Honesty And Value: Hallmarks At Beacon Distributors For 33 Years

Officials at Beacon Distributors include, from left to right, David Champagne, Vice President; Linda Champagne, President; Aline Frati, Customer Service & A/R; Doreen Oakley, Customer Service & Inventory Control; Paul DeSimone, Warehouse Manager; Joseph Santomaro, Sales Representative; and, Patrick Garant, Inventory & Equipment Services.

By Harrell Kerkhoff Maintenance Sales News Editor

Surviving the ebb and flow of business can be tricky in the best of times. It often takes experience, fortitude, talented employees, quality products, proper customer service and old-fashioned hard work — all qualities that have helped Beacon Distributors, Inc., of Harrisville, RI, survive and thrive for 33 years.

“There are some customers who have been with us since we started in 1990,” Beacon Distributors Vice President and Founder David Champagne said. “I feel our success derives from following the concept of being a trusted partner. To properly do that, the concept must be viewed as a ‘three-legged stool’ — involving vendors, staff and customers. That allows our customers to know what to expect. As a small company, it helps that our customers generally talk to the same people each time they contact us. Consistency and familiarity are very important attributes to customer service.

“From the beginning of our company, my business philosophy has been, ‘I don’t care if we are selling telephone poles — if we can make money and properly service the customer, that is what we are going to do.’

“We offer whatever the customer needs, with a strong focus on jan/san and safety products. We also provide foodservice, skin and personal care, and facilities and grounds items. Our customers include those involved in automotive retail, daycare centers, churches, private schools and industrial companies.”

Helping customers succeed, by taking a systems approach, is very important to Champagne and his staff. That includes installing new paper dispensers at no charge, and servicing equipment both in-house and on-site.

“We search out value-oriented customers. People ask, ‘What markets do you sell into?’ My attitude is, ‘I will sell into any market as long as the customer appreciates value.’ That is opposed to a person who is only interested in getting the best price for an item,” he said. “I think our level of service is above and beyond what is typical. When people call our office, they speak to a live person. I also empower our employees to solve issues and make decisions. A decision doesn’t always have to go to the next level or be made by somebody else.

“I tell my staff, ‘Make a decision that is customer-focused. Ask them what they want, how we can help them resolve the issue, and then take care of the matter.’ The goal is to satisfy the customer. That is the key, and is part of our company culture.”

Product consistency is also important to Champagne. He noted that some of the distributorship’s product lines have been sold by the company for 20-plus years. Reliable delivery of those products is also essential. At Beacon Distributors, deliveries are made by various transportation providers. Products ordered by 2 p.m. are delivered the next day in most of the company’s market area.

“That separates us from a lot of companies, even (the neighborhood) distributor. If I hear from a prospect, ‘We use the local guy because if I run out, I can quickly go get it.’ My response is, ‘What if I set up a system that, No. 1, you are not running out of product, and No. 2, when you do need product, it will be at your facility in less than 24 hours?’” Champagne said. “We have had customers leave us, due to a business decision, and later call to say, ‘(Another distributorship) promised they could do what you do, but they don’t. We need you back.’”

He added that some of his company’s customers are quite large and have multiple avenues to find products and services, but continue to work with Beacon Distributors.

“They like our service, our products and our pricing,” Champagne said.

Working with quality suppliers — those who want to be thought of as “partners” — is also important to representatives of Beacon Distributors.

“I look for vendors/suppliers who are focused on local distribution versus just doing business with the big guys and big box stores,” Champagne said. “We also tend to not go after the big-name lines since they usually have a presence in the big box stores — driving pricing down and often requiring large purchases. Instead, we seek out smaller suppliers, much like us, with the joint goal of serving customers/end-users. It’s important to offer quality items that come at competitive prices.

“I received sage advice years ago from a rep who explained the average life of a commodity account is seven months, while the average life of a proprietary account is seven years. I remembered those words when I became a business owner, realizing that simply selling commodities can provide volume, but it’s often not repeatable and not as reliable compared to systems selling. It’s important to deliver true value to your customers and help them control costs.”

Experience Counts

The current Beacon Distributors facility was built in 2016 and is located in northern Rhode Island.

Although smaller in number compared to many companies, employees at Beacon Distributors are very familiar with the distributorship business and the industries the company serves.

