EPISODE 035: By Focusing on Ideas and Not Commodities, Scott Attman Has Led His Restaurant Supply Company to the Front of the Industry
Scott Attman grew up in his family’s business—Acme Paper & Supply—truly learning it from the ground up. Scott has been in sales for 22 years and now serves as a vice president of the company with primary responsibilities geared toward business development. Acme Paper & Supply is a distribution organization based in Jessup, MD, that focuses on serving clients in the food-service, sports and entertainment, facilities maintenance, healthcare, and industrial-packaging industries.
Over the past 15 years, Scott has become one of the foremost experts in sustainability within the food-service industry. In 2006 he worked closely with the culinary team at the U.S. House of Representatives to develop the first fully sustainable food-service operation. Furthermore, Scott and his team have worked closely with many national food-service groups to build unique packaging programs that highlight these differentiated brands and concepts.
Find Scott on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: Scott, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you sell today and what excites you about that?
Scott Attman: Our business is a distribution organization. We sell in five different divisions: restaurant packaging, restaurant equipment and small wares, janitorial products, industrial products, and retail products. They sound unrelated to each other, but it’s amazing how much cross-pollenization we have over the years of our business, a 71-year old organization.
We’ve acquired different organizations to join us, so we think of ourselves as a holding organization of various companies with expertise in all of those divisions. Very often we’ll hear people say, “Well, if you do that, you couldn’t be an expert at this. So what do you really do?”
But our organization really is set up to have expertise in all of those divisions, and it allows our salespeople to pool from all that expertise. Beyond the products, though—and I think that’s critical—we’re really an “ideas” organization. That’s really how we look at ourselves and differentiate ourselves from our competitors. Everyone can put product on a truck and deliver product to a client. The way that we go to market is really about looking at our clients, finding out what they need, and finding out how we can bring them different solutions, because ultimately it’s about differentiating their business from their competitor’s business. That’s what allows us to be successful.
Fred Diamond: Do you sell commodity products? Is that why you made the shift to being, as you described, an ideas organization to figure out more strategies to be more valuable to your customers?
Scott Attman: A large portion of our products are definitely commodity products, so it could be anything from glass cleaner to a fork. The way that we look at it is, How do you make that not a commodity? How do you make that something special and different? Sometimes it could be customization, doing something like making it a different color. Sometimes it may be the packaging. We’ve even gone as far as actually creating certain packaging that’s patented where we’ve found a need for a client. We’ve gone out and created something.
An example of that would be a concession tray. Anyone who goes to a sporting event or anyone who goes to an amusement park knows they go to the line, especially if they have a family, and they’re going to pick up as much food as they can, and they’re only going to buy as much as they can carry. They can’t take more than that. Camden Yards is where we tested this back in the early ’90s. We created a tray that could hold 32-ounce sodas because people couldn’t carry larger than that before, and everybody was trying to maximize that. We could have a large pizza, and we had certain walls, folding collapsible handles and a lot of details—no one had ever done that before. We launched that with the Orioles. Shortly after that the Dodgers, the Astros amusement park, the Cleveland Cavaliers, all jumped on board.
Again, it’s not about necessarily trying to find the commodity and delivering the commodity; it’s about trying to find in the mix of all of those things the new idea and something that can be really special and memorable for our clients.
Fred Diamond: How did you get into sales? Tell us what got you into sales specifically.
Scott Attman: It’s my family’s business. My grandfather started the business 70 years ago, and we grew up in it, so whether it was holidays, whether it’s just sitting around with family, you’d always hear the buzz. There was never any directive that, “You have to go in the business.” I have an older sister who chose not to take the path, but we all worked in the business as children doing everything from loading trucks to sales.
I kid with people that as soon as I could alphabetize I started working, because prior to computers the invoices would come back at the end of the day, and we’d sit there, alphabetize, and then file them. I got into management as soon as my younger brothers could alphabetize because I’d give them that work to help me. My path at sales was really through absorbing the information that I heard from the other people in the office. It always fascinated me.
