KSS Enterprises has provided janitorial supplies to the U.S. Great Lakes region for more than 65 years. In fact the company began in 1945, when Fred Martinis opened a small supply store in downtown Kalamazoo, MI, known as Kalamazoo Sanitary Supply Co. Martinis focused primarily on cleaning supplies, with a customer base within the greater Kalamazoo area. In 1961, the small local business was sold to Dwight Stocker.
In 1965, Ralph Claxton began working for Stocker as a sales consultant. Nine years later, Claxton purchased the company from Stocker. For the next 13 years, Claxton cultivated a strong local customer base, aided by a small staff of just three employees. Claxton also developed a deep relationship with his manufactures representatives as well, specifically the Hill family—local reps with a long family history with Hillyard, Inc., one of Kalamazoo Sanitary Supply’s top suppliers.
“Our history with Hillyard goes quite a long way back,” says Tom Hill, Jr., current president of KSS Enterprises (The company officially changed its name in 1994.). “My father and grandfather worked for Hillyard along with a great uncle, three uncles, and a cousin. Through Hillyard, we worked with Claxton. He was a great individual and helped educate us on the nonselling aspects of the business. At one point, he told our family ‘Hey you should think about buying this company [KSS]. ’ It took us awhile, but that’s when we initiated the purchasing process, and in 1987, we bought the company.”
The Hill Family installed Tom Hill, Jr. as president; his father, Tom, as vice-president; and Terry (Hill) Dawson as general manager. Claxton stayed on with the company as a sales consultant. “We were a small company at the time, not counting family it was just Claxton and three others, one of whom is still with us to this day.“ In the next year, KSS doubled its staff and relocated to larger offices, featuring an expanded showroom, parking, office space, and warehousing.
In 1993, Claxton retired from the company after 28 years of service. The following year was when the company changed its name to better represent the business as much more than “just” a supply company. This was also when KSS extended its sales territory into Ft. Wayne, IN, and added staff members. The company continued to grow throughout the 1990s, eventually opening a second branch, located in Grand Rapids, MI. The next decade saw even more growth with the opening of four more branches in Michigan and Indiana. Today, KSS distributes cleaning products to education, health care, and industrial facilities throughout the Midwest and beyond.
A Whole New World
“Early in my career as a rep, ISSA was a world I didn’t know much about,” says Hill. “Before my family purchased his company, Claxton took us to the ISSA/INTERCLEAN® trade show, and it was quite a ‘wow’ factor for me at the time. Even to this day, every time I go to the show, it is still a wow factor with all the products and companies that are there—with all the opportunities and choices that are out there for the different distributors and end customers.
The addition of end users to the show, which we were glad happened, shifted the show from a destination for distributors to learn about new products to a show where we also can help educate our clients on new products.”
It is not just the annual trade show that keeps KSS a member of ISSA. “The association itself is a very valuable resource, from the cleaning time calculators to the industry news to the Web site, all the tools that are there to help us learn more,” says Hill. “ISSA is always there to provide information on the industry. Also, the training ISSA provides is extremely important to us. ”
Ed Stasiak, KSS vice president of sales and operations, concurs with Hill’s assessment of ISSA. “Going through the CIMS [Cleaning Industry Management Standard] I.C.E [ISSA Certification Expert] training educated me on understanding the needs of end customers,” he says. “This positions me to be a better consultant. Going through the CIMS certification process, there are a lot of variables customers need to fulfill. Being able to guide them through the process allows me to connect with the members and establishes me as more than just a salesperson.”
The More Things Change
In his three-plus decades in the janitorial business, Hill has seen his share of changes. “There’s always something to learn, that’s something I like about this industry,” he says. “Some of the bigger challenges are picking the companies and partners that really value the distribution side of the business. We really believe that there’s a strong service element in today’s world; people can buy products from all sorts of sources today that didn’t use to be there. Because of the Internet, we have clients that can be very well-informed and might not think they need our services.
Another challenge is people might get misinformation because they are not looking up the right information online or are receiving wrong information. “So now, sometimes our job as a distributor is a bit easier because the customers are more informed, but sometimes it is a bit more difficult because our customers have the wrong information. We find every day that people need a lot of assistance and information to get the most of our products. We believe there is a lot of information out that we can bring to our clients and many of them might not know how to best maximize our products.”
The Next Generation
One key to KSS’ longevity is that the company is not afraid to add younger employees to its staff—and have found them. “In the last year or so, we’ve been very fortunate to hire about 14 individuals who were either fresh out of college or this is their first job in the cleaning industry,” says Stasiak. “We’ve had a lot of success in hiring not just in sales but operations, accounting, and purchasing.”
The company has developed a tailored approach to dealing with the younger generation of jansan employees. “We’ve had to manage that group differently than a seasoned veteran salesman, “ says Stasiak. “For example, our sales training has changed as they’re much more adept to online training. We have spent our time developing other skill sets, “We’ve noticed our younger employees also build their own culture; they’re very social; they want to be involved and want to understand upward mobility. One new thing is this year we’re taking six new employees to the ISSA/INTERCLEAN show. We’re doing this to show them what the future can hold in terms of their development of as a professional. This keeps them excited and keeps them in the business long enough to be successful.” And as the new employees succeed, so, too, will KSS Enterprises.
This article originally appeared in the 2013 postconvention issue of ISSA Today. To view the current digital edition of ISSA Today, visit www.issa.com/magazine.