Customer profile: Sandstrom's

 

Al Sandstrom’s first visits to Grand Rapids and Itasca County were all about fishing.  Al, a former semi-professional basketball player living in Duluth, operated a food and sundries distribution business.  After one of his trips to Itasca County he stopped at Mickey’s Cafe in Grand Rapids and watched as a salesman dropped a small pallet of candy and other supplies on the restaurant floor and walked out.  “There’s no good service in this business,” grumbled Harold Jetland, the owner of the diner.  Al Sandstrom listened intently; both Harold and his friend, Ivan Peterson who owned Globe Drug, were fellow Shriners, and Al seized the opportunity to pitch some business.


“Would you buy those supplies from me if I could match your current vendor’s price and locate in Grand Rapids?” Al asked Harold.  The door was opened.


Al drove from Duluth to Grand Rapids every Monday, lived at the Pokegama Hotel all week, and returned home on Fridays.  After five months Al had built enough business in the area that he felt comfortable suggesting to his wife, Corrine, that they move permanently to Grand Rapids.  The family did just that, but David—a high school hockey player not eager to leave his friends—stayed behind in Duluth for the rest of the school year.  


In early June1960, David moved to Grand Rapids, and the rest is history.  He moved to a home on McKinney Lake which Al had rented with a one-stall garage for a warehouse. Shortly thereafter David met Steve Wilcox, a neighboring teenager with plenty of energy.  The two of them became fast friends, and by the end of the summer David was convinced he could live nowhere but Grand Rapids.


After high school David was awarded a hockey scholarship to attend college, but the Vietnam War was being waged half a world away.  David eventually enlisted in the Navy but after graduation was assigned to the 1st Marines and served two tours of duty in Vietnam.  His worldly education advanced quickly. 


David returned to Grand Rapids where he met and married Mary Grussendorf in 1970.  Mary had attended a computer school, new technology at the time.  She was hired by Clair Wilcox to help set up the Grand Rapids State Bank’s first electronic bookkeeping system.  After a couple of years, the bookkeeping and technology needs of the Sandstrom’s growing business meant that Mary left the bank to join David and his parents in the business.


“Clair Wilcox would tell me back in the day that I married his best employee,” said David, “but in reality we were married before he hired her.  She learned a lot at Grand Rapids State Bank, but our business needed her more.”


The Sandstrom business grew in those years, gaining footholds in the competitive marketplace.   However, David’s father, Al, died of cancer at a young age (51), and in 1975 at the age of 28, David became president of the company.


“Al Sandstrom was an honest, well-liked man,” said David, “and he bulldozed the trail for me.  I remember walking into the Vet’s Club in Grand Rapids to see if I could set up a new cigarette vending machine.  They weren’t too eager to do business until they learned I was Al’s son, and then it was done.  Being Al’s son made it easy for me.”


David grew and diversified the business over the years.  He made money in several business lines including distributing food, janitorial supplies and vending.   Today, however, the Sandstrom’s niche is supplying the convenience store industry and the food service business in this region with services from the back to the front door. 


One of the core competencies of Sandstrom’s business is technology.  This focus has helped maintain their differentiation and competitive edge, even to the point that his medium-size distribution company has more sophisticated technology than many of their larger, nationwide competitors.


“I had some background with computers when I came out of the service,” said David, “but Mary was the technology guru.  When Mary died, we hired three people to accomplish what she did; she was a big part of this business.”


As he reflects on his career, David is especially proud of three things:

  1. He’s still here.
  2. He employs homegrown talent to compete with nationwide wholesalers.
  3. His business maintains a focus on innovation.


 “To say I’m still here may not sound like much,” said David, “but in 1980 I was the president of a statewide association of wholesaler and distributors.  The association had 100 members back then; today there are six.  This is a tough business.”


When it comes to hiring homegrown talent, David likes to point out that his six vice presidents all grew up locally with the exception of president Dave How, who graduated from high school in Fargo (North Dakota) but earned his two-year accounting certificate from Itasca Community College.


David has taken advantage of trade association classes and seminars to educate his young management group and has even used the Wharton School of Business to help educate this local group of “eager beavers” which David is very proud of.


David’s third achievement is the company’s investment in technology.  “We are completely paperless in our warehouse and invoicing,” he noted, “and we have a more advanced IT system than competitors many times our size.  I take special pride in that; it’s one of the ways we’ve stayed on top.”


Sandstrom’s service area includes everything north of the Twin Cities from eastern North Dakota to western Wisconsin.  The company provides full lines of groceries, dairy and other supplies for convenience stores and restaurants in that region. 


“My personal friendship with Steve Wilcox initially prevented me from working with Grand Rapids State Bank,” David explained.  “However, one day in the mid-1990s we received a letter from Norwest Bank (Wells Fargo’s predecessor bank).  Their fees increased; our audit requirements became more stringent; we went from being a valued customer to essentially being shown the door.  Grand Rapids State Bank saved our business.


“My parents died at a relatively young age, and Clair and Ginny Wilcox treated me like family.  It was natural that I considered doing my banking here,” continued David. 


“Today, we get all the banking services we need from Grand Rapids State Bank,” David concluded.  “Just like Sandstrom’s, GRSB has kept up with advances in the basics of its industry.  We have had a great relationship, and they are our bankers.  Period.”


 

The Sandstroms toast their longstanding relationship with Grand Rapids State Bank at the company's 2008 Spring Buying Show: (left to right) Julie Sandstrom, Steve Wilcox, Dave Sandstrom, Clair Wilcox, Noah Wilcox. 

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