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Sales staff is critically important for J.A.B. Produce in Chicago

CHICAGO — A strong sales staff is critical to the success of a terminal market company, in the view of Steve Serck, the owner of J.A.B. Produce Inc. on the Chicago International Produce Market.

Thus, he focuses on having a top sales team and providing space on J.A.B.’s sales floor to make it conducive to buying produce. Along one wall of the display area is a clean, orderly and pleasant sales bar for J.A.B. customers. One end of the bar features a coffee stand for customers.

There is a sale board on the wall behind the sales desk to help J.A.B. move special-value items.

Mr. Serck, who will turn 48 in August, created J.A.B. nine years ago on Chicago’s South Water Street Market, just six months before the move to the Chicago International Produce Market. Among the new firm’s strengths was the hiring of Steve Argires as J.A.B.’s sales manager. Mr. Argires’ family firm, Anton Argires, didn’t plan to move the new market. So Mr. Argires brought his expertise to Mr. Serck’s new company. “I made it fun for Steve again,” Mr. Serck said.

Another J.A.B. salesman is Mike Couwenhoven. Mr. Couwenhoven previously worked for Jack Keller Co. Inc., which is now operated by Mr. Serck.

“The bottom line is that those guys have been here the longest. The rest worked their way up from the inside or were hired from outside. Our sales staff is great. We have no order takers. They are sales people. I don’t want to see a sales ticket with two items. I want 10, 15, or more items.” The rest of the staff is Luis Arellano, Mark (Sparky) Poremba, Mike Smietana and Linda Trovato.

Mr. Serck noted that “our customer base is limited,” which makes it important to seize every opportunity for a sale. “I’d say 80 percent of the customers that come in are independent grocers.” All the dealers on the Chicago International Produce Market “sell the same product to them from day to day.”

J.A.B.’s sales staff has relationships with buyers and Mr. Serck sends them to stores to meet the grocers and see their own product on the shelf. “People want to show off their store and it gives us more understanding of what they need, based on how the store is set up,” he said.

Two years ago Mr. Serck started the sale board, which shows retail buyers when J.A.B.’s grower-affiliates “are flush with product.” Those retailers can act immediately, “which is why they’re independent. They succeed with their flexibility. We give two or three weeks notice so the retailers can plan ahead.

“If we need to move something and we move it at a good price [to the buyer], they move something and we make a smaller margin on the sale. In this business, you’ve got to move it fast. If you move it in and out, you have more chances to make money on the next item. Not everything is a home run. You’ve got to keep it moving.”

Mr. Serck and his sales staff have quarterly meetings to discuss how to do a better job with individual customers and how to increase sales volumes to those customers.

“You are only as good as the people that work for you. I used to work 80 hours a week, but these [sales] guys have allowed me to be the [chief executive officer]. I used to come in at two a.m. Now I come in at five. It’s great for me and my family. My sales people said to me, ‘We need you to run the business and help us run the business.’ “

J.A.B. was named for Mr. Serck’s three sons, Jacob, Adam and Benjamin. “Now I spend time with my kids,” the father added. “I sleep six hours a day, not two or three. I go to my kids’ hockey and sporting events. You miss a lot of things” by working 80 hours a week. “Life is too short. My oldest son is 18. He goes to college next year. Before I knew it I would have missed out” on seeing him.

Mr. Serck noted that the creation of the Chicago market in late 2002 improved the quality of life for the trade because the South Water Street Market was so inefficient that everyone had to go to work at midnight. Now many buyers go to the relatively new market between 6:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.

An improved quality of life also applies to Mr. Serck’s responsibilities at the Keller Co. Jack Keller Co. once involved Mr. Serck’s grandfather, who was a partner with Jack Keller. “I have two people at Jack Keller who have been with me a long time. I handed the reins to them.” Keller Co. is now a buying service for a variety of grocery stores. “They hire us and it gives them more buying power,” Mr. Serck said. “I rent space [on the market] by Cee Bee Cartage Inc. and we consolidate there. We have zero inventory” by shipping the warehousing clean “and buy on a daily basis to serve those retail customers.”

Mr. Serck three years ago moved to Produce Pro business management software to “be more effective” with food safety matters, including the use of bar codes on every box to show where everything came from and where it is going.

“We are progressive” and not waiting to have a traceable distribution system in place until “the times comes that the government mandates it.”

The Produce Pro software is also streamlining J.A.B.’s warehouse, making pickers much more efficient than the days when they used a piece of paper to pick orders.