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FESmag.com Dealer of the Year Award

Dan Beltram

 

 


The Beltram Foodservice Group
is Foodservice & Equipment's
2004 Dealer of the Year

Dan Beltram

The Beltram Foodservice Group is proud to be the recipient of FESmag.com's Dealer of the Year Award for 2004.

Beltram Foodservice Group: Market Masters From An Entrepreneurial College

By Mitchell Schechter -- Foodservice Equipment & Supplies, 5/1/2004

Founder, president and "dean" of the Beltram Foodservice Group, Daniel Beltram has developed a market-mastering full-service dealership based on his remarkable aptitude for nurturing new businesses and business leaders. The result is an FE&S Dealer of the Year that is as internally dedicated to autonomous management and staff skill-building as it is externally focused on delivering extraordinary customer service.

It is 1981 and, at the Beltram Foodservice Group in Tampa, Fla., Quirino Beltram is in his habitual workspace, hand-grinding new edges on cleavers, scissors, razors and other utensils in the firm's knife-sharpening service center. Across a narrow street stands a second building, this one filled to the ceiling with staged jobs and inventory belonging to the company's nine-year-old E&S dealer division, founded and run by Quirino's son, 30-year-old Daniel Beltram. Before anyone is aware of a problem, smoke begins to billow from the E&S warehouse; it has just been set afire by a pyromanical new hire and will shortly be engulfed in flames. Alarms sound, aroused Beltram employees contact the fire department and trucks are dispatched, TV crews arrive in vans and begin filming, and a helicopter circles over the scene as the first pumper crews arrive to battle the blaze.

Just yards from the devastation, chaos and rescue efforts, Quirino Beltram remains at his grinding wheel, composed and focused, as is his life-long custom, on the job before him, content to leave the rest of the world, flaming company building and all, in the hands of a God in Whom he has an abiding and unquestioning faith.

"That warehouse burnt to the ground and we lost everything in it. And, of course, we had no insurance on it," Dan Beltram recounted recently during a visit by FE&S. "That wasn't my father's way, to put the assurances of man over the protection of his Lord. So, we took a total loss, which was kind of ironic, because just a few days before our accountant had told me we might have a problem with [too much] retained earnings." Beltram laughed, a deep throaty chuckle, and offered one of his rare, broad grins. "Well, that problem went away in a hurry, but the fire forced us to borrow money for the first time and that experience led me to take a new look about how we wanted to grow this business."

Dan Beltram
Respectful of the tenets and beliefs of his parents (pictured at left), Beltram tries to instill these values in his children (above). Photo by Robert Thompson

Recognizing that he found the act of borrowing distasteful, certain that he wanted never to be "at the mercy of anyone or anything" and determined to build a vertically integrated dealership with multiple, independently managed components, Beltram spent much of the next 20 years planning and developing his organization. Today, FE&S' 2004 Dealer of the Year has some 130 employees, locations in Tampa, Tarpon Springs and Ft. Myers, operates a millworking shop and a stainless-steel fabrication plant, has a thriving design/build and contract business, serves a broad range of chain, independent and noncommercial customers, and recorded sales last year of some $36.2 million (after selling off three profitable company divisions over the past three years). (For a close-up look at the people and departments that comprise Beltram and are responsible for its success, see the side stories on the following pages.)

The fire that wiped out much of what Dan Beltram had built on the E&S distribution side, that forced him to rethink what he wanted his business to be like and to start basically anew, also helped to cast into sharp contrast the different approaches to life expressed by this son and his father. Born in Europe at the end of the 19th Century, Quirino Beltram came to America and devoted his life to his faith, his family and his work to a degree that excluded almost all other interests. He believed in the tenets of his faith, trusted his Lord to determine the outcome of his efforts and taught Dan, his older sister Jackie and older brother Andy to work unstintingly, avoid shirking as a sin and never to complain if events turned against them. Molded from stern stock, Dan Beltram nevertheless grew up motivated, as well, by restless competitive energies that drove him to participate in the secular world and to prove himself against new challenges at every opportunity. So, when the '81 fire set them back, Quirino endured, stuck to his tried and true ways, and continued the knife-sharpening and servicing business he had operated since 1951 until at last retiring at 91. Dan, however, began to study foodservice E&S markets, other distribution businesses and, most importantly, his customers, to ascertain the sorts of products and services that would most closely match their needs. What he also learned, from life experience and adversity alike, was that more often than not, "bad" events simply provide chances to do things better.

