Don’t mention retirement to Joe Smith, who’s worked in the flavorings and ingredients industry for nearly 50 years. He’s not even thinking about it.
Celebrating 20 years as vice president of sales at Monin Gourmet Flavorings, a French company whose U.S. headquarters is in Clearwater, Smith worked for Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc. and Hills Brothers Coffee before joining Monin, whose flavored syrups and mixers are found in bars, restaurants and coffee shops around the world.
Retirement, he told the Catalyst, “is a dirty word.”
He added, “To be very candid with you, I don’t have a plan to retire. As long as I feel I can contribute to the benefit of the younger people coming up and to the continued growth of the company, I really don’t have a plan to stop working. I love what I do.”
Monin CEO Bill Lombardo has been with the company even longer than Smith, taking the reins in 1999. He personally recruited Smith, who said he was happily employed at Ocean Spray at the time and had no interest in joining Monin, even though he and Lombardo had a productive working relationship when Lombardo was the senior vice president of marketing at Olive Garden, an Ocean Spray client.
Because of that connection, Smith said, he indulged Lombardo’s request to come tour the Monin facility in Clearwater. “He gives me a plant tour and he says, ‘So, what do you think?’ I said, ‘What do I think about what?’ He said, ‘I’d like you to come here and run sales for me.’ We negotiated for 18 months because I was not remotely interested in leaving Ocean Spray.”
Finally, Lombardo wore him down. But for Smith, it was a risk well worth taking. “Big risk, big reward,” he said. “From the day I walked in until today, it’s been nothing but exciting, invigorating, full of great opportunities. It’s just been fabulous.”
One of the first orders of business for Smith and his sales team was to steer the company toward beverage industry subsectors, such as cocktails, flavored iced tea, lemonade and other non-alcoholic drinks, that would help it grow and diversify. “At that time,” Smith recalled, “we were heavily vested in the coffee trade. But what I saw and what Bill saw was the opportunity to take the company beyond coffee. That’s where we both saw the bigger opportunity. So my job was to evaluate opportunities and how to restructure the company.”
Just like Lombardo, who joined as CEO, Smith’s title has never changed, but his role has expanded over the years to include responsibility for the company’s North American customer service and field marketing teams. Smith now has about 40 people working under him, and because his business travel has been cut back so much during the pandemic, his role has shifted somewhat to being more of a counselor and motivator. He has brought in trainers to help Monin’s sales staff get better at making presentations and closing deals via Zoom or Microsoft Teams, for example.
“We’ve also done some virtual tastings,” Smith added. Pre-pandemic, Monin would bring potential and existing customers to its facility to sample the latest and greatest flavorings.
“During the pandemic,” he said, “you’re not always able to do that. So we work together as a team and create virtual tastings where our beverage innovation directors will actually make the product and overnight it to a customer, so we can have a Zoom call and they can taste it in the virtual world, but with our specialist right on screen with them, talking it through.”
Smith characterizes 2020 as “a really tough year” for Monin and its customers in the hospitality industry. But he expects business to come roaring back in 2021 as pent-up demand for dining and drinking out begins to be met. “We are extremely optimistic that 2021 could be a big year for us,” he said. “The industry is very resilient, and we believe it’s going to come back stronger — stronger than ever.”