AM Route Driver of the Year: Dan Friske

Again this year there was fierce competition for the Automatic Merchandiser's third annual Route Driver of the Year award. Out of many deserving applicants, the winner is someone who has a genuine love of providing good food and refreshment. Dan Friske, a driver for Wright Vending, Madison, Wis., has a positive attitude that can only come from true caring and the love of what he does. He's been in vending more than two decades, 22 years as a driver, and excels in every area, from sales to service. Friske continues working in vending because of the freedom of the job, the sense of family at Wright Vending, and mostly, his customers.

'DAN THE MAN'

Friske grew up in Oregon, Wis., a small town just south of Madison, Wis. He started at age 16, working as a helper for Dane County Vending in Madison. "My dad got me the job working weekends at first," said Friske. "During the summer, I'd work five or six days a week, moving machines, cleaning. I wasn't sure about school, and at that time we were union, making good money — especially when compared to a factory," said Friske.

After riding with a few drivers, Friske decided he liked vending and wanted to be a route driver. When he was 18, he was given the route he still runs today, more than 20 years later. Throughout the years, he's developed friendships with his end users. He is involved in their lives, listens to their problems, and asks about their kids. "I like being one-on-one with the customer all the time," said Friske. His route gives him a feeling of independence, like being his own boss.

About 10 years after he started his career as a driver, Friske had a setback that would have drastically changed his path. At 28, he slipped on an icy grate while making a delivery to a location and got a compressed disc. The first doctor Friske consulted said he'd need surgery and he'd never be able to lift more than 20 pounds. Friske was shocked. He would have been forced out of vending. But with the help of another doctor and an excellent surgeon, he recovered and went back to his chosen profession.

WORKING WITH WRIGHT VENDING

Under Wright Vending (which bought Dane County Vending in 1999), Friske has done very well for himself. Working on full commission, his sales performance has consistently been the highest among the 21 full-time Wright Vending route drivers, according to the company. In 2005, Friske's routes accounted for 9 percent of the total vending sales of the entire company (with no subsidizing locations).

"Dan has an excellent sense for merchandising the product and knowing what his customers are looking for," said John Dorman, operations manager at Wright Vending. Friske has also been very successful minimizing waste, including fresh food, which is deducted from his commissions. He's maintained a waste rate of less than 0.7 percent. And Friske rarely misses a day of work. He had perfect attendance in 2005, demonstrating again and again he will do whatever is asked of him in providing service for his account, said Dorman.

The open management style of Wright Vending has allowed Friske to establish the schedule for servicing his routes himself. "They let us do whatever we want to do to keep customers happy — as long as we're within our profit margins," said Friske. In order to provide the best customer service, Friske has not chosen the more typical early morning shift. "I used to run days with Dane County, but not since Randy (Wright) bought us," said Friske. "I think third shift is really important."

THIRD SHIFT GIVES HIM AN EDGE

Friske works from 7 p.m. into the next morning, around 5 or 6 am. He is not required to work those hours; most Wright drivers don't start until 5 a.m., but Friske wants to get all his accounts filled before first shift goes on break around 9 a.m.

"It's good to never see the machines empty," said Friske about his first-shift customers. Friske quotes an old location manager he knew who said all companies want vending, but they just don't want to hear about it. Anyone can sell a can of pop, he said, but which company has the best service — the driver coming in at noon or the one who did the job already and nobody saw him? Friske fits into the latter category.

Friske takes pride in the fact that his machines are serviced before competitor's drivers are even getting started. "I've never lost a stop to a competitor, because when I'm driving back, I see them coming out of Madison." Friske won one account simply because the previous route driver wasn't servicing it until 9 or 10 a.m.

Working the late shift also allows Friske to report any service issues before the first shift rush. Machines are fixed while staffing is still low, rather than later in the day.

There are two further advantages to working the night shift for Friske. He then has time during the day to spend with his new daughter (who is almost two). "I usually only get three or four hours of sleep," said Friske, although for him, this is normal. The free day also gives Friske a chance to spend time doing his hobbies. "He's an avid outdoorsman," said Dorman. Friske even had a trapping and hunting supply company at one time.

"I like being outdoors," said Friske. Being outside during his route is a perk. One of Friske's favorite moments is the middle of winter with a jet black sky and full moon on the snow. "There's nothing better," he said. He's seen the Northern Lights and always gets to watch the sun rise.

160 MILES DAILY, SAFELY

Dorman knows that when a route driver services locations far away, never having an accident is very impressive. "Dan has consistently maintained a safe, accident-free driving record during his seven years of employment with Wright Vending. His route takes him over 160 miles each day," said Dorman. Between the rural communities and wildlife, Friske's record is exemplary. "Every night I see 15 to 20 (deer) cross the road in front of me," said Friske, but hasn't hit one — knock on wood.