Dan Beltram and Xio Polewaski
Dan Beltram starts most workdays by meeting with Secretary of the Corporation Xio Polewaski (right) in his Tampa office to review his agenda and appointments. Photo by Robert Thompson

"I've always believed that how you choose to look at a situation will determine how you respond to it. If you take a negative attitude, you'll see a problem; if you have a positive perception, you'll find an opportunity," he remarked while touring his Tampa headquarters facility with his visitor. "Over the past year or so, for example, we've lost several account managers to the chain customers we've been serving; they saw someone who understood their business and hired them over. Now, is that a loss for us?" he asked rhetorically. "From one perspective, it might be. But it also seems to me that our people are doing a hell of a good job for our business partners, that now we have folks working on the customer side who know and appreciate our resources and services, and that we're likely, therefore, to do even more business with those chain accounts. And just as important," Beltram added, satisfaction evident in his voice, "I get to promote rising young stars within our organization to take over for those who've left."

This willingness to trust and promote employees is central to both Beltram's business ethos and the culture of the company he has helped to create. "We don't believe in micro-managing or rigid procedures," he explained. "The model we've tried to develop is more along the lines of an entrepreneurial college, where promising E&S professionals can come in with a business idea or the skills to grow a business line. My role, as 'dean,' if you will, is to give my managers whichever tools they need to operate more effectively than our competitors.

"The way we do this, and I honestly don't know if this is a strength or a weakness in our organization, is to give all our enterprise managers nearly total autonomy," Beltram continued. "We've always had a large number of businesses and each has been self-funding since start-up because the managers and employees are free to do their jobs the best way they know how, without me looking over their shoulders. They are responsible for their own success, and my role is mostly that of a consultant and a banker. What's positive for us about this is we have also learned to be responsible to each other. Our managers are putting their feet in the shoes of their employees every day and making sure that they get opportunities to grow, their ideas are heard and they advance as they deserve."

Then, what's the weakness in an empowered, autonomously managed organization? Beltram was asked.

"It comes from the fact that each of our divisions operates according to its own procedures, which creates individual strengths and weaknesses and makes it hard to share best practices," he related. "Also, over time, you always have some managers who are less skillful at truly being in charge than others, who may not believe or want to believe that the buck actually stops with them when it comes to their own enterprise. It takes a certain breed to succeed here."

One sure way to help promulgate accountability and a readiness to turn problems into opportunities is to lead by example. Beltram himself undertook this responsibility recently by taking on the role of de facto account manager when the company's largest customer, a chain with which the dealership had been doing business for a decade, unexpectedly announced that it was planning to split its business among several suppliers. "Could we still lose some or even all of that customer's E&S orders? Sure," Beltram told his guest. "But the way I choose to look at it, this situation gives us a chance to find ways to increase the value we add to the relationship and to step up our game and take our services to the next level."

It is interesting to note that the rapidly adaptive culture and purposefully loose organizational structure that defines the Beltram Foodservice Group today both have their roots in a strongly authoritarian tradition. Dan's father, Quirino, was born in Austria in 1898, during the twilight of the imperial Austro-Hungarian Empire. Raised in rural surroundings, he first worked as a herdsman and rancher, but also gained skill as a blade-sharpener and utensil repairman from his father, who was also a grinder. In 1914, when he was 16, Quirino Beltram came to America to seek his fortune, all but penniless and with no command of English. Nonetheless, he established a knife-sharpening business in New Jersey. Quirino married Eliane Gruet in 1945 and maintained his business in the Garden State until 1949. "At that time, Dad's employees reportedly voted to unionize the shop, very much against his wishes," Beltram remarked. "He took it as a sign from God that his time in New Jersey had run its course, so he chose to leave and relocate to Florida."

