Assisting him was his girlfriend and business partner, Suzanne Suwanda, who handles the bookkeeping, accounts receivable, accounts payable and money counting.
The business was not bringing in enough profit to support the lifestyle he was used to, so he supplemented his income by selling cars to automobile wholesalers.
He was working a total 80 hours a week to support himself and keep the business afloat.
A FOCUS ON CUSTOMER SERVICE
Cornelius believes his background in car sales was helpful in establishing good relationships with customers. He notes that the auto industry places a lot more emphasis on customer service training than the vending industry. “We (in the auto industry) are constantly training our people and checking their attitudes,” he said.
He gave all his customers his mobile phone number.
“If a customer calls me and says, ‘Hey Robert, we want this item,’ I’ll make a special trip and take it to them,” he said. “I build relationships with the customer.”
He made sure not to raise his prices until he felt that the customer relationship was well established. “I would wait until people were saying to me, ‘We’re glad you’re our vendor now,’” he said.
Running the route himself and selling cars on the side, Cornelius didn’t have time to solicit new accounts. So he made it a point to tell his existing accounts that he was looking for more business.
After three months, he began to get new accounts from existing customer referrals. “They (the customers) helped me,” he said.
Cornelius had some idea what dollar volume he needed for an account to turn a profit. He told his new accounts that if they didn’t reach this figure, he would require a subsidy or also include OCS.
Cornelius learned that many operators are quick to turn away accounts if they have fewer than 30 people. He, on the other hand, tries to find a way to make an account profitable.
IN SEARCH OF QUALIFIED HELP
Cornelius knew he needed someone to help him. One day, he called an employee of one of the national vending operations for advice on how to repair a machine. He realized that this man, Mike Johnson, had a lot of experience in vending operations. Johnson had been a mechanic, driver, warehouse supervisor and route supervisor in his 27 years with the three nationals and a large regional vending operation.
Cornelius offered Johnson a job, but was turned down. Johnson said he didn’t think Cornelius could afford him.
In response, Cornelius offered to match Johnson’s existing compensation and the chance to be a manager and share in future profits. Johnson liked the offer, and became Cornelius’s first employee.
“He felt he had more to offer than what he would get in a corporate environment,” Cornelius said of Johnson. “In exchange, I needed a guy who had the connections and knew the accepted way of doing things. Just the nuts and bolts, day to day, what to do. Where do you go to get parts? How do you get things fixed? These are common everyday things that I had no idea how to do. The skills he (Johnson) had matched the skills I lacked.”
Cornelius credits Johnson for helping him get a better handle on the cost of repairing machines and buying and selling machines. “That was a big help for me,” Cornelius said.
“I was able to parlay his (Johnson’s) connections into business possibilities,” he added. “That allowed me to work on getting new accounts.”
THE TEAM BUILDING BEGINS
Johnson, for his part, was familiar with Cornelius’ background in the auto business.
He knew Cornelius didn’t know a lot about vending, but he also recognized Cornelius was committed to being a professional.
After visiting Cornelius’ warehouse and some of his locations, Johnson noticed that Cornelius paid attention to details, such as having professional looking labels on all packages, having all machines’ lights working, and having all clean, filled and working machines. “He did his research,” Johnson said of Cornelius.
“He’s also a superb salesman,” Johnson added. “Robert listens and understands what they (customers) are asking for. He has the clients really tell him what they’re looking for.”