Good Business and Good Friends

Joe Vonder Haar, Co-Founder, iSee Store Innovations

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When you’re selling fun stuff to good customers, you will make a lot of friends over time. As a beer sales­man working in a corporate culture that professed, “Making friends is our business,” having friends in the c-store industry felt natural. When it was time to retire from the comforts of my corporate identity, I wondered if those friendships would be put to the test.

Not in this industry.

In early 2010, after taking early retirement, I was searching for ways to stay connected to the business. Shortly thereafter, NACS Supplier Board chair­man Jennie Jones reached out to me with a speaking opportunity at a retail conference. This unsolicited opportu­nity forced me to condense 30 years of learning into a 45-minute presentation. Thank you, Jennie, for showing me that I had valuable knowledge to share. This is what friends do.

Later that year at the NACS Show, one of my former retail customers, Vicky Soulimiotis of RaceTrac, directed me to a couple of first-time exhibitors with some cool innovations. “They don’t have a clue about the U.S. market,” she said. “They could really benefit from someone like you.” The rest is history: Direction from old friend = new company + new friends.

Many friends in the industry offered help in my entrepreneurial effort. Friends, however, are not about favors. Friends are about trust and guidance. Honest and candid feedback about product value and viability, and navigation of the business process, contributed more value to my startup than any favors could. Retailer and supplier friends alike provided information that helped me make better decisions and make our products more relevant. There are too many friends to mention, but thanks to all of you.

Being There for Each Other

One friend, though, requires a callout. I was introduced to Nestle Waters North America’s Rex Griswold in the early 2000s. In working closely with Rex on c-store cross-merchandising programs for beer and water, we discovered com­mon bonds: a passion for baseball and music, and sharing our enthusiasm with our children. When I changed career paths, Rex’s company was my first formal sales call, and he pointed me to the right doors and shared appropriate insights that were relevant to the needs of his company.

There are no “gimmies” in this busi­ness, so a year and a half after that first meeting, our team is still working hard to earn this business.

Just prior to the NACS Show this year, my company secured a meeting with Nestle Waters in Stamford, Conn., to review new product developments, and Rex set aside time to meet with me and share his insights. Before I left for the meeting, a colleague of Rex’s reached out to me to share some dev­astating news: Rex had been diagnosed with a rare disorder called multiple sys­tem atrophy, or MSA. Rex wanted me to know before I came in so that I would not feel awkward and/or be caught off guard about his condition. Rex was worried about me, not himself.

When I saw Rex the following week, he wanted to hear about my new products, and also talk about the All­man Brothers and baseball. As far as his health, he was more focused on his family dealing with the challenges. I was moved by his determination, candor and “life goes on” perspective. Rex, as always, was focused on the positives and on others while still ensuring that he was covering all of his job responsibilities. He still planned to come to the NACS Show.

At the Nestle Waters booth at this year’s NACS Show, there was a smiling Rex working the show, but also shar­ing information about MSA. Purple wristbands were available as a tribute and reminder of the tough battle that this friend is facing. Rex has been a role model for good business and good friends for our industry, and it is clear that his friends, his company and this industry are there for him.

A purple “Cure MSA” band on my wrist is a daily reminder that this busi­ness is about friends and that we as an industry have each other’s backs.

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