For Duncan Smith and the rest of the team at All Star Services, Inc., putting the customer first isn’t just a suggestion — it’s the core of the company’s culture.
“Everyone knows that when a decision is being made, our customers and our employees come first,” said Smith, president and COO of All Star Services, headquartered in Port Huron, MI. “When we’re making an operational change, we’re always asking ourselves, ‘How will this affect our customers?’ and ‘How will this affect our employees?’ Keeping that front-of-mind helps our team focus. When our team is in the field, it’s not about All Star. It’s about doing a better job representing All Star to make sure the customer knows they come first. That’s the focus of our team, from the management team to the drivers and technicians and the office staff and warehouse, everyone.”
In the family business
That customer-focused ethos traces back over 50 years, as Smith’s family has owned and operated a company in the convenience services industry since 1963.
“My grandfather’s family owned Coca-Cola bottling for a lot of southeastern and mid-Michigan,” Smith explained. “Part of that Coca-Cola bottling company was a small vending division, and then in the mid-’80s, Coca-Cola Enterprises purchased the bottling rights, but our family kept the vending division.
Smith’s parents, Jeff and Suzanne Smith, came back to run the company in 1987.
In college, Duncan Smith planned to pursue a career in accounting. After graduation, his father approached him about an open position in purchasing, leading him to reconsider his next step.
“Long term, I thought that this was a good opportunity for me to learn from my dad, Jeff Smith, with all his knowledge and experience,” Smith said.
Duncan Smith is now a third-generation stakeholder in the family business, which is still owned by his parents, Jeff and Suzanne Smith. Jeff is the company’s chairman and CEO, and Suzanne is support for the business office, IT and special projects. Additional third-generation members are Duncan’s brother, Devin Smith, director of product and brand development, and his sister, Caroline Holden, director of office coffee service. Caroline’s husband Jon Holden is also involved as the company’s director of sales.
Responding to unique challenges
Duncan Smith says that the company grew slowly over time, from both natural growth and acquisitions. Between the late 1970s and the mid-2000s, the company acquired 12 businesses, expanding their footprint and their offerings. All Star Services now offers vending, micro market, water filtration systems, pantry service and office coffee service throughout 18 counties in southeastern Michigan. Duncan described the territory in the fashion of a true Michigander.
“We cover what we call all of southeastern and mid-Michigan. So, if you look at the back of your left hand and basically cut down the middle, it’s the bottom two-thirds of the right side of the state,” Smith explained.
The area provides some unique challenges beyond Michigan’s famously long winters.
“What’s different from the rest of the country is we’re very heavy in the auto industry,” Smith said. “When the auto industry was having trouble in the late 2000s, obviously it negatively affected our business.”
Experiencing a sudden decline in business is alarming to any company, but as the old adage goes, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” Accordingly, the team at All Star turned this into a new opportunity.
“About that time, even though our business was declining — we were losing top-line revenue year over year — we took the opportunity to redefine how we went to market,” Smith explained. “We implemented telemetry on our vending machines and we looked at other ways to do business. That’s how we started to get into micro markets; 2011 was our first market. We saw the opportunity to decrease operating costs through the implementation of technology in addition to offering a different type of service with markets, to try to increase revenue that way.”
Duncan says that the changing times of the industry led All Star to further branch out into micro markets, which they now offer as their customizable Bistro To Go® Markets, providing clients salads, sandwiches, prepared entrees, premium coffee, snacks and beverages.
“We were seeing an opportunity with the new technology and new way of offering convenience services to our clients,” he said.
A constantly changing industry
Staying on top of industry changes has clearly paid off for All Star; they were also quick to respond to the growing healthy food movement. All Star Services is an affiliate of USConnect®, exclusively providing The Right Choice For A Healthier You™ wellness guideline program. This workplace nutrition education program identifies dietician-approved products — items are marked with a heart/apple sticker — offered through All Star Services’ vending and Bistro To Go™ markets.
“It’s not just about healthy options, but also changing your product portfolio with the change in dietary trends,” Smith said. “And that’s one thing we try to do, is stay up to date on the latest trends. So many people have themselves on some kind of dietary restriction, and to get people like that to come down to our machines and our markets and purchase items, we make sure that we’re providing items they can eat.”
Being aware of food and beverage trends and considering dietary restrictions adds multiple layers onto the already complicated process of determining what products to offer clients. Duncan said that All Star relies upon his brother Devin to help manage this process.
