The desire for clean and sanitary environments has never been more pronounced than it is today, and that is not the only thing that has evolved during Sanitary Maintenance’s 60 years in print. Increased competition, product innovation, savvier customers and an onslaught of new technologies have all contributed to an increasingly sophisticated business environment.

Manufacturing and distribution in the early days was a vastly different business compared to today’s sophisticated, more heavily regulated, technology-dependent companies. Yet it’s the original, small-scale, independent entrepreneurs of the past that laid the groundwork for what the industry is today, and it’s their same philosophies and visions that will propel it into the future.

Simpler Times
Many industry veterans know Jack Ramaley as “Mr. ISSA” (and he has his personalized license plate to prove it). He is arguably the most well-versed industry historian and a lifelong advocate of industry advancement.

Ramaley began his career in the industry as zone sales manager for Brewer Electric from 1958 to 1969 — he operated out of the back of the family station wagon. Ramaley, who in 1974 became the executive vice president of ISSA, had a territory that included the lower peninsula of Michigan, almost all of Indiana, all of Ohio but Cleveland, all of Kentucky, 13 counties of Virginia, all of West Virginia except for the panhandle, all of Tennessee east of the Tennessee River and several counties in northern Georgia — quite a territory for one man and a car.

“I’d take the kids to Sunday school, go to church, we’d go to dinner together and I would leave. I would be ready to go out Monday morning making calls,” he says.

Being a salesperson in the jan/san industry — or any other industry in those days — required a much different skill set than is required today.

“People don’t make demonstrations anymore,” says Ramaley. “In those days the competition was such that you carried the equipment with you, including all the industrial vacuum equipment and attachments and a couple of floor machines.

“You had to show and tell 50 years ago. Nobody was going to buy a floor machine unless you could demonstrate it. There wasn’t the bidding there is today — show and tell was the way. I spent all day making demonstrations with the distributor salesmen. With a territory the size I had, I’d only see a distributor four times a year.” Ramaley says the main form of communication was the telephone or the good old-fashioned letter.

“I’d get home from being on the road and there would be mail; sometimes a special delivery and every once in awhile a telegram,” he says.

Another industry veteran, Ed Kaufman — or as many know him, “Mr. Ed” — also reminisces about how business was conducted in his day. He joined Waxie Sanitary Supply’s sales team in 1956 as the company’s fifth sales rep, and he watched San Diego-based Waxie grow to employ more than 600 people in 14 inventory centers and sales offices. Kaufman retired in 1993 after 37 years with Waxie, and has nothing but fond memories of his time as part of the janitorial supply industry. The job was Kaufman’s first in sales, and he says the training he received in those days was minimal, yet that wasn’t necessarily detrimental. Business had to be established somehow, and distributors had a much more simplistic approach.

“We went through some basic things for about three days, then they gave you a sales book — you needed wheels for it, it was so big — and they said ‘every door that’s open, you call on them and tell them you’re selling janitorial supplies.’ We soon learned that you needed to do some demonstrations — scrubbing toilets, cleaning carpets,” he says.

Waxie’s scope was much different during Kaufman’s tenure. No account was too small, while today, the company is the largest family-owned distributor in the United States.

Kaufman says selling value to the customer has always been part of the distributor’s role, though there is more emphasis on that value today.

“We could take, for instance, a company that had 30 employees and tell them how much paper they would use and go and present a package to them. So it became much more detailed, and today it’s even more detailed than that,” he adds.

Sales in the early days were strongly tied to relationships, says Kaufman — much more so than today.

“You built friendships in the field. After awhile, people bought from you just for who you were. Early on they didn’t look at getting bid prices, and now they do,” he says.

More visible factors also invited industry advancement.

Improved logistics helped pave the way to change, says Stephen Swigart, president of 47-year-old manufacturer Spartan Chemical, Maumee, Ohio, and a former ISSA president. Swigart says that after the Great Depression and World War II, the proliferation of highways allowed jan/san suppliers to extend their reach. Business until that time was largely regional or local.

In the 1950s, Swigart says it was also easy for entrepreneurs to get into the distribution business. It didn’t require much capital, while at the same time manufacturers were eagerly searching for new distribution channels.

