Food distributor keeps rolling for 90 years


Jerry, left, and Alan Abraham now oversee a company with 500 employees serving more than 3,000 customers from two distribution centers. Photo by Johnny Quirin

S. Abraham & Sons weathered a depression and several recessions on the strength of a simple idea: Each generation has its own product demands, but people always need good service.

Founded in 1927 by Lebanese immigrant Sleyman Abraham, the third-generation, family-owned wholesale food distributor started out as a retail store in downtown Grand Rapids selling candy and other small items.

Ninety years later, the company known as SAS has two distribution centers — one in Indianapolis and the other at 4001 Three Mile Road NW in Walker — and its customers include more than 3,000 convenience, grocery and drug store retailers, college/university retailers and wholesale accounts.

The company, which has 300 employees at its Walker location and about 500 total, serves customers in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Jerry Abraham, Sleyman Abraham’s grandson, the co-owner and senior executive vice president, said among other things, SAS distributes groceries; tobacco products; health and beauty items; toiletries; fresh sandwiches, fruit and salads; milk; and packaged frozen products — about 8,000 items in all.

But the distributor’s main focus is keeping the customer happy.

“The big part of our business is not the products; it’s the service,” he said. “We focus on on-time delivery, quality of merchandise and error-free deliveries. We do pretty much all of that in 24 hours or so.”

Alan Abraham, Jerry Abraham’s cousin and the co-owner and president, agreed.

“Our business was established on certain values, and those values have remained here,” he said. “Our commitment to quality, value and service is the common thread throughout the generations of leadership in our business. We realize that in a highly competitive business environment, relationships are critical to our success.”

Sleyman Abraham started forming those relationships at his original store in downtown Grand Rapids, staffed by Sleyman and his sons, Abe, James and Wade. His daughter, Dolores, helped run the business during World War II while her brothers served in the armed forces.

After the war, the brothers came back and began expanding the business. Abe focused on sales, marketing and purchasing; James on office operations and technology; and Wade oversaw the warehouse and distribution.

The company now is led by the third generation of Alan Abraham, Jerry Abraham and Kaye Powell, and the emerging fourth generation of Stephen Abraham and Philip Abraham.

Jerry Abraham said as the company began to expand, its leadership realized they needed to keep pace with technology.

“We started looking into computer systems in the 1950s,” he said. “My dad (James) was very proactive, and he got involved with IBM right at the outset. We bought our first tabulating machine in 1958, producing our first automatic invoice then.”

He said from then on, the company managed inventory and billing electronically.

Today, SAS’ proprietary NexGen handheld ordering device provides its customers a virtual ordering and inventory system.

“Customers can order, look at purchase history, product info, pricing information and purchasing trends (with NexGen),” Jerry Abraham said.

SAS also uses a system called Synergy that allows retailers to add or delete products from their lineup and run promotions for a set period of time. And it uses a “backroom” program called Smart, a data management system for the warehouse.

Jerry Abraham said in the next three months or so, SAS plans to roll out tablet and smartphone apps for retailers that will give them access to more of SAS’ product information.

Besides keeping pace with technology, SAS has stayed in touch with changing tastes from generation to generation.

“Every generation has had different demands and needs for services,” Jerry Abraham said. “Now, with the millennial generation, it’s all about healthier, ready-to-go products with fresh foods.”

In recent years, SAS developed a product line called Fruit Ridge Farms, consisting of fresh-made salads, sandwiches, soups and fruits cups.

“We use a couple of local manufacturers who produce those goods for us, and we sell it under a private label,” Jerry Abraham said.

He said SAS does a lot of retail business with the Fruit Ridge Farms line at universities and colleges, but the company still considers convenience stores to be its “bread and butter.”

Its Michigan convenience store customers include American Gas & Oil, Conlee Oil, Walters-Dimmick Petroleum, J&H Oil, Merl Boes, One-Stop Food Stores, Pri Mar Petroleum, Quality Dairy, Stop & Shop, Schmuckal Oil and Wesco.

“We provide merchandise design, planograms (diagrams that show how and where retail products should be placed on shelves for maximum sales) and full-time merchandisers who go out to the retailers to help reset their stores, getting the new products in and the old products out,” Jerry Abraham said.

“A convenience store is about 2,500 square feet, whereas a grocery store tends to be 50,000, 75,000 or 100,000 square feet, so you have to be more selective about the product mix.

“It’s a competitive world when you’ve got four convenience stores on a corner.”

Jerry Abraham said one of SAS’ biggest assets is its loyal workforce, 113 of whom have been at the company 20 years or more. Still, there’s always attrition in the distribution world, he said, so the company increased its benefits offerings during the Great Recession.

“(People) were scared and didn’t know what to do (during the recession),” he said. “We did increase compensation across the board for employees. We looked at our 401(K) programs, health and benefits, to make sure our workforce had a good competitive opportunity here.”

He said a challenge SAS has faced recently is competition for workers with the rise of the health care industry in West Michigan.

“It’s sucked up a lot of personnel because of the growth of the medical arena and people leaving for those jobs,” he said. “There was a time when we’d hire someone, and two weeks later, they’d be gone. And this would happen a lot.”

But he said the boost in benefits offerings helped slow the rate of attrition.

Now, on the other side of the recession, SAS’ workforce and revenues are stable, Jerry Abraham said.

He said relationships continue to be the most important thing to SAS.

“It’s something that we’ve been able to stay in West Michigan, and we’ve provided hundreds of thousands of families and people the opportunity for an income and to work. We treat everybody like family. We want them to participate in everything we do and have input and be happy with it. Unions come and go, but if you treat people right and do business right, that’s what really means a lot to everybody,” he said.

“The relationships we’ve built with our customers, manufacturers and employees are the most valuable thing we have.”

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