Bid Accounts Are Not Just Numbers

June, 2006

Ihor Dlaboha

ID, Ideal Media

Foodservice bid business is not as impersonal and antiseptic as you may think. For the June 2006 ID DSR of the Month, being successful in securing so-called school bid accounts is not a matter of writing the right numbers on a piece of paper, inserting in an envelope, and hoping that other distributors’ proposals are higher.

To be sure, dollars and cents are important. However, Bobby Seher, a 19-year seasoned sales rep with Labatt Food Service, San Antonio, Texas, habitually takes advantage of his warmth, dedication, concern, knowledge, personality and relationship skills to build his highly successful $27 million school business.

Seher’s winning formula can be best summarized by his self-characterization: “I’m a people person.”

“I don’t think that I would be as successful in this niche as I have been without being a people person and enjoying my work with child nutrition directors and the relationships that we have,” Seher elaborated during a recent interview with ID Access. “I have built very strong relationships and not only in business. The way I look at it, if you can get to the heart of the person that you’re talking with, and you can go in and make a sales call and not have it feel like a sales call, then that breaks the ice. Whether it’s talking about family or things that are going on in their lives or my life, it goes a long way in terms of raising the comfort level between you and the foodservice directors or the child nutrition directors.”

Seher, who has a total of 24 years of DSR experience, is totally devoted to the noncommercial side of the aisle. He is 100% dedicated to school foodservice, having opened the north Texas territory for Labatt, a leading regional noncommercial distributorship and No. 12 in the ID Top 50 list. He joined Labatt, a UniPro house, in 1987 and has built his business to include more than 120 school districts in Dallas and the environs. Seher has grown his sales to $27 million and by his estimation he is feeding significantly more than a half a million kids of all ages every week.

“I saw a niche for it in 1990-91,” the former Milwaukee resident said.

Seher started working in foodservice after graduating with a business degree from the University of Arkansas. His first job was managing a restaurant and then he moved to a food brokerage. From there he joined White Swan, which is currently owned by U.S. Foodservice. After that he applied for a job with Labatt Foodservice and was hired after being interviewed by Blair Labatt, president, and Al Silva, general manager.

Early in his DSR career, he had called on restaurants and other accounts but he saw a gaping hole in Labatt’s market coverage in Dallas.

“There was nobody from Labatt calling on schools in the Dallas market. I started with a few accounts and built very strong relationships with foodservice directors. My business snowballed from there. Word hit the street that there was another distributor in town that was doing a good job servicing the accounts and giving them the best value and best product,” Seher recalled.

Seher was the second person assigned to the Dallas market, where Labatt then only maintained a sales office and deliveries arrived from the San Antonio distribution center. Today, after three expansions, Labatt operates a large, full-service warehouse in Dallas.

Seher, himself, had experienced a great deal of food and foodservice training in his career, which he regularly taps to provide his accounts with the most practical products for their kids.

“Through the years, I’ve done it all. I haven’t driven a truck but I was on a truck, when I started up here, in Dallas. I helped the drivers unload the trucks so I can be in the back of the house with my accounts and see how things were going. Anytime somebody is hired at Labatt – new salespeople in training, they ride on trucks and work with the night crew pulling orders so that they can see every step from placing orders to deliveries,” he said.

Early in his work with Dallas schools, Seher had to rely on his bid-writing skills since the distributorship had not yet create a formal bid department. He remembered that he stayed up until the wee hours of the night preparing bids based on prices provided to him by a staffer in San Antonio.

“That has now transitioned into the relationships that I created. Sometimes the accounts go over the bid process. I have had bids in the past which may have been high but we were awarded the contract based on my strong relationship with the account, and our second-to-none service and quality,” Seher said.

Seher is actively involved in the bidding process, frequently suggesting products that he knows will work better for one particular school district but not another one. He also reviews his company’s bids to make sure everything is the way he knows it should be.

“The bid department gathers information on particular items, taking into account many options. For example, canned peaches. We may have five options to price and we’ll pick the best value for the school district. However, based on my relationship with this school district, I may know that that item may not work for them or they may not like that particular brand and may like another one. Once they have put the bid report together, my job is to go through it item by item and check if the selected items are correct for that district,” he said.

Seher said he was granted this high level of trustworthiness by the school districts and Labatt because of his track record of service.

“Our bid department’s job is to put together what they feel is the best bid. Not being with those districts, those people may not know that a particular item that they are choosing is not an acceptable item for that district. But I would know that. I have full authority to make any change on any item on a bid,” he said.

