Starting a business is easy – staying in business for 75 years is a whole other ball game. Over the past 75 years, Almo Corporation has grown from a mom and pop startup into the largest independent distributor of appliances, consumer electronics, professional Audio/Video equipment, furniture and housewares in the United States.
So how did Almo become what it is today?
TWICE recently met with Gene Chaiken, Almo Chairman; Warren Chaiken, Almo Corporation President & CEO and Melody Craigmyle, Vice President, Marketing & Communication at Almo Corporation to discover what secret sauce Almo uses to be the best in the business.
TWICE: Congratulations on the 75th anniversary of Almo Corporation! It’s exciting! It’s no small feat, especially considering how many businesses fail early on and even after 10 years or more. Let’s get down to the real question: What makes Almo, Almo?
Gene Chaiken: Our culture, more than anything else. We handle products the same as everyone else, but it’s the people we have and the way we handle it and the care we try to put into everything.
Warren Chaiken: A couple of years ago we finally defined our culture, and we defined it as F.I.I.T. – which is Family, Integrity, Innovation and Teamwork – that is our “secret sauce”. It’s the caring for our employees in our company, and also the caring of our employees in our company to our dealers to make sure they stay in business. If you look at our appliance division, their motto and reason they get up every day is to make sure our dealers survive and prosper.
I think over this past year, we [Almo] truly proved that we wanted to make sure our dealers stayed in business. We invested in plenty of inventory to support the needs they had, and across all our divisions we ended up looking at ways we made sure our dealers and customers stayed healthy by extending financing either with different terms or us financing them ourselves.
Gene: “I was interviewed many years ago, by an employee taking his MBA course, and at the end of the interview he said to me, “What do you think is the most important asset Almo has?”, and I said “People. People. Let me make it perfectly clear – People”. That’s just the way our philosophy is. It’s the Almo Family, as we call it, it’s what makes Almo successful. It’s not one individual, it’s a whole group of people.”
TWICE: We’ve always been impressed with how Almo puts people first, not products. Why is that a focus for Almo?
Melody Craigmyle: The one thing that has impressed me, working for Almo for 12 years, is they really care about the small businesses. They’ve always been rooted in helping small business owners, and a lot of those are family businesses.
Warren: That’s the heart of what we do. I remember about 25 years ago driving with one of our sales representatives in Kentucky, and we ended up stopping at a dealership where a father and mother were running the business. They were watching their grandchild as they were running their business…that really struck me that that’s really who we are supporting.
And without Almo there, that business couldn’t stay in business. But because of the mix of products we provide them, they could then get weekly shipments – otherwise they’d have to go to four, five or six different manufacturers, get different orders, and probably have cash flow issues because they would now have to hit certain order minimums.
But now, they have one person to go to if there are any challenges or issues that they need to deal with. And also someone that cares enough about their business that can come in and say “I really think you should have this type of product/category/brand on the floor because we’re starting to see it being more popular elsewhere.” Experiences like this go across almost everyone we deal with, we deal with large customers as well, but the small customers are really the heart of who Almo is and who we have to service.
TWICE: Something that really stands out to us about Almo is: Almo gives back. We’ve seen that, across the industry, businesses that give back to their community, or area of influence, are much more successful.
Gene: Speaking to that, we made a decision this year to pick 75 charities for our 75th anniversary to give to, and we’re already in the high teens, and we’ll just keep going until we’ve fulfilled it all. But this isn’t something that is a one-time deal with Almo. Our family has a saying: “Helping other people is a privilege, not a chore”, and it carries into both our business and personal lives.
Whatever philanthropy we do through the business or personally, that’s been our whole theme, and we try to give back where we can. This past year or two, we’ve even had some of our Almo Family that have had problems, and we’ve been able to be there and step up for them. We really have a cohesive group of human beings working together.
Warren: I’m going to brag for a second, as far as my father is concerned. Both he and my mom have been very generous to Penn State, his alma mater. They created an endowment, named the “Chaiken Family Trustee Scholarship”.
Gene: So far 675 students have received a four-year scholarship, and it’s a forever endowment, so it’ll keep on going.
TWICE: That’s wonderful!
Warren: It’s something I’m very proud of them about. The oldest graduate is now around 35 years old, and my parents go to see these students who receive scholarships every year, and the kids are so thankful because now they don’t have to have second or third jobs to go to school, and most are first generation college students. I’ve really learned from him [Gene], and that’s who we are, that’s what we try to do.
