April 27, 2021
Continuity is an underappreciated aspect of ownership transition. While strategies for disruption and overhaul get all the attention, maintaining consistency creates an atmosphere in which growth and innovation naturally occur. Ben Whitlock, president of Mobile Fixture, a kitchen and restaurant supply wholesaler based in Mobile, AL, followed that game plan to the letter when he and three partners bought out the company's longtime owner. Jason caught up with Ben to discuss drafting a protracted transition process into the buyout deal, maintaining organization-wide confidence throughout the pandemic, and succeeding in the crowded hospitality space.
"It's overwhelming," Ben says of finally stepping into full company ownership. "We are 94 days into this. When we closed on our deal back in December, the four of us sat in a room after it was all done, and we said, okay, what's next?" The question is a long time coming. Ben and his three partners, all members of the senior leadership team since approximately 2017, entered into a sale agreement with Mobile's longtime second-generation owner Walne Donald five years ago. But rather than pushing Walne out immediately, they wrote him into their purchase agreement. "We wanted him to stay on for five years as a consultant. He's got a few responsibilities that are, frankly, important to the four of us and the company." Not to mention 30 years of institutional knowledge.
In addition to Walne staying on as majority owner, Ben and his partners were adamant about forgoing private equity. "I'm sure Walne had been approached by larger conglomerates in the industry and private equity," Ben says. However, the team believed in the organization's inherent family philosophy and didn't want to tinker with it too much. "This is as much Walne's legacy as it is for us to buy a company." That holistic approach to company culture served the organization well, especially during the pandemic. With no customers to sell to, Mobile closed its showroom and warehouses for several weeks to refresh and reorganize. That time together proved to be an excellent, if unplanned, team-building exercise.
Now that the transition switch has finally flipped, Ben and the team are ready to tackle post-pandemic challenges like supply chain issues and inflation. "I think building the relationships with our customers throughout the pandemic, and shortly thereafter, I think that's helped a lot." So, too, has having Walne stick around to slowly, surely pass that torch.
“The mantra is, you go into a situation and you expect to win. So winning is like, okay, great! Let me check it off the list, move on to something else. When you lose, you remember that loss.”
“I would rather you tell the customer the truth on day one and tell them that they're walk-in cooler shipping in 41 weeks rather you tell them that, rather than take the order, take their money, and then wait 35 weeks before you tell them it's not shipping for another six.”
“No is a perfectly acceptable answer.”
“Our job as distributors or dealers is to give every client the resources they need to be successful.”
“Our goal was to make it through the first hundred days without screwing anything up, without making major changes. We wanted it as status quo as possible. We're 94 days in; we're doing okay. We haven't had major disruptions, knock on wood. But so far, so good.”
“Every day is harder than the last but easier than last ‘cause you've got one more day of experience to draw from it. As minute as that sounds, it’s true.”
“All the owners have to be active in the company. We're not going to allow someone to own the company and not work there. That's just not, that's not what we are. I need you to have skin in the game.”
Distribution Talk is produced by The Distribution Team, a consulting services firm dedicated to helping wholesale distribution clients remove barriers to profitability, generate wealth and achieve personal goals.
This episode was edited & mixed by The Creative Impostor Studios.
Special thanks to our sponsor for this episode: HMI Performance Incentives, providing innovative, data-driven B2B incentive solutions.