AM Route Driver Of The Year: Nina Williams

Nina Williams’ record at a glance

Years as Route Driver: 12
Percentage of Company Sales in 2008: 6.8%
Product Waste: 1.3%
Miles Per Day: 120
Driving Citations or Accidents: 0

A good route driver takes the time needed to service the location properly. An outstanding route driver takes the job personally and goes above and beyond what is expected, establishing rapport with the customer and keeping machines clean, filled and working.

Then there is the super outstanding route driver; one who lives, eats and sleeps the job. This is the type of driver the average vending manager will rarely see over the course of a lifetime. The type of route driver who arranges his or her personal life around the job.

Nina Williams of Mid-South Food Services in Aberdeen, N.C., is a super outstanding route driver. The 2008 Automatic Merchandiser Route Driver of the Year, Williams is someone that most vending managers can only wish to have on their team.

Williams is the fifth Automatic Merchandiser Route Driver of the Year and the first female to win the honor. She was nominated by Larry Pugh, general manager of Mid-South Food Service. The annual contest is sponsored by Kraft Vending & OCS.

EXCEPTIONAL COMMITMENT

When employees were stranded at a location on account of a winter storm, Williams got ahold of a tractor and plowed through 14 inches of snow to get them food.

In 1999, when she gave birth to her son, Brandon, she was on the job the day before going into labor.

It is not unusual for Williams to drive to one of her biggest accounts on Sunday afternoon after attending church to fill machines.

Williams, 40, lives and breathes every moment to make her machines sparkle, filled with products customers want. Her mission: to make herself, her manager and her company look good to every person who enters the break room.

Williams is the most productive driver for a company whose routes well exceed the national average, based on the National Automatic Merchandising Association’s Operating Ratio Report. She has never lost an account for service reasons.

BEGINNING IN THE TEXTILE TRADE

Resourceful and dedicated, Williams credits her first job in one of the local textile mills for teaching her how to be a productive worker. In the textile mill, she was paid based on her productivity. She taught herself how to make the best use of her time. “I’m a schedule person,” she explained. “I just like to have everything done.” That job was limiting in terms of financial growth, however. After seven years on the job, she was ready for a better opportunity.

Williams heard about a route job at Carolina Vendors in Biscoe, N.C. when a long-time driver was retiring. She didn’t know much about vending, but she reasoned that it had to be a pretty good job if the person retiring had stayed there close to 20 years. “I just knew it was such a better job than what I had in that hosiery mill,” she said.

Williams applied for the position at Central Carolina Vendors and was hired. The supervisor taught her the driver’s responsibilities and told her that she needed to spend as much time as necessary to get the job done.

DRIVER ROLE: MORE RESPONSIBILITY AND OPPORTUNITY

Williams realized there was a lot to remember about the machines and the products that went in them. There was also a lot of paper work; collection tickets, food stale forms, and menus. But she nevertheless liked the job immediately. “You’re pretty much on your own,” she said. “I never had a job like that.”

Williams realized the job had its challenges. Mainly being personable at all times when interacting with customers. But the challenge inspired her. “You’ve got to have that determination,” she said. “You’re the sales person.”

Since the pay was partially based on commission, Williams realized she had some control over her compensation, and she liked that. She was fortunate in that her supervisor was very thorough in teaching her how to fill and clean the machines.

LEARNING ON THE JOB

Williams realized she needed to learn what products would sell best. This was something she had to learn over time. She made it a point to talk with customers and ask them what they liked.

Williams learned the importance of trying as many new products as possible. She learned not to make assumptions about what people want or would pay.

She admitted she was skeptical when someone asked for a tuna/cracker kit that carried a $2.25 price tag, but it sold out in one day. More recently, she was pleasantly surprised to see that people would pay $2.25 for an energy drink.

“It’s just amazing how the ladies like coconut donuts and the men like white powdered donuts,” she said.

Her biggest account is the third shift of a production facility that requires her to start work at 10:30 p.m. Working the third shift fit into her personal schedule. She is able to get home in time to be with her family before her husband goes to work. She is also able to attend her son’s baseball games before heading to work.

“I love the 3 a.m. shift,” Williams said.

The employees at the account appreciate seeing her as well; for them, it is a fairly lonely shift and there are no restaurants open on the way to work.

When customers request products, she tries to get them the next day. If she can’t, she let’s them know she’s working on it. “When I see this guy walking in the break room, I want him to know I’m on top of it,” she said.

