Serex Services Acquisition: Changing Of The Guard Continues For Large Independents

Last week’s news that Youngstown, Ohio-based Serex Services Inc. was sold to a larger competitor was a disturbing piece of news to many of us.

While it was only one of many acquisitions reported over the years, it struck me harder than most others because I happen to live in Northeast Ohio, the geographic market that Serex Services served for many years.

When I began covering the vending industry two decades ago, large independents held key market positions in every geographic region. Because of them, the vending industry had a unique sense of entrepreneurship that had long disappeared from other retail channels, such as supermarkets, drug stores and department stores. These entrepreneurs gave vending an identity of more personalized service. The quality of a company’s service varied based on management’s commitment, which was and remains true for all companies. But in the vending industry, the Serexes of the world were small enough that top management oversaw field execution and large enough that good career opportunities were available to employees who excelled.

The late Bill Courtney, founder of Serex Services, was a great example of the type of hard working entrepreneur who gave vending its unique identity. He started Serex Services in 1971 after working for other vending companies, including a national company. Serex Services grew to 13 operating facilities by 1998.

Since that time, market forces have taken their toll on large independents. Many companies that used to be well known in their markets no longer exist. This list includes, but is not exclusive to: Bertsch Food Service in Syracuse, Ind., Covenco Inc., Middletown, Pa., The Swanson Corp., Omaha, Neb., Williams Food Service, Louisville, Ky., Calderon Brothers Inc., Indianapolis, Ind., R.J. Bradberry Vending, Los Angeles, Calif., Jackson Brothers, St. Louis, Mo., Loose Ends Vending, Batavia, N.Y., Corporate Services Group, Tampa, Fla., Take A Break Service, Escondido, Calif., Pickett Industries, Shreveport, La., and CL Swanson Corp., Madison, Wis.

This list is what comes to mind as I write this. My apologies to those I may have missed.

Today, the industry is undergoing a transition. The need to invest in new tools has favored both the extra large and very small companies. The extra large companies have the capital to invest in new technology. The very small companies can introduce new technology slowly since they have a limited customer base.

In time, many of today’s small companies will grow into large independents. Some of the people working for the big nationals will get the entrepreneurial itch to start their own companies, as Bill Courtney himself did.

Ten years from now, there will be a new generation of large independents using state-of-the art tools such as cashless transaction systems, remote monitoring, video touchscreens and micro markets.

But will anyone remember the era of the post World War II generation that gave the vending its identity as an entrepreneurial industry?
I certainly hope so.

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