I guess as a teenager I started asking my father, “Instead of sitting in the office, do you mind if I ride with one of the salespeople?” I would just sit and ride and try to absorb as much as I could. I always just found it fascinating. To me it wasn’t necessarily sales; it was just communicating with people that I found so interesting.
Fred Diamond: So what are some of the key lessons you learned from some of those first days? You said you drove around with some of the salespeople. What are some of the things that stuck with you along the way?
Scott Attman: My grandfather used to tell me there’s two types of products: those that sell and those that don’t. So often we get caught up on trying to find the perfect solution for our clients that we don’t see the real opportunity, the clients telling us, “We want something.” We’re trying to give them something else, and sometimes we’re causing more frustration for our clients than there needs to be. One of the things I always remind our salespeople is that sometimes the opportunity is right in front of your face and you don’t see it. So that’s one of the first lessons that I remember.
The other thing is you don’t need to have all of the information to be an expert. Sometimes doing enough homework to start to learn about the product can make you the expert. It gives you the ability to validate yourself to the client, give them the information that they’re going to need, and then if there’s interest you can go back and get more information for people.
And the last thing that my father used to tell me was not to feel embarrassed to say, “I don’t know.” It’s a very sufficient answer. Your responsibility at that point is then to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll get that information to you right away.”
Fred Diamond: Some great lessons there. You mentioned, “You don’t need necessarily to know everything to be an expert.” But Scott, tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance. What are you truly an expert in?
Scott Attman: That’s a good question. My area of expertise is primarily in food service. In restaurants we do everything in our business, from building out the kitchen from hood systems, ovens, refrigeration, all the way down to selling the toothpicks for when the customers walk out the door. We have the commodity items and all of that, but my expertise is trying to find the items that are different. Trying to look at a business, trying to find out how we can understand their brand, understand their concept, mold all those things together, so that when someone walks into their business they say, “Wow, this is a different place.”
In addition to that, going back to early 2000s, I along with the culinary team at the House of Representatives built the very first fully sustainable restaurant operation. So having worked with them, teams at the Smithsonian, even scientists at the Smithsonian, we’ve built really the largest and most involved sustainability program with products available for the restaurant industry. I’ve spent a lot of time speaking to organizations, speaking to groups, and building out sustainable food-service operations throughout the country.
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little more about your customer. Who specifically do you service? Are they large restaurant groups? Give us a little information about the people that you specifically sell to.
Scott Attman: It’s across the board—anyone from an independent operator all the way to large restaurant groups. It’s interesting because a lot of new clients come to us and say, “Hey, I want to do what that group did. And I want to have all those pieces just like they have.” And I have to remind them, “Nobody opened their business, including McDonald’s, with 100 locations. No one opened with 20, no one opened with 5. Everybody starts with 1.” So depending on who they are and what they’re doing, we remind people of that. We build out a program, and we try to give people a timeline of what we’ll do along the way.
There are also large restaurant groups and national organizations, so it could be people who work in government buildings and museums. I mentioned sports and entertainment. Whether it’s Major League Baseball stadiums or amusement parks, we build out programs for all of those people. That’s really on the food-service side, where I spend most of my time. Within the organization we still work with large industrial warehousing groups, and we also work with hospitals, health-care facilities, and building operators—an office building where they need the restrooms cleaned, they need the hallways cleaned, and they want Purell when you walk through the door. That’s all part of what we do.
Fred Diamond: Let’s go back to the beginning of your career. You’ve been selling for more than 20 years now. Tell us about an impactful sales career mentor and how they impacted your career.
Scott Attman: I’ve mentioned my grandfather before. He passed away about a year and a half ago. He was 95 years old. But he worked till the day he went into the hospital. Sometimes when you’re with people you don’t realize how special they are and how much they impacted you.
As my grandfather got older, and I was fortunate to work with him side by side for 18 years, I really started to appreciate and understand what he did to build this business. I can’t imagine ever putting in the sweat and grind that he did to build it.