The Beltrams settled into a mid-sized ranch outside of Zephyrhills, Fla., where Dan was born in 1951. Though proclaiming himself "retired," Quirino kept right on working and earning for his family, both as a farmer and rancher and, inevitably, as a grinder, resuming this work at first in the garage of his home. When knife-sharpening, scissor-tightening and related tasks once more grew into his primary money-earning occupation, Quirino took a small work space, barely big enough for his grinding and polishing wheels, in a former grocery on North Florida Avenue, a location that, while greatly expanded over the years, has served ever since as the headquarters for all subsequent Beltram businesses.

Because hard work and contributions to the family livelihood were a given in the Beltram household, Dan was only eight when he started working alongside his father, spending many hours after school and often all day on Saturdays washing the animal fat off butcher knives and adding fine edges to blades with a polishing wheel and honing stone. "The name of that business was Beltram Edge Tool Supply and that also stood for 'Brings Every Tool Sharp,' because that was what it took to please the people we worked for," he explained. "It was a very hard way to earn a living, and for all the respect and admiration I had for my Dad, I knew I wasn't going to do that for my whole life."

It was, in fact, during Dan's career at local Hillsborough High School that the qualities that most distinguished him from his father, and which continue to define him today, were first made manifest. Dan excelled at school, earning top marks, being elected student body president and accomplishing so much as an All-State athlete on the football team that he was named his division's player of the year as a senior. "I've always been very, very competitive. Whatever I try to do, I want to win, be the best, whether that was on the field or today when I'm trying to make a new sale," he related. "It may be a personal weakness, but I have always found myself drawn to taking on the next challenge that presented itself in my life."

Although he had earned widespread recognition and nearly every award available to a high-school football player in Florida, at five-foot nine-inches tall and about 160 pounds, Dan Beltram knew that a future in intercollegiate and professional sports was unlikely. With characteristic adaptability, he dedicated himself to surmounting a new challenge: mastering a pre-med curriculum when he enrolled at the local University of South Florida. This, Beltram accomplished with aplomb, gaining a B.S. degree in three years and planning a prospective career in medical group management as his professional future.

"I knew from the beginning that my greatest talents didn't lie in scientific research or even the practice of medicine," he admitted. "Business was in my blood, I'd been a trader of stocks since I was a kid, so I could see myself using my understanding of markets to develop a multi-physician medical group or perhaps lease real estate to doctors."

In pursuit of this plan after completing his pre-med studies, Dan interviewed practicing physicians at Northwestern and Johns Hopkins while preparing to apply to med school. Before returning to the academic grind, however, he decided first to spend a few months in Alaska visiting his older sister Jackie who had already passed the bar and opened a law office. It was during this sojourn that Dan received a phone call that, literally, changed his life.

"I took the phone and it was Dad. This was in 1973, he was 75. He said to me, 'I think the end is near.' It turned out he thought he had cancer. I knew he needed some help," Beltram recalled quietly, "so I decided to fly back the next day, spend some time with him, get him proper medical help and, if necessary, help him sell his business."

As events transpired, Quirino Beltram was found to be cancer-free and returned to his knife-sharpening work. Though he had not planned on working alongside his father, Dan was again restless for a new challenge and soon put himself out on the road, opening up new knife-sharpening accounts. "As I understood it, our mission was to please our customers," he commented. "So, since we were already out there in their businesses, bringing in sharp knives and taking away dull ones, when they asked me to get them other items they needed to run their operations, I said, 'Yes, of course.' We started selling smallwares and everything up to slicing machines, that side of the business grew bigger and bigger, and what started out as a sideline became our primary activity, even though we had never planned it that way."

In the years that followed, Beltram continued to build up his new E&S organization, becoming a distributor of slicers, ice machines and microwaves. In 1981, he formed Food Equipment Distributors Inc., a wholesale distribution company that sold these lines of equipment to dealers. He also kept on growing his sales of E&S (and sharpening services) to operators in central and north Florida. "We had to learn how to be traditional dealers, how to order and inventory, and how to negotiate win-win relationships with factories," Beltram pointed out. "Starting up down here, then, there was nobody around to teach us how to do these things, so I gathered E&S product knowledge as I went along and relied on the business lessons I had learned while working with my Dad."

