Timing is everything. Just two weeks after the U.S. shut down amid the coronavirus outbreak, Jeff Allen sold his family’s nearly 110-year-old distribution company.
On March 27, Allen Brothers Wholesale Distributors became a division of National Convenience Distributors (NCD), along with HLA Distributors and J. Polep Distribution Services.
While Allen Brothers and the rest of the wholesale distribution industry dealt with tremendous challenges in 2020, Allen had the benefit of knowing he wasn’t facing them alone. “It’s been very helpful for corona, we all were able to support each other,” he said.
Joining forces with two of the country’s top 10 distributors has been “awesome,” Allen said. “The cultures of both companies are very similar, and we all know each other’s employees from over the years. Now that the company is one, operating separate divisions, it’s been amazing.”
Coming under the umbrella of NCD with his good friends at J. Polep and “arch nemesis” at HLA (who Allen now jokes is more like a brother), helped Allen Brothers navigate business during the pandemic without skipping a beat. At the height of the outbreak, they were serving 1,200 stores. Allen Brothers never closed, never missed a delivery, and never laid off or furloughed any employees, he said.
“With the advent of the two other divisions who run their companies the same way, each one of us has something the other one doesn’t have, which is really cool, because now we all have it,” Allen said. “Whether it’s a category, whether it’s technology, whatever that is, we share it with each other to make each division stronger.”
Now 10 months into the pandemic, Allen said they continue to face many of the challenges that have existed since March. Items like hand sanitizers, wipes and masks remain in high demand. Inventory is a challenge. Store closures—temporary or permanent—have impacted the customer base. Fortunately, he said Allen Brothers was as prepared as it could be for an unforeseen situation.
“Our industry, on the wholesale end, has been consolidating in part for the last 10 years. The guys who get to consolidate are the guys who run good companies, good employees, good cultures,” he said.
Although no one anticipated a pandemic, he said that Allen Brothers remained ahead of the curve by staying inventory controlled, focused on freshness and dating and anticipating new trends. Running a family business with the customer at the forefront also helped them focus on immediate customer needs during the pandemic.
“We really take care of our customer. We really know our customer,” Allen said. “They’ve got a wholesaler that’s dependable and delivers on time.” Allen Brothers primarily serves independent convenience stores, working closely with individual store owners. Maintaining a strong business means communicating with customers, providing timely and accurate delivery and staying on top of technology, Allen said.
For as crazy as it sounds this year, Allen Brothers experienced a 10 percent growth year. “It’s mind boggling. It’s been good for us as a company. It’s good for our employees.”
As the calendar rolls over to a new year, Allen anticipates the effects of 2020 having a long-term impact on the industry’s future. At Allen Brothers and NCD as a whole, staying prepared is key.
“For us, for NCD and the group I’m affiliated with, we’re dealing with structures of preparedness. What do you do when something goes wrong? What do you do when systems go down? We don’t know what the next hurdle is going to be. I don’t know that any of us ever expected to be dealing with a pandemic. I think it’s helped everyone to tighten their belt and roll up their sleeves and say, we’ve got to make sure every facet of our business is operating properly, so when something does go wrong, we are as prepared as we can be.”
With a 110-year foundation behind him, and new resources and support in his toolbox, Allen is focused on staying ahead.
“To me, it’s all about control. Do I have control over my warehouse and distribution center always, so that when something doesn’t go right, we’re in the best situation we can be.”
"We’ve got to make sure every facet of our business is operating properly, so when something does go wrong, we are as prepared as we can be."