We recently had the opportunity to sit down with a new member of the leadership team in the FLAT® Tech organization and learn more about how 2019 is shaping up to be a record year for the company. Nils Hughes, VP of Sales – Americas, joined the company at the very end of 2018, and brings a wealth of experience in hospitality and foodservice that will help FLAT Tech reach their goals in building upon past success.
Interviewer: What drew you to FLAT Tech as a company and a product?
Nils: Well, my background and career started in the hospitality industry. I originally studied hotel and catering management. I worked my way up in the 3-star Michelin world—working with highly regarded chefs in these top restaurants in Europe. So, I was exposed very early in my career to the absolute elite in food, wine, and drink—where the sort of pinnacle of our industry works and operates. From there, I came to the manufacturing side with a company called Cambro® Manufacturing out of Huntington Beach, CA. I’ve worked with leading companies in the china, service, and equipment segments. My background has always been in the hospitality sector. What that has given me is a deep insight, not only in the operator’s point of view, but also the executive level struggles on running a top-level restaurant or hotel.
That background has always led me to research and understand products that were unique and patented innovations for our industry. The appeal of FLAT Tech for me is that they have absolutely groundbreaking products. There is nothing else in the market that even comes close. The self-stabilizing table bases and the retrofittable solution of FLAT Equalizers provide virtually all operators with a solution to wobbly and misaligned tables.
The stabilizing and alignment functionality (that allows adjoining tables to be aligned perfectly); are huge problems in the industry and impact all foodservice, catering, and hospitality companies. Operators are putting so much effort into their décor and menu to make a great experience for their customers. The chefs are putting in 18–19 hour days to produce the best quality food and the wait staff and servers are desperately trying to make sure they give that customer a good experience. Most of these restaurants are then jeopardizing all of their hard work by bringing food and beverage to a table that may be wobbly and annoying to their customers—which is not only distracting but can also be a health and safety risk. FLAT has unique solutions to problems that no one has been able to tackle before.
"No one wants their waiting staff to be kneeling down and trying to solve this problem with coasters or napkins or some other unsightly temporary solution. The actual scope of the problem is just endless.”
- Nils Hughes
I looked at the potential scale of where this product could be effective in solving these issues, and it was huge. Not only would it be a successful and unique solution in the restaurant market, but also, I looked at terrace dining, cafes, bars, nightclubs, schools, and hospitals. The reach is potentially every end-user experience in the foodservice industry.
Interviewer: Nils, having built a successful career in hospitality and foodservice, what do you believe are the aspects of this industry that differ from others?
Nils: The hospitality, foodservice, and catering industries are slightly different than other industries that are out there. It’s a very network driven market, particularly here in the U.S. It is a very distributor-led market. The model here has a very active network of aggressive distributors who use sales and product reps to drive knowledge and promotion of products to customers, that is unique to the U.S. as compared to other markets around the world. The positive is that, if you have a unique and valuable product—like FLAT, it gives you a much larger sales force to get the product to market very quickly. Once you have your distributor network in place, and your rep groups properly educated on the product, you can give the brand and products a huge amount of exposure very rapidly.
Interviewer: Where do you believe the greatest opportunities exist for FLAT Tech to improve the experience in hospitality and foodservice businesses?
Nils: Obviously, the biggest customers and chains will benefit greatly from the products FLAT Tech offers. We’re getting a lot of interest from the largest restaurant groups in the country. Chick-fil-A® is currently in the middle of a huge roll out of the products in over 4,000 restaurants across the U.S. We are currently in negotiations with some of the largest restaurant brands in the country. My interest is also that every single terrace, bar, coffee shop, ice cream shop, and any other hospitality location has a liability and problem with their tables potentially that we can solve for them. No one wants their waiting staff to be kneeling down and trying to solve this problem with coasters or napkins or some other unsightly temporary solution. The actual scope of the problem is just endless.
Interviewer: What are the struggles and issues that restaurant and hotel operators face that can be alleviated using FLAT Tech products?
Nils: One thing that is key for me is the health and safety risk. If you’re putting glassware, hot beverages, staining foods, and other items on a wobbly table you are putting your guest, and your staff, at risk. There are the issues with tables not aligning, where drinks and food may wobble on the seam between two tables that can also be a hazard, or at the very least a nuisance.
For me, the interest is more on the customer experience side as well. Today customers will not tolerate a poor experience when they are spending substantial amounts of money to have dinner in a restaurant. If you are having dinner with business guests, family, or friends you don’t want to have a table issue detracting from that experience. The expectation is that there won’t be this issue, and when it happens it becomes something that can ruin any positive aspects the restaurant may have had. In the digital age within which we live, that customer has a huge opportunity to disrupt business for a restaurant through poor reviews and social media. FLAT Tech products alleviate these problems quickly and permanently for owners and operators.
"So, I think over the next few months—as this new team is established and developed—that will begin to communicate our strong commitment to this new distribution-focused model.”
- Nils Hughes
Interviewer: FLAT Tech had a good year in 2018, winning highly regarded industry awards and accolades as well as introducing new innovations to the market. How are you planning to leverage this momentum and bring extended growth for FLAT in 2019?
