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An Interview with Owner and Entrepreneur Christina Ensley

 

Vend Central, Inc. owner Christina Ensley can empathize with anyone standing in front of a fully stocked vending machine, agonizing over what to choose.

Several years ago, she also had a big decision to make.

No Escaping Sales

Since 2017, Ensley has owned Vend Central, Inc. – an Arbutus-based vending products wholesaler that deals in snacks, coffee, and frozen food. It’s quite the switch from her original career path as an educator. 

Years prior, Ensley had been teaching English, speech communication, and newspaper while working on her master’s degree. Her ultimate aim was to be a principal or a professor before a culminating Myers Briggs evaluation suggested she should take a closer look at administration – or sales.

Ensley balked.

“I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I could do administration. But the sales thing is completely wrong. I don’t like salespeople. I’m not into sales.”

The more Ensley considered a future role as principal, the more she backed away from the prospect. “I just kept thinking, ‘I really don’t want to be a principal. You don’t get to enjoy the good kids. You’re dealing with problems all day long.”

Two summers later, she was no closer to making a choice, and a different class yielded another mandatory Myers Briggs indicator.

“I told the professor, ‘Don’t waste your money on these tests. They’re not accurate and they’re not worth it!”

Her professor suggested keeping an open mind, and when the second round with the famed personality test tallied expected results, Ensley acquiesced. Instead of taking additional classes that summer, she applied for a few sales positions, ultimately landing a gig as a Xerox representative.

She never looked back.

Entrepreneurship is in the Bag

“Sales was my natural place,” Ensley says. “I literally didn’t feel like I was going to work. It felt like I was doing something exciting Monday morning.”

She parlayed a seven-year stint as a rep into launching her own Xerox agency, then sold it five years later when she received an offer from Rudolph Supply, a woman-owned, Baltimore-based business specializing in office essentials, furniture, and tech.  

“I couldn’t say no,” Ensley says. She started as a consultant for print management, and by the time she left the company she had served as its president for almost 7 years.

The call of vending machines came courtesy of Ensley’s husband, Russ, a builder of piers, bulkheads, and marinas, who had collaborated with Vend Central’s former owner for many years.

“Russ used to always say, ‘We’re going to buy that business one day when [he’s] ready to retire.’”

What seemed like a casual whim was actually the perfect next step for the couple.

“If I hadn’t worked at Rudolph’s, I wouldn’t have understood distribution, purchasing, and contracts,” Ensley says. “All of the things I had learned [provided the] perfect entrée into this business.”  

Big Convenience in a Small Package

According to Ensley, Vend Central is perhaps one of only distributors left in the country that is not a huge regional or national/worldwide presence. Its two main competitors are Vistar and Vendor Supply; the former is a worldwide entity doing billions of dollars in business, while the latter’s operations stretch from a northern office in Virginia down to Tennessee. Club stores like Sam’s Club and BJ’s are also players in the vending game.

Vend Central, on the other hand, is a relatively small operation, says Ensley, with slim margins. The woman-owned small business is powered by a total of nine employees, including her. Customer service representatives wear multiple hats, handling purchasing and marketing tasks. Drivers and warehouse employees round out the crew.

Because of this tightknit crew’s efforts, Vend Central remains one of the only small businesses that does what they do on a scale that allows them to say “yes” to virtually anything their customers may need.  

When asked what sets Vend Central apart from the bigger guys, Ensley cops to the cliché, before simply answering “customer service.”

“Just last Friday, I threw eight boxes of Utz crab chips in the truck and met one of our customers in Annapolis,” she says. “We’re very nimble and very flexible. Our prices are competitive … and we have a whole aisle [dedicated to the merchandise] we know our customers would buy from a club store, so they don’t have to drive there. For people who put products in vending machines, we’re a one-stop shop.”

Vend Central supplies everything vendors need: sodas, power drinks, Starbucks coffees, Red Bulls, chips, cookies, nuts, pastries, meat snacks, and so much more.

