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IFDA chairman talks about success in a tough economy

Mac Sullivan is president and chief executive of Pate Dawson Co., a Goldsboro, N.C.-based broadline distributor with annual sales of $241 million. He also is the chairman of the International Foodservice Distributors Association, or IFDA, and is on its GS1 committee. GS1 is a global organization that works with industries to standardize product bar codes for greater efficiency and transparency across the supply chain.

What is on IFDA’s agenda for the coming year?

The GS1 initiative is top of mind. The folks at GS1 say our industry is better organized and moving forward at a more rapid pace than they have ever seen. It feels slow to those of us who are used to making things happen quickly, but they say, “You guys don’t understand; you really are moving forward rapidly.” So that’s very encouraging. 

There are great operators supporting this mission, like Yum! Brands and Darden. It’s marvelous to see all segments of our industry moving in the same direction at the same time. We still have a lot to do to gain the support of the rest of the industry. We’ve got 60 founding members now spread across the three areas of the supply chain, and as we start coming on line and gaining success, then we’ve got to engage the rest of the industry as well.

What other things are happening?

GS1 has allowed us, as distributors, to have deeper conversations with our manufacturer partners. It has opened up areas of conversation where there are points of friction. It’s opened up the door to investigate how we can do things in a different way that is more win-win and allows manufacturers and distributors — and operators — to be more successful and more profitable. 

IFDA has been working to improve collaboration among manufacturers and distributors, correct?

Dr. Richard George, professor of food marketing at St. Joseph’s University, is working on a three-year Peck Fellowship for IFDA to study distributor-manufacturer relationships: where they are, what works right, what doesn’t work right. This year — which is the second year of the fellowship — he will be researching to see if there is a more successful model for better communication, fewer errors and meeting the customer needs better. So you’re getting this common theme that we’re really focusing in a lot on the manufacturer-distributor relationship. 

Let’s shift to the industry in general. The economy has increased competition tremendously. It seems that over the past couple of years distributors have survived by using every cost-cutting measure. Do you see that continuing, or do you think they now have to shift their focus to taking market share?

That’s an interesting question. I don’t look at it as either/or. I look at it as both/and. I don’t see that we can ever stop being more efficient. Whatever we do, we can’t lose focus of meeting customer needs. I see that as Rule No. 1. If customers are not more profitable by dealing with us, then I don’t think we’re meeting customer needs. 

Fortunately, I’ve got a good story to tell. I’ve got a lot of customers that can say, “We’re more successful because we’re dealing with Pate Dawson.” I would lay that challenge out to the entire industry. In other words, if you’re taking advantage of the customer rather than helping him to be more successful, then you may win short term, but you’re hurting yourself long term. I take a longer-term approach to the market. But good customer service is not going to keep me from reducing costs where I can. That’s why we’re part of GS1. I see that as the key to huge cost reduction. 

How does the DSR [distributor sales rep] fit into the customer needs equation? Is there a different kind of training required now?

Yes. I do think it’s a different type of training. The majority of our account managers have culinary experience, business experience and restaurant experience. They look at a customer in a completely different way. They work to uncover their needs spoken and unspoken, and identify the resources we can apply to meet these needs to make our customers more successful.

You’ve been doing exciting things at Pate Dawson. You just acquired Southern Foods in Greensboro, N.C., and established a division called Meat and Seafood Solutions.

We were fortunate to be able to acquire Southern Foods, which we’ll maintain as a specialty and niche distributor. Their customer base is fine dining. They have a meat-processing facility and fresh fish processing, as well as all sorts of specialty groceries — from 400 domestic and imported cheeses to high-end hors d’oeuvre and desserts — things like that. We’re very excited about the customer base, product base and the knowledge of the people who came with the company. Our job is to come in and apply leadership and help the sales team understand how to build on the strengths they already have.

It’s going well?

We’re just six weeks into it. Check in to see how we’re doing in a year.

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