A Distributor's Growing Gains

Distributors continually look for new ways to make themselves distinct in the marketplace. For Hill & Markes Inc., a multi-line distributor based out of Amsterdam, N.Y., they've been able to do so through a diverse mix of product offerings.

What started out in 1906 as an ice cream business that made deliveries by horse and buggy (horse and sleigh in the winter), has now grown into the largest independent distributor in upstate New York. The business currently employs 160 people and has four divisions: janitorial cleaning supplies and equipment, industrial packaging, foodservice, and office supplies.

Customers still have the option of purchasing ice cream cones and toppings from Hill & Markes just as they did back in the early 1900s (minus the horse and buggy), but they can also lump products on the same order ranging from bubble wrap and tape to office furniture and floor-cleaning equipment.

The strong push to diversify its product lines came in 1947 when Harry and Harriet Finkle purchased Hill & Markes from founders Amos Hill and Charlie Markes. The Finkles' expanded their product lines to include school supplies, paper products, and rental dishes and cutlery. Janitorial supplies came into the picture in the 1970s, the same time Neal Packer (son-in-law), COO, Andrea Packer (daughter), vice president of marketing, and Jeffrey Finkle (son), president, joined the family business. The trio now serve as the company's active owner-operators.

Under the second-generation leadership of the Finkle family, Hill & Markes has grown to service more than 4,800 customers as a direct result of 10 growth acquisitions in the state of New York over the last three decades.

Sanitary Maintenance chatted with Andrea Packer on the century-old company's history and future plans.

Q: The company started out selling ice cream, ice cream cones and candy. How did the company expand into new product lines?

A: Early in my dad, Harry's career, he rented dishes and cutlery. At that time there were no disposables for people at parties, so he was renting dishes and silverware. And that had to obviously evolve, so getting into paper goods and disposables was a natural progression. He also happened to run into a friend of his who was involved in packaging and tape. He taught my father all about the tape business because they were friends. So thus, we got into packaging and that evolved. Although he did a pretty good job selling tape, he realized he couldn't just do that. And so that evolved.

Q: Does having such a diverse product line help you gain business in a wide range of accounts?

A: We feel we can go in almost anywhere and sell because of our product mix. Certainly with janitorial because everybody needs to clean. Our customers consider our office supply catalog a convenience. As long as the truck is stopping, it's one-invoice, it's one salesperson. It consolidates their time and effort. We feel our lines complement each other when going into accounts. Because if we were going first foodservice without the janitorial supplies, it sort of holds us back. We think we need this broad line of product to service our customers well.

Q: Has the recent recession forced your company to look at other ways of building revenue?

A: We're not cutting corners. We're going out to our customers as strong as we did before the recession hit. We continue to give them excellent service, we're providing training and we're not afraid to provide new products to customers. We brought on new salespeople, we brought on some sales managers to assist out in the field. In addition to offset the recession, we have purchased three businesses, which brings in more business to us because they come to us with business.

Q: Has acquiring companies been a very popular way of growing your business?

A: Our feeling is you must grow or you just don't really survive well. So we're always looking at what's next and how we're going to grow, how we're going to make this business do better each year.

Q: In 2006, your company celebrated its 100th anniversary, I understand you had a special speaker attend the festivities.

A: My son at the time was working in Washington, D.C., for a congressman and he had interaction with current U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's office. So he was able to make some connections and they couldn't promise that she would actually be attending until the day of the event. The Secret Service came by the day before to look the building over and check things out. They told us 'you can't open this door, you can't open this door.' We still didn't know if she was really going to come, but she came. It was just amazing because she's such a brilliant woman. She spoke so well and remembered all the names of people she spoke to, every detail. The fact that we had a former first lady and senator of the state of New York at our place was truly an honor.