Industry veteran Keith Bottorff is encouraged by the commitment of independent operators to new technology. This investment is happening faster than he had expected.
The vending industry is facing some challenges, but that doesn’t discourage Keith Bottorff. In the more than 25 years he’s been in the confections industry, Bottorff, owner of Suchart Vend Brokerage LLC, based in Overland Park, Kan., has learned that change is part of the business, and if you like the business and work hard, it’s good to you.
Bottorff, the 2009 Automatic Merchandiser Broker of the Year, spent several years on the manufacturer side of the confection industry before getting into the broker side, and he considers himself lucky to have made that move.
Bottorff got into the vending industry in the early 1990s, when many national name brand manufacturers were beginning to discover it. His brokerage was able to enjoy several years of solid growth before the recession hit.
Bottorff thinks the vending industry has a few more tough years to weather, but in the not-too-distant future, he predicts better profitability.
One thing Bottorff hopes will not change is the importance of personal relationships. This is something that has always been important in vending.
“Relationships still matter in this industry,” he said.
BEGINNING AS A CANDY MANUFACTURER SALES MANAGER
When the late Bill Suchart started his vend brokerage in 1983, Bottorff was working as a regional sales manager for Ragold Confections, a manufacturer of sugar-free mints. He was based in Kansas City, Kan., and had already worked for Topps Co. Inc., a manufacturer of bazooka gum, and Storck, a candy maker based in Berlin, Germany.
In 1983, Bill Suchart was looking to sell his candy and tobacco wholesale product brokerage to launch something that was unheard of in Kansas City: a vend product brokerage.
Bottorff had managed broker teams at Ragold Confections, and he was anxious to move into that side of the business. He and a partner, Dave Lerner, bought Suchart’s candy and tobacco wholesale brokerage business while Suchart became Kansas City’s first dedicated vend product broker.
During the 1980s, many candy and tobacco wholesalers consolidated, diminishing Bottorrff’s and Lerner’s brokerage business. Fortunately, Suchart was looking to retire, so Bottorff and another partner, the late Judy Tramill, bought Suchart’s vend brokerage in 1991.
This was fortuitous timing, since dedicated vend product distributors were just getting established in Kansas City. In addition, the big product manufacturers were discovering the vending channel. “The timing was really good,” Bottorff said. “It was a nice time to be in the vending brokerage business. Prior to that, a lot of it (vend product) was secondary brands.” He remembers introducing Oscar Mayer Lunchables and Kellogg Nutrigrain to vending.
After one year owning the vend brokerage, Bottorff and Tramill hired their first full-time employee.
Bottorff immediately preferred vending to candy and tobacco wholesalers. In selling to vending operators, he more often dealt directly with company owners. Hence, it was and is a more personal relationship than some venues.
KEY RESOURCE: NATIONAL VEND BROKERS ASSOCIATION
The National Vend Brokers Association (NVBA) was an important group for dedicated vend brokers such as Bottorff. It gave them a forum for sharing contacts and ideas. “I got to learn from people all over the country,” Bottorff said. For product manufacturers, NVBA provided ready access to the vending channel.
Sales doubled every year for the company for several years.
This past year has been the first year the company’s sales have not increased, but Bottorff isn’t discouraged. He recognizes that the recession has slowed business.
Another challenge has been the requirement to provide “better for you” products. While the demand for these items began in the schools, it has carried into business and industrial accounts, and it has impacted sales.
In time, Bottorff thinks consumers will begin to buy more of the “better for you” products that vending operators sell, which will lift sales.
TECHNOLOGY PROMISES GROWTH
The vending industry, in his view, is regrouping, and he is encouraged by what he sees.
Bottorff believes that technology promises a new era for vending. And he is encouraged by the number of operators who have embraced pre-kitting, remote machine monitoring and cashless transactions.
“The technology advances are coming faster than anticipated,” he said. He expects it will be the larger independent operators, not the nationals, who will bring new technology to market. “Technology is the answer,” he said.
In the years he’s been in the vending industry, Bottorff has seen operator professionalism improve, and he believes technology will augment this change.
He is among the brokers who have accessed third party data providers to develop sales data for vending operators.
One thing Bottorff has noticed is the resilience of many independent operators. The independents have been less affected by the recession than the nationals, he said, since the accounts the independents service have not laid off as many workers as the big locations that the nationals serve.
“In our market, the independents are definitely holding their own,” he said.
Bottorff encourages operators to recognize that product manufacturers want them, the operators, to use technology since they, the manufacturers, need it to be able to track sales better. If more operators use technology, the manufacturers will invest more of their resources in the vending channel, Bottorff said.
“Manufacturers respond well to operators that embrace new technology,” he said.
THE INDUSTRY REWARDS DEDICATED MEMBERS
In the meantime, Bottorff is also optimistic due to the better products that manufacturers are offering to the vending channel. “I love the variety of things we get to sell,” he said. “And working with my team of dedicated professionals makes it all much more satisfying and productive.” In addition, “Relationships still matter in this industry,” he said.