Best Practices DSR mentoring reaps rewards

January, 2002

Stephanie Salkin

Labatt Food Service, San Antonio, Texas, enjoys great success with its sales force in terms of percentage sales increases, retention, and attitude, thanks to a DSR mentoring program.

Any DSRs on the force of approximately 60 who ring up $5 million or more can become a “mentor.” They get a rookie “mentee” with whom to work, in effect as an apprentice. The new DSR spends 1 and ½ to two years with the experienced DSR, working as a full-time assistant The apprentice DSR travels with the mentor, makes presentations, and makes hot-shot deliveries. After about two years, the mentee gets his or her own territory, carved out of that of the mentor. Thus, the new DSR has had a hand in developing the route, and the more seasoned rep is free to further penetrate his own accounts and territory.

“Our experienced DSRs need a mentee once their volume gets as large as $5 million,” points out Al Silva, Labatt’s general manager. “They can build the territory together for two years and then develop a new one out of the original.”

The mentor maintains his connection with the mentee for several more years, to monitor progress, in effect making it a five-year program. Silva adds, “It is a win-win for both. The mentor is compensated for this involvement, and the mentee picks up the best habits and learns how to anticipate and solve problems.”

The result: robust sales growth and a sales force retention rate of 90 percent. “The mentees of two to three years ago are some of our best people now,” Silva notes. “Eight or nine of them are writing $2 to $5 million in business.”

Silva credits this program for helping Labatt to achieve exceptional sales growth last year. In fact, the independent broadliner ranked fourth in size of percentage increase in ID’s Top 50 for 2001, with a 33.5 percent gain. This was mostly attributable to internal growth. Thus, the sales force helped to catapult Labatt from the 20th to the 14th largest broadliner in the U.S., at $339 million in sales.

The mentoring program was launched approximately four years ago, to ensure success with raw recruits, as Labatt does not believe in hiring experienced DSRs from competitors. “It’s hard to get new people into the industry,” Silva observes. “There are no degrees in foodservice distribution.”

The downside of hiring straight out of school is that inexperienced recruits can “burn up” without adequate guidance, Silva points out. Not only does a mentor help prevent sink-or-swim failure but helps the mentee in other important facets of life and career, such as where to live, what kind of car to get, how to dress, and how to talk to people. “This develops a strong foundation, as opposed to hiring someone who has been abused somewhere else or has become too rigid in his approach.”

This year, Labatt plans to add 10 more mentees. “In five to 10 years, our force will be better than anyone else’s, says Silva.