It’s one of those nebulous words that’s difficult to define, but you know it when you see it. Leadership is apparent when distributors find ways to increase productivity in the midst of a stagnant economy, and it’s conspicuous by its absence when companies falter. Knowing some readers see worthy leadership models on a regular basis, we used an August survey to ask them to nominate their most innovative, respected and influential colleagues. In other words: leaders.

We whittled away at the dozens of nominations until we were left with a 5-member representative sampling of industry excellence. There’s an example here for every jan/san distributor to aspire to, from Caldwell Smith’s ability to turn casual contacts into long-term business ventures to Charles Wax’s expertise in improving on a family legacy. From Beth Riley and Alex Monteith, who successfully manage single-location companies, to Michael Feenan, who manages 109 branches that span North America, this group represents a microcosm of the sanitary supply industry. You’ll find invigorating anecdotes and insights from all five executives, and hopefully edge closer to defining what leadership means for you and your own company.

Executive: Caldwell Smith
Company: Mid-American Chemical Supply Headquarters: Nicholasville, Ky.
Number of Branches: 7
Number of Employees: 42
Industry Insight: “You must — regardless of whether it’s the most high-profile customer or the mom-and-pop around the corner — keep your eyes on the finish line, and that is: customer delight.”
The Natural Networker
In 1978, Caldwell Smith was poised for a career in politics. Still in his 20s, he had risen quickly through the ranks of Kentucky state government and was one of the governor’s top administrative assistants. He enjoyed connecting with other politicians, regardless of partisanship, but the red tape and difficulty in getting results dispirited him. Despite his frustration, Smith’s networking abilities allowed him to thrive in the political arena. That is, until an early-morning phone call from a friend who was a contract cleaner began to remap his career path away from politics and toward the private sector.

“He called my house at 2 a.m. because he had a floor to strip, and the person he hired to help him hadn’t shown up,” says Smith, whose only experience with commercial cleaning equipment was using a floor buffer in the U.S. Army. But Smith helped his friend strip the floor until dawn the next morning.

When Smith received $50 for two hours of work, he realized that a lot of money could be made in the cleaning business, especially for someone with his ability to turn chance meetings into partnerships. “My father-in-law used to say, ‘Caldwell, you’re a man for all seasons. You can talk with kings and politicians and you can relate to the blue-collar worker,’” he says.

More than just an ability to network, Smith possesses an ability to capitalize on his networking contacts. He eventually left his position at the governor’s office in 1981 and partnered with the contract cleaner he had helped a few years before. Later, he switched over to the supply side and became a distributor. “It’s difficult to get things done in politics,” he says. “It’s difficult to make an impact. But in business, there are so many open doors, and so many ways to find a solution for a customer.”

Today, Smith is president and owner of Mid-American Chemical Supply Co., a distributor with seven branches, from Austin, Texas, to Washington, D.C. Ironically, some of his best customers — the White House and the Pentagon, for example — are the premier facilities in American government.

“I would fly to Washington once a month and stay for a week, just making cold calls,” he says. “Working with the governor of Kentucky taught me how to work through the bureaucracy of government. I just kept meeting with people until we were finally able to make a partnership with the General Services Administration to have a long-term partnership with the White House.”

Smith’s ability to network and seize opportunities has earned him prestigious customers in the private sector as well. In 1988, Smith was invited to a banquet for Kentucky business owners where Fujio Cho, president of Toyota, was the keynote speaker. He met with Cho after the banquet and set up a supply agreement — right there in the banquet hall — to provide all the paper, cleaning chemicals and waste-receptacle liners for Toyota’s new 8-million square-foot manufacturing headquarters in Louisville, Ky.

“My friends call me the Energizer Bunny, because I’m always moving and I’m always selling,” says Smith. “Most owners just don’t take advantage of the opportunities.” n

Executive: Charles Wax
Company: Waxie Sanitary Supply
Headquarters: San Diego
Number of Branches: 14
Number of Employees: 620
Industry Insight: “The core values of selecting the right people for the right positions and giving great customer service are lifetime principles, but you also have to be flexible enough to change with the times.”
The Expansionist
Following in the footsteps of an industry legend isn’t always easy. Just ask Charles Wax, president and owner of Waxie Sanitary Supply. Wax’s father, Morris, was one of the sanitary supply industry’s most dignified elder statesmen before he passed away in 1996. Morris Wax founded Waxie Sanitary Supply in San Diego, and grew it into one of the industry’s most respected and successful companies.