Customers range from mom and pop’s who enjoy the ability to place modest orders to moving thousands of dollars in snacks and soft drinks.

“For our largest customer – when things were pre-COVID – we delivered 6-8 truckloads a week.”

“The smaller guys don’t belong to a buyer’s group,” says Ensley. (Large companies must buy from a product distributor like Vend Central or Vistar to receive rebates from manufacturers.) “So, we provide more of a convenience. They can come in and we can take care of them in one shot.”

Vend Central is also unique in that it operates a cash & carry. Customers walk in with a cart and stock up on whatever goods they need and move on. The company also provides weekly delivery to customers in Northern Virginia, D.C., Maryland, and Southern Pennsylvania.

Making the Most Out of the World’s Change

Vend Central has been on the uptick in the Ensley’s three years at the helm. No small feat, considering that the transition was rife with unique growing pains.

“The previous owner was a savvy purchaser,” Ensley says, but notes that there were a lot of opportunities for improvement.

“The first couple of years, we were finding a lot of inaccurate information; some of it positive, some of it negative.”

Regardless, the business grew under Ensley’s watch.

“Literally, the first three months of this year have been the best in the business’s 26-year history. I increased the margin at least 3 points, which in this business is [quite] a lot. And a lot of that has basically been looking at operations and determining how to streamline things. How can we buy better? How can we maximize our rebates and not have major impacts on our customers’ price?”

Before COVID struck, the company was on its way to having a stellar year.

Even so, a silver lining shined through. 

“In the very beginning of COVID, we lost 80 percent of our business. So, we kind of built that back up,” Ensley says. “But even through June, we were still more profitable than we were last year [at the same time], considering the decrease in business.”

Currently, the entire vending industry is operating at 60 percent loss of what it used to be. Many kids are out of school, college students are learning off campus, and there remain several larger, non-essential businesses that have yet to reopen.

“It sounds silly, but one of our largest customers [delivers to] the Smithsonian,” Ensley says. “You wouldn’t think of the Smithsonian as a place where snacks are being sold out the yingyang, but … it’s one of our customer’s largest accounts. Think of all the people who go through there.”

The 40 percent loss the vending industry is suffering is an unfortunate obstacle, but Ensley remains resolute.

“If we get back to normal, then we’ll get that [business] back,” she says. “If not, we’ll just have to pivot and turn and see what else we can do.”

The Two Sides of the Maryland Business Coin

In Ensley’s previous roles, employees were occasionally the biggest challenge. But at Vend Central, “every single one is an absolute gem.” And when you’re lucky enough to have gems, she says, you have to take care of them.

For Ensley, the biggest challenge of operating a business in the State of Maryland is remaining competitive with salaries and benefits.

“You’re always going to run into that as a small business where margins are really low to begin with,” she says. “We have employees who have been with us since the business started. They get raises every year. So, you’re always struggling to figure out, ‘How can I be more profitable so I can reward my employees, rather than keep them stagnant [and risk losing] them?’” 

Supporting state business is so critical, Ensley says.

“I used to share a study with purchasers [that showed] for every dollar spent with a local business, $3 goes back into the local economy. That’s because the money customers spend with me – I then use for a local lawyer or a local bank or a local accountant.”

“COVID has brought out how important it is to select local business when you have a choice,” she continues. “That’s why everything our national competitors offer – I offer. And it’s often less expensive because I don’t have the same overhead they have. For me, as a businessperson, I try to make those decisions: who am I buying from? How am I going to help the state of Maryland? Help its school systems? My children? My grandchildren?”

That’s why Ensley and crew will haul crab chips to Annapolis in a pinch or deliver fifteen 5-gallon jugs of water to a longtime customer when he calls fifteen minutes before closing time. Just like a perfectly stocked vending machine – when a business gives a customer exactly what they need, the choice of where and how to spend one’s money is easy to make.