COCOA, FL - When Jim and Patti Babiarz packed up and left their lives as Wisconsin dairy farmers to buy into a vending business in Florida, friends and relatives were skeptical.
"I remember when we moved here, my parents cried; they were crushed that we were leaving and worried about our future. They said 'How are you going to make money on quarters, nickels and dimes?" recalled Patti.
Twenty years later, with a lot of hard work and dedication to their business and customers, those quarters, nickels and dimes have added up substantially to provide a comfortable living for the Babiarz family.
In the late 1970s, Jim's brother, Bob, who was living in Cocoa Beach, had the opportunity to purchase one of two well-established vending routes from his neighbor, Ed Winner, who had founded Ed Winner Vending in 1968, and had established a solid reputation in the region.
Bob ran the route for two years, built it up, and suggested his brother join him to further expand the thriving business. In 1981, Jim and his wife, Patti, intrigued by the idea of warm winters and an attractive business opportunity, joined Bob. Together they purchased the remaining route from Winner, and gave the company its present name.
The family business has grown steadily ever since. Jim bought his brother out in 1997, when health problems impaired Bob's ability to remain an active participant.
"We had three or four valuations, and we arrived at a happy medium," Jim told V/T. "We got along great for many years, and we ended the business relationship on good terms. We've been lucky that way."
Patti has been a partner in the business since day one. While raising their daughter, Sheri, Patti counted money and answered phones, working around nap schedules and school activities.
And, to the delight of her parents, Sheri has been on board for the past few years. "She helped out through high school, but then took a variety of jobs," Patti explained. "She came to us three years ago and asked if she could work with us. We were surprised, but very happy, and it's worked out real well."
The Babiarz family enjoys working as a team, and everyone stays busy. "We have to stagger our lunches so one of us is always here. We work together every day, but we don't even get to eat together!" lamented Sheri. "Dad should have had a son, too, so we could have more help."
Today the business is eight routes strong. "Business has mostly grown through word of mouth. We have a strong customer base, and when people hear we give good service, they call us," Jim told V/T.
The Babiarzes brought a salesperson on board a few years ago when they decided to more aggressively build the business. Competition has grown stiffer, both from other operators and with bottlers, and the company has responded by intensifying its sales efforts.
"We took a hit last year when Pepsi was granted the beverage vending contract for the Brevard County School System. It hurt, but we still do the snacks at the schools, and we've grown in other ways," commented Patti.
Winner Vending's market is comprised of light industry, offices and retail venues. The company is situated in a major U.S. aerospace industry hub, which is not only a major employer, but also a prime tourist attraction.
Jim is highly selective about the locations he will accept, sticking with indoor and attended sites. "I won't put machines out where they're vulnerable to vandalism; it's just not worth it," he commented.
The general rule of thumb is that an account must have at least 50 people to qualify for Winner's services. Many operators would regard 50 as too few, but businesses of that size can be good growth prospects in a dynamic market area. "Some small companies have grown to nice-sized accounts," Jim explained.
New vending opportunities are proliferating in the company's market area, and Winner Vending has grown considerably in recent years as a result. "Housing is growing tremendously; it's unreal," commented Patti. "There aren't a lot of big businesses, but there are more and more people; many retailers, and several telemarketing and phone service companies, are setting up shop there."
The operators believe in the "rolling billboard" marketing approach, and are certain that their boldly-marked route trucks, displaying the company name, phone number and address, have prompted a significant percentage of inquiries from prospective accounts. "We meet people all the time who say: 'Oh, Winner Vending. I see your trucks all the time,'" said Patti. "It works well for us, because it's an established name that people know, all the way back to Ed Winner's days."
The company's headquarters also is a showplace, designed to attract favorable public attention. Situated on a highly visible, well-trafficked road lined with commercial businesses, the building gives the company excellent exposure.
The Babiarzes initially rented Ed Winner's warehouse, but built their current facility soon afterwards. "We're going through growing pains, but we'll stay here until we burst at the seams; it's great to be so visible. Some operators don't want to be in the public eye," said Patti. "But who sees you if you're off somewhere in the boondocks?"
The well-recognized Winner Vending name has been synonymous with superior service since Ed Winner's time, and the company has recognized that by retaining part of the original name. "It's a service-oriented business and you have to treat customers right; you need them, they don't need you, and you have to treat them accordingly," noted Jim. "That's our philosophy."
That credo means establishing and maintaining personal relationships with clients, and providing 24-hour, seven-day-a-week service. "All three of us [Jim, Patti and Sherri] went to service a machine one Sunday, and the customer couldn't believe that we would all come out and do that, in this day and age," recalled Jim. "To us, that's what it's all about. That customer gives us references; they tell other people that we're 'truly a Winner.'"