In 1986, Charles Wax took over as company president, and he says he experienced a bit of trepidation, attempting to fill the shoes of an industry pioneer with a proven track record. Soon enough, however, the younger Wax found his own way to lead, and he showed an ability to successfully expand Waxie even before officially taking over the company reins. “I came into the business in 1973, and our company is more than 40 times larger now than it was then,” he says.

Now with 14 locations spanning the West Coast, Waxie Sanitary Supply has set the standard for how to grow and improve a family business, both by expanding to new cities and by improving operations within the company. “We don’t just expect to grow externally,” says Wax. “There’s also an expectation that we grow internally. We challenge our employees to do everything with a sense of excellence, using technology to our advantage and searching out new solutions for customers.”

Despite his own success, Wax is quick to talk about his most influential business mentor — his father.

“He was a very creative leader, but he was also very impulsive and very reactive,” he says. “I have those traits, too, but I’m a little more conservative and more interested in thinking through the consequences before I start something. My dad really liked to go on a hunch and make a quick decision.”

Wax has a passion for passing on Waxie principles — customer loyalty, timely delivery, and practical solutions — to every company employee at every branch. “All the business we do is done by people. We may seem like a big company, but we’re still a family company, and we want our people at the local branches to act with an attitude of caring toward every customer,” he says. n

Executive: Beth Riley
Company: United Sanitary Supply
Headquarters: Baltimore
Number of Branches: 1
Number of Employees: 16
Industry Insight: “Always listen. Listen to your employees; listen to your customers; listen to your vendors. The information gained from listening is the most valuable tool that you possess as a manager.”
The Master Manager
Not every leading executive in the sanitary supply industry is a company owner, president or CEO; some of the most adroit executives are managers who make sure their operations run flawlessly — from sales call to delivery. Beth Riley, vice president and general manager of United Sanitary, is such an executive.

Riley, who earned her undergraduate degree in accounting, was known for working 14-hour days and on weekends, to ensure that her former company, Kansas City, Mo.-based WinPro Solutions, was running a tight ship. “Even when she started out as a salaried employee, her attitude was like that of a company owner,” says Steve Kurz, president and owner of WinPro, another jan/san distributor. “She noticed areas of operations that were losing money, and she redirected everything to make a profit.”

Lanny Schuster, owner and president of United Sanitary, Baltimore, noticed the way Riley carried WinPro through good times and bad, and he tried to recruit her for two years before she finally joined the company. “I’d say that she’s a jack of all trades, but that really doesn’t encompass what she does,” he says. “She’s more of a master of all trades. We’re looking to expand now, and so much of that — really all of it — is due to how Beth has made our company efficient and profitable.”

Riley first entered the jan/san industry by working for the now-defunct jan/san distributor, Century Laboratories, also located in Kansas City. The Century Labs owner, Barney Kurz, one of Riley’s management mentors, used to tell her: If you watch the pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves. “I never forgot that,” she says. “He taught me how to complete tasks from start to finish, and he really instructed me on how to hone my accounting skills.”

Schuster and Riley met through a user group sponsored by a technology vendor in the sanitary supply industry. “We’re a 74-year-old company and she’s really brought a fresh approach to our direction,” says Schuster. “We recently acquired Eagle Paper and Chemicals, a long-time competitor of ours, and Beth is organizing the entire sales approach that will unite the two companies, as well as integrating the two warehouses. Thanks to her abilities, we have two more acquisitions in the works.”

As soon as she moved to Baltimore, Riley helped United Sanitary organize its warehousing operations. “I instituted the cycle count, which is an efficient way to manage inventory,” she says. “I did a total analysis and basically just ended up tweaking everything so that products could be monitored and calculated without wasted effort.”

Riley believes her forte is warehousing and operations, but she also has 15 years of experience in sales and purchasing. “I know quite a bit about everything that’s going on, so that I can better direct our employees that specialize in those areas.”

Executive: Michael Feenan
Company: xpedx
Headquarters: Loveland, Ohio
Number of Branches: 109
Number of Employees: 8,500+
Industry Insight: “To be successful, you must work with your partners to bring innovative solutions to the market.”
The National Trend-Setter
Few jan/san distributors can boast the selling power of 8,500 employees at 109 locations. Then again, there are few companies like xpedx, which has warehouses in every U.S. state except Alaska (along with sites in Mexico). The xpedx headquarters are in Loveland, Ohio — where Michael Feenan, national director of marketing for facility supplies, coordinates the company’s cross-country sanitary supply sales efforts.

