I have always had an affinity for small family-owned businesses. I was raised in a small business environment, I own and operate a small business, and most campgrounds are small businesses. My favorite clients are probably otherwise known as Mom and Pop. What we have in common is a willingness to work endless hours and the ability to wear a variety of hats during the course of the day.
My small business experience began during my early childhood. My father’s business was located on the same parcel of property as our home, and I was fortunate enough to be able to appreciate the continuous overlap between our family life and business. Sometimes it’s just in your blood to control your own destiny and be your own boss, although you quickly understand that you are actually working for your customers. My father was one of 10 children of French-Canadian immigrants who built their lives out of virtually nothing, and most of his siblings were also small business owners.
In my father’s instance, his destiny was in the wholesale produce business, leaving high school in his junior year when he was offered a partnership in an existing business that he grew into that home-based business and a warehouse that was built the year I was born. When I was in grade school, I could not wait to return home in the afternoon to see what chores I could be assigned in the warehouse, even though most of the activity took place much earlier in the day. When I was a 16-year-old high school student, I remember getting my driver’s license one morning and being sent off by myself in a truck to pick up a load of butternut squash that afternoon at a farm in the next county.
What I learned from my father I also see when observing my clients at work and fellow vendors at trade shows. In addition to the aforementioned commitment to long hours, I find that the key ingredients to success are a commitment to quality, a willingness to take risks, and the ability to innovate. Above all else, it involves a total dedication to the needs of your clientele.
My father’s customer base consisted of a combination of small businesses and larger commercial enterprises. Those customers included corner grocery stores (and later convenience stores), supermarkets, restaurants, caterers, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and the commissary at the nearby air force base. At an earlier time, before I was born, truckloads of produce would be driven non-stop to be unloaded into the backs of transport planes that were part of the Berlin Airlift.
As times changed, my father’s customer base changed. In 1958, the “Chef” potatoes that were peeled and prepared by hand in virtually every food service operation in the country were suddenly replaced by the frozen French fry. Three railroad carloads of Maine potatoes sat and rotted in a new warehouse expansion that had been built specifically for their short-term storage. The crystal ball was not always crystal-clear, and the risks involved in the perishable food industry have always been enormous. It was important to explore new product offerings and to respond to new customer demands. Exotic fruits were introduced, and ethnic Asian and Hispanic businesses had demands for produce that had been previously somewhat “foreign”. Soon thereafter, organic produce became a major product line rather than merely a niche.
In every instance, it was important to not only respond to customer demands but to attempt to forecast that demand, influencing it through marketing that was based upon inventory of a highly perishable product line. It was also important to source produce as locally as possible, at least on a seasonal basis. Although primary sources of supply were large regional distribution centers (in our instance, Boston) with railroad sidings and easy highway access, every effort was made to buy directly from local farms during their harvest seasons. Freshness was mission-critical, along with same-day delivery – usually within two to three hours.
In the years since my family business experience, the produce industry – like the campground industry – has changed dramatically. Large buying groups were designed to eliminate the middleman, with large supermarket chains and food distribution networks like Wal-Mart, Whole Foods and Costco having the power to buy direct, providing their own transportation, warehousing, and distribution network. For the smaller buying organizations, the integral role that was played by wholesalers such as my father’s business was replaced by much larger food distribution companies such as Sysco, U.S. Foodservice, Performance Food Group, and Gordon Food Service – each of which maintains dozens of distribution centers throughout the United States.
With all of this background in my blood, it is easy to understand how I have an appreciation for smaller small businesses, and campgrounds provide a very natural fit. Fortunately for campgrounds, the vendors within the industry provide a myriad of opportunities to work with businesses that are similarly sized – or even smaller than most campgrounds themselves. I would encourage you to maintain loyalties with vendors that have proven their reliability and commitment, thinking “small” or more “local” whenever it makes practical sense. As I walked the halls of industry trade shows in recent months, it was easy to spot not only new vendors within established product and service categories, but also several startup companies with new approaches to old ideas, as well as some with entirely new ideas that might benefit your business. Be open to considering what they have to offer, understanding that they may or may not offer any advantages whatsoever over working with proven performers. Ask them to share their visions, explaining the problems their businesses are designed to solve, and giving them an opportunity to listen to you. Generally speaking, vendors who take more time listening and getting to learn about your business, rather than telling you about their products, are the ones whose trust you want to establish and maintain for years to come.
This post was written by Peter Pelland