Jim holds his drivers in high regard, and considers himself a support person for them. "I'm out and about often. I also have a supervisor to help the route guys," said Jim. "If I make sure everything is all right for our drivers, they'll treat our customers right. Our drivers bring back customer requests all the time; they're the link to keeping our customers happy."
Several years ago, the company instituted a "stepped scale" salary system, which allows drivers to "step up" to a higher pay scale by increasing sales volume on their routes. "The drivers' pay depends on what they bring home," explained Jim. "The new salary structure is something I picked up at a roundtable discussion that I participated in at one of the trade shows. We changed the pay system because we were finding it tough to find and keep good people; new system seems to be more attractive to them."
In keeping with its professional image and reputation, Winner Vending employs uniformed personnel. The company supplies all its drivers with their choice of a polo or button-down shirt emblazoned with the company logo, and picks up the cost of cleaning them. Field personnel also wear identification badges.
The Winner Vending team consists of 17 people, including eight route drivers, a route supervisor, a service technician, two warehouse supervisors and an attendant at a large industrial location who cleans tables, fills machines and changes money throughout the day. A high school student fills in part time, as needed.
"Our whole staff has a lot of fun. People see that we , the immediate family , get along so well that they see us as family after a while," said Patti. "Our philosophy is to be as good to them as they are to us."
In keeping with this philosophy, Winner Vending allows its staff to consume whatever products they like; they need only account for the withdrawal of the item from inventory. In the warehouse, this is done by writing the item down; on the truck, by retaining the empty container or wrapper so it can be deducted from inventory along with damaged items.
Sheri added that the Babiarzes are rewarded with frequent calls from customers commending the professionalism of Winner Vending's drivers.
"Our drivers tell us they chose this career because they're not confined to a mill or a factory or an office all day, and they get to meet new people," commented Patti. "That's the same reason my husband likes vending."
Winner's warehouse supervisors take stockroom efficiency seriously, as it is a key component of the company's ability to provide prompt, effective service. "We have a very well organized warehouse, because the drivers have to find what they need, quickly and easily," said Sheri. "All of the products have a home. Coke products are in one section; Pepsi products are in another; all the snacks are in specific places."
Among major enhancements to efficiency is "flow-through" shelving for product storage. Merchandise is placed on the shelves from one side and withdrawn from the other, insuring first-in/first-out product rotation and easy access.
Further streamlining operations, Winner Vending has used Compuvend's handheld computer system for the past nine years, and presently is breaking in a new batch of upgraded handhelds.
"Handhelds make life easier for the drivers, and work well to maintain good accountability," said Jim. "They give us time reports, let us know how well drivers are filling the machines, and tell us whether someone has skipped a machine , the whole nine yards." Compuvend handhelds also are used in the warehouse, to log merchandise in and out and to take inventory.
Jim said that he is following the development of automated and remote data collection with great interest, and plans to begin implementing DEX information retrieval as soon as the present standardization issues are resolved. His intention is to start by equipping the machines on one or two routes to upload their transaction data directly to drivers' handhelds. He also believes that Compuvend's "Buzz Box," a DEX-compatible short-range telemetry system that allows drivers to poll the vending machines at a location, obtain a detailed pick-list and pull the required stock before going in, has the potential for saving drivers a great deal of time, especially in servicing snack machines. Thus, he proposes to investigate it after equipping several routes for DEX data storage and retrieval.
The operators firmly believe in keeping equipment as modern and attractive as possible, and are loyal to the dependability of Automatic Products international and Crane Merchandising Systems cold food and snack machines, and Dixie-Narco cold beverage venders.
Winner Vending employs a full-time service technician, and Jim's background operating farming equipment has given him a knack for repair and maintenance in the vending business. "I do whatever I need to. I do repair work, help the sales guy, do office work, drive a route," he said.
Each of the company's trucks services all the needs of the full-line accounts on its route. "Ed Winner started with beverage body trucks, and that's what we've stuck with. Now we're happy because, with 20-fl.-oz. bottles, the weight is not a problem like it is with step vans," Jim commented.
Cold beverages, in all shapes and sizes, are top sellers in Winner's Florida market. "Warm weather sells drinks, and we have plenty of it," said Jim. "We are a heavy juice market. All brands are popular , 'Minute Maid,' 'Welch's,' 'Grower's Pride' , and 16-fl.-oz. juice-drink bottles are a huge hit." Winner Vending has a number of ECC glass-front "bottle-drop" machines (predecessors of the Dixie-Narco "BeverageMax") in the field, to merchandise a wide variety of juices and alternative beverages.
