Man in black suit puts floor machine in station wagon in the 1950s
A P.B. Gast and Sons' sales rep prepares to visit a customer's facility to demonstrate a floor machine in the late 1950s

As the jan/san distribution industry and the companies within it changed, so did the position of the sales representative. In the 1950s, those selling jan/san products no longer just took orders, they actually had to “sell.” 

The whole dynamic of jan/san distribution sales reps going out and training customers on how to use a product safely arose around this time, says Linda Silverman, president of Maintex, City of Industry, California. 

Prior to this change, training just involved showing end users “how to get the most out of your floor cleaners,” says Silverman, whose father, Ralph Silverman, started Maintex in 1960.

The position could be tough. As companies started to hire sales reps, those workers would be given literature to help them sell and then an assigned territory. Sometimes, that was about it — sink or swim.

“I don’t think most companies invested in their people much,” says Wax.

The sales rep’s job of educating end users was made easier by the National Sanitary Supply Association (NSSA and now known as ISSA). NSSA developed 16 mm films (with sound and color) that distributors could rent, study and learn from. 

The close-knit feel of a jan/san distribution company extended to its sales reps, who seemed like family — and for good reason. It was common for sales reps to begin their career with a company and work there for 40 years, says Gast.

“If he or she was good they’d make a lot of money and their territory would grow,” says Gast.

As companies grew, they became more sophisticated. These changes necessitated moves like purchasing computers and building or expanding warehouses, says Gast. However, some companies didn’t want to shake things up, even if it meant growth because they didn’t want to deal with the stress and they liked what they were doing.

“So many of the distributors didn’t want to grow,” says Randy Brame, CEO and vice chairman, Brame Specialty Company, Durham, North Carolina. “My philosophy was, and has always been, ‘We need to grow.’”

In the 1970s, jan/san distributors that wanted to grow turned to sanitary supply wholesalers for help. Instead of having to sit on slow moving stock that was purchased just to fulfill a manufacturer’s minimum order requirement, or keeping a unique product on hand for the one customer that orders it, distributors could trust the wholesaler to carry the burden. Then, once it was time to fill the order, the distributor could get it through a phone call or drive to the nearby wholesaler. 

Examining the situation from a broader view, wholesalers were another piece of the supply chain that helped to make jan/san business work for everybody, says Ted Stark, president of Dalco, St. Paul, Minnesota.

The wholesaler was especially good for the smaller distributor because they enabled these operations to better use their limited capital, says Gast. While a distributor didn’t want a truckload of paper towels, they could buy a pallet or whatever was enough to satisfy the needs of the customer.

Wholesalers would deliver jan/san products by carloads to distributors who would back up their station wagons to take the product in, says Dick Friedman, president, The RTF Group, Lake Bluff, Illinois.

Working with a wholesaler wouldn’t get a company a big margin, but it could at least lead to a profit when one might have not been turned at all.

“With the wholesaler, what was so neat about that was we had so many small distributors who could go buy the product at a decent price and were able to turn around and sell it to a customer and make a profit,” says Brame.

Right To Know

The jan/san distribution industry had a lot going on in the 1980s.  The recession in the decade’s early years caused budget constraints that led distributors to continue frequent business with wholesalers. Technology’s role in the industry became even bigger as now reasonable computer costs allowed distributors to invest in a machine that would change the industry for decades to come. Beyond technology and economics, another topic of discussion was legislation. 

In 1983, OSHA introduced its Hazard Communication Standard, which forced manufacturers to label hazardous chemicals and supply Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs), known today as safety data sheets, or SDSs. Distributors were forced to pass along these documents to their customers by 1987, thus creating even more detail-oriented, time-consuming work.

“I remember that being a real challenge early on,” says Stark. “We, of course, want our customers to be safe, but the management of that was very difficult.”

When distributors were first forced to gather and submit the information the practice was cumbersome. It wasn’t uncommon for distributors to provide a three-ring binder filled to capacity with information on all of the products and all their respective MSDSs, says Gast. 

Not only did jan/san distributors have to worry about creating and dispersing the material safety data sheets, they also had to make sure that when a chemical change was made to a product, the corresponding MSDS was altered. 

“I would say that was the big thing: the extra work, extra documentation,” says Stark.

With so much information to take in, ISSA and other groups provided aid by developing training videos and other resources that would help distributors to better understand MSDSs, says Silverman. Some of these videos were even done in multiple languages to ensure other, non-English speaking, end users were able to better use the information provided.

After getting settled into the whole process of providing and maintaining an updated MSDS, distributors began to appreciate what the laws did for the industry and the safety of end users.

“At the end of the day, most forward looking companies saw it as a better way to assist their clients,” says Silverman.

previous page of this article:
Chronicling A Jan/San Industry Of Family Business
next page of this article:
Technological Changes Improve Industry