A Retrospective Look at 25 Years of Corporate Essentials with CEO Judson Kleinman
In late September, we’re celebrating our 25th anniversary. Founder and CEO Judson Kleinman looks back at the company that began strictly as an office coffee service provider in this Q&A.
Why did you start the company?
I always had a dream to start my own company. After college, I worked for a foodservice company where I learned a lot about the industry—especially how much I liked it. In 1996, Starbucks was coming onto the scene and people were noticing the difference of freshly brewed, well-roasted coffees over the status quo. I saw an opportunity to provide excellent coffee that employees would really appreciate. It was a market gap that had not yet been filled.
What was your vision of what Corporate Essential could or would be?
I liken it to the “Field of Dreams.” Have great coffee in the office and employees will come to the break room to enjoy it, and appreciate what their employer does for them every day. Conversely, the employer will see how much the little things make a big difference.
Over 25 years, it’s always been less about the products we sell and more about helping people improve their company culture and show appreciation for their team. Being able to do that for our customers is what really brings me joy.
That philosophy helped Corporate Essentials transform and expand to now provide 3000 different products. I didn’t dream it would grow so large! But my goal was never to be the biggest player; we’ve always focused on providing great products and experiences with integrity and kindness. The rest of it—the growth and customer loyalty—followed suit.
What would your customers say about you?
That our employees really care and go the extra step to ensure each customer gets memorable service. Recently, one of our team members was setting up a new customer’s break room equipment and discovered the location had no power (and therefore, no way to brew the coffee). She offered to go elsewhere to pick up a box of brewed coffee in the meantime. We got a lovely thank-you letter about that.
Another customer had switched office coffee providers when a new manager came on board. OK, that happens. We were recently told that the account is coming back to Corporate Essentials. They’re unhappy with the other vendor and recognize that our intention is always to provide great products and service, and that we truly care about our customers.
What innovations really excite you and why?
So many! We were the first company to distribute Keurig in New Jersey and one of the first nationwide in 1997. It’s always been about which new equipment or products offer meaningful benefits to our customers. We choose what to carry because we want our customers to have healthy snack options and a wide variety of interesting products they and their employees want.
Also, we’re not just service providers, we’re consultants. We don’t expect customers to know about all the new snacks or machines on the market; it’s our responsibility to show them new ideas and innovations. Our job is to give our customers the information about equipment and products they need without them having to search for it.
Expanding our product line has also helped them to streamline their procurement process. We always strive to add more value and provide better service to our customers, and that’s helped us earn tremendous loyalty from the companies we serve. We never take that for granted; we are always working to earn their business.
What wakes you up every day or keeps you up at night?
I love what I do and all interactions with people. I find tremendous meaning in the relationships I build with our employees, vendors, and customers, which is why I’m always thinking about how to improve our company. I’m also a realist and know it’s important to react quickly to changes in the business. As a leader, I must be decisive, even when there are hard decisions to make. But I never lose sight of the human factor when tough business decisions affect someone’s life.
What motivated you to start Essential Coffee Co. and the Java Café line, and acquire Martin + Fitch?
I think I’m a little bit crazy! I’m always looking for the next exciting thing—and vendors see that I’m interested in learning about their product and understanding how to sell it.
A lot of new brands approach us because they know we’ll bring them into clients and let them tell their story. At the end of day, they support and add value to our customers. It’s what fueled our 20% growth annually for 10 years in a row.
Now we’re hiring up again, bringing back employees to stay ahead of sales growth. We’re in a tight labor market and don’t want to be stuck without the people we need to serve our customers. We’re prepped, stocked, and ready for September as employers bring their teams back to their evolving work environment.