1940s showroom

When the first issue of Sanitary Maintenance was released in 1943, the future of not just the jan/san distribution industry, but also the United States itself, was marked with unknowns. Millions of Americans were serving in the military to help the United States battle in World War II, while masses of others worked to create the products and materials needed to facilitate the global effort. As a result, manufacturers of cleaning supplies were hamstrung by government orders limiting the materials that could be used, meaning jan/san distributors got a less-than-ideal product. The number of workers available for hire in the industry was also less than desirable.  

Things changed drastically when the war ended, as soldiers returned stateside with a newfound appreciation for cleanliness, as well as visions of starting life anew. 


Workers offer a demo on the cleaning abilities of Multi-Clean equipment in 1949.

With many young couples marrying and planning for the future, economic stability was paramount to supporting the upbringing of their children — which would be known as the “Baby Boomer” generation. It just so happened that jan/san distribution right after the war was “the ultimate family business,” says Fritz Gast, who was the executive vice president of PB Gast and Sons when the 100-year-old company sold in 2012.  

Dawn of the Sales Rep 

As the jan/san distribution industry and the companies within it evolved, so did the position of the sales representative. Prior to the 1950s, those responsible for selling jan/san products were taking orders, and training involved simply showing end users how to get the most out of their products and equipment. After the war, though, sales reps actually had to “sell” and the whole dynamic of reps going out and training customers on how to use a product safely grew.   

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

Fortunately, there was some help available. The sales representative’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 that included sound and color and which distributors could rent, study and learn from to hone their skills. Eventually, reps got the hang of things and began to prosper. 

Their success resulted in the close-knit feel of the jan/san industry. Not only were many distribution companies family-built, but their sales reps often became as close as family — and for good reason. A strong salesperson could make good money in selling jan/san products, which would grow their territory and present additional opportunity. For these sales reps, it was common to begin and end their career after decades with the same company forming life-long relationships with customers and coworkers alike.  

As companies grew, they also became more sophisticated. These changes necessitated moves like purchasing computers and building or expanding warehouses. 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,” Randy Brame, CEO and vice chairman, Brame Specialty Company, Durham, North Carolina, was quoted as saying. “My philosophy was and always has been, ‘We need to grow.’” 

In the 1970s, jan/san distributors that wanted to expand 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 distribution businesses work. The wholesaler was especially good for the smaller distributor because they enabled these operations to better use their limited capital. For that distributor that didn’t want a truckload of products, they could buy a single pallet or specific amount to satisfy the needs of the customer.   


A man demonstrates floor care products in the Brulin and Co. shop, circa 1975.

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. For example, a smaller distributor could purchase exactly what they needed for a decent price, then turn around and sell it to the end user for a profit.  

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. 

1980 Computer

Computers were finally used by the majority of distributors in the 1980s.

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). Distributors were forced to pass along these documents to their customers by 1987, thus creating even more detail-oriented, time-consuming work.  

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

Not only did jan/san distributors have to worry about creating and dispersing these MSDSs, they also had to make sure that when a chemical change was made to a product, the corresponding MSDS was updated. The standard added tremendous workload to the distribution industry.  

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

Despite the challenges that the standard presented, distributors eventually settled into the process of providing and maintaining updated MSDS documentation. Eventually, distributors also started to see the benefits in the form of safety and industry evolution. Many saw it as a way to better assist their customers. 

Technology Changes the Industry 

Even waiting through internet dial-up speeds, the 1990s opened up a whole new world for online consumers and businesses alike. Yet, ever apprehensive distributors were hesitant to become one of the first industries to take technological advancements on.  

Despite the initial hesitation, jan/san distributors eventually got on board. The sales and marketing advantages websites offered were great and the ability to communicate through email was a game changer for many who embraced the world wide web. Of course, this was also the start of the giant online distribution sites — new competitors who looked to dominate the industry through the internet alone.  

There was a boom of websites like JanCentral.com and MaintenanceMall.com that threatened to topple the traditional distributor. However, by the new Millenium, the dot.com bubble burst and many of these virtual distributors closed up shop. What was left was the same game-changing communication and information hub that would alter how traditional jan/san distributors operate moving forward. 

Many distributors saw the internet as the greatest change to the industry in a century. It made information available instantaneously and provided the opportunity for distributors to reach a much broader audience.  

To use the internet to its full advantage, a jan/san distributor needed to have a webpage where customers could go to research, and eventually buy products. San Diego-based WAXIE Sanitary Supply, an Envoy Solutions Company, was one of the early adopters in the industry. Charles Wax, chairman and CEO of WAXIE, recalls that those early distribution websites lacked personal service and face-to-face interaction with the customer that was so common for in-person sales efforts, but the websites allowed customers to price shop right away.  

Soon enough, distributors across the country started evaluating their online presence. The growing number of useful websites forced jan/san distributors to invest resources into building a comprehensive website for current and prospective customers.  

Like other industries, the internet changed the way people purchased products. End users began researching products online prior to meeting with sales reps or purchasing. This forced sales reps tasked with moving products to stay sharp on product details and step up their sales game. 


A ProTeam salesman demonstrates a backpack vacuum during a sales call in 2013.

The internet was not the only technology digitizing the distributor’s world. Bar-coding technology helped distributors make the manual picking process more efficient and more accurate. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) software also made daily business less laborious.  

Distributors used to send sales reps out with weekly inventory reports that he or she would update throughout that span by making calls to the office. But with smartphone and laptop ownership becoming more common, sales reps stood to benefit from a software they could download onto their device of choice and provide the most up-to-date status on product stock, price changes and delivery times while out in the field.   

The Loss of Exclusivity 

Another key change in jan/san distribution has been the reduced exclusivity of product brands, which has, in turn, led to a rise in private label products.  

For many years, brand exclusivity gave jan/san distributors a leg up on the competition. But that all began to change when manufacturers chose to increase distribution, thus tempting them to drop exclusivity in favor of providing more products to more distributors.   

Distributors differ somewhat on how the loss of exclusivity has impacted the industry. Some think it has been good for the consumer, but there is uncertainty whether it has been positive for manufacturers or distributors. Others think the increased competition has made distributors better because they work harder to stay sharp. Where distributors agree is that the loss of exclusivity has helped steer distributors toward the exploration of private labeling.  

Private labeling wasn’t always looked at favorably, but that changed around 2010 when wholesale clubs began creating their own brand of product that competed well against well-known, national brands. Prior to this time, private label brands were perceived as inferior, but that was no longer the case.  

Further enhancing the trend toward private label product growth were supply chain struggles and inflation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. As the general public took a rapid and overwhelming interest in the cleaning industry, availability for brand named products wavered, opening the door to private label options. 

In exploring the previous 80 years of the jan/san industry, it’s clear that distributors can and will take on almost anything. It just might take some time. Most distributors don’t consider themselves early adopters or innovators. Instead, they wait, test the waters, preview their options and evaluate those options before eventually jumping on board.  

That approach has allowed jan/san distributors to adapt to this ever-changing and growing industry throughout the last 80 years and it has put them in a great position for the future.