Teamwork, Expansion & Service: A Recipe For Success At Supply Solutions

By Harrell Kerkhoff, Maintenance Sales News Editor

Shown, left to right, are: Miguel Chavez – Purchasing; Arlene Parsons – Finance Manager; Jennifer Garcia – Customer Service; Christina Wassiliew – Customer Service; Dyana Lam – Corporate Accounts; Todd Richardson – Sales; Monica De Nigro – Customer Service Manager; Nicholas Heinle – Driver; Jeffrey Lerma – CEO/President; Jose Diaz – Chief Operating Officer; Michael Marriott – Director of Sales; Aaron Gray – Corporate Accounts; Madison Felien – Sales; Victor Santana – Sales; Orchid Guerrero – Sales; Ted Norimatsu – Product Specialist; Greg Zimmer – Sales; and, Chris Brecker – Sales.

The funny thing about business, as companies grow and become larger within an industry, that growth can leave room in the marketplace for new entrants — often in the form of small startups. Through hard work and determination, success often follows, helping the startups become larger themselves.

Case in point is Supply Solutions, a full line jan/san, packaging, food service, and office supply distributor based in Fullerton, CA, with added distribution in Texas and Arizona.

“I started the company in 2006 after working two years in sales at a large distributorship,” Supply Solutions President, CEO & Founder Jeffrey Lerma said, during a recent interview. “I decided to venture out on my own, beginning the company with a cargo van and a garage. It’s crazy to think about it now, but I loaded products into the van and made deliveries myself. Over the years, the business has moved five times thanks to continual growth and the need for more warehouse space. Eventually, we also expanded into Texas and Arizona.”

Today, Supply Solutions operates its own fleet of trucks and services a region that includes Southern California, Phoenix, AZ, Houston, TX, and Dallas, TX.

“Those are very large locations in terms of population, featuring many business opportunities,” Lerma said. “We currently have approximately 55,000 square feet of overall warehousing space and utilize specialized software to help us manage inventory at each location — with room to grow for future business. We have come a long way from our cargo van and garage days.

“It’s important that our operations keep up with the company’s aggressive sales and growth strategy. I call that a good problem to have. We’ve set up our operations so that we’re never operating at 100 percent capacity. Anytime we bring new customers on board, we know we have the bandwidth from a warehousing and trucking standpoint to properly service those customers. Our company’s key objective is to keep the service level high.”

The distributorship has also grown through acquisitions. A key addition took place at the end of 2023 when it was announced Supply Solutions had purchased Veteran Building Maintenance & Supply (VBM), a Pomona, CA-based distributor of janitorial supplies and equipment with a focus on stone floor care and restoration. With the acquisition, Supply Solutions is now the largest minority-owned jan/san distributor in California, according to Lerma.

VBM was established in 2017 by Jose Diaz, who is now the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Supply Solutions. VBM was featured in the January/February 2022 issue of Maintenance Sales News.

“We are extremely excited to have Jose and his team join the Supply Solutions family. We are building a platform to acquire more companies, and the operational and sales expertise that VBM brings will be an integral part of our plan. I am excited that Jose is staying on as our COO,” Lerma said. “We have spent the first quarter of this year integrating VBM into our fold, which includes its warehouse in Pomona. The process has been wildly successful for us.”

Diaz said, when the acquisition was announced, “VBM was founded upon a customer-focused philosophy that emphasized a ‘whatever it takes’ approach to service. While we were in the process of exploring offers, what really stood out to me was the way Jeff and his team, at Supply Solutions, passionately shared that same philosophy. We felt wholeheartedly that this move would allow us to expand our already high level of service to our clients. The move gives us a unique advantage in the marketplace to use our diversity and creativity to make us a formidable competitor for years to come.”

Lerma and Diaz share similar business backgrounds, with each becoming first-generation owners of jan/san distributorships based in Southern California.

“I think the key part of my own story is that I was in sales for a couple of years and then branched out to start my own business. Jose’s (Diaz) background is similar, allowing us to work well together,” Lerma said. “Overall, I would describe business at Supply Solutions as being great as of late. We are also proud to make the ‘Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Private Companies’ list seven out of the last eight years. It’s something we talk to customers about, giving them confidence we’re big enough to handle their business.”

