Timing is crucial in sales, and Steve France's couldn't have been much better 24 years ago.
Working as a salesman for Kalamazoo, Mich.-based Arvco Container Corporation in the mid 1970s, France peddled a then-revolutionary corrugated pizza box he believed would change the pizza industry.
The boxes were rigid, which kept them from sagging and sticking to the cheese as did clay-board boxes. They also retained heat better than another industry alternative -- paper sacks with corrugated circles for support.
Steve France, Arvco Container Corp.
"Customers kept saying, 'If someone would make a good box, I wouldn't need the circle,' " said France, sales manager for Arvco's food packaging product division. "Most people didn't know what a corrugated pizza box was back then."
Arvco was determined they would and offered France the chance to introduce them to it.
By 1981, he was more than glad he accepted Arvco's offer. That year marked the industry's first-ever Pizza Expo, where keynote speaker Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza, shared his vision for the future of pizza delivery. The use of corrugated pizza boxes, he stressed, was essential to its growth.
Out of the show's 100-plus exhibitors, Arvco was the only corrugated pizza box seller.
"Thank God for Tom Monaghan, because we were busier than heck; we simply could not keep up," said France, a 28-year Arvco veteran who sells to U.S. foodservice distributors. "People would get tired of waiting around the booth and they'd walk way."
To Kalamazoo via Pasadena
France served in the U.S. Army as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne at Ft. Bragg, N.C., from the late '50s. When his term ended in 1960, he moved to Pasadena, Calif., "where I heard the streets were paved with gold," and where he attended college part-time and played adult-league fast-pitch baseball.
He also worked as a machinist for a valve-fitting company but found it boring. When he transferred to the company's sales division, the friendly France realized quickly that he'd found his niche.
In 1974, the Battle Creek, Mich., native moved back to his home state to take a job with Arvco. Five years later, France was at then-operator Dave Ostrander's back door showing him a host of corrugated pizza boxes.
"He drove in to my parking lot at Big Dave's (Pizza) and showed me about 20 prototypes of that box in the trunk of his Mazda," said Ostrander, now an Oscoda, Mich.-based consultant to the industry. "Nobody had ever seen that, but when I did, I got excited."
Pushing corrugated pizza boxes wasn't a hard sell, France said. Operators quickly saw the benefits, and that helped Arvco penetrate the market fairly rapidly.
He wouldn't specify the company's annual pizza box sales totals, but France said Arvco is the industry leader in sales through distributors.
That somewhat detached sales strategy, however, never kept France from visiting pizza shop owners. Personal contact with end-users, he said, still makes sales calls fun.
"You're dealing with real people in the pizza business, very down to earth, good people," France said. "These are not three-piece-suit, wing-tip-shoe people. Most of them stuck their necks out to open a business and they work long hours running it."
The chance to see those friends and customers at Pizza Expos is the reason he's exhibited at every one of them. But going to those events, France added, isn't all fun and fellowship.
"A salesman's job is to be the eyes and ears in the marketplace," he said. "He keeps (his company) informed as to what's going on in the marketplace. It's never a waste of money or time to go (to an Expo) and get that information. You'd have to fly 100,000 miles making calls to get that same information."
Principles and ethics
During last fall's Northeast Pizza Expo in Atlantic City, N.J., an operator approached France at the Arvco booth to ask if he'd sell him some boxes direct. His question received a quick, but polite, "No, I sell only through distributors" from France, plus a smile and an invitation to call him.
"No one gets a special deal, we don't do that," said France, as his eyes followed the customer down the aisle.
This isn't the first time France has refused a direct sales proposition, said Ostrander. Several years ago,
Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Gordon Food Service, a broadline distributor that sells Arvco's boxes, asked Ostrander to "check Steve out" to see if he'd do an end-around direct sale to Big Dave's.
"I had to tell (GFS) that he refused to sell me direct, which is just what Gordon wanted to hear," Ostrander said. "It's not a surprise Arvco has won GFS's Vendor of the Year award several times. That's a big deal for vendors."
Andy Van Eerden, senior vice president of marketing for Van Eerden Distribution in Grand Rapids, said France's "better-than-average" follow through and high degree of customer service makes his own company look good.
"In a non-food category like boxes, there's not much urgency in service sometimes, but he does a really nice job," said Van Eerden, who has worked with France for 15 years. Van Eerden added that France and Erwin Maier, an Arvco regional account executive who shares U.S. pizza box sales duties with him, "do as much work with the end user as our sales people. They do more of that than 95 percent of the other vendors we have."
At 62, most men would be planning their retirements, but as Maier said, most men aren't like France, who simply loves his work.
"Steve is one of the most optimistic persons I've ever met," said Maier, who called France a boss, mentor and friend. "There are no such things as problems when you're talking to Steve, only opportunities."
Van Eerden called France "passionate about this industry" and said his "real interest in seeing it grow" keeps him focused on customers.
That passion is evident in France's nearly ever-present smile, one both operators and competitors should expect to see for a long time.
"I want to go 'til I can't go anymore," said France, laughing at the suggestion of retirement. He still flies about 30,000 miles a year and drives 35,000. "As long as it's fun, I want to do it. I still like putting a deal together and closing it. I don't see me stopping this anytime."
That's both good news and bad news for Maier. He said the company continues to benefit tremendously from France's work, but he knows he'll have to wait to replace France as chief of Arvco's sales division. Laughing, Maier said, "Yeah, considering I'm next in line for his job, I hate to hear that."