“All you needed was a station wagon to make deliveries,” Swigart says. “Today is the opposite. To be in the distribution industry today is much more capital intensive. Structurally, it requires a lot more, and it’s much more sophisticated.”

Sophisticated competitors abound as well, but Kaufman contends that customers are looking for the same thing they’ve always been looking for. “People want to be taken care of,” he says.

Ken Ossian, president of the Davenport, Iowa-based Ossian Inc., a manufacturer of ice melters, agrees. “I still think the more things change the more they stay the same. You’re only going to stay in business if you provide the service and products on a timely basis that the customer wants.” It’s still a service industry, he says.

The Role of Products
Many jan/san products were initially made from natural materials, and a number of these products became obsolete as floor types changed, carpet became popular, and new formulations and products were required. Other products serve the same original purpose, but are constantly being improved upon.

According to Betty Rex, president of Rex Chemical Corp., Miami, her company’s product lines have been relatively immune to change since many of the formulations are still applicable to today’s cleaning challenges.

Rex’s father, a Cuban immigrant and an accountant by trade, started the chemical manufacturing company in 1963 as a one-man operation. This year — the company’s 40th year in business — there are 50 employees, and the company remains family-owned. Betty has been active with the company for 20 years.

“He started out with a couple of product lines: a pine deodorizer and insecticide and a deodorizer,” says Rex of her father. “He did distribute dispensers and mops, but from the very beginning we have always manufactured our own chemicals.” In the industry’s youth, many companies served a dual role of both manufacturer and distributor, a structure that’s fairly uncommon today.

Even though many of the product lines her company produces are similar formulations to those developed 40 years ago, Rex says the company is responsive to product trends. For example, oxygen cleaners are popular today. “It’s the same as back when d-Limonene products came in. Out of that trend came a lot of good products.”

Even seemingly stable product categories have evolved to fit current needs. Thirty years ago Ossian Inc. specialized in repackaging calcium chloride. “Today we still do that,” says Ossian, “but we now manufacture over 15 types of products for the industry.”

Going back even further, many product developments and inventions laid the groundwork for today’s product sales and usage.

For instance, the development of sheet rubber and rubber tile flooring as a replacement for wood in the early 1930s drove the invention of wax in a water emulsion (solvents typically used on wood would damage rubber flooring).

“That was the depths of the Depression,” says R.H. (Dix) Jarden of The Bullen Cos., Inc., Folcroft, Pa. “With no background at all in the cleaning industry, my father, Richards Jarden Sr., and a partner with some chemical ability developed one of the first water emulsion waxes they called Rubber Gloss Wax.” Jarden’s family has a rich history in the chemical industry. His father founded Franklin Research in 1932. He died in 1945, and in 1965 his partners sold the company (and Dix went along) to Purex. In 1965, Dix broke away and bought Bullen, for literally $10, from its struggling owner. Today he is chairman; his son is president.

“In addition to not harming the rubber, under proper circumstances it would dry to somewhat of a shine. My father — being on the sales end of the business — stretched this by calling his product ‘self polishing,’ which brings back one of my earliest memories of working in the industry:

“I was maybe 12 and my father had taken me on a demonstration of his self-polishing wax at one of the largest buildings in Philadelphia. He had prepared the floor and applied the recommended two coats of wax and it dried with absolutely no gloss at all. Great salesman that he was, he took me aside and told me he was taking the building superintendent across the street for a cup of coffee.” Jarden’s father gave him a regular corn broom and told him to sweep the floor as if he “was on an ice rink playing curling,” while the two were away. “As I recall, I got a little gloss and my dad got the order,” Jarden relates.

Other companies reworked their focus as needs changed. Walter Ferguson spent 46 years working for Thompson Sanitary Supply House in Lexington, Ky. His wife’s father founded the company in 1910 with a sweeping compound called Dustcatcher. The product was a mixture of cedar-scented sawdust, oil and dye that was used on wood and concrete floors. Later, when new floor types emerged, the company branched into waxes and cleaners, Ferguson says. Other proactive manufacturers reacted similarly. Those that didn’t often went out of business (see “Names Gone By”).

More recent product innovations or improvements to existing products allow manufacturers and distributors to meet the changing needs of customers. Larry Shideler is one such innovator. In the early 1980s, while running a contract cleaning business, Shideler became interested in building a lighter, better, backpack vacuum.

