For 70-Plus Years And 4 Generations: Kenway Distributors Remains Dedicated To Helping ‘Anyone Who Cleans’
By Harrell Kerkhoff, Maintenance Sales News Editor
No matter the size of a facility, cleaning is hard work. From large sports arenas to schools to airports, keeping away-from-home locations clean and healthy is no job for the timid. Help is needed in every facet, from using the right products and systems to making sure inventories are well stocked. That is where a skilled and experienced distributorship comes into play. Case in point is Kenway Distributors, a family-owned and independent jan/san house that has been a go-to source for cleaning supplies, training, and advice since 1951.
Today, the company is operated by third and fourth generation family members President Ken Crutcher, and his daughter, Executive Vice President Ashley Mitchell. Headquartered throughout its history in Louisville, KY, with a second location now in Owensboro, KY, the service region of Kenway Distributors involves the entire state of Kentucky, southern Indiana, and portions of West Virginia and southeastern Illinois.
“We service a wide variety of end-use customers, including those taking care of educational and health care facilities. Other accounts involve such clients as churches, membership organizations, and building service contractors,” Mitchell said. “People often ask me to list our target customers. I respond, ‘Anyone who cleans.’ Our consultants are trained to treat every customer the same no matter the size. Different people require different levels of attention, but a truly successful consultant is going to treat the smaller accounts the same as the larger ones. That is what we focus on at Kenway Distributors.”
In business since Harry S. Truman was president, Mitchell said service consistency is a main reason Kenway Distributors has enjoyed a long history.
“Our core company values and strengths haven’t changed over time. We are extremely customer-oriented and driven to provide expertise and training, rather than just focusing on selling the lowest-cost item,” she said. “We are known for leading customers into the right direction and being a good consultant. Our company is not the cheapest provider of products in the market. There will always be somebody else who can provide the same box of products for less. A Kenway, however, customers get much more than just a box of products.
“As we look over what has transpired during the recent pandemic, it’s been distributors like Kenway that have helped end-users with supply chain disruptions, staffing shortages and unique cleaning challenges. We continue to stand firm on our belief that service after the sale is the best way to help customers. That philosophy has certainly paid off over the years for our company and was proven again during the pandemic.”
Mitchell said there were a lot of lessons learned for distributors, end-customers, and manufacturers during the height of COVID.
“It was a wild ride, requiring people to take a deep breath and keep in mind what needed to be accomplished. It was very easy, during the pandemic, to get scared, reactionary and go down a rabbit hole in order to meet new rules and restrictions,” she explained. “We had to remember that everybody was scared, concerned and confused, but that our main goal was to help people through the situation at hand. As a distributorship, we had never been through anything like the pandemic — commercially or personally. The same could be said for our customers. Everybody was trying to sort through the same mess.
“For me, the main lesson from the pandemic involved the importance of listening to people and keeping an open dialogue going. That helped us figure out the right way to move forward, one which made everyone comfortable.”
Mitchell noted that during the pandemic, Kenway Distributors was classified as a critical business since it sold disinfectants/sanitizers, personal protective equipment (PPE) and various other essential items. Its employees had to come into work and deliver products. At the same time, government officials were urging people to stay home.
“That was very stressful, and we worked hard to make sure our employees were comfortable with what we were asking them to do. That included our truck drivers, who were delivering products to places that had to remain open, such as hospitals. It was important to keep our drivers informed about any changes in instructions when delivering those products — all in an effort to keep products moving and to do so safely for everyone involved,” Mitchell said. “We were fortunate throughout the pandemic that everyone here stayed very safe at our facility. Our building in Louisville is large enough that we were able to spread people out. We also had plenty of PPE and many precautions in place. That helped keep our company operational. We were able to get through the experience fairly well.”
She also attributed the success of Kenway during the pandemic to the company’s membership in the Triple S network of independent jan/san distributors, adding it was helpful to bounce ideas with other members who were going through the same situations.
Now that the pandemic has officially been declared over, Mitchell said business is getting back to a more normal state. That includes the overall supply chain, which was a major problem during the height of COVID for many companies and industries.
“I do think the supply chain situation is getting better. For me, today’s issues with overall logistics are a bit scarier than the current supply chain. The truck driver shortage and the way goods are being moved around our country can be challenging. It’s always important to be quick and nimble, which was especially helpful during the pandemic,” Mitchell said. “I think our size, as a distributorship, was a positive factor during the pandemic and continues today. We are big enough to get the attention of suppliers, but small enough to move fast and make quick decisions.
