When Andy and Bonnie Stein started Mark Vend Co. in suburban Chicago in 1962, they had one employee, two trucks, and a few dozen machines that dispensed only cigarettes. Fast-forward almost five decades, and the company looks a whole lot different.
Their sons, Mark and Daniel, have built on their parents’ vision and today run a company that uses state-of-the-art technology to create a high level of customer service, which helped them garner the Automatic Merchandiser 2011 Vending Operator of the Year award. Instead of cigarettes, these days their 1,800 machines vend hundreds of different SKUs, with an emphasis on healthy foods and drinks. Cutting-edge tools such as DEX handhelds, remote machine monitoring, automated inventory “pick to light” technology, cashless readers, and self-checkout markets have replaced the old electromechanical machines and accounting books that Andy and Bonnie used when first starting out.
Despite challenges posed by the recession, recent operator consolidations, and a stagnant customer base, the Northbrook, Ill.-based company has held its own in the tough Chicagoland vending market and stands as one of the most technologically advanced vending operations in the country. Industry observers credit the brothers’ success with their willingness to accept change and to adopt the newest tools available.
The brothers are also known for readily sharing their experiences, both good and bad, with suppliers and fellow operators.
“The Steins are proud of their leading-edge business and they are willing to provide other operators an unvarnished peek behind the curtains,” observed Brian Faley, CEO of Unified Strategies Group (USG), the buying cooperative. “Operators from around the country have made Mark Vend a place to stop on their quest to assess and implement the newest vending technologies and practices.”
“They’re a model of what the operator in our industry needs to be,” added John Ochi, president of Vistar Illinois, the Bolingbrook, Ill.-based product distributor. Ochi has known the Steins for many years and sees them as role models for how to treat customers and employees, and use technology to improve service.
People who have worked with Mark Vend Co. speak of Mark and Daniel’s quite different personal styles and interests, which can lead to some minor fraternal friction but ultimately serve the business — and their relationship — well. While Mark tends toward a thoughtful analysis of issues, Daniel is more inclined to rely on his own visceral reactions and thrives on a lively exchange of ideas.
“I think the two brothers are wonderfully interesting and extraordinary people,” said Mike Hayes, CEO of MEI, who compares Mark to a classic V8 engine and Daniel to a V4. “They’re both in this family business, but one’s engine is high torque and one’s is high rev. Mark and Daniel have the same strong core value set and strong family background. They can go about things in an individual way, but when it comes to really important decisions they’re guided by shared values. That’s why they can stay aligned — because of their honesty, integrity, and professionalism. Both cars are on the same road; as leaders of the industry they have a vision of how it should be done. They strive all the time, they don’t take short cuts. That’s what makes them leaders.”
The brothers have worked together since they were in school. Mark, seven years older than Daniel, focused on operations, while Daniel enjoyed working on customer retention and sales after graduating from college.
Fortunately, the brothers work well together, and from an early age they assumed leadership of the company. In 1989, Andy passed away suddenly, leaving Bonnie, Mark, and Daniel to run the company. In 1996, Bonnie died from a brain tumor just 14 days after diagnosis, and the brothers, ages 37 and 30, respectively, took over ownership of the family business.