Shideler’s first models incorporated PVC pipe and various straps. After developing several variations, he hired an engineer to design a commercially viable model. ProTeam’s backpack vacuums are popular today, cornering a majority of the market, according to the company.

Forward-thinking visionaries have continued to deliver products that match users’ changing needs. As those needs evolve, so too must product solutions.

The Cost of Labor
For the jan/san industry of 1943, it was a major challenge to find a few good men since Uncle Sam had already called upon many of them. Harry Apple wrote in an early issue of SM:

“The biggest problem the industry will face in coming months will be a shortage of manpower. This shortage will not only affect your own organization but it will also hit the manufacturers from whom you purchase your supplies. You must not be complacent and view the situation lightly, but on the contrary you should begin immediately to do some thing about it. Your best opportunity to recruit labor will be from the ranks of women, the physically handicapped and finally from labor in the age bracket which normally might be considered too old.”

Apple’s remarks (made long before political correctness came in vogue) call attention to the acute labor shortage caused by a war; distributors today are concerned with labor, too — but the quality, not quantity, is the more pressing issue. Economic ups and downs usher in periods of high and low unemployment, but the challenge to find qualified labor is constant. As customers become more demanding, knowledgeable and qualified salespeople are in greater demand.

Employers, now more than ever, are not only realizing the importance of having qualified salespeople, but they are also finding innovative ways to attract and retain them.

Swigart is a firm believer in the advantages of hiring talented people. “If you want to be competitive, you have to constantly reach out and find the best ones, pay them and get the hell out of the way and they’ll light up the boards,” he says.

Because salespeople are required to be increasingly sophisticated to compete in today’s marketplace, employers must be more tenacious in the recruitment, hiring and retaining of qualified people.

Regulatory Turnaround
The regulatory environment has undergone a complete turnaround. While non-existent 60 years ago, it’s now a daily concern for every jan/san supplier and distributor. Changes in regulations range from providing customers detailed MSDS sheets to actual bans on products. Business regulation also falls under this category; ergonomics, workplace injury reports and other OSHA mandates are of constant concern to business owners.

“The changes we experienced in the industry were brought about by changes in the laws,” says Ferguson. “We couldn’t just come out with a product anymore.” Newly required care and professionalism, and the adherence to EPA-imposed regulations posed some challenges, says Ferguson, but it went with the territory.
“In the early years, you could get a large kettle in the back room, stir it and sell it. That won’t go over anymore.”

Thompson was one of the original mixing companies. When regulation became too stringent, the company began outsourcing its manufacturing capabilities and Walter and his wife, Shelley, ran the company from 1950 to 1996. At that time they sold it to Hillyard, and Ferguson’s daughter is employed by the company to this day.

More subtle changes have affected the way products are perceived, says Kaufman. He believes users better understand the value associated with the products they use.

“By value I mean what’s in them, what they do, and how you have to be aware of what they are so you can teach and train users to use them,” Kaufman explains.

Close-Knit Industry
Anyone who has been involved in the jan/san industry realizes the binding properties of good relationships among suppliers, distributors and customers.

The term partnership has always characterized some of the best business relationships in this industry. For example:

This year, Rochester Midland Corp., (RMC) and JohnsonDiversey (formerly Johnson & Johnson) are celebrating the 75th year of their agreement for RMC to market Johnson’s feminine hygiene products through its vending machines.

In 1928, W.B. Eddy, then general sales manager and later the CEO of RMC (known in 1928 as the Rochester Germicide Co.), was asked to chaperone a winter house party at a Hamilton College fraternity house. Colonel Johnson of Johnson & Johnson, was there for the same reason.

The Colonel told Bill Eddy about the new product and said they were looking for a company to handle the vending machine sales as a means of sampling the product. By the end of the weekend, the two had a handshake deal in place for RMC to sell the J & J product through vending machines in the United States and Canada.

Today, the contract still relies on mutual trust and common objectives, according to RMC.

Relationships between salespeople and their customers are a cornerstone of the distribution industry. In fact, relationships are what sales relied upon in the industry’s infancy. As customers become more educated and discerning, however, the relationships must evolve.