There was a port at Baltimore he started the business in. It wasn’t that safe of an area anymore. He went down there, he got mugged. This was probably around 2002. The answer that everybody in my family had was, “Listen, you’re not allowed to go down there alone anymore. Take Scott.” So I became the bodyguard.
We went down there, and we would work together, we’d walk in the market. It was so interesting to me to see the people so exuberant and excited to see him. It wasn’t about products; it was about relationships. The other thing that stood out to me was—this was the day of PalmPilots_I was running around with my technology making my notes in my PalmPilots, but he had his pad, a pad of paper!
It didn’t matter; we left with the same information. But it’s really about collecting the information. It’s about the questions. It’s not always about the technology and the flash and all of those things. It’s about getting to the raw basics.
So as I worked with my grandfather it was just a reminder that you can’t build a foundation for your business and worry about all the technology and all of these other flashy things if the basics aren’t put in place. Even today it’s something I always think about as things start to proceed, to always look back and make sure that that foundation is always in place.
Fred Diamond: What are two of the biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Scott Attman: As a sales leader, the first challenge is trying to find people to follow in the footsteps that we have. Trying to find good people who want to work hard, who understand the value of building relationships, who have patience but also a drive to get that done.
The second challenge is—and I think this would be common to most businesses and industries—is there’s a lot more information available to our clients, and they want more information than they’ve ever had before. A lot of the information that they go out and search for is misleading. It isn’t even good information, because they’re just taking it for what it’s worth when they find something on the internet or talking to other people. It’s hard to educate people at times without telling them they’re wrong, making them understand that there’s more information available and they may not be getting all of the facts correctly. So that is something that definitely over the past five years, even a little bit further back, has changed within our industry.
Fred Diamond: Talk about your customers and how they’ve changed. You just mentioned that they have more access to information, they think they know things because they can research it. How else has the customer that you deal with changed in the past 5, 10 years?
Scott Attman: With technology and computers giving people the ability to dial into their business a little more—and I’m proud for them to have the information, I think it’s great—they’ve become much more savvy in just looking at the analytics of their businesses and trying to dive into the numbers and trying to make sense of it all. And again, you can make numbers look any way you want and try to find a way to make them work for you or against you in any situation, but the client has really changed with their own aptitude in their own businesses.
Fred Diamond: What is the number-one specific sales success or win from your career that you’re most proud of?
Scott Attman: There are two things that come to mind. One sets the table for the other. I was working with a large client and working with our VP of sales, Jim Hare, who is one of the people I respect most in sales. I’ve learned a lot from working with him. One of the things I’ve learned from him is patience. I remember working with him on a really large account. He would always assist me, and I was much younger in my career. I was probably 24, 25 years old at the time.
I called him and I said, “Hey, we’ve got to go see this client today.” And he said, “I’ve got another meeting.You can do it yourself.” And at that moment he sort of cut the leash for me, and it made me realize that I didn’t need that senior-level person always there with me.and I was capable of doing it on my own. That’s even something that I do now as a leader and recognize it, that when people come to me they say, “Hey, I’ve got this big meeting with a client. Are you going to come with me again today?” Again, again, again, again. And I’m always there and now I say to them, “You’ve got it. Go fly, take it on, I know you’re capable. We’ve done it now.”
So that sort of set the table for the next opportunity, which was the House of Representatives. They were in a state of flux with some of the pieces that were moving there, and they called me and said, “Hey, we want you to come in and talk to us about a sustainability and green program.”
I got a call, “We want to have this meeting if you can bring us a little bit of information.” Well, this was a big opportunity, so I wasn’t going to bring a little bit of information. We brought everything. And this was again at a time when nobody knew anything about sustainability, but we had done some homework before. We came in with a massive presentation.
Moving way ahead, we end up getting the business. We become the provider, we created this huge program, first-of-its-kind-anywhere-in-the-country sustainable, compostable food-service operation.
What I learned afterward as we developed a relationship and grew with that client even further, they said, “Scott, when we called you, we were calling to bleed you for information. We had no intention of ever working with you, we had no intention of ever working with your organization. We figured you had some information, you’d be able to give us some data that you had, and then we were going to work with our current provider.” And they said, “But that presentation you made was out of sight.”