DEDICATED TO THE CUSTOMER

One of Friske's shining stars is his attention to the customer. In some ways, his customers actually nominated him for the award. According to Dorman, Brett Nelson, director of facility and security at Fidelity National Information Services, Middleton, Wis., wrote a letter to Wright Vending about Friske. Nelson said: "I wish to express my appreciation for a job well done on the part of Dan Friske of your Wright Vending team. His positive attitude and his philosophy and hard work to get the job done and meet the customer's needs are greatly appreciated. Dan always has a smile a mile long and the time to say hello … Dan is what customer service is all about."

"He inspired us to do this (nominate Friske)," said Dorman. "We received the comment from him and decided we should do something for Dan."

Friske is known to go above and beyond in his job. Customer Maureen O'Neil, Cardinal IG, Spring Green, Wis. had this to add when she learned Friske would be nominated: "Our manufacturing plant operates 24 hours a day, five days a week, and some weekends as needed. Dan has always gone out of his way to make sure that all three shifts have fresh food and beverage available at all times. Dan fills the machines during the very early hours of the morning while the third shift is still working. During our busy season when we have shifts working over the weekend, he has asked us to let him know so that he can be sure that there is fresh food available for the employees."

"People don't realize how much third shift buys," Friske added. "They depend on it (foodservice)." Being the middle of the night, the third shift lunch hour doesn't present many options, especially in a small town. Everything is closed. And in a larger area, you always have the security concerns, he said. Some people just don't want to leave the building. Cardinal is a big location for Friske, having 1,100 total employees between two buildings. "This is a little more than half of my sales," said Friske.

ANOTHER JOB PERK: CUSTOMER APPRECIATION

As he loads the dolly with product, the early shift drives in. There are shouts of hello to Friske. Some stop to talk with the familiarity of old friends. "I got a lot of nicknames for my people," said Friske fondly.

A man nicknamed "Goody" even got a new job due to Friske's networking. When Friske learned Goody was unhappy at work, Friske suggested he apply at another location (which Friske had heard was hiring).

"I'd rather have them as a friend first, rather than a customer," said Friske. The benefits run both ways. As a friend, Friske knows he won't short change them, skimp on product or service. "You have to look them in the eye the next day," he said. Friske puts a lot of stock in keeping the promises he makes. And in return, it's harder to drop a friend's business.

LOSSES TO OUTSOURCING

Friske has had his share of hiccups along the way. "I never had the (location) closures that I had this year," said Friske. A factory is relocating to Iowa and Friske is sad to see the employees go. "I know these people," he said. He planned to make the trip on the last day of work for the factory, not because they would need vending machines restocked, but to say good-bye.

QUEST FOR NEW BUSINESS

Because Friske has driven the same route for years, he's got a good idea when things are changing and growing. If he sees new construction, he lets Wright Vending know. "The salesperson takes it from there." He has never lost one of his accounts to the competition. "I've kept them out of my areas," said Friske, although he's ready for more. If he drives past the building on his route, his eyes are on it for vending service. "I told her (the salesperson) I want everything out there," said Friske.

DEDICATION TO BEST PRACTICES

At prominently female accounts where there's cold food, he notices that they won't buy a sandwich that has been sitting there for a few days, even if the expiration date is a long way off. They have more concerns about freshness. So if the item hasn't sold, he'll remove it and put it in a more blue collar location where it will sell. He also keeps records of the items sold to combat the customer who says, "I always buy that." Not that Friske shies away from complaints. He encourages dialog. "I can't fix it if you don't tell me," he said. "I'm a vending man — we don't have feelings." But tracking also helps Friske eliminate waste.

Friske tries to encourage communication between himself and the customers. Besides kidding with them all night long, from location to location, he has a request sheet on every bank of vending machines. "I let them have input," he said. Even what he calls, "odd ball stuff" he'll put in every couple of weeks. "Consumers let me know what they like, and I ask," said Friske.

Wright Vending also runs consumer programs. "We try to do a lot of promotional stuff," said Friske. There's free turkey at Christmas, which the communities and families really appreciate since it feeds the whole family, explained Friske.

POSITIVE ATTITUDE

The attitude Friske has is to go in and make them smile. "No one wants to deal with a grumpy guy," he said. Friske talks to everybody, whether he knows them or not, with a smile ready. This goes for customers and fellow employees.

Dorman testifies that Friske is truly part of the Wright Vending team. He does whatever he can to assist the service department in handling many of the equipment service issues right away, while he is there on site.

Owner Randy Wright said, "Dan is one of a kind — he works hard, is fun to be around and does such a great job for us. He's a guy we know we can count on in any situation and gives us more than 100 percent every day. We have a lot of very good employees, and Friske keeps setting the bar higher for everyone else."

INTERNALLY MOTIVATED

Friske is driven by something more than money or recognition. He works hard for the people that rely on his service. "The award really means a lot to me, but when they sign a contract for an extended three to five years, that means more than anything. Then you know you're good," said Friske. Nothing gives him a bigger thrill than when his locations don't offer their vending service up for bid. "That makes my day," he said.

Friske credits much of his success to everyone he works with at Wright Vending, mentioning the service people, warehouse manager, and many more. "It's all those people who make a good route driver." But more than anything, it's the level of pride Friske takes each and every day. "I love my job," said Friske simply.

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