Melody: This past week we had a sales meeting with the Pro AV/CE division, and we contributed to a charity called “Generosity Feeds” by preparing 6,000 non-perishable meals to give to local food banks and to help with childhood food insecurity. What the Chaikens have done, it trickles down into Almo’s employees really wanting to give back, wanting to get involved. They love doing it, it’s a sense of reward, it’s a sense of team – and again, one of our core values is family, and it really makes us feel like a family doing those charitable events.
Gene: Again, when we talk about our family, it’s the Almo family – not the Chaikens, the Almo family, and we want to make sure eveyone understands we really mean it.
Warren: The bottom line is, it’s not that complicated. It’s trying to figure out how to do it [business], try to have fun while you’re doing business and giving back when you can.
TWICE: In your own opinions, what are the key moments that were pivotal to Almo’s success?
Gene: I’ve been here 58 years, and I’ve had a lot more moments than everybody. I can laugh and say that a very pivotal moment is when I decided to marry Roz and her father gave me a job. Another pivotal moment was, we had sold the company in ‘68, and we bought it back in ‘70. And that changed everything forever because the company we sold was part public, part private. We bought it back and made it private since 1970.
The whole future of Almo was changed the day we bought the company back, otherwise we would have disappeared inside another large company. That’s probably the most pivotal moment, other than my father-in-law starting the business. And another pivotal moment, for good or bad, was when he passed away in ‘73 suddenly. As the second generation, I had a different view of things and we worked on that.
Another pivotal moment is in the early 80s, we started changing who we were and we did a “roll up” of appliance distributors across the United States. We bought so many of them and it became the core of our business. We were everywhere from the East Coast to the Rocky Mountains, and were the only distributor to handle multiple regions as an appliance distributor. Today we’re the only national appliance distributor in the country.
Warren: The other thing I would say, besides the appliance business, is we ended up selling off our computer products business in the 90s as we recognized we couldn’t compete against other businesses at the time. That brought down our company to about $90 million dollars, and from there we really grew because we had to figure out how we were going to change the business and move forward.
We got involved in e-commerce and started to regrow the business. Then 12 years ago or so, I was fortunate enough to meet Sam and then Melody and two other folks at InfoComm and we started Almo Pro AV, which, again, changed the company as it got us that fourth division that we wanted. On top of that, about five years ago we bought IAVI, which then made Almo Pro AV the largest pro AV distributor in the United States.
We keep looking for things to evolve ourselves, and that’s really the important thing. We keep looking for opportunities. We know we have a very good engine, we have wonderful people, and we just need to look for opportunities if they’re other channels or products or things like that. And that’s what allows us to continue to change our company and, at the same time, keep our core values.
TWICE: Even with the challenges our industry has faced with fulfillment, shipping and inventory over the past few years, our industry has thrived. What is some of the advice you can give from having 75 years of experience to help people weather the storm?
Gene: Be ready to change and adapt. I keep reflecting back to March 16, 2020. We had closed all our offices on the 15th and sent everybody home having no idea how long this was going to last, or what was going to happen. My wife Roz, Warren and I were on the phone that day and we had to make a decision about what we were going to do. And we decided then, that as long as the company didn’t start losing money, we weren’t going to lay anybody off – that was our plan. We weren’t worried about making it, we were more concerned about the core structure being harmed. It turned out that we had our biggest year in history. So I would say, to be able to pivot when you have to, adapt to the climate and make sure you have the resources to succeed on your plan is probably the best advice I can give..
Warren: I think the most important thing is to have that dry powder, so when there are those chances, those opportunities or issues out there, that you can take advantage of it. And that’s what we did. We were buying inventory when most people weren’t, so we had the product available for our customers. As Gene said, our focus was longer term, not short term, and our goal was to weather this out, we were going to protect our Almo family throughout this, and that’s what we did.
Melody: From an employee perspective, even despite everything that was going on, Almo kept investing in our infrastructure and our efforts through sustainability – like the solar panels on our warehouses – continuing to look into the future of the company, planning ahead and not staying in the moment of what was happening with the pandemic. It makes you feel really feel good about a company when they are looking at the bigger picture: charitable contributions, social responsibility, we did a 5K for Stop Asian Hate, so it’s them [Almo] always looking ahead, and the employees like knowing that that vision is being fulfilled, despite everything that is happening around you.
Source: Exclusive Interview: Almo Celebrates Its 75th Anniversary, TWICE.com