"Bottled water is in a class by itself! Who would have thought bottled water would take off the way it did?" added Patti.
The former dairy farmer is impressed with the changes he's seen in milk packaging in recent years, and believes such innovations have boosted business. "The move from paper to resealable containers is a big improvement; it's helped sales a lot. Chocolate milk and 2% are very popular, and we move various flavors in and out of the machines for variety," said Jim. Winner primarily merchandises milk through its cold food machines.
Ice cream vending also has gained strength with the introduction of new technology, and vending frozen food along with ice cream works very well in suitable locations, Jim told V/T. The company is running several APi "Model 320" machines in freezer mode, offering a variety of frozen main-meal and snack/dessert items. The Fastcorp "F631" ice cream vender also performs well in locations where the volume justifies its cost, he added.
Hot beverages in Florida are a trickier business. Vended hot drinks are durable profit generators in larger locations, and the company deploys Crane Merchandising Systems machines in its larger accounts. Coffee service is more problematical, and Winner Vending provides it only as an accommodation to its existing customers. "It's nothing we've ever designated one person to pursue, because there's so much competition in OCS," commented Jim. "It's easier than vending, but it's also kind of seasonal; even though people drink coffee year round, they drink a lot less in the hot months."
THE PEOPLE'S CHOICE
To ensure that Winner Vending's customers are getting exactly what they want in their machines, the Babiarzes invite them to "shop" the warehouse and select their food, candy, snacks and beverages of choice themselves.
Brands sell, be they food, snacks or beverages. The full-line vending operation mainly provides frozen, branded sandwiches (including "Pierre," "Jimmy Dean" and "Fast Choice"), supplemented with fresh sandwiches from a local caterer. "We don't have a commissary and don't plan to build one," said Jim. "That's a whole different ball game, and our customers like the branded sandwiches. There's a huge variety, and they trust the names. Our sales representatives always bring us new products; we put them in, and we get 'vibes' on what to reorder on the basis of what people are buying."
According to Patti, requests for lowfat snack items are frequent, but sales of such products are less than robust. "People see lowfat products on TV and they want us to carry them, but too often, they don't buy them," she noted. The determinant of popularity in "better-for-you" products appears to be the taste; "Microwaveable popcorn and pretzels are popular because they are low in fat and still taste good," she told V/T. "We take all requests and try to find whatever it is they ask for, even if it's something we're not familiar with. We please our customers as best we can."
To this end, Winner Vending has placed chilled candy/snack machines in outdoor locations where the ability to sell chocolate products is a plus. The company runs Automated Merchandising Systems "Sensit" snack machines in such sites, and also has three M&M/Mars branded "M&M's" refrigerated venders in the field. All of them do a fine job with popular temperature-sensitive confections, Jim told V/T.
Together, Patti and Sheri serve as the company's customer service team, adding a personal touch and ensuring prompt response to customers' needs.
The mother and daughter team also act as Winner's dispatchers. "We use the Nextel communications system, which combines two-way radio, cellular-telephone and pager features, and we like it very much. It beats the heck out of beepers; we don't have to sit around wondering: 'When is he going to call me back?'" commented Jim.
In addition to fielding customer and driver phone calls, Sheri prepares and prints all of the company's computer reports, and also is responsible for checking drivers in and out. Patti is responsible for payroll, counts collections, and handles accounts payable and receivable.
Cummins-Allison's "JetSort" coin processing and "JetCount" currency handling system, and its supporting software, streamline the counting process. "The system counts all bills and coins and prints a report; I also put the report on a disk and give it to Jim for the Compuvend system," said Patti. "I've counted money for so long, I can grab a handful of money and know how much it is, just by the feel. I look for silver coins , they make a different kind of 'clink' , and old coins in general, especially buffalo nickels. I save those."
And so, after two decades, the former Wisconsin dairy farmers are making a living on nickels, dimes and quarters in Florida, and a good living at that.
While all of Winner's machines accept the new Sacagawea "golden dollar" coin, Patti only sees seven to 10 a week in the money room. "We're happy if people use them, but we're not concerned if they don't; money is money," Patti observed. But it's important that patrons be able to use the new coins. "We have to offer the latest technology , whatever's out there," said Patti. "As operators, we have to keep up with the times and the changes in vending. If you don't adapt, you may as well just close your doors, because someone else will, and you won't last."
The Babiarzes are active in the Automatic Merchandising Association of Florida and the National Automatic Merchandising Association, and credit this involvement with keeping them on the cutting edge of the industry. "We know so many people in the vending industry through the associations; it's like a big family," said Patti. "We try to go to all the shows and events we can, not only to keep up with with what's out there, but because it keeps us in touch with other people we've gotten to know and love over the years."