From leaving war-torn Lebanon at age 17 to growing Royal Corp. to be a national jan/san distribution company, George Abiaad is living out the American Dream. Together with his wife Marianne, who is also Royal Corp.’s executive vice president, and Partner Michael Rashtchi, they treat each day as a blessing; sharing their good fortune and positive outlook with everyone around them — from family members to employees to customers.
The way George and Marianne run Royal Corp. is no different than the way they live their lives: with an “attitude of gratitude.” The couple is grateful for the opportunities provided to them and showcase their thankfulness by treating employees and customers the same way they’d treat a family member — with respect, compassion and a helping hand.

Royal's Relationships Start With Significance

With warehouses in California, Wisconsin and, new in 2012, Tennessee, Royal is able to service both local and national customers. If a client is out of immediate geographical reach, Royal can utilize one of its 90 partnerships with the buying group Strategic Market Alliance.

But this wasn’t always the case. In the beginning Royal was simply a local, West Coast distributor run by a former janitor. Its growth into a national player was gradual and grassroots. There wasn’t a major acquisition of another distributor to buy its way into a new market. Rather, its reputation as an unparalleled service provider has pulled it across the United States as customers expanded operations.

“Customer growth is integral to our growth,” says George, president. “We did our part by being significant to our customers.”

Significance is a term George can’t stress enough. To him, relationships — whether they are with a spouse, friend, employee or customer — aren’t defined by how successful they are, but how significant that person is to him.
When people strive for significant relationships, they establish trust and form bonds. The more significant a person finds someone, the more they want him or her around. George and Marianne make sure they are significant to their employees and customers.

“You have to earn your business today. Forget yesterday,” says George. “Customers don’t owe us loyalty based on past performance. You have to go out and earn their business every day.”

Royal’s customer service strategy emphasizes the customer. They are willing to create customized training videos featuring Royal staff members and occasionally even the facility’s custodial team. Through an online ordering system, customers can purchase products on their schedule, not Royal’s. And if there is ever a problem or emergency, Royal employees handle it quickly and with compassion (watch CleanTips podcast).

“When they tell you they’re going to do something, whatever it is, they get it done and usually in a rapid fashion,” says Walter Hebert, senior vice president of purchasing for Cinemark in Plano, Texas. “Most of the time I don’t even find out that something is broken before it’s fixed. They don’t let it escalate to the top before they get it taken care of.”

It is Royal’s significant relationship with another theater chain, Milwaukee-based Marcus Corp., that allowed the company to seriously expand from the West Coast to the Midwest.

Even though they were based in California, Royal used to service a few Midwestern theaters for Marcus through another vendor. When that company went bankrupt in 1999, Marcus was so impressed with Royal’s program and level of service that they asked George if he would consider expanding to the Midwest to continue on the account.

“When you treat your customer as an end and not as a means to an end, and you’re genuinely caring about doing a good job, that’s when you get the call, ‘What do I need to do to get you out here?’” says Marianne. “That’s how we’ve been blessed to expand. Our customers take us with them wherever they go.”

The great relationship with Marcus has since led to Royal supplying the company’s lodging properties, including Milwaukee’s historic Pfister Hotel and the Grand Geneva Resort and Spa (formerly the Playboy Club) in Lake Geneva, Wis.

Customer Service Is The Secret

The movie theater industry is Royal’s largest customer base, with the company supplying 15,000 screens nationwide for AMC, Cinemark and Marcus, among many other national, regional and independent theater chains.

In addition to theaters, Royal also supplies hotels, colleges and universities. Together, these three markets all share a similar multi-level, multi-locale structure. To make sure all needs are being met, Royal looks to work with both the corporate office and the managers and field staff at various local theaters, satellite campuses or individual hotel properties.

“When dealing with customers with multi-unit locations, you should have four to five levels of relationships,” says George. “And they shouldn’t be all linked to each other. Our technicians will have a relationship with their machine shop, somebody else with the procurement department, other people with the facilities staff, etc.”

Working with individuals in various levels of the organization and focusing on a limited number of markets allows Royal to learn more about the specific challenges each sector faces and to truly master those challenges. If it is the expert in that facility type — and have multiple, deep relationships with a client — no other company will be able to service that customer better.

