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T&S Brass’ Bill Stella on his career in foodservice

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As he gets ready to retire at the end of this year, Bill Stella of T&S Brass reflects on his career. Tina Nielsen caught up with him at HostMilano

How long have you been in the foodservice industry?

I started in this industry when I was 12 years old. I was working in my aunt’s restaurant in Detroit in the summers. My father was self-employed guy and he always thought the discipline of earning your own money and being busy was important so he gave me a work ethic.

Later I started working summers in the dealer distributor family business before leaving to work for a private company, selling shelving in Chicago and that is when if started my first international job.

Collectively I have spent about 50-plus years in this industry. I am 69 now.

How do you reflect on your career?

It has gone by very quickly and it is hard to believe – every day for so many years you always have to plan the next day. You live by your diary and what has exacerbated that is email. It has been an incredible journey and an incredible experience for me.

What do consider your greatest achievements?

I set up the international rep system for T&S Brass. In the US you find reps all the time but overseas, the concept of reps is less known and they are just few and far between. So I was able to set that up and I think it has helped the success that our company has had over the last 13 years I have been with them.

There have been a lot of successes, the customers you meet, the people you meet – the fact that you walk into a room and people know you whereas 20 years ago I knew no one and I was fortunate enough to have people take me under their wing and work with me and mentor me.

Being able to work with young people – they keep you young and focused; you learn from them. I try to mentor some of them and they mentor me; it is a two-way street. It keeps you on top and things I think are very important in terms of continuing to make yourself relevant.

On a personal level; I think the greatest achievement, and I probably attribute that to my wife – I have been married for 47 years and that in this day and age is an achievement, especially with the job I have where I am travelling 50-60% of the time; it is a tough deal and I am proud of that.

Will you miss it when you retire?

Like with everything else there are elements you will miss and others you won’t – like the midnight flights. But I will miss the people, this is a people driven market and I will miss all the friends.

What industry changes have stood out over the years?

Honestly, a lot has stayed the same. It gets down to the fact that to distribute and sell our products, it takes a guy on the street – a salesman – to sell the product.

What I have noticed in the years I have been in the business is the talent in the industry has diminished. I think a lot of it is that they are not set on a proper career path. I can almost make a full-time job out of identifying and training sales people, how to up sell in the industry and I don’t think dealers and manufacturers many times understand who it is that is really selling their product.

Do you think lack of skills is a widespread problem?

I think it is in the foodservice industry absolutely. You get the reputation of being an entry-level job type of industry and I often kid with people – I say that how we make our product is we know who uses our products, they are people who don’t like their jobs – pot and pan washers, dishwashers.

People in an organisation want to continually be challenged and if you want to retain those people you have to show them – the challenge is not just about how they can be paid more money but about where they can continue to learn and be meaningful.

I used to sell a lot pizza ovens and it took a guy who had to be trained because there are different hot spots in an oven and there are techniques so it took a little bit of training. Now they have these conveyor ovens – from an operational standpoint automating this process is good but from the skill set perspective I think it is dumbing down.

Where do you see the industry heading in the future?

I don’t know where it is going to be in the future. I think there are some great opportunities for people. We always look at new developments – how do you make this stuff exciting? You are constantly looking for new ways to be doing that.

Today we are still cooking the same way – it is slightly different from the standpoint that you have some automation thrown in there, you’ve got the pictograms and you can press a button and do it all. But at the end of the day it is heating up and serving food and trying to create an experience for the customer that makes them want to come back to that restaurant again. The more I travel, the more I think things are like what they were when I was dealer in Detroit – not a lot has changed.

In five years the biggest challenge is going to be how do attract talent. Why are we not retaining people? I think we can do a better job; this industry especially. Trying to attract some top notch talent is a challenge. Going to a cocktail party and saying to these young people you work for an oven company it is not as exciting as saying I am an investment banker for example.

What have you learned?

It is people to people. That has not changed. I travel sometimes 200,000 miles a year and I‘d rather be able to sty at home and use some sort of technology, video conferencing or something but you have to be there, people have to look at you, they have to know who you are. Your reputation is the most important thing that you have and if you don’t have that you will never do any business. You have to be present.

What does retirement hold for you?

I have some hobbies, but I don’t know what I am going to do. Some people fret about the fact that they are retiring but I brought this on. I promised my wife this – my personality is so that I could work till I am 85 years old but is that fair to your family? No, it is not and at some point you have to start living life. But living life doesn’t mean you stop doing this or being who you are.

For the first time in my life I can be spontaneous. If I feel like doing something I can do it. This industry has been very good to me even though I was 47 when I got into the international side. I want to give back now.

 Tina Nielsen