I’ll never forget that. Later today I’m going to work with one of our salespeople, and in preparation I said, “You know, you have this, this, and this, but what if he asks that?” And he said, “Yeah, he could.” I said, “So we’ll be prepared for it.” You know, I look at sales sort of like a chessboard. You’ve got to look at the pieces coming from all the different directions. And the best chess players of the world may be three, four, five steps ahead. When I play chess I think I’m two or three steps ahead. but that mentality of looking at it from all positions and trying to be a couple of steps ahead is the ultimate in preparation.
Fred Diamond: That’s a very powerful story. You’re brought into a big customer, you mentioned it was one of the first sustainability type of opportunities for you, somewhere that the company wanted to go, and obviously sustainability right now is huge. The customer said to you, “We never really intended to go with you.” Where did you have that in your organization? How did you rate that on the pipeline, now knowing that the customer was kind of just trying to get some information out of you? How did you view it going along? Did you view it that, “We’re going to get this business, we’re doing a great job, there’s five other competitors”?
Scott Attman: I knew that client didn’t work with us at the time. I knew they had a longstanding relationship with another organization, and I felt when they made that call that was the case: These guys are going to bleed me for information and go their own direction. Like I said in my earlier remarks, as you’ve commented before, we’re not a commodities organization. We’re an ideas organization. We’re an innovation organization, and we look at things from a completely different direction than everybody else in our industry. And I knew that was my only opportunity that I needed to put something out there that they didn’t see coming. And the amount of product, the amount of presentation, the amount of space I took up with this presentation, I knew I needed to make it so grand that they couldn’t ignore it.
Fred Diamond: Your customers continue to change. You’re dealing with customers, probably a percentage of whom have been in business for a long time, but a lot of them come and go. I just would love to have been along with you on some of those calls with your grandfather and seeing him dealing with the customers.
Scott Attman: Yeah, my grandfather would always say, “If we’re not moving forward, we’re moving back.” What he meant was he would walk in the office every day, and no matter who we talked to, whether it was someone in operations in the warehouse and transportation, customer service, sales, even in finance, “What’s new today?” And when he said, “What’s new?” it wasn’t like “What happened yesterday?” Like “What’s new today? What are we going to do tomorrow?”
He’d say, “Standing still is the worst thing you can do. You’ve always got to be looking forward.” And it was always about bringing some element of change, innovation, new ideas. People always ask me, “What’s the culture of your organization?” And that really is the essence of our culture. No matter what the product may be, no matter how commoditized one organization may be or innovative another organization may be, we’ve seen great organizations, huge organizations be innovative for a moment but not be able to sustain that vision and innovation moving forward. So even something as simple as a fork or a straw may set the table for the right opportunity if you find the right widget for the right guy moving forward.
Fred Diamond: You’ve had a great career in sales. You’ve given us some great stories, some great insights. Scott Attman, did you ever question being in sales? Was there ever a moment where you thought to yourself, “It’s just too hard. It’s just not for me”?
Scott Attman: I never questioned being in sales. I think everybody, no matter what they do, looks at it at some point and says, “Is this still for me? Can I still do this? Can I still do it at this pace?” Look at athletes. I get criticized a lot in my office because I always make sports analogies, especially by a lot of women who work in our office, so I try to find other analogies, but sports always makes sense to me. It’s about being competitive. It’s about winning. Sometimes you need to adjust your tools. If your arm isn’t as strong as it used to be, you put yourself in a better position to make the play. If you can’t run as fast as you used to, you study the tape and you find the way to do it a little bit more.
Sometimes you just take it back to basics, refocus yourselves, and you find the pieces that motivate you, but I’ve never questioned being in sales. I love it. I love working with people. What becomes the hardest sometimes as you grow your business, you spend more time dealing with the business instead of getting out there to be out there and grow the business. But the days that I am out on the streets, the days that I am working with clients, I realize how much I really do love being in a sales role.
