally you are either growing or dying every day. Nothing stays the same.

FE&S: You've worked hard to create a great company culture. How would you describe that culture?

JZ: Culture is so important to us, and having people on our team that fit our culture is critical. Then, once you find them, take care of them! We subscribe to the belief that if we take great care of our associates, they will take great care of our customers, and our customers will take care of our business. Our values are excellence, results-driven, customer-first, forward-focused and we care. We refer to these often and we use them as our guide when hiring. If someone fits our values they will embrace our culture. If not, they are not going to be long-term players in our organization.

FE&S: How is the rep's relationship with operators changing? How have your relationships with dealers and consultants changed?

JZ: We are seeing a shift away from purely transactional relationships to more strategic relationships. This is visible to us with all of our key customer groups — manufacturers, dealers, consultants and operators. This is being driven by several factors, but certainly consolidation, efficiency, value and expertise are a few of them.

FE&S: How is technology changing the role of the rep?

JZ: Reps are in the business of managing information, and the need to provide data to our manufacturers continues to grow in importance. Technology will take us to a place where we are much more integrated. It will allow us to capture and deliver relevant, real-time data that our manufacturers can use to run more efficient and more profitable businesses.

In addition, technology continues to help us from a marketing perspective with access to the market. At our core, we are hired to influence someone's brand decision. The ability to take a new product and market it to specific target audiences in an instant is unprecedented and will only improve. There are so many ways to deliver information today, and you need to pay attention to all of them. It's daunting, but also very exciting.

FE&S: It seems that some rep groups are getting bigger and others are working together more. What's driving this?

JZ: I think most of it is simply the natural evolution of the industry. It is a very fragmented space, made up of a bunch of relatively small companies — manufacturers, dealers, reps, and service companies. It is maturing, and with that comes consolidation. So, what is required to effectively serve a more consolidated channel? We believe broader, more intensive collaboration will be a requirement.

FE&S: How does Paradigm fit into the equation?

JZ: As the market evolves, there will be increased pressure on reps to invest in their businesses with better facilities, more feet on the street, improved IT systems, culinary support, marketing, training and more. These investments will require significant capital. With Paradigm, we can lead this movement while sharing the costs. In addition, a more consolidated channel will require a much more cohesive rep structure to serve the needs of the market. Manufacturers and dealers want a more consistent rep "product" from market to market. Paradigm addresses this.

FE&S: You're the second generation from your family in this business. What lessons from the first generation (your dad) remain relevant?

JZ: When I first started in this business I remember my Dad telling me three things that we still talk about with our associates: 1) Be more curious than your competitors, and ask better questions; 2) Be a great listener; and 3) You win with people!

FE&S: What excites you most about the industry moving forward?

JZ: The foodservice experience continues to fascinate me. Working with manufacturers, dealers, consultants and operators to bring the next concepts and next-generation ideas to reality will be a lot of fun. The people component of this industry is what makes it so special.

FE&S: What keeps you up at night?

JZ: How do we attract more young, smart people to this industry? How do we make all the wonderful career paths within it more visible?

FE&S: What's your best industry-related advice?

JZ: You will never listen your way out of an opportunity!