“Like most companies, we made some good decisions during the pandemic and we made some not so good decisions. Fortunately, the good outweighed the bad. We were smart about the things we put our money into during that time.”
From Coffee King To Jan/San Supplier
As is common with many companies that have been in business for a long time, the main strengths of Kenway Distributors include a solid commitment to customers, hard work, and a good dose of entrepreneurship. Kenway was started by Mitchell’s great-grandfather, Rowland Crutcher, who was an entrepreneur and had a strong sense of business. Rowland originally worked in sales for a grocery distribution company in Louisville.
“He would go to grocery stores, take their orders, and then talk to them on the side about various cleaning supplies that they might need, such as mops, buckets, and brooms. If he made a sale with those items, my great-grandmother (Dorothy Crutcher) would make the deliveries. The cleaning supplies were stored in my great-grandparents’ garage,” Mitchell said.
Eventually, the grocery supplier made Rowland Crutcher decide between their sales and his side business. He chose the side business.
“When thinking about it today, it can be a hard decision to understand. He walked away from a perfectly lucrative and successful living selling groceries, but it was his dream to own a company. He saw an opportunity and jumped. Seventy-plus years later, Kenway Distributors is still in business, and I’m personally very thankful he made that choice,” Mitchell said. “My great-grandfather was very successful with selling groceries. In fact, there were billboards of him around town, stating he was the ‘Coffee King of Louisville.’ Evidently, he sold a lot of coffee, but walked away to start Kenway in 1951.”
It was not long until Rowland and Dorothy’s son, James Crutcher, become interested in working at Kenway after serving as an Air Force navigator during the Korean War. Father and son worked together for many years until Rowland’s sudden passing. James Crutcher then took over the reins. In due course, James Crutcher’s son, Ken, also expressed a desire to work for the distributorship and has since built a long career at the family business.
“My dad (Ken Crutcher) always knew he wanted to work here (Kenway Distributors). He started quite young and has never looked back,” Mitchell said. “As for myself, I grew up doing various tasks as Kenway, as many young people do when their family is involved in a multi-generational business. That included cleaning the warehouse and filing papers in the summer. I went to college in Ohio and graduated with a communications degree. I knew I enjoyed business but wasn’t sure I wanted to go right back into the family company. Instead, I moved to Nashville, TN, and worked for Dell Inc. It was a great experience, working for a much bigger corporation with different hurdles to jump and challenges to overcome. I learned about sales cycles and enjoyed the technology side of that experience.
“In 2008, I decided it was time to come back home and jumped in with two feet. I started at Kenway with a territory and eventually moved to the director of sales position. I’m now executive vice president. When working at the family company, however, I don’t think your title matters that much. Every day is different, and you often must accomplish tasks outside of your job description. For me, that might include making a delivery.”
Meeting Today’s Challenges/Opportunities
Despite the ups and downs associated with business in today’s fast-paced environment, Mitchell said Kenway Distributors continues to enjoy business growth.
“One area that helps separate our company from some others is our employees. That includes 15 full-time territory consultants,” Mitchell said. “At Kenway, we firmly still believe in face-to-face hands-on representation. A lot of time and effort is spent investing in employee training, making sure our people have the best information and expertise to share with accounts.”
One challenge for many companies today, no matter the industry, is finding and hiring good people. That is a challenge Mitchell and her co-workers have met head-on.
“As a company, we have been fairly lucky when it comes to keeping our staff intact. There have been some recent retirements at Kenway which we have had to address. Some of those people have stayed on as part-time employees. The retirements did open the door for new people to move into certain sales territories. We are very excited about our new hires, as well as maintaining an employee base that has a lot of experience. It’s a nice combination to have,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think too many people in business today would disagree with the statement, ‘It’s hard to recruit new people right now.’ Although that is quite true, as of late, we have found success finding good hires through word of mouth, with the help of people associated with our various accounts. We basically ask them, ‘Do you know of anybody who would be interested in working at our company?’ Not only has that provided good results, but we receive solid referrals right off the bat with such candidates. We know more about the person during the job interview than just relying on an online application.”
She added there is more today to selling that just sending a representative into the field with a price book and some training. New challenges include product sourcing and logistical issues.