“We have eight employees. I have been very fortunate, through the years, to work with people who are not only talented, but willing to stay with the company. We have not suffered from a high-turnover rate,” Champagne said. “The importance of low turnover was first drilled into me after attending a training session, conducted years ago, by ISSA. It taught me that employee turnover is very expensive. That includes the expense of training new employees. It’s also uncomfortable for the customers when they don’t hear the same voice, or see the same person, when conducting business with our company.”

There are several reasons that Champagne gave for the distributorship’s low rate of employee turnover.

“For one, we try to pay the top wages in our market. That helps us from becoming our competitors’ employee trainer,” he said. “Also, I have always felt it’s important for everyone who works here to be ‘on the same page.’ We have monthly staff meetings, where we review sales and talk about topics of importance. That includes the company’s plans going forward. Another benefit is that this can better empower our staff to become great problem solvers when working with customers.”

Although many company owners and managers have struggled over the past several years finding quality people to hire, no matter the industry, Champagne noted the problem is not new.

“I have always felt that finding good people is hard. Having good employees, in my viewpoint, is the secret to being in business for a long time. When I am ready to hire somebody, I ask for word-of-mouth referrals and spend a lot of effort in the process,” he said. “It’s important new hires understand that we are a small company, and our employees wear ‘multiple hats.’ If you just want to ‘put on the fourth lug nut of the tire,’ this is not the company for you.”

Although most staff members at Beacon Distributors have been with the company for some time, Champagne does not begrudge an employing looking for “greener pastures.”

“I can’t argue with those decisions. Change happens. I have had employees leave to do something else or move closer to family. I find it hard to say anything but, ‘I wish you all the best.’ I say that because that is what I did,” Champagne said, referring to when he started Beacon Distributors in 1990, after 12 years working at other distributorships.

“I decided to go out on my own, rented 2,400 square feet of space that included an office and warehouse, and stayed in that space until 2016, when we built our new facility,” he said.

He attributed three key factors to the success of Beacon Distributors since the company’s beginning.

“No.1, our company’s membership, from its start, in ISSA and the New England Sanitary Supply Association has been invaluable. Those memberships have proven to be a great asset, keeping me abreast of changes in the industry, while also providing training that I couldn’t afford on my own, but that I could bring back to my staff,” Champagne said. “Another key factor is my wife, Linda Champagne, who is very involved with the business. She was able to run the office, allowing me to focus on selling. That allowed us to build a strong and solid company. I truly believe that without her input, who knows if I would even be in business today. She is one of the few people in my life who I have been able to listen to, receive constructive criticism, internalize that advice, and not get defensive. It’s important to listen to constructive criticism. I find sometimes people are too afraid to stand up to the boss.”

The third factor that has helped Beacon Distributors prosper over the years is its membership to Distributor Partners of America (DPA), according to Champagne.

“The buying group has been very helpful, allowing us to gain exposure with new vendors and receive favorable pricing from existing vendors. The comradery and relationship building with other DPA distributorships have also been important,” he said. “When you can become more open with people in the same type of work, and not feel like they are your competitors, it really helps to build strong business relationships and friendships.”

Along with those three factors, as well as practicing good inventory control and having a solid workforce, Champagne credited the company’s still relatively new facility as being a major factor in its recent success. He discussed the process involved when it came to planning and building the new facility in 2016.

“I read trade magazines, including those focused on warehousing. When it came time to design this facility, I had developed some very interesting ideas and started consulting with my equipment and racking suppliers. That helped with the layout of our warehouse. I then had an architect design a building based on those plans,” Champagne said.

The result, he added, was a more efficient way to move and store product.

“It would take nearly all day to unload and put away a big order at our old location. Today, it takes about three hours. We now have high doors, dock levelers, flow racks and plenty of staging space,” Champagne said. “Our facility is also attractive and is a good place to work. It’s nicely kept, looks good and feels good. We came from a 2,400-square-foot facility, which included 10-foot ceilings, to our current location that features 5,800 square feet and 22-foot ceilings in the warehouse. We grew up and grew out, and it’s worked very well. We’ve doubled our volume, with the same number of staff members, during the time we have been at our new facility.

“Our current warehouse racking system allows for minimum handling of product. We can pick orders quickly, get them packaged and out the door. I give a lot of credit to our warehouse manager, Paul DeSimone, who does a tremendous job. He knows where everything is without looking at the computer. We also conduct daily inventory spot checks. As a result, our inventory is very accurate.”

Champagne laughs when remembering the amount of detail he felt was necessary during the building’s planning stages.

