Vistar vision: Dan Sullivan leads cinema segment of major concession supplier
We’re back on the supplier side of the concession business this month with a profile of Dan Sullivan, VP of sales, theatres and fundraising, for Vistar. Dan has been a part of the industry for a long time, but putting the whole picture together often changes the entire view, which is why we have started this new column to look at the careers of our executives. For the past 20 years, Dan has managed a sales team focused on developing business segments outside of Vistar’s mainstream vend and OCS business, specifically the theatre concession business. During this period, Vistar has gone from selling to a few theatres to being the largest supplier of concession products to movie theatres in the country. How he got to that point is where we will begin.
Dan was born and raised in Chicago, the son of a Chicago police officer who was also the son of a Chicago police officer. (I bet he didn’t get away with much as a child.) Dan made his own path and earned a degree in biology from St. Mary’s University in Minnesota and then commissioned in the Marine Corps. He spent flight school in Pensacola, then went to Vietnam. As an officer Dan was the recipient of the Purple Heart, the Air Medal and the Bronze Star. If you retain nothing else from this article, please understand the honor of those awards. After leaving the Marine Corps, Dan joined Hormel Foodservice, working mostly in Texas.
A few years later a marketing position became available with Southland Corporation and he took it. He was involved with marketing fountain soft drinks, coffee, Slurpees, sandwiches, burritos and pizzas. He then earned an MBA in management from the University of Dallas and soon went to work for VSA, the predecessor of Vistar, as director of marketing. After three years he was promoted to VP of field sales in 1990 and later to VP of sales. The turning point for the company and for Dan was in 2002 when George Holm, with his equity partner, Wellspring Capital Management, purchased VSA and Multifoods Distribution from International Multifoods, and named the new company Vistar.
Holm immediately recognized the opportunity the new company had in the theatre concession business and gave Dan the resources needed to develop the business. The theatre business at Vistar has quadrupled since 2002. There was a lot going on in 2002 and the ensuing five years, with lots of consolidation, bankruptcies, mergers and acquisition. As Dan observes, “There is absolutely no doubt that was the turning point.” He continues, “George was willing to mentor the theatre segment within Vistar and grow it to its potential. VSA and Multifoods were good companies, Vistar is an outstanding company.”
Vistar has a dominant market share in three channels: theatre concession, vending and office coffee service, and is quickly building market share in hospitality and specialty retail. Holm and Wellspring took Vistar to another level in 2008 by combining with The Blackstone Group to purchase Performance Food Group. Vistar now operates as a PFG company and its customer list includes most of the national and regional chains and many independent theatres.
I asked Dan what the best part of his job has been. He quickly responded, “It is a business environment that allows me to manage my part of the business my way. This was true to a lesser degree in the VSA years, but particularly so in the Vistar years with George Holm when I reported to him and now with Pat Hagerty as president.”
What is the most interesting part of the distribution business for him personally? “It’s two things. First would be product development. Over the years I have been able to combine best practices from VSA and our theatre concession acquisitions [Auto City, Liberto and Marjack] into a strategic distribution system, specifically designed to meet the needs of our theatre concession customers. The second part would be working with customers, to customize our distribution system even further to meet the individual customer's needs.”
It would be hard to argue with Vistar’s success, and Dan has led that effort in the theatre industry. In fact, for many people it would be hard to separate the two. Balance is what most of us strive for, and Dan is no exception. He also enjoys life with his wife Sandi, who often travels with him. They have two grown daughters and the joy of five grandchildren. The Sullivans live in the Denver area and consider their lives to be very full indeed.