“Our problem is, obviously, with a machine — and with markets, too — we can’t offer every single item that you’d find in a grocery store,” Smith said. “Our job is to try to stay ahead of the curve and find items that we think will fit the mold of those dietary trends and dietary restrictions. My brother, Devin Smith, is our director of product and brand development, and one of his main responsibilities is to keep our product menu fresh and up to date with trends. The buzzwords today are ‘spicy,’ ‘healthy,’ ‘protein’ — that type of stuff. He’s been big on trying to implement those items into our portfolio along with items that fall within common restricted diets.”
Since many healthy options — particularly in micro markets — involve fresh food, operators like All Star need to carefully introduce products to ensure they’re not over-estimating the client’s demand. Fresh food spoils much faster, and these unsold and unusable products will negatively impact the operator’s bottom line.
“Typically, the challenge is that [healthy products] are higher priced — you’re going to have higher waste because they’re fresh and they have a shorter shelf life,” Smith said. “We try to implement them slowly versus blanketing an entire account or area. If there’s take on certain items, then we grow that segment of products within that client or region.”
However, it’s important to listen to clients’ requests, as they likely know their employees’ preferences best.
“The other piece too, is that a lot of locations are demanding it. They actually request that a certain percentage of the products we offer have to fit certain guidelines, which we have to live up to,” Smith added.
Another growing request from All Star Services’ client base is office coffee service.
“My sister, Caroline Holden, is our director of office coffee services. She’s been instrumental in grow- ing that side of the business,” Smith said. “Coffee, tea and water are big growth areas for us right now, especially point-of-use water stations, and she’s been spearheading the growth of that division.”
Caroline’s husband, Jon Holden, is heavily involved in the company’s growth as All Star’s director of sales, overseeing client retention and new sales. While All Star Services is very much a family business, the Smith family realized the importance of giving their 75 employees an opportunity to provide input and feedback to a neutral party.
“We have a human resources manager who is not in the family — that was done on purpose — to make sure our team [members] have the ability to go to a neutral party and give honest feedback on the company,” Smith explained. “One of the things we implemented this past year is annual employee surveys. We also do a monthly and quarterly ‘pulse survey’ to see if there are any employee concerns, and where we might have some areas of improvement. We have a team in place that records employees’ concerns, ideas or thoughts, and they put an action plan together for the concern or idea.”
The importance of community
The team at All Star Services recognizes the importance of supporting and giving back to their community. The company contributes to area causes including the Blue Water Fest and the YMCA, and employees are encouraged to serve on community boards and business organizations such as the Port Huron Business Association, the Michigan Distributors and Vendors Association, the Port Huron Planning Commission, Port Huron Area Schools and St. Clair County Community College. After a federal state of emergency was declared due to the Flint water crisis in early 2016, Devin Smith spearheaded a program in which the company donated one bottle of water for every bottle purchased, supporting the Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan’s efforts to provide safe, clean water to Flint residents.
Just as All Star looks out for other members of its community, the management team is equally attentive to their own employees.
“Another focus we have is our employees, and building goodwill to show how much we appreciate what they do,” he continued. “We try to get the team together as much as possible by doing small cookouts in the summer, ice cream socials, Christmas luncheons and little giveaways.
For example, our team did a great job of advertising and celebrating National Vending Day. We put together goody bags, and everybody who came in on National Vending Day got a goody bag of snacks and treats to go out with during the day, just to say thank-you for doing what they do every day, and to promote the day itself.”
Implementing new technology
Being part of the third generation running the company, Smith has seen a lot of change. For him, the biggest change impacting the convenience services industry was the introduction and adoption of new technology.
“I feel like our industry was a little late to the game with technology, but as an industry we have done a great job of catching up,” Smith says regarding integrating technology into the business. “The machines are now equipped with cashless, Apple Pay, Google Pay ... if you have a method of pay, our machines can take it, which I think is awesome. With telemetry, we’re able to see the machine and pinpoint problems before our customers are affected. We’re able to restock when we need to, and our accountability has gone up. That’s really a cool thing we’ve seen; technology is number one in my time here of how our industry has changed dramatically.”
Duncan said that one of the biggest challenges he continues to experience is keeping up with consumer trends and the types of items customers want to purchase. He also noted that the same technology that has helped streamline the payment process and many other areas of the business has also created a new challenge, and one that many operators face.
