When the staff at Big Eric Inc., Atlantic Canada’s most comprehensive distributor since 2012 says, “Your Passion is our Passion,” they really do mean it. And while the formation of the company is recent, the combined experience of its various components totals over 100 years, making it almost as old as Canada, which is set to celebrate its 150th Anniversary.
With over 100 employees, a newly built 50 000 square foot showroom, offices, and warehouse in Nova Scotia in Halifax’s Burnside Business Park – the largest such park north of Boston and east of Montreal – office in Charlottetown, PEI, and warehouses, showrooms and offices in Moncton, New Brunswick and St. John’s, Newfoundland, Big Erics Inc., a private, Canadian-owned company is poised to go from strength to strength. As a leading distributor of supplies, equipment and industrial chemicals for the hospitality, restaurant, janitorial, auto detailing and manufacturing sectors, the company provides not only the goods but the services to back them up.
Big Erics Inc. promise is “Your passion is our passion.” This truly can be taken literally, CEO Norm Mensour maintains, because it’s not just about the high quality, brand name products the company supplies and delivers; it’s about the personalized consulting and repair services it provides, and the expertise of its knowledgeable staff.
“Our philosophy is to be our customer’s trusted partner, and we don’t take that promise lightly,” he says. “We’re a company which goes into our customer’s establishment to assess their needs. So if we’re talking about janitorial supplies or chemical needs, we have experts who will do a full needs assessment of the facility, look at what they’re doing, what they’re not doing, identify gaps and then sit down with the customer and provide options,” explains Mensour.
“We do the same thing with a new kitchen build. If a client comes to us and says, ‘we want to renew our restaurant kitchen,’ we’ll recommend what equipment to purchase to fit their needs and then our team of designers will work with the owners and chef to design the layout, which is all part of our consulting service.”
Maintenance and repair is another service the company offers. “We pride ourselves in only carrying brands from leading manufacturers because we want to sell clients equipment that’s as trouble-free as possible, but with anything mechanical, there’s always the chance it can break down,” he says. To offset that, the company does some of its own repair work but also partners with a reliable network of authorized maintenance and repair service providers throughout the region.
The company also provides same day or next day delivery (although exceptions may apply in more remote areas) as well as installation services and instruction on the operation and care of any item or product it sells. “That’s what we promise our customers when they purchase equipment from us,” Mensour says, “because we want to build a relationship with them as their trusted partner.”
And these partners are indeed varied. They include restaurants and hotels as one might expect, but they also include some unusual niche markets, including outfitting the tight confines of galley kitchens aboard Canadian naval ships or providing cleaning solutions for fish processing plants. Markets which are continuing to grow are nursing and special care homes, as a result of Atlantic Canada’s aging population, and convenience stores, a popular quick-serve market.
Big Erics will provide everything from kitchen design specifications to major equipment, along with the small wares – the mixers, blenders, china and silverware and everything for janitorial needs. Whether it’s hand soaps or dishwasher detergents, garbage cans, mops and buckets, laundry cleaning systems, industrial chemicals, or automotive and car detailing products used in dealerships across the region, the company can deliver.
“There are some large competitors out there in the US who do what we do, but most distributors in this region focus on one area or another; however we have strength on both sides of the business and that makes us unique here,” says Mensour.
Although the amalgamation and mergers that created Big Erics Inc. are recent, the total number of years of experience of the original companies spans more than a century, providing proof positive that the whole can be considerably greater than the sum of its parts. The first of those parts is Sani Pro Inc., founded by Harold Luscombe as Sanitary Products Ltd in St. John’s, NL in 1945, which played a key role in bringing modern sanitation products, equipment, and procedures to numerous industries in the province. Five years later, another division was added to distribute restaurant, hotel and motel supplies, as well as items related to the tourism and hospitality industries. By 2002, through a series of acquisitions, the company’s assets were sold to another Newfoundland company, wholly owned by Distribution Group (D.G.I.) and thereafter known as Sani Pro Inc.
In 2009, Sani Pro Inc. gained the in-house capabilities to service much of the equipment it sold, both during and after warranty, which gave it a distinct competitive edge. That same year the company opened a second branch in Halifax, NS with the purchase of Big Erics Restaurant Supplies Limited. Big Erics Restaurant Supplies Ltd was founded in Halifax, NS in 1978 by its namesake Eric Joy. A well-known and respected personality in the restaurant business, he’d spent over 20 years working with the companies who would become his competitors. Following his death in 1991 at age 68, his wife, Mildred, partner Joe George, and son Tony stepped in to manage the business, with Tony continuing as Senior Vice-President of the present company. In 2011, Big Erics purchased Janitor’s Market, Inc.
Janitor’s Market Inc. began when Mike Yabrove and Chris Hill started a home-based business selling and distributing cleaning supplies and equipment along with automobile detailing products. Now under the same roof as the rest of Big Erics Inc., the business’ former manager Mike Hickey has become Director of Strategic Sales. Jessome Foods also rests under the same roof now and leading all of the company’s major projects in Atlantic Canada and beyond is Louise Jessome, the company’s Vice-President of New Business Development.
With the merger of so many divergent companies, a non-specific umbrella name was required that wouldn’t limit it, in the public’s perception, to one area. Retaining Eric Joy’s moniker was the perfect solution: it had instant name recognition on the mainland, it was all-embracing, and it reinforced the image of a company which values personal relationships with customers, as opposed to a faceless conglomerate.
The face of Big Erics Inc. is CEO Normand (“but everyone calls me Norm”) Mensour who came on board in April, 2016. His background includes a PhD in bio-chemical engineering from the University of Western Ontario and considerable experience in the food and beverage and hospitality sectors, including four years as Regional Vice-President for Labatt’s Breweries of Canada, the position which brought him from Ontario to Nova Scotia in 2009.
“I’m an engineer by training but a businessman at heart,” he says, noting that while an engineering student, he always chose business classes as his electives. His chemistry background comes into play, however, “as it does help me understand some of the products we’re selling, such as janitorial and industrial chemicals and cleaning solutions for some of our manufacturers like micro-breweries; having that knowledge absolutely helps. But I’m very fortunate to have a great team with me who have many years of experience as it’s a broad industry,” he says, citing as an example Gary Power, the company’s Vice President of Operations, who began with Sani Pro and brings with him 42 years of experience. “It’s not as if we just sell one product for one specific type of application. That is where knowledge is critical from a sales perspective, so we can apply solutions to a number of different problems or opportunities,” he shares.
“I’m very positive about our business and our opportunities,” Mensour says, describing last year as “our best year yet. We’ve added 15 employees in the last nine months and we have aggressive expansion plans within Atlantic Canada. The economy itself always poses some challenges, of course. The downturns in oil and gas in Newfoundland presented challenges in that market, but on the flip side, we’re seeing great positivity in the Nova Scotia market and we’re hoping to see some in New Brunswick with the building of the new downtown centre in Moncton, so that’s a ray of sunshine. And there are several new hotels and restaurants on the horizon. So we’ve seen great growth in Halifax and Moncton in particular and we see that carrying through 2017 and hopefully beyond.”
Would Big Erics Inc. consider expanding beyond Atlantic Canada? “My philosophy is to make sure we’re as strong as possible at home and we are by far the market leader here, so I want to strengthen that position,” Mensour maintains.” We’re constantly looking at growth and expansion, both organic and through acquisitions, and we might look beyond the region someday as the door is not closed on that, but it would have to make good business sense.”