One of these business lessons included the admonition to "do all jobs right, to the best of your ability and strength. Dad also taught me never to look down on little accounts, to treat all customers the same and to be faithful in the execution of small responsibilities, because then people will trust you with larger ones," he added.

After recovering from the 1981 fire, Beltram began to apply his beliefs and management principles across a broader range of businesses. In 1984, for example, he put into an operation a millworking company called Creative Woodworking Concepts by bank-rolling two former wood-workers "whose business plan I didn't like but whose character I did." That same year, Beltram opened its first branch location, Beltram Supply Inc., which included its own showroom and warehouse in Tarpon Springs. "The reason we went to Tarpon was that it was becoming a growth market with enough year-round business to support our physical presence. Just as important," he related, "we had some people here who were ready for a new challenge and I wanted to give them their own game."

This expansion was followed in 1986 by Beltram's formation of a branch of Food Equipment Distributors, which was situated in Orlando to facilitate the parent company's wholesale equipment distribution business in that booming central Florida market. In 1987, Beltram started up Tarpon Stainless Fabricators Inc., his stainless fabrication plant, to add another layer of vertical integration and to position his company better to offer complete solutions, from smallwares to custom FFE manufacturing, to customers.

Beltram's drive to grow and further diversify his company continued throughout the 1980s. In 1991, he partnered with Danny Skipper to open Beltram South Inc., the firm's third location, in Ft. Myers. Though Beltram and Skipper are notably dissimilar (the former is urbane, intense and devoted to sales, while the latter is rural, genial and an expert at facility design) and had never done business together before opening the branch location, their mutual trust and the autonomy Ft. Myers' personnel enjoy to find the best ways to meet the needs of their market has allowed this location to prosper since its inception.

Also in 1989, Beltram created Perky's Foodservice Concepts Inc., which sold patented pizza-making equipment modules to non-conventional pizza operators. With the help of Secretary of the Corporation Xio Polewaski, who developed and ran the international side of the business, Beltram built Perky's into the largest pizza chain in Central and South America and the Caribbean, establishing over 800 units in the United States and in 28 countries before the firm was sold.

Having put the components of his company in place during the '80s, Beltram groomed their management teams during the subsequent years, raising company sales above $35 million and, equally important, refining the practices and systems that directed the business. One important move was the decision to join the EDI buying group in 1988. Beltram's affiliations with EDI and FEDA, and the networking they have fostered, have helped him form a clearer understanding about the role of the traditional E&S dealer and how he and his peers can best remain essential in the distribution channel.

"Our relations with customers are the most valuable things we have to offer our manufacturers, because they want to be a part of those relationships," he noted. "So, the more we add value for our customers, control the buy and have discretion over where we take it, the more valuable we will be perceived to be in the channel.

"On the other hand," Beltram continued, "it's up to us as dealers to prove to our manufacturers that we care about them, too. We cannot have success unless they do. That's one of the reasons I so passionately support the new 'preferred vendor' guidelines EDI has just initiated, because it demonstrates our commitment to the suppliers with which we most want to do business."

Though Beltram is reasonably certain that traditional dealers will retain their primacy as E&S distribution outlets over the long-term, he is much less sanguine about short-term industry prospects. "We are still facing a required cleansing, at both the manufacturer and dealer levels," he stressed. "We have too much capacity, too many sources of supply for the status quo to continue, so I believe a certain amount of attrition is inevitable. In addition, rank and file E&S dealers are already being starved by erosion of their margins, so charging and getting new revenue for services are going to be the ultimate challenges for many of us in the immediate future. It does look to me that lax dealers will not survive."

