By Stefanie Croley
Celebrating 31 years of a true family business
By Stefanie Croley
Twenty-five years ago, Greg Suitor’s uncle asked him how much people would pay for bottled water.
Twenty-five years ago, Greg Suitor’s uncle asked him how much people would pay for bottled water. “Our country is two-thirds water,” he recalls answering. “Nobody will ever buy water. And boy, was I wrong.”
|The Toronto office of Brokerhouse Distributors and Vending Products of Canada has a tight-knit staff.|
It’s safe to say that Suitor is glad he was wrong, or he may have found himself telling me a completely different story about the industry he loves so much. “The vending industry is fun, with a lot of great people,” he says. “They’re not nine-to-five individuals; they’re on call 24-7, answering the 4 a.m. phone calls because someone lost a quarter. They’re hardworking, dedicated people . . . all true professionals.”
Suitor and his brother Jeff have spent a lot of time getting to know people involved in the industry, having grown up in vending with memories of their father filling machines at Expo 67 in Montreal. They started Brokerhouse Distributors in a radiator shop in Toronto, with a 250-square-foot office and a small showroom. The brothers began reconditioning office coffee equipment and continued to grow their business. Suitor describes Brokerhouse as the hardware/equipment side of the business, as it represents 18 different manufacturers and refurbishes and sells equipment. Fourteen years ago, the brothers decided to venture into the products side, with the purchase of what is now Vending Products of Canada, a company that now handles more than 1,800 different SKUs.
“It seemed like a natural fit,” Suitor says. “It was time for some diversification in an industry that we knew a little bit about.” An office was opened in Burnaby, B.C., to handle western customers. Seven years ago, the opportunity arose to expand into Montreal and Eastern Canada, with the purchase of André Labée in Montreal. It was a natural fit for the Suitor brothers, who are constantly striving to be a one-stop shop for the industry. “André comes from the same small town of 900 people in Quebec as my mother. We’re almost family . . . but not quite!” Suitor says with a chuckle.
On the topic of family, there are several other family members involved in the business, including Greg and Jeff’s sister Trudy and her husband Bernie, and Jeff’s wife Lucille and daughter Shannon. “It’s truly a family affair, and as long as I’m here, we’ll never get away from that,” Suitor says. “And the business wouldn’t be happening without good people. It’s all about them.”
People seem to be the theme of our conversation. As we walk around the offices and warehouse of Brokerhouse Distributors and Vending Products of Canada, located in the Rexdale area of Toronto, Suitor introduces me to his extended family – some of the 80-plus employees. Suitor doesn’t have a title on his business card, but he and Jeff own the companies and their subsidiaries. “Titles are insignificant. We’re comfortable knowing there is more than one person who can answer a question,” he says. At Brokerhouse, employees are people, and customers are partners, as the goal of the company is to grow with its clients.
|Brokerhouse Distributors is celebrating 31 years of business with a new office opening in Dartmouth, N.S., in May. |
Good people really are the foundation of a successful company, and during tough times, it’s important to have a strong, reliable team who knows better than to put all of the company’s eggs in one basket. The vending industry as a whole has faced a tough time recovering from the recession, and Suitor says the equipment side of the business was hit particularly hard. “As buildings close and jobs are lost, equipment is not required. The equipment that was at these facilities is now being pulled out because there’s nobody working there . . . Certainly those assets have to go out to locations first to generate revenue again, before new purchases can happen.” But other aspects of the business pick up when one sector is slow. “The reconditioning side of the business has a tendency to pick up during tough times because the pieces that have been pulled off locations now need to be refreshed before they can go back out,” Suitor says. And of course, it makes financial sense to make smaller investments in refurbishing equipment, rather than purchasing something brand new. Suitor says Vending Products of Canada hasn’t felt the effects of the recession as much because food is an essential service, but healthy vending has definitely hurt the industry. “So many say the products are creating obesity, but it doesn’t start there. These products were around when I grew up – why wasn’t it talked about then? I am a real believer in health, but I also believe in freedom of choice.”
Although the vending industry has been afflicted with many other challenges over the years – the introduction of new coins and bills is just one that we chat about – Suitor strongly believes there is still a future for vending, and he sees lots of changes in store for the industry. ”Equipment today has diversified to the point that it is so flexible. In the future, I see one piece of equipment handling multiple functions. Equipment sizing will be getting smaller, so the footprint and the flexibility of this smaller unit will be remarkable.” As the industry changes, Suitor notes, operators and distributors must learn to keep up. “We’re already starting to see that cashless technology is huge. Within the next year we’re going to step even more into the debit-credit portion of the business, so units will be able to make an exchange several different ways,” Suitor predicts.
Looking down the road to the future of Brokerhouse, growth is always on the tip of the company’s tongue. A new office will be opened May 1 in Dartmouth, N.S., as the company looks to reach more people across the eastern part of the country and continue to grow. “The business environment has changed today and unless you’re willing to change with it, you’ll be left behind,” Suitor says, and although the vending industry has seen a few tough years, he is confident the it will continue to thrive. “Vending is a service that will always be around because people need to be fed . . . it just may be presented differently down the road.”