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Company spotlight: Champion Industries

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To become an industry leader, “every Champion employee must know their product,” says Will Means, president of Champion Industries

When christening a company “Champion” you’d better have the products and an unbeaten reputation with your customers to back up such a winning moniker. Thankfully, with more than 130 years of hard-fought experience in commercial dishwashing, Champion Industries has more than earned its place on the podium.

The dishwashing machine specialist has been headquartered in Winston- Salem, North Carolina, US, since 1962, but began life in Hoboken, New Jersey, when it was founded in 1890 under its original name, Thompson & Low. It became nationally famous due to its game-changing invention of the vortex downwash dish machine – the first machine able to wash, rinse and dry 6,000 pieces per hour, noiselessly. In 1916, new part-owner Pat Davis, Sr. changed its name to Hamilton-Low.

The company continued to leave its mark on history during the last century. Hamilton-Low installed the first Champion-branded dishwasher on an ocean liner sailing between Europe and North America – earning the brand’s durable equipment its “Built Like a Battleship” tagline.

Champion’s first factory site in New York City later became occupied by the stately Art Deco skyscraper, the Chrysler Building, while a few blocks away the company had equipment installed in the Waldorf Astoria, one of the world’s most prestigious and best-known hotels.

But more recent history had a seismic impact on the company, changing its trajectory from a manufacturer of quality commercial warewashers for hospitals, restaurants and hotels into an internationally regarded player. Champion became part of the Ali Group in 1980 when its founder Luciano Berti bought the company from American Sterilizer (AMSCO). The acquisition – Ali Group’s first internationally – saw heavy investment in Champion’s infrastructure and a marked expansion of its product line.

Today, Champion has a strong presence in the US, Canada, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia through its wide portfolio of undercounters, doors, racks, flights, conveyor systems, accumulators, disposal, and tray-drying warewashing equipment. Its ENERGY STAR®-qualified dish machines continue to boast pioneering innovation for built-in hot water boosters, water and energy-saving technology, completely integrated conveying, washing and waste-handling systems, and powered sink systems.

Growing gains

Growth continues to be on a sharp uptick for Champion. “What got us growing to the point where we were literally doubling the business every four years was that we decided we must differentiate ourselves from the rest of the industry,” says Will Means, president of Champion Industries (pictured).

“We noticed, 8 to 10 years ago, a lot of manufacturers believed they could force customers into their product offerings. The industry was focused on product simplification; companies were eliminating products from their offering to drive profits. We said, ‘No, that’s exactly the opposite of what we want to do’ and we rebranded ourselves as the dishroom solution specialists,” he says.

“Our desire was to offer products that allowed our consultants the opportunity to showcase their design ability with many options at their disposal. We ensured our plant was equipped to manufacture these customizations quickly and meet customer demand. This has resulted in Champion achieving the unique place in the market that we desired. We embraced our new business model and with it came instant ideas for new product development. Often through a conversation with an operator or consultant we would hear: ‘Hey, can we have this feature? It would really help our business.’ We almost always say yes. Some of the ideas were fantastic and we internally discuss if this is something we should offer to the broader market. Because of this, we are bringing more innovation to the industry at an unprecedented pace,” says Means.

Champion continues to launch new products based on its willingness to provide solutions born out of “listening to the problem” and then coming up with a solution, says Means. “That’s been our DNA for the last 10 years. We’re blessed to have had this wonderful success.” That success is attributable, says Means, to the philosophy that Luciano Berti, and in turn his son, Ali Group chairman and chief executive officer Filippo Berti, have imparted to not just Champion, but to all the companies in the Group.

“We are allowed as a brand to make decisions that are best for our customers. We don’t have a lengthy corporate approval process; we’re not handcuffed to a five-year plan. I can’t tell you how many times in the last number of years we’ve laid out the new product development list for the year, but then by constantly listening to the customer, we get a great new idea mid- stream and pivot to introduce another product/feature instead. While this can be stressful, we are able to accomplish this by our investment in technology and having a very talented team.”

That decentralized, entrepreneurial/intrapreneurial mindset is pivotal for all Ali Group businesses, says Means. The Ali Group’s management style is to remove the traditional layers of red tape, meaning innovation can be driven even quicker. “We don’t have multiple layers. Access to myself or other leaders at the company is there. We’re very transparent, open and reachable.”

Means makes it his business to spend considerable time talking to customers daily. “Information gets to us very quickly and we’re allowed to make very quick decisions. It comes down to the fact that people at Champion are great. They really understand our business. Everybody, whether it’s the guys on the floor, operation managers or customer service, really knows our product and how it functions in the field.”