To ensure that his company is best prepared for more difficult economic times, Beltram has taken several key steps. As far back as 2000, when the latest downturn began to hit hospitality market sectors, he started selling off a couple of his companies, including Food Equipment Distributors and Perky's, and liquidating a portion of the real estate portfolio he had spent decades assembling. "I felt it was time to go to cash," he said. "I feel there's going to be a need to ride out some tough times and I wanted us to have the liquidity to be prepared."

In complementary fashion, to help assure that Beltram Foodservice Group can function as cost-effectively and efficiently as any competitor, Beltram has consolidated three former inventory-stocking locations into a single central warehouse. He and his IT managers have also rolled out over the past three years a new enterprise resource planning system that ties sales to accounting and inventorying and automatically generates new orders. "It was a struggle to get the new software to function seamlessly across all our branches and locations, especially given our autonomous management structure and lack of centralized systems," he admitted. "Now, however, we have a better understanding of our sales and inventory turns and we can provide more detailed order histories for customers." The next IT-driven productivity enhancements at Beltram will most likely include an upgrade of the company's web site to enable e-commerce and development of a company-wide wireless intranet to allow more real-time data-sharing by employees in the field and at locations.

Beltram himself begins his workdays by about 7 a.m., meeting first with Polewaski, who also functions as his executive assistant, to review his agenda and prioritize his meetings and calls. "Dan literally works with his door open and there are days when salespeople and suppliers are lined up to see him," Polewaski advised. "He also spends a lot of time on the phone taking calls from the branch managers and participating in EDI business. After a brief lunch break, Dan goes back to work until past five, when he frequently eats dinner out with his managers or suppliers. He often returns to the office after dinner, too." Asked how Beltram has changed since she began working with him 13 years ago, Polewaski replied, "He's definitely more mature, more settled in his judgment and a little bit more conservative than he used to be. We're not as quick to start new business ventures as we were before Dan decided to go to cash, but he's still very entrepreneurial and willing to invest in good salespeople and find new opportunities for our co-workers to grow into. I think Dan gets his greatest pleasure at work from helping colleagues put their ideas into action and enabling their success."

To ensure that the self-guided efforts of his managers and employees are in fact producing the results the company requires to reach its goals, Beltram still spends many hours reviewing a wide variety of key reports ranging from daily financial statements from all his companies to sales tallies and analyses of Service department productivity broken down by man-hour. Unusual for a chief executive, Beltram will also habitually seek the advice of those whose opinions he trusts before making a new hire or financial decision, including older sister Jackie (who has been his life-long confidant), Polewaski, CPA Jim Decker and his business managers.

Although he is now spending more time in the office than in previous years, when he can get away Beltram heads most often to a ranch in rural Montana he originally bought at the beginning of the 1990s and is now developing into a resort. The Montana spread also offers Beltram another locale to which he can fly the Beechcraft airplane he enjoys piloting and pursue his love of fishing and gun- and bow-hunting (as witnessed by the trophies in his Tampa office), as well as to spend time with his wife and two children. Beltram first met his wife Andrea in 1993 in Tampa when she had come from her native Hungary to visit her brother in the States. So smitten was he with his new acquaintance that Beltram made an unannounced trip to Hungary in July 1994 to woo Andrea in her native village of Balaton. The couple now has two children, eight-year-old D.Q. and four-year-old Jacqueline.

Having attained a measure of security in both his professional and personal lives, yet still eager to find new opportunities for success for those who look to him for leadership, Dan Beltram is now aware of the legacy he expects to leave. "First, the rule we all try to follow is, 'In all things, give thanks,' because any other behavior is not wise," he stated. "I think we are and always will be seen as a company where customers, suppliers and employees have been treated with equal respect and consideration. I'd also like to be thought of as a smart, hard-working, competitive and successful businessman but, most of all, I'd like people to know that I was an entrepreneur who taught and made it possible for others to have fun and become fellow entrepreneurs."

The Beltram Foodservice Group
www.beltram.com
E-mail: bfgtampa@beltram.com
1-800-940-1136

Would you like to read more? See the full article at Foodservice Equipment & Supplies, www.fesmag.com.

Copyright © 2008 Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. The above article is reprinted from Foodservice Equipment & Supplies, May 2004, with permission.

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