Part of Supply Solutions’ success surrounds its capability to adapt to changing business conditions, including the abundance of mergers taking place within the jan/san distribution segment.

“Many of our competitors have been purchased by larger players in the market. For us, it’s created an exciting market opportunity. I expect to see significant growth take place over the next couple of years at our distributorship,” Lerma said. “That hopefully includes an additional acquisition or two during the first half of this year.”

Lerma also spoke on the growing value of being “the local distributor.”

“There was a big shift in place for years of larger customers wanting to do business with one distributor for all of their national distribution needs,” he explained. “However, I see the pendulum swinging back in our favor, as a local independent distributor. We can provide such customers with the highest level of service and products.

“(Supply Solutions) is, through-and-through, a traditional jan/san distributorship. We dabble in packaging, office supplies and food service, but the core of what we do centers around traditional jan/san supply — involving sales and distribution. That focus has really worked well. Many of our customers realize there is a true science behind cleaning, one that involves using the proper products and taking advantage of educational and training opportunities. That’s where we find our value, as a distributorship, and what we love doing.”

Supply Solutions’ current customer base includes corporate accounts, building service contractors, public and private education, manufacturing, transportation, and health care.

“Our customers are extremely diverse in what they do, which is great,” Lerma said.

Employees Make The Company

The late American author Dr. Orison Swett Marden was quoted as saying, “No employer today is independent of those about him. He cannot succeed alone, no matter how great his ability or capital. Business today is more than ever a question of cooperation.” That was true when Dr. Marden made his comment well over 100 years ago, and it remains true today. Successful companies rely on successful employees, which according to Lerma, is the foundation of his distributorship’s growth and success.

There are currently 35 people employed at Supply Solutions, with 15 of those employees working as sales reps. To perhaps the astonishment of many, Lerma said it’s never been easier for his company to find good salespeople and other employees.

“People love the culture that we’re building at this company, and we’re getting that message out, helping us find more people to join our team,” Lerma said. “Also, many of our competitors have been purchased by other companies, which leads to an increased talent pool of good candidates. The word seems to be out that Supply Solutions is the place to be, and we are very excited about that. It’s all part of the process to building a great staff of employees.”

He noted it helps when people who join his distributorship have prior work experience in jan/san or related fields.

“We’ve had a few veteran sales reps from the industry join us during the past few months. That puts us in a really good position for continued growth. It can be a challenge to learn everything there is to know about helping people keep their buildings properly cleaned and hygienic. Some people may also feel this is not the most glamorous or exciting industry to work in, especially in comparison to high tech and finance. On the flip side, there is value to working in a stable industry that is more recession and pandemic proof compared to many other industries,” Lerma said. “Selling cleaning supplies is consistent work, and consistency holds value for many people looking to start a career. Selling jan/san products and services may not be trendy, but it’s also not going away.

“As for Supply Solutions, even though it’s a common cliché, we live by the philosophy, ‘If you treat your employees well, they’ll treat your customers well.’ I think my biggest accomplishment is being able to assemble around me what I call ‘the dream team.’ These are employees who have helped our company expand into new markets and geographies, such as Arizona and Texas. They have also built wonderful relationships with corporate clients.”

The end result, Lerma added, is having a solid reputation in place as a valuable partner for customers. That includes providing innovative products.

“We’re always looking for new innovations to share with our customers. We try to be the first to market with innovative products, showing customers how product innovation can help them better succeed and become more efficient. I guess you can say we provide an ‘old school consultative selling approach.’ That allows us to help our customers accomplish their goals. As a distributor, if you can do that, the products themselves become secondary to an extent.”

Lerma added one key area of a distributorship that can get lost in corporate sales is the service aspect. That includes providing the proper level of product education and training for end-customers.

“There are some products we provide that don’t require much or any training. For example, with the office products side of our business, a person does not have to be trained on how to use a highlighter. However, when it comes to jan/san, such as floor care, training is critical. That includes showing a person who is new to the industry how to properly apply floor finish,” Lerma said. “The person also needs to understand how that finish works and how to properly take care of floors once the finish is applied.

“Such distributor-provided training was important when I entered the industry 20 years ago, and it’s still essential today.”