“The architect would drop off the plans, I would look at them, and then we would meet the next week. I would tell him what I liked about the plans, and where I felt changes were needed. He once said, ‘You really have spent a lot of time studying this.’ I responded, ‘It’s a lot less expensive for you to move a one-inch line in a blueprint than for my contractor to move a 20-foot wall.’”

The modern-looking Beacon Distributors facility is in a rural setting in northern Rhode Island, not far from the Massachusetts state line. Nearby cities include Providence, RI; Hartford, CT; and the Massachusetts cities of Boston, Springfield, and Worcester.

“We cover 50 percent of the geography and 70 percent of the population of Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts —all within a 50-mile radius of where we are based. If I could find 20 new salespeople, I would be able to keep them busy, and they would not run into each other while making their calls,” Champagne said. “Our location is in a good, centralized spot. It’s easy for deliveries to come to us, and it’s easy for us to ship products out. We are on a state highway with good visibility. Being in a rural community also adds to the ambience of our workplace.”

Opportunities & Challenges

Through both good and strenuous times, one advantage to being a supplier of cleaning-related products is that the “need to clean” is consistent. Facilities continue to get dirty, especially if humans are present. That doesn’t mean, however, that running a distributorship is not without its challenges. After 33 years in business, and going through a major pandemic like the rest of the world, Champagne discussed the current business climate as well as how his company fared during the early days of COVID in 2020.

“Overall, business is good and strong,” he said, when interviewed in April. “I have seen more of an awareness over the past several months, however, from customers looking to reduce their costs. The business world has been through three years of chaotic short supplies and rapid price increases — at a level many people have not experienced during their working lives. There hasn’t been this kind of inflation in 40 years, and some customers are having a hard time knowing how to handle the current situation. They are looking at how to control their budgets and seeking new options.

“I have found that the supply chain seems to be running much smoother, with fewer backorder issues. Trucking, however, is still a problem, causing periodic delays involving products coming in and going out.”

Champagne added 2022 felt like a record-setting year as it pertained to the pace of price increases. In response, representatives of Beacon Distributors have been working with vendors to lower costs as much as possible, for the benefit of the distributorship’s customers.

“Business, in general, is challenging right now, but it’s always challenging. That includes staffing. I don’t care what industry is being discussed, everybody seems to have staffing issues,” Champagne said. “Also, with the current threat of recession, current rate of inflation and higher interest rates — that all puts a lot of stress on people and their operations. There are a lot of people in business today who have become very used to operating in an environment of very low interest rates. Now that rates are higher, it can be more challenging for companies. That includes customers, vendors, and the competition.

“As a company, we (at Beacon Distributors) are working to get back to the basics. Before the pandemic, we were running at a high fill rate, around 99 percent, and that is one of our goals for 2023. Our vendor representatives are also coming back to our facility, on a regular basis, to conduct product training. It’s important to keep our staff up-to-date as to what is going on in the industry, and become more aware of options. That helps us to better inform our customers.”

A lot of the training conducted by representatives of Beacon Distributors is customized, to better meet each specific customer’s needs.

“We provide customized training on a consistent basis. For example, I’m always showing a client a better or different way to do something,” Champagne said. “There are times we have formal training sessions, but a lot of our training is conducted as a need arises from a customer.”

All things considered, Champagne feels fortunate that his business was able to succeed during the global turmoil that occurred with the emergence of COVID-19 in 2020. He explained there were so many aspects to COVID that went beyond common business procedures.

“(The pandemic) turned our company ‘from a sales organization to a sourcing organization.’ That is not a unique line that I developed. I read it in a trade magazine and realized how true that line was for my own company,” Champagne said. “All of a sudden, at the start of the pandemic, people needed new things and they turned to us — and we had to find them. We were blessed and fortunate that we succeeded, but it was a big change to how we normally conducted business. What was done in 2018 and 2019 went out the window. We had to do what we had to do during the early months of 2020. For example, the inventory situation was crazy. We didn’t always receive a typical amount of supply. We often accepted a three-month supply of something because we didn’t know when we could get it again.”

On the positive side, Champagne said Beacon Distributors grew very well in 2020, despite the hardships of getting certain products that were in extremely high demand. What made this even more remarkable was that approximately 60 percent of the distributorship’s customers were either closed, or had significantly downsized, due to the pandemic.

