CEO and President, Imperial Dade
Family operated, Imperial Dade is the leading independent distributor of food service disposables and janitorial supplies in the United States. In 2007, CEO Robert Tillis purchased the company. Six months later his son Jason Tillis, current President, joined the organization. Since then, they have made thirteen additional acquisitions.
Total Food Service had the opportunity to ask Robert and Jason Tillis a few questions about their beginnings with Imperial Dade, how they’ve evolved the company, and what the future looks like.
How did you get into the industry? Please discuss your backgrounds.
Jason Tillis: After I graduated college, I owned a small business, which I went on to sell prior to joining Imperial. Originally, I was brought on to help secure a national account opportunity which grew very quickly.
Robert Tillis: Previously, I was in the business of manufacturing shopping bags, and at that time Imperial was actually a good client of ours. Starting around 2000, I noticed that there were goods being imported from other countries that were higher quality products than what I was able to produce at a lower cost. I approached Mike Nash, the owner of Imperial at that time, and asked him if he would consider selling the business.
How did you transition from manufacturing to distribution? What are some of the primary differences?
RT: As we transitioned from manufacturing to distribution, we were able to be more flexible. In manufacturing, we had big paper shopping bag machines that were only capable of producing a very specific product. After entering distribution, we were able to be more nimble and respond to the needs of a changing marketplace.
What are some of the keys to being a successful distributor?
JT: The core of our business centers around helping our customers run their operations more efficiently. A successful distributor is flexible and understands the customers’ needs. We find creative ways to provide value, whether that’s through logistics, technology or product innovations.
How do you balance the tremendous growth that Imperial Dade has experienced with the ability to maintain and grow highly personal customer relationships?
JT: Creating and maintaining personal relationships both internally and externally is key to our business. We’re all about acquiring great people and empowering them to do their jobs, and trusting that they know the right things to do. Despite our extraordinary growth, the environment and culture within Imperial Dade is very similar to what it was when we acquired the business. Externally, our approach to customers is still highly personal and individualistic.
How have you embraced technology and implemented it into operations?
JT: We created an in-house IT department very early on. In Miami alone, we have a twenty person IT department, including a large helpdesk team that supports our seventeen branches. Company-wide, we have over thirty people working in IT, and when we acquired Imperial in 2007 there were zero. Beyond the technology support that our IT department provides, we’re also very committed to innovation as we strive to offer new solutions to our clients.
How has the new facility in Jersey City enhanced operations?
JT: We invested heavily in the Jersey City project to create a state-of-the-art facility that is truly best in class. It provided an opportunity for us to develop great efficiencies and improve service levels. We then took those best practices and implemented them throughout the entire organization.
How does online purchasing and technology fit into the Imperial Dade model?
JT: I think it’s important to note that half of the orders we currently receive are placed by customers using technology. Business and technology can no longer be separated. We offer our clients very competitive pricing, a great service proposition, training, and expertise. Amazon, for example, has done some incredible things, but we believe our offerings and industry experience are very compelling for our clients.
RT: Imperial provides a combination of value and service that extends far beyond anything that can be offered online. Our sales team provides services, expertise, and training that simply can’t be provided digitally. We have over 500 trucks and our drivers come back sharing the needs of the customer base; that level of personalized customer service can’t be replicated online.
Imperial Dade has made several acquisitions over the past few years. How did these opportunities come about? Please discuss Imperial’s growth.
JT: We had always planned to grow the business, and we certainly wanted to expand our footprint. At our core, we always try to be opportunistic. We want to do things that create value for the company and improve our service capabilities, whether that means opportunities for growth with existing clients, pursuing new business, or making acquisitions.
RT: We needed to decide what the next evolution would be for the business. We realized that there was an opportunity to take the organization to the next level by providing service to the marketplace that was not previously offered. We went on to invest in facilities, in systems, and in people to grow the business and take it to the national level. The goal was to become the preeminent distribution company in the country, one that greatly benefits our customers.
Imperial Dade was among the first distributors in the nation to commit to achieving Green Restaurant Distributor certification. How did that come to be, and what has it meant to the customer base?
RT: Providing sustainable products is a fundamental part of our company. Our customers needed green products for their businesses, so as their provider we needed to ensure that we could fulfill those expectations. It was important to them, so it was important to us, and we wanted to be able to respond to their needs.
We’re facing another foam ban in New York City. What can Imperial Dade do to help operators plan for that?
JT: We can’t control legislation, but we will always offer the very best alternatives in the marketplace. It is important to us to maintain competitive prices, quality, and functionality, and our customers can expect that from our alternative offerings. The needs of a hospital greatly differ from those of a fast casual establishment or a supermarket. We are willing and able to meet all of the specific needs of our clients.
What does the future for Imperial Dade look like in 2018 and beyond?
RT: We intend to continue on the same trajectory. We have fundamental values at Imperial that we refuse to lose sight of. Despite the fact that we’re beyond $1 billion in annual sales, our average order size is well under $1000. We send out thousands of orders per day, and will continue to remain close to the market and provide the personalized service that our customers expect from us.
To learn more about Imperial Dade, please visit their website.