Distributor of the Year: Jerry Browning

This 2011 Automatic Merchandiser Distributor of the Year winner started by running a route, so Jerry Browning, account executive at Vistar of Ohio, understands the business from the operator side. From losing the core business of factory jobs to fluctuating supplier prices, not to mention what Browning calls “the merger wars,” he recognizes the challenges to independent operators, and points to many opportunities.

Starting on the route

Back in 1974, Browning got laid off from a job at a tire retailer. He needed to pay bills, so he got a route driver job at Canteen in Buffalo, N.Y., and found he loved the work. “I liked being on the road and making my own decisions,” he said.

For a little over a decade, Browning worked for Canteen, getting promoted to a number of supervisory roles in both New York and Pennsylvania. In 1986, he decided to make a change and joined Buffalo Crown Vending, in Buffalo, N.Y. as operations manager. It was with Buffalo Crown that he got what he calls one of his greatest opportunities. The owner, Tom Straus, let Browning join the New York State Vending Association. “I did all the chairs,” said Browning, “And I was president during the tax relief package for that area.”

In 2001, Buffalo Crown Vending was bought by Loose Ends Vending in Batavia, N.Y., and eventually by Stoughton, Mass.-based Next Generation Vending LLC. While at Loose Ends, Browning moved into sales. He stayed there for three years before he decided it was time to make another change, a pretty big one. He became a sales representative for Vistar.

“I worked in purchasing with Canteen and Buffalo Crown, so I’d worked with Vistar in the past,” said Browning. “I’m really enjoying this side (of the business),” he added. Since Vistar bought VME Distributors in 2009, Browning’s territory has vastly increased.

Opportunities for the independent

“I have a lot of independent (operators), and I like working with them because I came from that end of the business,” said Browning. A positive trend for independents is the self checkout market, which is replacing vending banks at larger accounts. Browning thinks it’s a great opportunity for two reasons. First, there are more products available. Browning knows manufacturers have a lot more top-selling products than what’s available in the vending channel. The second is better price points. Larger sizes, more choices and a different format allow operators to set prices closer to those in retail.

Another opportunity is the outstanding quality of frozen food available in vending. “I don’t remember it looking that good when I was in vending,” he commented.

Browning urges operators to pay attention to pricing. He sees a lot of fluctuation in supplier prices. “Keep up with pricing, and keep customers informed about the increases,” he said.