Nils: The KI Awards that we received last year at the NRA Show were a very big step for FLAT Tech, as these awards are at the very pinnacle of our industry. That recognition has helped wake the industry up that there are new and innovative products available to solve this issue. In my brief time with the company, I can say that, in initial conversations with major leaders in the foodservice industry, there is a lot of interest in this product.
The big step for FLAT Tech this year is focused on the change from a direct sale model—in shutting down the e-commerce function on the FLAT Tech website—and pushing sales into the distribution model that is already out there. So, in the U.S. there are many very well qualified distributors—who have very good sales teams and great knowledge—that are capable of working very effectively to share this product with their network.
Interviewer: As you work directly with key executives at chains of all sizes in North America, what are the most important things for you to communicate about FLAT Tech as a company and their products?
Nils: Well, we’ve made some major strategic changes this year in how we will do business in the U.S. markets. First, we’ve opened a new U.S. headquarters in Chicago. Our Chief Executive Officer, Barry Mancell, has relocated to the U.S.—recognizing that the U.S. market has such potential growth for the company—in order to provide direct support and leadership to the initiatives here in the States. We believe this demonstrates to the industry that FLAT Tech is very committed to being a leader in this market and innovation partner with the industry here in North America. So, now we are centrally positioned in the U.S. with our own leadership and facilities. We also have our international offices to support large chains that have a global network of locations So now we really can deliver efficiently to any location in the world from a regional hub.
On top of that, we are actively recruiting a new Director of New Business Development for both the East Coast and West Coast markets. We also have VP of National Accounts, Peter Tichband to support those markets. Then of course, myself who is very focused on end-users and distribution. So, I think over the next few months—as this new team is established and developed—that will begin to communicate our strong commitment to this new distribution-focused model. This gives us—for the first time—the opportunity to connect with some of the largest national account teams in America and leverage their relationships and knowledge to share the unique opportunity FLAT provides.
Interviewer: As a long-time professional in the hospitality and foodservice industry, have you ever seen, or used, a product like FLAT Tech? How does it compare to other table stability products on the market?
Nils: Never. I never even realized it was available. I’ve never experienced, or seen, anything that can do what both the table bases & Equalizers products are capable of performing. They are truly unique; there is nothing on the marketing like them. I think that is their greatest strength; their patented design is way ahead of anything else that’s out there.
Interviewer: What is the driving principal that has helped FLAT Tech be successful in the market? How do you plan to leverage these concepts to help customers improve the experience at their locations?
Nils: The FLAT Tech organization, from the top down, is very lean and very open with their customers. The team also strives to continue to be very innovative in their approach to solutions as well. They are constantly striving to improve and lead with their technology development by listening to customers, listening to industry feedback, and then looking for any possible opportunities to improve their process and product offerings. All of them have been committed to this for a very long time—I’m the new person learning all this. So, they’re very knowledgeable and deeply passionate about their products and their customer relationships. That passion is very evident when you look at the kinds of new products they are bringing to market and the kinds of marketing and advertising work they are bringing to the industry.
Additionally, there are opportunities for manufacturers who wish to negotiate licensing rights which would enable them to integrate our technology into their own designs anywhere in the world.
Interviewer: If we were to meet again this time next year, what would accomplishments would you like to be able to share with readers?
Nils: We will, without any question at all, have established an effective distribution network throughout the U.S. So, the products will be being sold to a very strong distributor network. We will also continue to expand the brand and our penetration into the U.S. foodservice market. On an international scope, we are actively developing our distribution network and providing effective distribution to all our global partners.
We also have some innovative new products under development. I believe that 2019 will be a very significant year for FLAT Tech overall.
Interviewer: Building an effective and fulfilling long-term relationship with your customers requires having the right team members to serve and support those customers throughout their experience. Tell me about the FLAT Tech team; what sets them apart from their competitors?
Nils: Everything in our industry is about the people; the people on both sides of the equation are the key. You have to have trust. You have to be able to rely on the manufacturer to deliver the product when they say they will, and that it’ll do what they say it does. With the product actually being stocked here, and having our dedicated leadership team in the country, we stand behind the product through the seller process.
On the sales and customer side, it is also all about trust and relationship. It is jumping through every hoop that stands in your way and earning that trust with your customers. You have to ensure the customer has the exact right product for what they need. The deeply entrenched relationships in our industry do really count for more than anything. Our customers have to trust that they can connect with you at any time of day or night and that you will give them a solution—and stand by that solution. FLAT Tech, historically, has done that.
Interviewer: If you had one brief moment to summarize the FLAT message for a prospective customer, what would say?
Nils: FLAT Tech’s AUTO-ADJUST table bases and FLAT Equalizers (for existing tables) are the most innovative products that have been launched in our generation; they solve the very long-standing issues of stabilizing and aligning tables. They are absolutely groundbreaking and light-years ahead of anything else that is out there.
If you found this information interesting and would like to request a call with one of our knowledgeable sales professionals to learn more, please reach out by phone or through our website. This February, FLAT will be demonstrating our multi-award-winning products at NAFEM (booth #4729) and RFMA (booth #654). Attendees at both events will have the chance to see our technology in action and meet our new senior management team. Should you wish to make a private appointment with us at the events, please contact us via www.FlatTech.com to make arrangements.