“We put all our efforts into being the best service provider and learning their needs,” says George. “You learn their needs, you become better at your job, you become more significant in their partnership.”

For Royal, the partnership is often more than just jan/san. In the movie theater industry, for example, they supply cleaning products, foodservice disposables, candy and other concessions and even cleaning solutions for movie equipment such as 3D glasses. But whatever product they supply, the goal is to be significant, and nothing achieves that better than outstanding customer service.

“We don’t just ship a product and it goes from Point A to Point B,” says Marianne. “We offer full support to anything we are delivering.”
The term “value-added service” gets tossed around too often in jan/san distribution, but at Royal it’s practically a way of life.

“When you become active in learning all aspects of the partnership, you develop appreciation for what that market does within its intricate details,” says George. “You get empathy for their hopes, challenges and aspirations. You become one of them. That makes the ability to develop solutions seamless for you.”

A new solution they are providing addresses training problems in movie theaters. In this market, teenagers working a temporary job are often the ones cleaning. Since these aren’t professionals with years of industry experience, training needs to be as simple and seamless as possible.

To do its part, Royal is catering to younger people’s adeptness for technology by putting QR codes on chemical labels. If users need a quick reminder on how to use a product or clean an area, they can scan the code with their smartphone and be taken to a YouTube video demonstrating the product.

“The QR code is just in case somebody forgot and needs some information quickly,” says Marianne. “And now it’s the generation of getting that information really quickly; so we have it at their fingertips.”
George has a unique insight into his customers’ cleaning needs and can relate to their struggles because he began his career as a janitor — and has not forgotten his roots.

“I’m a janitor at heart,” says George. “I play with products. My office doesn’t resemble an executive’s office. It’s full of products — it’s a janitor’s closet.”

For the Abiaads, Each Day Is A Blessing

George immigrated to the United States in 1977 from Lebanon amidst the country’s civil war. He majored in mathematics and philosophy during the day and worked evenings for a building service contractor as a janitor to pay the bills and support his parents. After nine months on the job, a note left in the janitor’s closet of the Catholic school he was cleaning would change his life.

The school principal wanted to meet the janitor responsible for cleaning the school. Never had the building been cleaned so thoroughly. And although she wanted to fire her overall service provider, she hoped to find a way to keep George on the account. When this news reached his boss, George was fired immediately, but it was actually a blessing in disguise.

Learning of his dismissal, the principal decided to help George start his own cleaning company so he could continue working at the school. Within three years George was servicing every Catholic facility within an 8-mile radius.

By 1984 the company had 300 employees, but despite the success as a building service contractor, George could see realizing a point of diminishing returns. And he could also foresee a better, more lucrative opportunity.

As a building service contractor, George wasn’t receiving the industry expertise and support he needed from his distributor. He felt he could provide that service better than other distributors in the area and switched from cleaning buildings to supplying them in 1985.

On a return trip to Lebanon 17 years after he left, George met Marianne. To anyone who sees the two together, it’s clear that George’s notion of “significant relationships” is the strongest with Marianne.

“Marianne is Royal’s secret weapon,” says George. “A key pivotal event for Royal was Marianne joining the company.”

Joining Royal in 1995, Marianne has learned all aspects of the company. But perhaps even more important than her business acumen is the outlook Marianne shares with George. Having to study for high school in candlelight evading bomb shells, it’s easy to see and treat each day as a blessing. She, too, shares that joy with her employees and customers.

“I always describe George and Marianne as compassionate and passionate,” says Jeffrey Halamka, operations manager for Royal’s Midwest operations. “Compassionate for customers and employees; passionate for their work.”

Deserved Recognition

Customers appreciate this passion and recognize it as unique in the industry.

“Royal exemplifies everything we want in a vendor partner,” says Brian Mullady, director of procurement for AMC Theatres in Kansas City, Mo. “They are always looking for a fresh product or a fresh approach to doing things.”

AMC recently surveyed its theater managers to gauge their satisfaction with the company’s national vendors. Royal ranked second overall.

“George and Marianne don’t treat customers like a customer; they treat them like a family member,” says Dave Cornell, general manager for Royal’s Midwest operations.