Helping customers find, select, and use environmentally friendly and sustainable products and procedures is another part of business that is important to Lerma and his company. In fact, Lerma is part of the ISSA Sustainability Committee, which assists ISSA members when responding to sustainability requests from their customers. The committee also helps members implement sustainability, efficiency, social equity, and other related business strategies in their own organizations.

The committee includes representatives from all facets of the cleaning value chain, many of whom participate in the committee’s five work groups that focus on Education & Training; Reporting Tools; the ISSA Show North America; International Involvement; and Strategic Planning.

“I want to continually be involved in industry affiliations and give back to the industry. It’s good when fresh faces and fresh ideas become involved. Participation in the ISSA Sustainability Committee has been very educational,” Lerma said. “It’s important to realize that more end-customers today are seeking ways to better track what other companies, as well as themselves, are doing when it comes to using environmentally friendly products and sustainable practices. Most strategic customers and innovative corporations are also wanting to know what the next level of ‘green’ and sustainability looks like. That includes eliminating waste and single-use plastics.

“They are taking it a step further — beyond simply checking a box to show their cleaning chemicals are properly certified. Instead, they are becoming more interested in the entire lifecycle of products. The hope is that organizations creating guidelines for this new focus will continue to evolve.”

He added a distributor can help in the environmental/sustainable improvement process by examining products being used, and procedures in place, at the end-customer level — and then helping such customers make necessary changes.

Pandemic Lessons

The global COVID pandemic may have subsided, but its aftereffects continue to be felt for many people, companies, industries — and society in general. For the cleaning industry, the pandemic has changed how many people view cleaning, the importance of hygiene, and the value of having good suppliers when certain products and services are an absolute necessity.

“The pandemic also highlighted our strength as a company — focusing on Supply Solutions’ ability to service customers of all sizes, but more importantly, our ability to quickly pivot,” Lerma said. “Today, it’s now business as usual — just on a grander scale.

“From a lesson standpoint, what the pandemic did was reiterated the need to be nimble. It’s important that we, as a distributorship, are big enough to properly service customers of all sizes but remain flexible in our ability to move quickly. Customers are really looking for those capabilities.

“It also helps that we, at Supply Solutions, have enabled our employees to work on their own. We show trust in that process. The result has been tremendous growth.”

Working with a varied customer base is also good policy, Lerma said, when operating a distributorship.

“We want to continue that diversity. The same is true with suppliers. We look for suppliers who provide innovative products to help set our distributorship apart from the competition,” Lerma added. “Many suppliers today have new and innovative products and are looking for distributors who are interested in going to market with them. Historically, those type of suppliers have found much success with Supply Solutions.

“I think it’s up to the distributor to seek out the right suppliers who want to build solid business relationships. We’ve recently started new relationships with several manufacturers. That is good news, as those companies have many innovative products which our sales team members love. The main objective is to find and secure additional sales while taking good care of existing customers.

“Overall, we want to disrupt the industry with new products and great service. We also want to be game changers and bring fresh energy to the industry. A key to that is building the right company culture for continued success.”

It’s been cited by many sources that if it were a country, California would have the fifth largest economy among all countries in the world. The Golden State also has the largest population in the United States, and it’s full of away-from-home facilities that need continual maintenance — inside and out. However, there are challenges to doing business in the state.

“Red tape is common when running a business in California. I feel some companies don’t want to come here because of that challenge,” Lerma said. “For those businesses that can deal with the red tape, then California is a good place to work. Conversely, we originally expanded into Texas because some of our key customers moved to that state. As a distributorship, we pivoted to better service those customers at their new homes.”

No matter a company’s location or a person’s standing within a company, giving back to the community is also important. For Lerma, such service comes in the form of being on the City of Hope’s National Business Products Industry Council. City of Hope is a 100-plus-year-old global leader in cancer research, treatment, and prevention, based in Southern California.

“We’re actively getting more people in the janitorial supply industry involved with that great organization to better fight cancer. It’s an effort near and dear to my heart,” Lerma said. “It’s always good when people, and companies, develop a greater focus toward community involvement.”

As for the extended future of his distributorship, the second generation of Lerma family participation is still down the road as his daughter, Reagan, is only seven years old. However, Lerma said he has dreams of seeing her in the business with him someday, adding his favorite title is “Dad,” not “President & CEO.”

“She is the person I strive to make the proudest every day; everything I am building is for her,” he added.

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