“We’re in a society of instant gratification, and we are trying to keep up with the demands of our cli- ents,” Smith explained. “When you get a request, they want that request done right now. So, keeping up with client demands in a service industry is very difficult, and we’re always trying to figure out how we can do that better.”
Duncan says they started using Cantaloupe’s Seed device to do machine monitoring, scheduling and order generation in 2008. When Seed Office became available, they adopted this as their main vending management system. Seed Office has been so impactful to the business — enabling the company to reduce routes, visit more machines per route and only service machines when needed — that Smith says this project is his proudest accomplishment at All Star.
“Implementing technology — telemetry and cashless — through Seed Office has been my baby here at All Star,” he said. “Helping to modernize the company has been my footprint on the business.”
He added that his mother Suzanne was also very involved with the technology implementation.
“As an owner, my mom, Suzanne Smith, has given herself a major support role for the company,” he said. “She is support for the business office, IT and special projects. She is our go-to person to get us organized when implementing new technology. She organizes the project and will take on a lot of the setup work.”
Since All Star Services started launching micro markets around the same time it transitioned their vending management system to Seed Office, the team was able to streamline their entire operational process as it diversified the company's offerings.
“Every type of micro market system had their own software for order generation and scheduling,” he explained. “We saw a pretty heavy operational inefficiency with our warehouse, our office staff and our field team because we were training people on different kinds of software to do the same thing — putting product into the field, merchandising the product, recording inventory. We had multiple handhelds and multiple databases we were maintaining."
All Star Services has enjoyed a close working relationship with Cantaloupe Systems, which USA Technologies acquired in November 2017, and for the past three years has been beta testing Seed Markets, which USAT previewed at the NAMA show in April. Specifically designed to manage micro markets, Seed Markets is a cloud-based, mobile platform that can be fully integrated with all major micro market providers. Smith says that All Star provides feedback to USAT through regular calls with their product development team.
“We give them honest feedback — the feedback would come from me, our management or our drivers about how things worked in the field,” he said. “We understand that software isn’t always going to be a perfect fit for All Star Services and we’re going to have requests to make it work for us, but if it’s an All Star-specific request, we ask that our software supplier is honest with us and tells us. But if it’s something that the software provider can take to a commercial level, then we’d like to help develop it and give feedback, which is how we got to the Seed Markets platform.
“With vending being our bread and butter and where we built our business, and having a great partner like Cantaloupe, we pushed them to integrate with the micro market providers to schedule, create orders and only maintain one product — one accountability database — so we didn’t have to train our team members on multiple systems,” he continued. “We saw this as an opportunity and a way to scale our market segment without adding a lot of overhead. By integrating on one software platform, other segments of business easily fold in. It puts all our data in once place. It’s awesome!
“And what we like about Seed Markets, is that they took the same concept of servicing a vending machine or bank of machines and used that workflow to outline servicing a market on the handheld,” he continued. “It really simplifies what we’re doing both in the office and in the field. It simplifies how we’re training, because now when a driver is stocking an asset — whether it’s a snack machine or a snack rack in a market — they service it the same way in their handheld.”
A human touch
Technology can do many things for business owners, but for Duncan Smith, the most gratifying thing about his job has nothing to do with the latest tech innovation. It’s all about the people.
“I enjoy working with everyone at All Star — I have a lot of fun with them,” Smith said. “I see the drive they have on a day-to-day basis to get better at what we do, and to provide top-level service to fulfill our customers’ needs. And that pushes me to continue to be better. It’s challenging to go out and grow a business, fulfill the needs of your customers and exceed their expectations on a daily basis, but it’s fun trying to make it happen. What I do is fun because of the people I work with.”
As Smith notes, at the end of the day, the convenience services industry isn’t just about the clients operators work with, or the many consumers they serve. It’s about how industry members serve those that they work with.
Headquarters: Port Huron, MI
Owners: Jeff and Suzanne Smith
Date founded: 1963
Number of employees: 75
Number of Micro Markets: 80
Number of Vending Machines: 2,000
Equipment Providers: Various
Technology Providers: USAT / 365 / LightSpeed
Main Suppliers: Vistar of Michigan
Number of Routes:
· Micro Market / Vending = 20
· OCS = 3