Fred Diamond: Scott, I want to get some of your tips to help some of the people listening on today’s podcast take their career to the next level. What’s the most important thing you want to get across to selling professionals to help them improve their career?
Scott Attman: I strongly believe in centers of influence. What I mean by centers of influence are people who can go out and represent you, people who go out and they’re your cheerleaders. We can only be in contact with so many people in the course of the day. We can only be in front of so many people in the course of a day.
I’ve come up with my own theory of it. I call it the power of three. The power of three is finding three people who really end up becoming your tree, because they say you did such a good job for them, they introduce you to the next opportunity. As I had the opportunity to look back on my career over the past 20 years there are two or three people of whom I can say, “Wow, it all leads to them. That was the guy who introduced me to this opportunity, that’s the guy that introduced me to that opportunity.” And I watched the web spread from that.
You never know who that opportunity is when it’s in front of you, so treat everybody with respect and equally along the way. But really try to create that cheerleader, someone who’s going to go out there and spread the word about what you are, because it makes your life a whole lot easier when people are out there calling you and saying, “Hey, so and so said I need to reach out to you because you’re the expert.”
Fred Diamond: Very good. Centers of influence, makes a lot of sense. What are some of the things you do, Scott Attman, to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Scott Attman: The first is I like to surround myself with other successful people, whether they’re in sales, whether they’re in operations. I like to gather as much information as I can from all sorts of industries because I just find it fascinating. I have a thirst for knowledge and information, and there are always things I feel I can apply to my business. And, you know, everybody has their ups and their downs, and when they’re motivated and when they’re in a rut, and it’s good just to be surrounded by good, professional, motivated people. You feed off that.
The other thing that I found is an interesting tool is Twitter. There’s a lot of information on Twitter. I know some people say, “I don’t need all the junk.” You can filter out all the junk and dial into areas that really interest you and get some good information there. Whether it’s sales organization or sales information, whether it’s industry information for your particular business, it’s an easy place to gather information and get some tips for the day.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Scott Attman: The thing I’m working on the hardest right now is more of an organizational initiative. We have technology platforms but then continue to build technology platforms. Giving people the information that they may want traditionally on hard paper, trying to get all of that created and put into the internet, it’s a daunting overwhelming task at times. But essentially—ultimately, really—we’re trying to make the sales process as easy as possible for our clients to get the information.
I saw something this morning that said… you get a higher rate of people reading information if you can physically email it to them [rather than leave a sample or leave information]. You can shoot it out to all of these people, and your return is greater. If you hand it to people, you may have a greater percentage of closure, but you can only get it to so many people. It was really about trying to gather all of your information, getting it out electronically to people as much as you can so you get those touches invisibly, and then following up with the most important people and getting in front of them tangibly.
Fred Diamond: So Scott Attman, sales is hard. People don’t return your calls or your emails. Why have you continued? What is it about a career in sales that keeps you going?
Scott Attman: To me, it’s about competitive drive. I don’t see any other option. Every day is an opportunity to win because that’s the competitive drive, but the win is against the competitor. It’s not to win against the client. The client I look at as a partner. I love to win, and I also love to see my clients succeed. All of that just makes it so enjoyable and exciting. You never know what’s going to come up that day. Every day is different, so I find it refreshing and challenging and really an exciting business to be in.
Fred Diamond: Give us one final thought that you can share to inspire our listeners today.
Scott Attman: First, I’d like to say thank you for having me today. This has been really exciting and fantastic. I’m happy to share my story, and I hope it impacts some people who are out there listening. My final thought for the day really is to focus on the client. Focus on bringing that value. We’ve said it before, but try to find something that will make them successful. Those are the things that they won’t forget.
I had a leadership coach once tell me—we had to write it in the front of our book in college—”You’re only remembered for your last worst act.” No matter how much good you do for anybody, they’re always going to remember the bad. But if you can go out there every day and try to create successes for your clients and bring them the opportunity to succeed and grow their business, they don’t forget it. And I want people just to remember it’s really about helping other people succeed. It makes all of it a lot easier.