Because of xpedx’s national presence, Feenan is able to influence jan/san manufacturing trends and end-user practices on a scale that is well beyond that of most distributors. He oversees a council of six people, each one representing a major xpedx sales region of the United States. “Different challenges in each region require different managers to make local decisions. In the West, the service distance between two major metro cities can be 400 to 500 miles, whereas the distance is much shorter between major cities on the East Coast,” Feenan explains.

While some challenges for Feenan are geographic, others are cultural. Being a distributor that serves major Hispanic communities in the United States, xpedx was one of the first companies to include Spanish descriptions and instructions on the labeling of all its jan/san product lines.

“We have thousands of talented people at xpedx,” says Feenan, “so the goal is to guide and not control. We ask questions, and no one person has an exclusive on the right answer. In the end, our team comes up with some fabulous ideas.”

Feenan’s professional life took him to Massachusetts and Colorado before he finally landed in Ohio. Much of his time is spent analyzing product use in each region of the country and helping xpedx simplify the operations of customers in each locality. “The relocation in different parts of the country has been a valuable part of my professional and personal experience,” he says. “Each area of the country has different cultural and ethnic influences that we consider when working with customers.”

Feenan earned his undergraduate degree at a small, private college, St. Anselm, in New Hampshire. The surroundings gave him an example of leadership that left a long-lasting impression. “There was a monastery on the campus that exposed me to a life of contribution, reflection and high standards that continue to have a powerful influence on my life,” he says. That quest for high standards aided Feenan’s career path in the business world as he entered the sanitary supply industry.

“My position isn’t like most executive leadership positions in our industry,” he says. “I don’t say, ‘Send this truck on Thursday,’ or ‘How do we improve delivery?’ My role is to direct the people who are best able to lead each region to productivity.”

Feenan’s company competes in several industries, “To the tune of $6 billion in sales,” he says, but he’s the key jan/san decision-maker. “I oversee the jan/san side of the company, so I’m responsible for the coordination of those efforts. Our challenge is showing customers that we have the reliability and local excellence that can best serve their needs.”

Executive: Alex Monteith
Company: Quaker City Paper Co.
Headquarters: York, Pa.
Number of Branches: 1
Number of Employees: 65
Industry Insight: “Take the time to listen and treat everyone fairly.”
The Employee Advocate
Two years ago, 30 percent of Quaker City Paper Co. was employee-owned. Today, employees own 52 percent of the company. It’s no coincidence that Alex Monteith also became company president two years ago. Since taking the reins, he has worked to help each of the company’s 65 employees develop an owner’s perspective, regardless of how much company stock they own. Monteith believes that when employees take ownership, in every sense of the word, they’re more productive. “When people know their responsibilities and they know that upper management wants to help them succeed, I believe they’ll perform well,” he says.

Monteith not only promotes employee ownership, but he also supports every worker with personal encouragement. The support from Monteith doesn’t go unnoticed.

“He’s really like a caring father-figure to every worker in the company,” says Sandy Halbach, a veteran employee at Quaker City. “He has a calm, professional manner, and he has a reputation for dealing with customers and workers in a fair, kind manner.”

Monteith doesn’t distance himself from employees, often making time for one-on-one discussions. “I let employees earn my trust,” he says. “I’ve made the statement over the years that it doesn’t matter what’s in the truck. We’re not in the paper business or the chemical business — we’re in the people business.”

Since coming to Quaker City in 1964, Monteith has pushed to make the company’s working environment as pleasant as possible. First, he had the women’s restroom completely remodeled as soon as a few employees complained that it was looking old. Later, he built an outdoor sitting area (complete with flower gardens and walking paths).

The concept of employee ownership is still new to some employees who don’t understand that poor production affects personal paychecks more than ever before. “I try to constantly remind every employee that they are owners of the company,” he says. “Every worker has a different-sized share, but I want everyone to approach their job with the attitude of an owner.”

Under Monteith’s leadership, greater production has allowed Quaker City to expand in different directions: retail packaging, specialty advertising, and business form production. He was also responsible for Quaker City’s initial expansion from being strictly a paper warehouse to carrying cleaning chemicals. “I didn’t know a lot early on, but I really dug in, and I spent evenings working at home, searching for better products and solutions,” he says.

Although he now has a vast knowledge of product lines, Monteith never strays from his belief that Quaker City employees are the lifeblood of the company. “I know there’s life after Quaker for some of my employees, but while they’re here, I just ask that they give full effort and that they enjoy working here.”