“It’s more important to decide early which products to emphasize. We must consider availability, pricing and other things that come up,” Mitchell explained.
Changing demographics involving customer employees, such as new people responsible for purchasing, is another challenge facing distributors. As more members of the baby boomer generation retire, many of the people taking their place want to conduct business in a different manner. For example, not every young person in charge of purchasing janitorial supplies wants to be visited by a salesperson on a continual basis.
“With changing demographics comes different ways people want to communicate. It often involves more texts, emails, and online orders. There are days it seems nobody wants to talk on the telephone anymore or be visited at their office,” Mitchell said. “It’s part of an interesting shift involving what customers now want, and it’s something we (at Kenway Distributors) are addressing.
“It helps to be creative and bring value to a current or potential customer, allowing that person to feel there is a good reason for a visit or phone call. Once successful, such people start to trust you more, and realize you can truly help them with their needs.”
As far as new products entering today’s jan/san marketplace, Mitchell said several have much promise, including automated floor scrubbers.
“At Kenway Distributors, we are involved with a great mixture of manufacturers that are industry leaders in innovation and cutting-edge products,” she said, “Historically, we have been very selective with our suppliers. We try to only choose one or two suppliers per product line, as repetitive products can be confusing to customers. We bring our business to the table with the help of suppliers. Therefore, we look for suppliers that value us as much as we value them.
“There are suppliers that have moved away from distribution and sell direct to end-users or through large national companies. In response, we have had to make some tough decisions that were necessary to properly take care of our business and customers. I do feel very good about the supplier relationships that we currently have in place. We are working with a great group of manufacturers.”
Many of the products and systems sold today by representatives of Kenway Distributors meet criteria for being environmentally friendly and/or sustainable. According to Mitchell, there are also end-users who look for products that are deemed safer for their cleaning staffs.
“Due to the tight labor market, I think anyone employing a cleaning staff today must be very aware of what products he/she is putting in each staff member’s hands. If an employee does not feel comfortable using a particular product or chemical, it gives that person one more reason to look for another job,” she explained. “It’s our job, as a distributor, to help solve those concerns.”
Representatives of Kenway Distributors are also big advocates of offering employee and customer training programs. That includes, for example, showing a new company rep how to strip and wax a floor and a customer the proper steps to keeping restrooms clean.
“I feel our training capabilities really set us apart,” Mitchell said.
The Louisville headquarters of Kenway Distributors includes a large training room featuring both carpet and tile flooring, as well as a fully functional restroom with shower, urinal, commode, sink, and janitorial closet. The main goal is to train people on how to keep various floors and restrooms clean.
“Because Louisville is centrally located within Kentucky, we can train many of our customers at our location. Sometimes, our accounts will use this facility without our involvement, which is fine with us. It gives them an open space to conduct their own training and to do so off-site, which tends to help those being trained to pay closer attention,” Mitchell said. “It’s all about providing proper customer service. Another way we do that is to make sure a receptionist answers the phone when somebody calls Kenway Distributors. We don’t believe in phone trees during the business day. When people call us, they talk to live customer service representatives. Many of our representatives have worked here for years, and they all have great knowledge about our products and services. The reps also provide support for our sales team.”
Sales concepts at the distributorship, meanwhile, are solutions-based, Mitchell added.
“For example, we don’t want our consultant to introduce a new bottle of bowl cleaner and simply tell why that particular product is great. Instead, we want our consultants to sit down with current or potential customers and have tough conversations about the big picture. We seek to find where the customer pain points are, and what can we bring to the table to help them achieve their facility goals. That process is key for improved sales and truly helping someone, rather than simply introducing the next widget.”
Of course, it takes time to be well versed on everything there is to know about cleaning products and procedures. Selling for a distributorship requires continual training, a willingness to learn and dedication. The latter two characteristics are attributes Mitchell and other representatives of Kenway Distributors look for when hiring new members of a sales team.
“It goes without saying that you should now all about the products you are selling. However, that is the easy part, and why we provide product training,” Mitchell said. “It’s harder to find the right personality during the hiring process. We look for people who show ambition, the desire to achieve success and create solutions.
“Many people cringe when they think of ‘sales,’ associating that word with somebody who is trying to talk you into something you don’t really need or want. That is why we call our salespeople ‘territory consultants.’ We want them to be viewed by customers as unpaid consultants, trying to help solve tough issues.”
