AM Route Driver of the Year: Paul Housman

Paul Housman is a class act. The 40-year-old father of two carries himself with a sense of dignity and there is a look of peaceful serenity in his eyes. He dresses casually, is neat and clean, and despite being constantly exposed to snacks and refreshments, has the waistline of a man half his age.

Spend a few minutes with Housman, and you learn that the quiet, reserved gentleman takes great pride in his work. His personal philosophy is that you get out of life what you put into it. After 18 years in the vending industry, Housman has put in quite a lot and gained a rewarding life in return. As the lead driver for a fast growing vending operation in Newport News, Va., he enjoys the freedom of managing his own schedule and the respect of his employer, his co-workers and his customers.

Housman, the winner of the fourth annual Automatic Merchandiser Route Driver of the Year Award, has excelled in his field out of love for the job and his commitment to pleasing his customers. He appreciates the freedom that being a vending route driver provides him, and the sense of family at Peninsula Vending Services in Newport News, Va.

Housman was nominated for the honor by his employers, partners Greg Whitehead and Jason Banwart, who credit him for taking their business to a higher level of professionalism. Having purchased Peninsula Vending in 2001, the new owners have more than quadrupled sales in the past six years. They feel fortunate to have met Housman at a time when they needed a seasoned driver. Whitehead and Banwart were not vending veterans, so they were receptive to advice from a trusted source like Paul Housman.

Housman offers a wealth of knowledge

Housman has taught Peninsula Vending's staff better ways to merchandise machines, organize the warehouse, and load the trucks. The most important lesson, the partners agree, has been his uncompromised commitment to pleasing customers. Because of Housman, the company continues to provide a high level of customer service that the owners know is necessary to succeed in vending. Housman is the rare driver who will take a call at home on a Sunday and deliver a case of soda to a customer.

“He is a critical contributor to our company's high customer service standards, financial success, and to our future stability,” said Whitehead. “He is unfailingly courteous to our customers, and by devoting his attention to their needs, he has brought every account that he services to all-time peak sales levels.”

Strong work ethic instilled at an early age

Housman was influenced as a youngster by his mother, a manager for a manufacturing company, and his uncle, who operated gasoline stations. Both demonstrated a high level of commitment to their work and instilled in Housman a strong work ethic. “I always admired them,” he said. After graduating from high school in Gloucester, Va., Housman went to work for his uncle in one of his service stations.

When his uncle sold his service station business, Housman took a job as a vending route driver with a local vending company. Housman, who had recently married, liked the vending business and he immediately enjoyed working as a route driver. He was trained by a supervisor whom he remembers as demanding but fair. “You either learned it and did it the right way, or you were ‘done,'” Housman recalled.

Change in employment

When Housman met Whitehead and Banwart two years ago, he admired their commitment to customer service. He was ready for a chance to work for a smaller company where he might find greater independence and opportunities. When they offered him a job at their fast growing company, he accepted. “It was the best decision I ever made,” he said. “The company makes it worth my while. They've got a great philosophy. I feel a sense of obligation to make the company money that's paying me my paycheck.”

By hiring Housman, Whitehead was able to devote more of his time to managing the company. Little did he know that sales in the accounts Housman serviced would increase so dramatically. Housman's route generates about $500,000 per year.

Attention to merchandising

“He really looks out for the way the machines are merchandised,” Whitehead said. Housman constantly rotates products in spirals that do not perform well. He believes strongly in experimenting with new products. “Even if you think it won't sell, you should try it,” Housman said. According to Housman, variety is key to maximizing snack and candy sales. He himself was surprised by how well bottled water has sold.

Whitehead and Banwart watched the way in which Housman loaded his totes and were impressed that he was able to do it so quickly without damaging the product. He also loaded more variety on his truck than other drivers to make sure the machines offered choices to the account employees. Housman shared his strategy with the other drivers.

They appreciated his suggestion that all rooms inside the warehouse should be locked at the end of the day. This was a security precaution they hadn't considered.