That approach was evident to Means as soon as he joined the company in 2007 and met the then executive vice president of Champion, Rob August (now at Ali Group North America). “He told me: ‘You have to become a warewash expert’. I took that to heart and so that’s what I tell everyone else who comes to Champion – if you want to work here, you have to be an expert on the product,” says Means.

Eyes on the prize

The Covid-19 pandemic has, as with every business, brought on “all kinds of challenges” for Champion, according to Means. “No one really anticipated anything like this happening, but we quickly made an assessment of where the industry was going,” he says. Means was also able to draw on his experience from first joining the company at the outset of the global financial crisis in 2007. “I was the newest guy they’d taken on – the lowest on the totem pole. I remember the message from Mr. [Luciano] Berti, because he was still very involved in Champion at the time: ‘We will take care of the people.’ If they made reductions, I would have been the easiest one to let go, and thankfully, I am here today. Mr. Berti’s steady guidance kept our business looking toward the future for opportunities. Due to this, Champion recovered quickly from the financial crisis and gained market share.”

Means is proud to say Champion has maintained its focus during the pandemic. “Everyone here rose to meet the challenges we faced,” he says. Once employee safety was secured and the longer-term effects from the pandemic were clearer, the Champion team spent time on what they could control, which was improvement of its product line and operations. The enforced lockdown was an ideal time to reevaluate its portfolio.

“We thought, if there’s ever been a time for uninterrupted new product development, it’s now. Let’s do it. So, we’re pleased to say we’re launching five new products in the course of an eight-month window. We’ve never been able to get that many significant product improvements done in that timeframe. Not just small features, but significant changes to the industry.” Those significant changes center around providing “a better, safer experience for everyone,” says Means. “We doubled down in the pandemic and invested in new product development. We believe it’s going to get Champion recovering much faster than the market as a whole.”

Flexible and adaptable for potential

One such investment was to increase connectivity in Champion’s machines, says Means. “We’ve launched ‘Direct Link,’ our new connectivity platform, which will remotely monitor the dishwashers’ performance and temperatures. This was in an effort to increase food safety and reduce downtime. We’re capturing temperatures when it matters: when they’re washing dishes and when the final rinse is on – not when the machine is idling, eliminating a lot of erroneous data. Foodservice operators can access this information at any time through our cloud. We can even remotely monitor the machines’ functionality, diagnosing potential service from our headquarters. The service potential from this innovation is huge. We expect to save our customers thousands in service expense over the life of these machines.”

Otherwise, the Champion way is to simply continue providing exceptional products, bolstered by outstanding after sales, says Means. “We’re a specified, engineered product. That remains our core. Our growth has come from making sure we spend a great deal of time doing a good job educating our customers. We’ve spent countless hours doing training, presenting on the innovations we have come up with, but then showing the common sense behind them.”

Beyond groundbreaking innovation leaps – such as the launch of its ventless 44-inch machine in 2017 – Champion has also reached out into additional markets to maintain growth. “We look deep into what those segments really need and define the product accordingly,” says Means, citing a recent example of a large, quick-service chain that approached Champion to provide a machine that “guaranteed sanitization.” The R&D team quickly developed “revolutionary software that would only allow the machine to run if the temperatures were met and the proper concentration of detergent was dosed. We then set up an assembly line and adjusted the operation to meet customer demands. When an opportunity comes around, we’re able to really capitalize on it. That’s what I love about this business – there’s so much runway, and so much potential for us to continue to do great things.”

 

LUCIANO BERTI’S INFLUENCE ON CHAMPION

Luciano Berti (1931-2021) was more than the founder of the Ali Group; he was its heart and soul. After making an investment in a small warewashing company in Milan, Italy, in the early 1960s, he founded ALI Comenda – the first step toward making the Ali Group the international foodservice force it is today, with approximately 10,000 employees in 30 countries, encompassing 80 of the most recognizable brands in the world.

Berti had a particularly close relationship with Champion Industries. In 1980, it was the first North American acquisition made by the Ali Group. “He had a deep understanding and a passion for warewashing,” says Champion’s president Will Means. “I will always fondly remember Mr. Berti at the trade shows bringing customers to our booth, taking them through our products.

It was so impactful that the CEO of a multibillion dollar foodservice equipment company would show a client how an undercounter dishwasher would be perfect for their restaurant. But that was Mr. Berti. His charisma and charm was infectious and drove us to be our best. Champion would not be where it is today without Mr. Berti and he will be missed.”

Michael Jones