As Rich Wolowski prepares to be the first non-family member to assume the role of CEO at Wyoming-based Gordon Food Service Inc., he says he’s laser-focused on maintaining the company’s customer relationships. Wolowski, who continues to serve as president and COO until Nov. 1, will oversee a growing company with 17,000 employees spread around the United States and Canada and annual revenue reportedly in excess of $11 billion. Wolowski spoke with MiBiz about preserving the corporate culture at GFS and his desire to maintain the organization’s small company feel during a period of growth.
How would you describe the company’s corporate culture?
Keeping our culture thriving is a passion of mine and the Gordon family. It’s all about our people. Our people carry that culture day in and day out. We’re a high-performance organization, which means that we’re relentless toward achieving results. We’re also relentless in engaging our employees at all levels and then leading with the highest character and integrity as we serve our customers.
What metrics do you use to measure those results?
The key metrics we hone in on all the time are the customer service metrics. That’s … on-time deliveries. The customer service metrics drive our business and we stay laser focused on that.
GFS has always been a family-owned company. You’re the first non-family member to take the role of CEO.
That’s correct, and no pressure there. (Laughs)
Exactly, and family-owned businesses have some interesting dynamics. What’s your perspective stepping into this role at GFS?
That’s a good question. I mean, I don’t expect the dynamics to change that much or to be any different. First, I’d say I’m honored and humbled to be asked to serve in the position and excited about the opportunity to help lead this company. What I’m thankful for is that Jim and Dan (Gordon) will continue to remain very involved in the business, including working with me to guide the long-term direction of the company. There’s really nothing that will be too much different.
What excites you about working at GFS every day?
I just love the family company because they just have a long-term view of the business. They are just so passionate about the food service business. That excites me and makes me thrive. I like the family business piece.
How does the long-term view look for GFS?
I would say (we’re) focused on long-term growth. The Gordon family has been focused on being a growth company from the very beginning. We believe that if we’re a healthy company, we should continue to grow as a company. But in order for a company to grow, our people must continue to grow. That’s one thing we really focus on, not just company growth but personal growth. That long-term view is growth and evolution. That’s a big part of our culture.
The company recently added new facilities in a handful of states. What’s next?
(W)e’re also investing in stores, which is another growth area for us. We’re testing some new store concepts and working diligently to expand product offerings for both store and truck delivery customers. Within these new markets we’re serving, we’re just thrilled with the opportunity to serve these new customers. … And then last, I would say from a growth perspective, long term, we’re going to continue to look for opportunities west in new markets. That will be through expansion or acquisition. Specifically on non-acquisition (expansions), it would be greenfield or fold-out distribution centers.
So GFS is open to acquisitions if they come along?
Yeah, absolutely. We’ve definitely grown in Canada and the U.S. through acquisition. But for us, we want to make sure it’s the right acquisition, a company that has the right culture similar to ours. That’s really important to us.
What trends in the food service industry are you monitoring?
Customers are the top priority, so we monitor trends that are impacting them. Some of those trends include customer behavior changes, eating and spending patterns, culinary trends, demographic trends. Just one example: One of the most recent trends for our customers is the desire to have more fresh items available. We’ve been working really hard to make sure product offerings meet that demand.
What keeps you up at night in terms of the GFS business?
I would say what keeps me up at night is the question that I continue to wrestle with: As we grow, how do we stay small? We’ve always been a lean organization, but we must stay nimble and stay quick to (react to) market trends and stay relevant to customers.
How do you go about doing that?
Looking at new ideas and opportunities to streamline our business and sustain long-term growth and profitability is going to be really important for the future. It requires focus and discipline, especially in times of high growth like we’ve experienced recently. I know every high-growth company thinks about that, but that’s top of mind for me.
Do you think it’s possible for GFS to maintain that small company feel even as it grows?
Boy, I’m going to give it my best. And I can tell you, our team desires it as well. They want to be attached to a very efficient organization with purpose. Being nimble is going to be really important for us. And I’m very proud of our team embracing that and being excited about that. I’m talking about it a lot these days.