The relationships have changed, according to Joyce Strauss-Jonap, owner of Strauss Paper, a distributor in Port Chester, N.Y., that, like SM, is celebrating its 60th year.

“I think in our business, the role of the salesperson has changed to partnering more with customers and vendors,” she says. Becoming a consultant and a problem-solver is a big part of that, she says. When Strauss’s parents founded the company in 1943, the concept of partnering was much different than it is today.

After being forced out of Europe during the Holocaust, Ruth and Henry Strauss came to the United States. After spending some time with another paper company, Henry decided he wanted his own business and opened Strauss Paper out of the backseat of his car. He would take orders, pick up the product, and deliver it in the afternoon. The meager start to what today is a burgeoning business was based on trust and the relationships he had with customers. Today the company’s warehouse is 60,000 square feet and there are 80 employees.

“We work at not just being a supplier, but being a member of the same team,” she says.

That level of partnership will continue to be a hallmark of successful companies in an increasingly customer-focused sales environment.

Tech Takes Over
When you look at current business operations compared with the early days of the sanitary supply industry, it’s easy to see the profound effect technology has had.

During the majority of Kaufman’s tenure as a Waxie salesperson, computers were not a part of doing business.

“They came in five years before I retired. They were an asset to keeping records,” he explains.

Technology has been increasing the efficiency of distributor businesses since the first computers hit the scene, but new innovations and uses are constantly evolving.

“Even seven years ago my salespeople weren’t using laptops and computers,” says Ferguson. “They’re all doing it now.

“It made it more efficient. You knew what you were doing, and you didn’t have to wait until the end of the month or a period — you knew at the end of the day,” says Ferguson. “I wish we had the technology many years ago. You can’t exist without it today.”

Computers made inventory control more efficient and enabled distributors to order when they needed product, rather than carrying excess inventory, he adds.

“Today everything at Strauss is computer-generated. We produce everything from catalogs to ordering online to usage reports,” Strauss-Jonap says. Technology has also played a crucial role in Strauss’s training programs, and made it easier to support the sales staff.

Technology has given customers tools that allow them to educate themselves on products. “Customers have become much more sophisticated,” says Strauss-Jonap. They are looking into ordering online, they want catalogs and they’re doing more research. Not all technology creates pleasant results: Strauss was recently involved in its first reverse auction, as well. “Technology has enabled the customer to become much more savvy,” she says.

From products to logistics, the industry has reached new levels of sophistication. After surviving the “threat” associated with the dot-com era, and now immersed in the challenges and triumphs of their own e-commerce initiatives, distributors will continue to have complicated decisions to make regarding technology.

“All the things we deal with now, we didn’t in 1970. The EPA and the USDA didn’t exist, there were no zip codes — everything has become more sophisticated and it’s going to continue,” predicts Swigart.

Melting Pot
Ferguson believes consolidation on the manufacturing and distribution levels has been the most dominant force in shaping the industry into what it is today, and, he says, it’s a force that will continue to affect the future of distribution.

While many companies were concerned about how they would be affected by consolidation initially, Ferguson says progress demanded it. “The customers were demanding it also,” he says. “They wanted to be able to benefit from the technologies that were coming into the field.”

Having experienced consolidation firsthand, Ferguson believes the industry was (and is) ripe for it. He says that while he thinks his company could have survived for several years independently before he sold to Hillyard, he doesn’t believe it could have grown.

Ferguson chalks it up to progress.

“It’s just more difficult for an individual to get into the business now and make it profitable. I don’t think many companies are coming in anymore. It’s much different than in the beginning.”

Swigart says there are fewer competitors, but competition is more intense. “It can be a good thing for the buyers, but you have to be able to distinguish yourself in some fashion.”

The Road Ahead
While some of the earliest trends affecting the sanitary supply industry have nearly faded from memory (sawdust-based sweeping compounds and computer-free businesses, for instance), many influences can still be felt today. Consolidation was, and will continue to be, a big part of the evolution of the industry’s makeup. Product innovation has gotten even more sophisticated, and many personnel-related challenges have sprung up.

One thing that won’t change, however, is manufacturers’ reliance on strong distribution networks to get their products to market.

“A healthy network of distribution — that’s the most important thing to a manufacturer,” Swigart says.