Farewell To Bill Buckholz: A Life Well Lived

Posted On: 5/17/2018

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One of the more memorable presentations I have heard in half a century of covering industry events was made by a successful retail-chain founder, who had many interesting things to say about starting and managing a business. The one that lodged in our memory was his summary of the entrepreneur's motivation. Profit, he said, is not the reason for running a business; it is the manager's scorecard. The reason for running the business is to have fun while doing something useful.

This perception came to mind when we received the news of Bill Buckholz's death. The news saddened us, but it was not a bolt from the blue. He had written to us in the spring of 2017 to explain that he was retiring in order to devote full time to the care of his wife Ruth, so he would miss the 2017 NAMA show. "About this time every year, I looked forward to seeing you again," he wrote. "I often wondered who would last the longest. It looks like you won!" And he attached a summary of his vending career, written for his grandchildren.

We really did not want that victory, but we found his reminiscences not only entertaining but immensely valuable for conveying the distinctive flavor of the vending industry in its formative years. The pioneers we met when we began traveling for VT in 1967 all seemed to be having a good time, despite common problems. Many of them also shared a belief that they were engaged in a revolutionary new business that had tremendous potential, and a concern that this industry received much less respect than it deserved because the public did not understand it. In Bill Buckholz's recollection, "Pride was a problem for the vending community. Our customers needed to know more about our business."

He got his start in vending when, as a teenager, his family moved from Brooklyn,  NY, to Lebanon, PA. He got a job with Goodman Vending in 1948; the local operation had been founded by Ervin (Erv) Goodman two years earlier.

"I was 16 years old, and the company's first employee," Buckholz wrote. "My pay was $25 per week and all the candy I could eat. And I could borrow the company truck to visit my girlfriend, who became my wife."

He found the business fascinating, and began acquiring the skills he'd need to assist in its growth.  "I took night courses in plumbing, electricity, supervision, management and public speaking," he explained. "I even had time to chat with my wife on occasion." Buckholz applied those skills in many areas, from maintaining the company's vending machines to enhancing its customer communications. When Goodman (an industry leader and pioneer in his own right) retired in 1982, Buckholz purchased the business from him.

Many of Buckholz's contributions to the industry were made to further the goal of familiarizing the public, and governments at all levels, with vending. He was a long-time member of the Pennsylvania (now Tri-State) Automatic Merchandising Council, serving on its board and ultimately as its president. He always was eager to exchange ideas with other operators, and many of his initiatives – publishing light-hearted customer newsletters, rewarding patrons for hugging vending machines – were adopted by many vendors around the country. He also played a leading role in  PAMC campaigns for fair tax treatment.

As an enthusiastic member of the National Automatic Merchandising Association, Buckholz served on its board and became chairman of its public relations committee. He also became an effective industry spokesman during successive  campaigns for a circulating dollar coin. In that role, he helped to persuade the U.S. Mint of the importance of choosing new materials for coins that would not change the physical and electrical properties that enable coin mechanisms to recognize them.

His reminiscences give us a picture of a man with a great capacity for enjoyment and desire to make a difference. He recalled being invited to describe his company newsletter concept to the Massachusetts Vending Association, and reflecting: "All this wonderful stuff is happening to me because I'm in the vending industry!"

It probably isn't realistic to lament the waning of the pioneer spirit; industries mature as their penetration of their markets becomes more sophisticated and complex, and they continue to adapt to new conditions. But we continue to believe that vending – or "controlled dispensing" (NAMA chair Heidi Chico's description) – holds promise for entrepreneurs who combine imagination with common sense, a capacity for work and a talent for having fun.

It may be that the perfection of secure cashless payment systems has lessened the need for vending as a deterrent to pilferage. But it also has created opportunities for protecting merchandise from attack while keeping it available to customers. Vending machines are uniquely able to do that. We hope that the innovators who develop tomorrow's robotic retailing systems have as much fun and make as positive an impact as Bill Buckholz did.