Officials at Kenway Distributors spend a lot of time onboarding with members of the sales team, especially those who are new to the sales process.
“There is a lot of people within our company who are very willing and capable of helping. That includes my father and myself,” Mitchell said. “The last thing we want is for our people working a territory to feel like they are all by themselves. It’s easy to feel isolated when working a territory. Our job is to get rid of that isolation. It helps that we have activities in place to bring team members together.”
It also helps that Kenway Distributors operates two facilities, with a driving distance of approximately 107 miles between locations. The company utilizes over 75,000 total square feet of warehouse space. The Louisville facility makes up over 50,000 square feet of that warehouse space, and is also where most of the company’s administrators work. Over the years, the distributorship’s Louisville home has been at three different locations, all on Strawberry Lane in the Kenwood Hill neighborhood of the city. That is where the name Kenway Distributors originated.
“One of the advantages to having two facilities is that it allows us to better manage our routes, making sure we are properly supplying all of our customers, and doing so as efficiently as possible,” Mitchell said. “We also conduct a lot of equipment sales and service at those locations. Historically, Kenway has been very strong in equipment sales. It’s one of our company’s pillars when it comes to product lines. We stock a lot of equipment and have a service department at each location, along with a service vehicle in Louisville.”
An important part of Kenway’s equipment service is overseeing a Planned Maintenance Program, allowing company technicians to periodically check on the health of such items as floor machines.
“The goal is to change things out before they break, which is better for everyone involved,” Mitchell said. “We work on all kinds of equipment, including machinery that we don’t sell, and we employ three full-time technicians.”
Another key position for many distributorships, Kenway included, is that of drivers. These employees are on the front lines, meeting customers on a regular basis while making deliveries.
“Drivers serve as important representatives of our company and what we stand for as a distributorship. Quite a few of our drivers have been with us for a long time, which is good because drivers are hard to find. That longevity speaks volumes to the kind of company culture we have in place,” Mitchell said. “Another key component to our success involves employees who maintain our warehouses at both locations. Along with an inventory software system we have in place, our warehouse personnel perform cycle and physical counts, helping to keep inventory tight. We also run weekly transfers from our Louisville facility to help stock our Owensboro location.”
The Need To Clean Is Constant
It’s hard to think of a world without dirty surfaces, smelly restrooms, and scuff marks on floors. Things get dirty. It’s a fact of life. Fortunately, there is help for the thousands of people who clean for a living, and those who oversee such work.
“There is always going to be a need for the products and training that we provide. We are in a very good spot. This industry is not going away. We, at Kenway Distributors, are also fortunate in that there are many talented people here who are very capable and willing to help our customer base succeed,” Mitchell said. “On the other hand, there are always going to be challenges to overcome. Everyone certainly learned that after going through the pandemic. One main challenge is adapting to a changing workforce, while also remaining flexible. The world is a different place compared to the past, and it continues to evolve. In response, we must remain relevant and not lose our identity.
“I feel the future is bright, although it does seem independent janitorial distribution companies are getting purchased left and right. The good news is, there remains a need and value for a distributorship like Kenway. It helps that we have been members of Triple S since the start of that organization, which consists of independent distribution companies from across the country. Because those members don’t compete against each other, information can be shared that helps everyone involved.
“It’s easy to feel alone as an independent distributor, surrounded by large national companies. That is why it’s nice to be a member of a larger organization that can provide members with purchasing strength and additional value. That has been extremely important to our success over the years and will continue forward.”
Although it may not be considered by many the most glamorous industry in the world, selling jan/san supplies does have its merits. One is being part of an industry that can provide good careers for a lot of people.
“I often laugh when I tell people I left a career selling computers to sell mops. It was a shift, but I am involved in a very interesting line of work. I also love the people who we work with. No two days are quite the same,” Mitchell said. “The jan/san industry can provide a lot of opportunities for young people who are looking for solid careers, in a line of work that will be around for a long time. It’s certainly been as very good business for my family over the years.”
She noted the pandemic brought a new sense of awareness to the importance of the cleaning industry. Suddenly, meetings that once took place in the basements of customers were being held in boardrooms.
“It was an almost immediate shift, and one of the few silver linings that came out of the pandemic. Our products, procedures and processes carry a lot more weight today. People now pay more attention to kill times, proper cleaning of surfaces and which floor machines work the best — subjects that once fell on many deaf ears.”