Seher services a diverse range of school districts, including a quaint one-house school district to one with 64 locations. The students range from kindergarten age through elementary grades, junior high school, middle school and high school. His largest district has an enrollment of 30,000-40,000 kids. While he services districts to the north, east and south of Dallas, his recently hired junior associate, Brian Woodley, calls on the western region, a sign of expansion, as he called it.

“We don’t have a school district that we split with anyone else. Every district that we service, we do so as a single source. We are sole distributor for district,” Seher said.

In recent years healthy eating has become not only a popular social trend but local governments have also been mandating that schools adhere to healthier menus. Seher is assisted in this effort by an in-house staff of specialists who work in conjunction with manufacturers and the distributorship to prepare a suitable array of products. When new items are launched, Seher uses the specialists to visit schools, conduct focus groups with kids and get their feedback on the offerings.

Admitting that he isn’t a dietician, Seher provides as much information about healthy products and their ingredients as he can when school foodservice directors question him.

“There are Texas dietary requirements that are very stringent and ever changing in terms of what the districts are allowed to serve the children, including portion size, sugar content, etc. We offer all of that information to school districts. When new items come along, we have a TDA nutrient analysis binder for the districts that shows exactly what they need to know about the products’ ingredients,” Seher said.

He sees a difference in eating habits among school children. Older ones, in middle and senior high schools, who are more susceptible to advertisements, are more discriminating buyers and choose chicken strips, french fries, pizzas and burgers.

“Elementary school children are not yet at that level. They feel that what’s put in front of them is what they’re supposed to eat,” he said.

Manufacturers are supporting this healthy-eating trend by offering an ample amount of products for school lunchrooms. Seher said when dietary guidelines began to change a couple of years ago, suppliers immediately started to develop healthier products that would conform to new regulations. Consequently, school menus offered low-fat pizza, whole grain crust and no trans-fat french fries.

“Manufacturers adapted their products to new guidelines so that a la carte items for older children changed while the menus remained the same,” he said.

You would think that a DSR’s life got tougher with all of these new rules and regulations. However, Seher does not feel that way.

“The regulations haven’t changed my work a lot. We still have to stay on top of the food while working with the districts in terms of new items that are being introduced to meet new dietary guidelines. Other than that, my job as a DSR, working with districts, really has not changed on a day-to-day basis. What we work with has changed,” Seher pointed out.

Wouldn’t he rather work in the more trendier independent restaurant side of the business? On the contrary, Seher is quite pleased and invigorated working with school foodservice directors, thank you.

“I go back to relationships that I have. I’m excited about them everyday because I have relationships within these schools that I’ve had since I started doing school business 12 years ago. I look forward everyday to continuing these relationships and expanding them from one person in one district to another district and another person that we presently don’t have,” he said.

Not only is he driven by his relationship-building skills, Seher is further motivated by Labatt’s sales strategy, which he described as being “very strong on relationship selling.”

“It may take a year to accomplish a sale by building that relationship. But once you’ve done that and worked at it for a year, just think how strong the relationship will be,” he said.

Labatt provides its school accounts with a rich website, where foodservice directors not only can surf to learn about the latest food trends and regulations but also place their orders.

“They can get velocity reports on how many products they bought from a manufacturer in a particular period of time,” he said.

While Seher feels that he has more than 90% of the north Texas territory covered, his growth will come from districts that he still hasn’t contracted as well as those that are expanding. And expansion has been good for him. Seher said one district that he has been working with regularly grew from an original seven schools to 27 next year.

“In terms of expanding and growing the business, there are districts in the north Texas market where I’m still in the process of working the relationship, trying to work the sale, and get to the point where not only is there a relationship but everything that Labatt Food Service has to offer them in terms of value meets their needs,” he indicated.

And what is that point? Comfort, he replies – making sure existing customers and prospects are at ease with him, the distributorship and its inventory.

“You’re not always going to be the cheapest in a bid situation. I try to get the accounts to the point where they are comfortable with items that we carry and we only sell national brands. We do more product testing and build relationships whether they’re with me or with Labatt as a package,” he said.

With summer vacation just around the corner, we asked what do DSRs who sell schools do when they close for three months. Apparently there is no rest for the weary sales rep.

“There are trade shows in June and our own food show in middle of the month. June is also spent getting opening orders from school districts. We try to get opening orders before they leave for the summer and input them into the system so buyers know what to buy for the schools in August. July is spent getting ready for school to start. Our first deliveries take place during the last week of July or first week of August. The sales aren’t there for me, but there is no downtime as well. It’s gotten to be a year-round business,” Seher said.

As for his goals, Seher said he had thought about moving into management and even spoke about it with Labatt and Silva.

“And here I am, 19 years later, doing $1 million a week in sales with schools. I’m really comfortable. As for career goals, how far do you have to go when you already love what you do; how far can you go past that?” he reflected.