“Obviously, we were able to remain open since we were classified as an essential business. It helped that we are a supplier of disinfectants, hand sanitizers, paper towels and a variety of cleaning supplies,” Champagne said. “We were able to provide essential products for different customers who were still open for business. That included toilet paper, which was very hard to find for a certain time. Succeeding in this way helped us to find and work with new customers, including one that waived its customary six to eight month waiting period for new vendors. The customer provided that wavier because it needed product in a hurry, which we provided.”

There was a downside, however, to having extra inventory of certain products once the pandemic subsided.

“By the end of 2022, we donated some leftover inventory still in our warehouse to people who could use it, before the expiration date on those items took place,” he said.

Champagne is very proud of how his staff handled the unique demands brought about by the pandemic.

“Our company was able to secure a government PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan early in the process, and I made sure our staff knew about it so they could see we were still on solid ground as a business,” he said. “We also began a 401k profit sharing plan at the end of 2020, to thank our employees for their efforts. We all worked hard and did what we had to do during the pandemic. The result was helping a lot of people receive needed supplies during a trying time.”

Even during less stressful times, Champagne and his staff work hard to provide solid customer service. That includes simple things, like answering the phone during business hours rather than rely on an answering machine, as well as more detailed work, including a managed customer inventory program and servicing cleaning equipment such as floor scrubbers, buffers, and vacuums.

“Our distributorship has serviced equipment in-house since its beginning. Over the past year, however, we have expanded our capabilities with on-site service. That involves a recent purchase of a van that is used by one of our employees to work on equipment at a customer’s location,” Champagne said. “The on-site service is coming together. It has taken a little time to get running, but I’m starting to see positive feedback from customers.”

Looking Down The Road

If there is one constant in both life and business, it’s that change is going to happen. When it comes to jan/san and related distribution, much change has taken shape in the form of consolidation — one distributorship buying one or more other distributorships. It’s a fact not lost on many industry veterans, such as Champagne, although it might not be as new of a trend as some may feel.

“Consolidation has been going on since I have been in this industry. I don’t know if the pace has picked up or not, but it’s continual. I guess it’s a natural evolution of business and continues to be an issue,” he said. “As distributors consolidate and get bigger, I feel that benefits us (at Beacon Distributors) because larger distributorships typically don’t want to service the size of accounts that we go after.”

Another form of consolidation can also cause concern for distributors — that being the consolidation of customers.

“As customers get bigger through consolidation, they tend to have representatives in purchasing who simply look at numbers, rather than the value that smaller distributors can bring to the market,” Champagne said. “On the other hand, it gives us the opportunity to offer more products and become an essential consultant to our independent customers, allowing them to better compete against their now larger competitors.”

Champagne also commented on the importance of new product development within the jan/san and related industries. In his opinion, there seems to be fewer “revolutionary” products being introduced to the market, compared to the past. This may be a byproduct of the pandemic.

“I’m sure many manufacturers have had to focus on just getting product out the door and putting out ‘fires,’ similar to what we all have been doing,” Champagne said. “I’m seeing more nuance-type changes with products, such as those featuring different scents, rather than vastly different cleaning concepts being introduced.”

Another aspect to business today that is a concern by many is the overall health of the U.S. and global economies. Two main factors remain: high inflation and higher interest rates. Such challenges are keeping many business owners busy planning for tougher days ahead.

“I feel there are basically two ways to deal with a slowdown. One is to play ostrich, put your head in the sand, hunker down and wait for tough times to blow by. The other way is to sell your way out of it, and that is the avenue we are trying to take,” Champagne said. “We (at Beacon Distributors) are going to stay active, remain in communication with customers and show them how we can provide value. We will also continue to search for new customers and maintain tight relationships with vendors. Adding an additional rep this year is another objective, as is looking for new segments in the marketplace, such as industrial, which we have made a real headway in as of late.”

Although challenges are always present when running a company, Champagne said he is very happy be a part of the distribution business.

“It’s a good way to make a living and help people stay healthy. A jan/san distributor offers a lot of products that have a wide appeal,” he said. “I’ve also had the pleasure to give back over the years through participation in the New England Sanitary Supply Association and ISSA. I’m very grateful for all the help I’ve received during my career — including from current and former employees, past employers, and vendors.

“Even today, people still do business with people. There are probably members of the younger generation who think everything is done by computer, but we are still in the people business. If you have a customer’s interest at heart, you will succeed. The best definition of trust that I have ever heard is, ‘Honesty over time.’ I feel that has been one of our hallmarks as a company.”

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