They also appreciated it when they noticed that Housman took it upon himself to make sure a malfunction at an account was taken care of as soon as possible. If he couldn't fix a problem himself, he took it upon himself to make sure someone else would get to the location as soon as possible rather than simply leaving a message for one of the owners.

Commitment to his job

Whitehead and Banwart are impressed that he starts his day at 4 a.m. and frequently does not finish until late afternoon. “If you're going to make a decent living in this business, you have to be able to work some long hours,” Housman explained. This kind of dedication is essential to being a great route driver, but the company philosophy encompasses an even greater commitment to family.

“Above everything else, your family is the most important aspect of your life” Whitehead said. If one of the route drivers has a family emergency, the employee knows that the company will respond to that need.

While Housman puts in a long day, he doesn't try to make up for it by cutting any corners while driving his truck, which is why he has never had a traffic violation. He has witnessed his fair share of accidents over the years, and he doesn't see any reason not to drive carefully at all times.

He recalled how he first learned to leave sufficient space between himself and the vehicle in front of him while driving his route truck. He had to make a sudden stop, then had to spend time reorganizing the inventory that had fallen inside the truck.

“To be aggressive (while driving) is not going to pay,” he said. Other drivers at Peninsula Vending Services have picked up Housman's driving habits. All of the drivers now routinely report hazards such as new road construction, the presence of deer near roadways, and adverse weather conditions.

Strong interpersonal skills

Whitehead and Banwart were most impressed by Housman's dedication to customer service. He speaks not only to the decision makers at the accounts, but the end users as well.

When problems arise, he never loses his cool with people. Whitehead and Banwart, who learned most of the trade on the job, appreciated this immensely. Housman explained his philosophy in very simple terms: “You can kill them with kindness and that's all you can do.” If a customer is determined to be upset when all attempts to placate him or her has failed, Housman said he knows he has done his best to please them and it therefore doesn't bother him.

What makes a successful route driver? Housman rattles off three key factors: honesty, discipline, and organization. “Organization is 90 percent of the battle for the route driver,” he said.

Another benefit that Housman brought was the influence he has had on other drivers. “They see how Paul operates,” Banwart said. “They see the concern he has for the customers.” Banwart further noted that unlike some other drivers, Housman did not schedule his stops in order to minimize his visibility in the break room. While drivers naturally want to stay on schedule, Housman seems to want to maximize his exposure to customers.

“He can read people,” Banwart said. “Ultimately, that's all fueled by his desire to keep people happy.”

A satisfied customer

One customer manager who oversees a call center with 1,000 employees testified to Housman's commitment. He said there has never been a vending machine out of stock. “He is very responsive to every need that we have,” the manager said of Housman. “I wouldn't use anybody else. When you're working an 8-hour day, you've got to eat. We all shop here. He really treats me like I'm important, and I appreciate that.”

Whitehead and Banwart often refer prospective customers to Housman's accounts. “We can always refer a potential client to one of Paul's accounts because the management of those companies will happily testify to the service and quality of Paul's work,” Whitehead said.
A successful employer/employee relationship is based on mutual respect. Housman, for his part, appreciates knowing that his employer will give him the support he needs.

Recently, the supervisor at one of his accounts raised a concern about salad in the food machine not being fresh. Housman responded by immediately removing all the salads from the machine, even though he knew there was nothing wrong with them.

He knew that Whitehead and Banwart would support this decision to please the customer.

Whitehead and Banwart, for their part, want all of their drivers to be capable of responding quickly to customer service issues on their own.

A committed family man

Housman's 14-year-old son, Ryan, works in the warehouse one day a week during the summer school break. According to Allen Whitehead, the office manager, “This young man's work ethic reminds us that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.”

While he works long days, six days a week, Housman considers himself fortunate to have a supportive family. He and his wife, Crystal, have a 12-year-old daughter in addition to their son, Ryan.

Meanwhile, he continues to enjoy his freedom while pleasing customers. “Working for good people makes it easy,” Housman said. “I always enjoy the work.”

Record At A Glance

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