Paul Nyland had his future all planned out: Retire by 2001; purchase a mobile home; and travel the country with his wife of 34 years, Marlene.
But when Marlene's 14-month battle with a brain tumor ended her life in 1998, Nyland's dreams were shattered.
However, unlike many who isolate themselves after losing a spouse, Nyland instead poured himself into his second love, working in the pizza industry.
"I found that going back to work right away was a real help to me," said Nyland, 58, and customer segment manager for pizza at Gordon Food Service. The broad line distributor is based in Grand Rapids, Mich. "Being around people that I knew, respected and loved helped me make it through it."
Linda Gutowski, a Mancino's Pizzas and Grinders franchisee in Traverse City, Mich., is both a customer and friend of Nyland's. She said watching him pull through that dark time inspired her.
"I know for a fact that he's been a great father to his kids, and family's important to him," Gutowski said. "The loss of his wife was tough on him."
The fact that supporters like Gutowski are so abundant in the pizza industry, Nyland said, is a key reason why he's worked in foodservice for so long.
Nyland joined Gordon in 1970 as a truck driver, but focused instead on selling for the company.
"On some of the easy days I had, I would get home early, get cleaned up and ride along with a salesman for the rest of the day," Nyland recalled.
His determination was rewarded a year later, when Gordon put him into sales training. He later managed GFS's Saginaw, Mich., distributorship, followed by a stint in product merchandising. And after recognizing the growth of the Mexican restaurants, Nyland helped GFS expand its offerings to accommodate that market.
The Name Says It All
In 1990, the company tapped him to focus solely on its pizza and Italian food offerings. The move earned him a now-famous moniker given to him by then-president, Dan Gordon.
" 'We'll call him Pizza Paul from now on,' " Nyland recalled. "I guess I could have squashed it then, but why? I said, 'This is something you should capitalize on.' "
As the pizza point man, Nyland oversees Gordon's pizza ingredients and supplies, trains its sales staff and works directly with key clients.
He said the company's pizza business has grown 10 times the size it was 12 years ago, but he declined to give specific numbers.
Ann Reichle, co-owner of Angelina's Pizza in Olmstead Falls, Ohio, has worked closely with Nyland since opening her own company seven years ago.
"They're family owned, and we like to stay with family-owned businesses," Reichle said of GFS. "They understand you on a different level than a distributor that's just owned by a conglomerate."
Gutowski agrees, saying that Nyland always gives customers the straight story.
"He doesn't snow you," Gutowski said. "He tells you just the way it is. When I've needed help he's given it. When I've needed my hand slapped he's done that."
Operator-turned-consultant, "Big Dave" Ostrander, started working with Nyland and GFS as its pizza reach expanded throughout Michigan. For more than 25 years, Ostrander operated his own store, Big Dave's Pizza, with GFS as its supplier.
Since selling his store two years ago, Ostrander has teamed up regularly with Nyland and traveled the Midwest conducting seminars at expos and for pizzeria operators. The two also established the Advanced Pizza Training program to teach salespersons about the pizza industry.
"I never met anyone (Paul) didn't get instant rapport with," Ostrander said. "He's not just smoke and mirrors. He gets dirty. He sweats. He gets right in the oven with you and just teaches people anything and everything they need to know."
Nyland calls that just doing the right thing.
"I think any distributor has an obligation to help their customers be as successful as they can," Nyland said. "Let's face it. They are our bread and butter. Without them being successful, they can't pay their bills -- which is paying my salary."
Despite the death of his wife, Nyland still wanted to retire in 2001. But like many people, the recession claimed a chunk of his retirement savings, delaying his permanent sabbatical.
Then again, perhaps it was another distraction -- one named Linda Buchan -- that really changed his plans the second time.
"I've been blessed twice," Nyland said, referring to Buchan, whom he'll marry May 11. "I'm also inheriting a 16-year-old. You just don't retire when you have a 16-year-old living under your roof."
That Nyland has postponed his retirement for at least another year is good news for customers. Some say they dread the day Pizza Paul puts up his peel for good.
"You're a person to him and not just a company," Reichle said. "That's the kind of relationships he builds. That's what makes him stand out to me from many other people I've touched in this industry."
Gutowski describes him as "salt of the Earth. ... He's a guy that if you don't know, you need to know. You need to know Paul Nyland up front and personal because (people like him) don't come around that much."
The feeling's the same, Nyland said. "The people you deal with in the pizza area are fun people, which makes your job fun."