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Leadership
Business Observer Thursday, May 28, 2020 2 months ago

Food distributor moves quickly to meet rapidly shifting needs

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While Sysco West Florida adapts to the market, its top executive follows an important leadership creed: slow down.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

Like many businesses, Sysco’s sales have been impacted by the coronavirus around the world.

The Houston-based food, kitchen equipment and tabletop items distributor counts restaurants, health care entities and educational facilities as customers — all of which have faced major impacts from the pandemic. Sysco, with more than 45,000 worldwide employees, operates Sysco West Coast Florida out of an office and distribution center in north Manatee County, in Palmetto. 

Courtesy. Will Fulghom, president of Sysco West Coast Florida, says Sysco is encouraging restaurants to start pop-up markets to sell grocery items and harder-to-get items, such as toilet paper and cleaning supplies, to customers.

Like many of its clients, Sysco West Coast Florida, which includes Pasco, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties, has shifted during the pandemic, helping its restaurant customers start mini markets and adapt menus better suited for takeout. It has also helped people with access to food through pickup programs. The moves, Sysco West Coast Florida President Will Fulghom says, have required flexibility, a focus on customers and careful communication. In times of crisis, Fulghom says, it’s not all about speed. Instead leaders should slow down, take it all in and assess everything.

Pop-up possibilities: One key initiative the Sysco unit launched is encouraging restaurant customers to start pop-up markets called “grocerants.” Sysco has been working with existing and new customers across the country, some of which had closed, and the company talked them into starting a market. To spread the concept, Sysco developed a pop-up market toolkit for restaurants and shared it widely. “We gave it to as many people as would listen,” Fulghom says. “It’s not just about the customers we have. We want to keep as many people in business as we can.” Many restaurants now sell grocery items and harder-to-get items, such as toilet paper and cleaning supplies provided by Sysco, allowing customers to pick up a takeout order and buy staples at the same time. For restaurants, it provides a new revenue stream. “They’ve had tremendous success,” he says.

Takeout tips: Sysco West Coast Florida has also helped restaurants alter menus to be better suited for takeout orders. “We’ve tried to pivot in many different ways to help our customers get through this time and stay on their feet,” Fulghom says. “We’re trying to be consultants for our customers and help them through it because there’s a lot of fear out there.”

Courtesy, Tidewell Hospice. Sysco West Coast Florida worked with Sarasota-based Tidewell Hospice and its parent company Stratum Health System to organize a grocery distribution program for staff, volunteers and community partners.

Get groceries: Sysco West Coast Florida has also used its resources to help the community. Fulghom, for example, worked with Sarasota-based Tidewell Hospice and its parent company, Stratum Health System, to supply gloves and then offered to help with other needs. “After we started talking to Tidewell about their employees, we were extremely impressed with what they do,” Fulghom says. Because workers have had long hours lately, it’s difficult for some to get groceries, so Sysco and Stratum organized a grocery distribution program for staff, volunteers and community partners to order items at wholesale prices and pick them up at central locations. Sysco has hosted additional similar events throughout the area.

Choose change: Sysco has also started selling products to the public online in certain areas. Company officials say they will evaluate programs introduced during the coronavirus, and the company might consider continuing some successful initiatives. “We’ll see what stays and what goes, but it certainly will be a lot of changes,” Fulghom says. “In these grocerants, they’ve found a new revenue stream, and some may choose to keep that.”

Guide to guidelines: As states reopen, Sysco West Coast Florida is fielding questions from restaurant customers about capacity rules and what’s needed to provide a safe environment for customers. “They’re all navigating these different phases just like we all are,” Fulghom says. “We’re helping them understand guidelines for opening their restaurants and just being a partner to them as they open up.”

Crucial communication: Fulghom has found good communication to be crucial, especially since the nature of the crisis means new information is released frequently and guidelines in different municipalities change regularly. At Sysco West Coast Florida, Fulghom gathers his team often to review programs and tasks. “We’re meeting constantly to look at the changing needs and make sure we’re meeting those and then pivoting where we can,” he says. “You’ve got to have a keen focus on communicating with all of your employees and customers.”

‘You’ve got to have a keen focus on communicating with all of your employees and customers.’ — Will Fulghom, Sysco West Coast Florida

Monitor moment: Sysco West Coast Florida operates in several counties, so Fulghom constantly monitors swings in demand. How much takeout restaurants are seeing, for instance, can vary widely from county to county. He seeks out up-to-date information, so he can provide good advice to customers.  

Speed it down: Fulghom has learned the importance of quality communication during the pandemic, and he’s also utilizing another lesson. “Slow down and take it all in,” he says. “Assess everything. A lot of times in times of crisis, you have a tendency to speed up, but slow down and communicate with everyone.”

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