Q&A Michael Leffler

How did you get into the industry?
I originally planned to go to law school after college, but decided to take a summer job working for my grandfather at Admiration Foods after graduation. My grandfather was very old school. He would never give you anything unless you earned it. It didn’t matter that I was his grandchild, if I wanted to get paid I had to prove myself to him. I enrolled in a business law and an accounting class, and he started to include me as an integral member of his executive team. The job I thought I would have for only a month or two suddenly became very exciting. I enjoyed how every day was different and I started to appreciate what it would be like to work in the food industry. So I decided to put off law school and work at Admiration.

That’s funny, how many years later are we now? And where did you go to college?
That was over twenty years ago. I went to school at Tulane University in New Orleans – –  the food capital of the country. Looking back, it was a perfect place for me to go to school because I learned a lot about the southern culture, which represents a significant portion of our current customer base, and I also learned to appreciate and respect the differences in food preferences across different regions in the U.S. The acquisition of our plant in Alabama and the success we continue to experience growing in that region has a lot to do with my experience living in Louisiana.

What does it take to keep customers happy? Talk a little bit about that.
Obviously quality, service and price are all very important, but my philosophy has always been that the only way to truly keep a customer happy is to fully understand their business.  Every customer is different.  They have different personalities, different cultures, and different expectations of their suppliers.  Over time, their business models will change and so will their priorities.  The key is maintaining an active dialogue with every customer and having a sales force and customer service staff that understands their business and treats each customer uniquely and in a way that is consistent with the priorities they express to us. By doing that, our customers will always have a positive experience when they interact with us.  They will continue to give us business and we will continue to remain a healthy and vibrant force in the industry.

Admiration Foods has a diverse product line and a large customer base that extends across several market sectors.  How do you guys manage to do everything?
It is not easy.  Often it requires personal sacrifice.  But I love what I do and I always try to lead by example.  I like to believe that my enthusiasm and my work ethic inspires the rest of the company to perform at a very high level.   We have an amazingly talented and dedicated team at Admiration Foods.  So when I ask for the impossible, what I often get is the exceptional.

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Another important aspect of managing an organization that has plants and customers in different areas of the country is making sure that our approach adjusts for the cultural differences at play.  The traditional New York /New Jersey approach to business that made Admiration Foods successful for over sixty years doesn’t apply successfully to either the workforce or the customers we have in the South.  Again, it goes back to understanding and respecting different cultures and different priorities…. and then knowing how to ask for what you need so that you get the result you want.  Everyone needs to feel respected and appreciated, but those concepts have very different meanings depending on where you are in the country.

Admiration Foods has made impressive strides in the Mayonnaise and Dressings business the past few years.  Were these always Admiration products?  Tell us how you started making those items and where do you see this area of your business going forward?
When the Company was founded in 1945, we were basically just packing vegetable oil.  We did this very successfully.  It wasn’t until 1960 that we started selling mayonnaise and dressings.  These products were a natural extension of our vegetable oil business.  When we started, we had maybe a couple styles of mayonnaise and basically one formula for each dressing.  Over time, my grandfather continued to expand our product line.  To his credit, he created a powerful brand in the foodservice industry and when he passed away in 2005, I think it is fair to say that he created a company that was much larger and more successful than he ever envisioned.  Today, I continue to build on the solid foundation he established and I rely on the strength of our brands and superior quality product to bring value to the market.

I think the mayonnaise, sauces and dressings part of our industry will continue to grow.  Today, Admiration Foods has an infrastructure that makes us well-positioned to capitalize on this growing segment.  As we get feedback from the market, our team is capable of reacting quickly to take advantage of new opportunities in ways that we never could before.

Is the relationship you have with the distributor, or is it the relationship you have with the end user, chef, operator who’s then served by a broker? Tell me a little bit about how you keep your finger on that pulse.
Our direct relationship is generally with the distributor.  Though one reason we continue to be successful is that we continue to sell them products that are easy for them to sell.  By emphasizing value and consistency of quality, there is a steady demand for our products among the various chefs, operators and other end users serviced by the distributors we sell to.

What about healthy eating? There’s been a huge trend on a lot of fronts towards healthy eating. Did you see it coming; was it a result of being in the marketplace? And have there been other changes, has the mayonnaise business changed as a result of people looking? Is there a light mayonnaise? Are there other types of product changes that you have made along the way?
No question that the demand in healthy products has increased steadily.  I think there will always be a strong market for products that are zero trans fats, or cholesterol free, fat free and even more recently gluten free.  It is not always clear distinguishing a trend from an actual permanent shift in consumer preferences.  But one thing we pride ourselves in is the ability to react quickly and take advantage of new opportunities as they arise.

Last question. Crystal ball. What do you see going forward?  What lies ahead?
Don’t want to give away any secrets.  But can tell you that even though Admiration Foods has been around since the 1940’s, we have only scratched the surface of realizing our full potential.  Stay tuned.  The next few years are going to be a very exciting time at our business.