All in the family Featured

12:06pm EDT March 11, 2004
When Nathan Wasserstrom founded in 1902 what would eventually become the Wasserstrom group of businesses, he peddled merchandise from a single cart and put his eight sons to work. Today, more than 100 years later, members of Wasserstrom's family still run the various entities.

The Wasserstrom Co. is divided into three main business units; brothers Alan and Reid Wasserstrom run two, and their cousin, Rodney, heads the third. As president and CEO of The Wasserstrom Co., Rodney oversees the company's distribution business. Alan, president and CEO of N. Wasserstrom & Sons Inc., runs the factories. And Reid, president of Wasserstrom Realty, is in charge of real estate.

This equality is part of the 1,200-employee foodservice equipment and supplier's strategy -- a strategy that has kept the company privately held and helped it weather Prohibition, the Great Depression and globalization.

Family has always been at the center of Wasserstrom, and by the time Alan, Rodney and Reid joined the company as part of its third generation in the early 1950s, there were numerous family members among the 50 associates the firm employed.

"I can remember the aunts helping us unpack and settle in when we moved to this building," says Reid.

But the Wasserstroms' strong family identity isn't limited to their own flesh and blood, says Alan.

"We have a sense of family with our associates, our clients and our vendors," he says. "And that sense is the centerpiece of why we are what we are."

That sense of family also extends to treating employees well.

"They are our family, too," says Rodney. "And that's how we need to feel if we're going to have a viable company going forward."

That attitude is part of the reason you'll find more than one generation of Wasserstrom staffers among the company's employees.

Says Rodney, "Many of our associates have children that are now working in the business."

All of this has helped Wasserstrom thrive. Last year, the company posted $296 million in sales and was ranked the second largest company nationwide in its industry. The Wasserstrom Co. was chosen Dealer of the Year by Foodservice Equipment & Supplies magazine in 2002, and is the only company to win this title twice.

Like their fathers, Rodney, Alan and Reid Wasserstrom operate the business by adhering as closely as possible to grandfather Nathan's foundation of family unity while also embracing new technologies and adapting to changing times.

"You couldn't be great if you didn't change," says Alan. "We want to maintain that sense of history and still stay ahead of industry and technology trends."

A national explosion

The company's growth is due in part to the explosion of multi-unit restaurants in the late 1960s and throughout the '70s. Simply put, the Wasserstroms found themselves at the right place at the right time, with the right attitude.

"The emergence of chain restaurants was the single biggest industry event that changed us," Alan says, enabling Wasserstrom to become a national player.

And, when one of the original chains, Burger Boy Fooderama, approached the company in search of equipment for six store openings, Sidney Wasserstrom, Alan's uncle and president of N. Wasserstrom & Sons, told him to say, "Yes," no matter what the contract requirements were.

"We wanted to grow with our customers," Rodney says.

And the company has, as national expansion has translated into expanded facilities. The Wasserstroms recognized that to provide top-notch service to their newly signed chain clients, they needed facilities located across the country. That realization was diametrically opposed to the earlier thinking among the family members, says Alan.

"The uncles used to get in a car every Sunday morning and look at everything we owned," he says. "If they couldn't see it in half an hour, they didn't want it. We were really breaking the mold with our expansion."

Today, things are different. Wasserstrom operates factories in Ohio, South Carolina, Arizona and Caracas, Venezuela. There are distribution centers in Ohio, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Texas and Oklahoma, and the company operates sales offices in various cities, including Las Vegas and New Orleans. In addition, it operates retail "cash and carry" stores in Columbus, Cincinnati and Dayton, and a National Office Warehouse store in Columbus.

The bulk of Wasserstrom's business now originates outside its hometown of Columbus.

"Eighty-five percent of our business comes from outside Central Ohio," Alan says, "although our roots are clearly in Columbus."

The company's product and service line has also changed. On the equipment side, a single restaurant or chain of hundreds can order custom-designed and fabricated equipment or choose items - available through its catalog -- from the company's superstore. Wasserstrom also sells smallware products like china, flatware and utensils. More than 35,000 items are available to the customers that include hospitals, supermarkets and convenience stores.

"Our fathers recognized that the supermarket is an extension of the restaurant industry and built some equipment for that market," says Rodney. "And that industry continues to have huge growth.

The nontraditional market is also growing. Who would've thought that there'd be so many restaurants in airports and university food courts? Anyplace you go, you need food and drink."

Keeping extended family together

Running a large, national operation brings an unique set of challenges to a family-owned business, especially one that works hard to maintain its tight-knit family identity.

"The challenges have come with so much personal and professional growth," says Alan, "marshalling the company through its smaller size to its current size."

The Wasserstroms say that preserving that family feeling requires a personal touch - something not so easy to provide in these days of doing more with less, and in a shorter period of time.

"The money you pay employees is important," Rodney says. "But associates also want to feel appreciated, and hear the words 'thank you.' Those words aren't used enough."

Adds Alan, "Many companies have recognition programs, but it takes a committed leadership to get to know as many folks as you can."

This means spending a considerable amount of time on the road and in the air, visiting facilities, stores and warehouses, and meeting employees.

"We try to talk with people one-on-one, every day," says Rodney. "We don't blast an e-mail. That's a sterile form of communication with less intimacy."

The Wasserstroms also pride themselves on their refusal to manage "by the numbers."

"Being a family-held business, we don't have quarterly or monthly numbers that someone else reviews," Alan says. "We base our decisions on the long-term goals. We may not know the ROI of a particular change. It's a different approach."

Skeptics might wonder how the company operates efficiently without one clear leader making final decisions. But after nearly 50 years in the business, Alan, Rodney and Reid have learned how to effectively get along and come to a consensus.

"We're open to listening to each other," Rodney says. "We are open-minded enough to listen first. And each of us has different strengths and personalities."

Alan puts it another way.

"We're all human beings," he says. "But we don't have huge egos. Egos have the ability to destroy anyone, especially family. We got past the ego piece and realized that 1,000 or 100 are stronger than one, and the better good is accomplished."

Reid agrees.

"We've spent our entire lives together; it's like being married," he says. "As you grow up and mature, you are more sensitive to each other."

Alan sums up the situation best.

"A lot of CEOs are isolated from the operations of the company," he says. "They become bigger than the business."

And that, he maintains, is not likely to happen to the Wasserstroms any time soon. Especially with four members of the fourth generation poised to take over.

How to reach: The Wasserstrom Co., (614) 228-6525 or www.wasserstrom.com