She was thrilled the first time an account gave her the key to the building so she could service the machines sooner.

“When I go on vacation, I want them to miss me,” she said. “I want them to know that when I left there was a hole. Nobody can fill my shoes like me.”

Williams had been working at Central Carolina Vendors for seven years in 2002 when the general manager informed her one morning that the company was being sold. He assured her that everyone who wanted to keep their job would have the opportunity to stay with the new owner.

The new owner, Mid-South Food Services, required a longer commute to get to work, but the new owner brought some new opportunities.

Williams was allowed to keep most of her existing stops, and was given a larger vehicle, which made the job easier.

NEW OWNERS COME FORWARD WITH SUPPORT

She also liked the new management. Larry Pugh, general manager, and Jim Loftin, operations manager, welcomed Williams and her colleagues graciously, providing them with their cell phone numbers. She said having managers that make you feel you can talk to them is very important. “They welcomed us with open arms,” Williams said.

One key difference was that Mid-South Food Services had very few female employees. Williams and her female co-workers felt challenged to prove they could be part of the team, which they did. “We had to show them we could do it,” she said.

Another difference was that Mid-South Food Services does not operate a dedicated beverage vehicle. Hence, Williams had to load beverages in addition to snacks, coffee and food, but she also made more money.

Mid-South Food Services’ commissary, the only local commissary in Aberdeen, was a welcome change for Williams. The commissary offers a different menu seven days a week, and the weekly menu changes quarterly. She noted that the quality of the food is superior to the fast food restaurants in the area, and the prices are competitive.

“It was a nice change,” she said.

ASTUTE SUGGESTION: 20-OUNCE BOTTLES

Williams had noticed that 20-ounce bottles were becoming more popular. She noticed that the convenience stores were already carrying 20-ounce beverages.

Soon after the acquisition, she suggested that her biggest account get a bottle drink machine in addition to the can and cup machine. Pugh accommodated, and the bottles brought incremental sales.

The bottle beverage machine allowed the company to provide a higher price point for beverages and still charge less than what convenience stores charged.

“They (the employees) went crazy over that bottle machine,” Williams said. According to Pugh, the bottle machine brought in $2,500 in incremental sales in its first month.

That account, which has two carousel food machines, two bottle beverage machines, one can beverage machine, a post-mix cup beverage machine, a coffee machine, two snack machines and a bill changer, now does about $250,000 per year, Pugh said.

COVERING THE ROLE OF A FULL-TIME ATTENDANT

Normally, the company assigns a full-time attendant for an account of that size. Williams, with her outstanding organizational and interpersonal skills, is able to service the account in two hours as part of her daily routine. Hence, the account is exceptionally profitable for the company.

Williams realized that with the bigger truck, she could service more stops. One day, she heard that people were visiting a closed textile plant in the area. She found out that an out-of-state automotive product manufacturer was going to operate the plant, so she told Pugh. It soon became one of her stops.

“Whenever I hear anything, I call Larry or Jimmy and say we better get in there,” she said.

“Early on, we recognized that she liked to make money,” Pugh said of Williams. This translated into exceptional dedication. “If they (people at the location) are working, she fills the machines,” said. He said Williams asks him when bids are coming up for renewal at accounts they are hoping to get.

KEY DRIVER TRAIT: SELF CONFIDENCE

The biggest challenge of all for Williams is one faced by many working mothers: balancing her time between work and family. “You’ve got to keep your people happy,” she said. To her, this includes customers, co-workers and her immediate family. Williams feels lucky that she has a job that allows her the flexibility to manage her time as she sees fit.

“If I look good, Larry and Jim look good, and they’re so good to me. I want to be able to do such a good job,” she said. “I want them to be happy with the choice they made.”

“She does it without having to be asked or told,” said Pugh. “She takes the initiative herself. She’s always looking for new business. She’s always watchful for any activity in her market.”

About the contest

Automatic Merchandiser invited its readers to submit nominations for the Route Driver of the Year in ads in the magazine, in an email and on its Website. Operators were asked to explain in writing why the driver deserved recognition based on sales performance, professionalism, proficiency, safety record, customer service and outstanding qualities.

Close to 60 nominations were submitted. The nominations were reviewed by Automatic Merchandiser’s staff. Once the nominations were pared to about 12, a numerical rating was used to determine the winner.

The winner, Nina Williams, will be honored at a special reception at the National Automatic Merchandising Association National Expo in St. Louis, Mo. She and her spouse will also receive an expense paid trip to Las Vegas.

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