In 2011, Royal was honored by the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) for the Midwest with the Vendor of the Year Award. It truly was an honor for George and Marianne as this award is typically given to major vendors such as Coke or Paramount. In his speech George was humble and grateful, but still promised that “we will continue to listen, we will continue to learn, we will continue to execute, to earn our place among you and our partnership with you.” His passion for significance never ends.

While it is true George and Marianne serve as account principals for their major clients, it takes more than those two to receive such accolades from their customers.  Accounts could have up to 30 staff members servicing it. Care for the client has to start with George and Marianne, but spread down through the rest of the company in order for the relationship to work.

George uses the analogy of Royal as a hospital and the client as a patient. In a hospital, everyone working on the surgery — from the surgeon on down to the custodian preparing the floor — has the same goal of “not killing the patient.” It’s the same at Royal; from the warehouse picker to the salesperson to the president, everyone has to give the same attention and care to the customer.

“Royal separates themselves from the pack in many ways, but the most critical is in their level of customer service,” says Mullady. “This starts at the top with George and Marianne, but permeates through their entire organization.”

Halamka described George and Marianne’s customer service as “contagious.” For example, Cornell relayed a story about a customer with severe odor problems in their men’s room; Cornell spent two hours on his hands and knees scrubbing dried urine off of urinals and grout while still wearing a suit.

George and Marianne have inspired their employees to give the same appreciation to their customers that they receive from their employers.

Employee Appreciation

Sharing that appreciation with customers is second nature because it is exactly what employees receive inside the office every day. George and Marianne make an effort to have “significant relationships” with all of their roughly 100 employees.

“We tell employees that if you don’t have a family, or if you have a dysfunctional family, then Royal is your family,” says George. “If you have a family then we’re your other family.”

Every Friday Royal buys lunch for every employee in the California office and celebrates the week’s birthdays with a cake. Employees make it a point to come to the office for these occasions — drivers come off the road, salespeople take a break from visiting clients.

During the lunch, George will pay attention to employees’ morale and body language just like a concerned dad. If something seems out of order, he’ll ask that person to swing by his office for a personal chat to make sure everything is OK, whether at home or work.

“I joke that we’ll have to replace the chair in his office with a couch,” says Marianne. But his concern is genuine.

When an employee’s daughter was bitten by a dog, George was at the hospital at 2 a.m. When Royal received passes for a “Twilight” VIP convention, they gave it to the employee they knew was a huge fan of actor Taylor Lautner (“She went crazy,” says Marianne).  

Royal is a national company, this family attitude also has to be stretched across the country to Wisconsin and Tennessee. For every birthday the California offices sign a card and send along a gift certificate. George and Marianne know what is happening in the personal lives of every employee regardless of the branch and remain in constant communication (George recently called Cornell everyday for status updates on his first granddaughter).

To show their gratitude, employees reward George and Marianne’s compassion and thoughtfulness with loyalty. There are staff members who have been with Royal for 15, 20, or even 25 years. In fact, Sigi Rodriguez, Royal’s field technician manager has worked for George since George’s days as a cleaning contractor.

Continuing To Care

Royal’s strong customer relationships have led to the company’s continued expansion. Earlier this year, Royal opened its third branch, this time in Tennessee. Having a facility in the southern region will allow George, Marianne and the rest of the Royal staff to supply their customers more effectively and efficiently. But above all, service will be done with that same “attitude of gratitude.”

George and Marianne both reflect upon their lives and cherish the blessings life has afforded them, despite all the hardships. To them, walking down the street to buy a hamburger or sleeping in a bed and not worrying about the potential for a mortar shell ending their life are experiences not be to taken for granted. That’s why each day they pay this appreciation forward to everyone significant to them, so they, too, can share in their joy. And with these experiences as a backdrop, business challenges aren’t really challenges — they are opportunities. To cynics, it all may sound saccharine and idealistic, but to the Abiaads and many on the Royal team, it’s simply their way of life and business model.

“When things are taken away from you at an early age and you know how precarious things are, and then you get to experience the freedom and opportunity in this country, everything is a blessing,” says George. “Just waking up is a blessing and knowing all these opportunities await you and you have the freedom to pursue them.”