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Will Poultry Co. has changed owners, the first of many changes to come for the venerable Buffalo wholesale food distributor.

The 88-year-old company is about to undergo $1 million in renovations and technology upgrades to improve logistics and warehouse management, bringing it into the 21st century.

“It’s going to go from a weak technological base to a state-of-the-art system,” said Bob Manley, executive vice president of the company. “We should have every capability they have at Sysco, but we’ll be a hometown brand.”

The Manley family of Clarence bought the business in late December, joining a the cadre of individuals and partnerships snapping up old factories and businesses with the goal of increasing profitability by modernizing. Taken as a whole, it is the capitalist system’s way of renewing an economy by raising efficiency and building new markets. It can be a jarring process, as changes leave some behind, but when it is successful, businesses can be rejuvenated.

Many long-standing area businesses, like Will Poultry, are at a crossroads. Owners are nearing retirement, operations are outdated, and their futures remain unclear. But their outmoded conditions create an active market for the sale of old, traditional businesses. New investors, many willing to roll up their sleeves and get directly involved, jump at the opportunity to revive companies.

“We see it all the time, all over Western New York and the state,” said Lidia Couzo, owner of Sunbelt Business Brokers of Buffalo. “Now there is a changing of the guards because a lot baby boomers are exiting, and their family members are not interested in stepping in. We’re getting a lot of owners in their late 60s, 70s, wanting to sell. We see it continuously.”

Couzo said older manufacturing and distribution operations, like Will Poultry, are increasingly her clients. The market for buying these businesses has increased 25 percent in the past five years, and now account for 40 percent of all businesses Couzo’s company helps to sell.

“I believe we will see a greater increase in the decision for older businesses to sell in the next two years with the growth in Buffalo,” she said. Her company is currently selling three businesses whose owners are older than 70.

Joe Abramo bought 145-year-old Buffalo Wire Works, a manufacturer of metal screens for sifting on Clinton Street, in 2003.

“I always wanted to run my own manufacturing company,” said Abramo, who has more than 30 years of manufacturing experience, including stints with Eastman Machine Co., Raytheon and General Electric Aircraft Engine Group. “I’ve had success turning around other companies, and decided it was a good time to own one.”

While many older businesses face uncertain futures, Frank Abraszek, president Buffalo Business Brokers & Realty, said the rewards of purchasing a long-standing business outweigh the risks.

“Buying an existing a business is always better, even if it’s not making money,” he said “It’s better because there’s something to start with. And generally speaking, new buyers are younger, full of energy and ready to succeed. Whether it’s manufacturing methods or new technology, young blood brings new ideas.”

John Wilder and a fellow machinist at Buerk Machine and Tool Corp., a Buffalo company founded in 1918, bought it in 2002. And last year, Wilder bought out his partner, becoming the sole owner.

“I guess I’m crazy,” said Wilder, CEO of the Grote Street business. “It’s a great place to work with a lot of talent here. We knew if we could keep the talent together, we could make it work. It’s been a good company forever, and I wanted it to continue. It’s our 96th year in business.”

Careful search

Jack Manley, an accountant who founded a successful appraisal business and recently was a consultant for Paula Deen Foods, bought Will Poultry to provide a business opportunity for his adult children, including Bob. He searched for the right company for five years, looking closely at about 40 companies. He examined their books before being scared off by serious financial problems. He found out about Will Poultry talking to a friend.

“Instead of feeding the children, teach them how to fish,” he said.

Among the first of the major changes was the business’ name. It’s now called Will Foods to reflect its wide spectrum of items beyond its poultry offerings. The company at 1705 William St. was founded in 1926 by Arthur E. Will as a chicken slaughterhouse and operated as such until 1957, when it evolved into a full-service food distributor. Will’s son, Donald E. Will, now 87, took over the reins after his father, and just sold the company to the Manleys.

“It has a great Buffalo tradition, and we looked at it as an opportunity to resurrect and grow the company,” Manley said. But the Manleys are new to the food distribution business.

“It’s the biggest risk and the biggest strength because we’re from outside of the industry,” he said. “In one regard, it’s a strength because we’re coming in with technology and we’re driven. And because it’s new to us, we have to analyze every aspect. It’s a risk because we’re not industry savvy.”

Will Foods’ warehouse boasts everything from meats to cleaning supplies to paper products, carrying a total of 4,000 items.

“We carry anything you’ll see when you walk through a restaurant,” said Bob Manley. Will Foods makes 250 to 300 deliveries a day, throughout New York State, along with parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Its customers include Federal Meats, Duff’s, University at Buffalo, Tempo, Mike A and a host of Chinese restaurants.

In the next few months, a computer-based system for generating routes and scheduling deliveries, based on location, will be implemented. Items in the warehouse will be stored based on their demand and bar coded to ensure better control of inventory, Bob Manley said.

Couzo said a lot of older owners fail to modernize their operations and continue to operate the way they did decades ago.

“A lot of them still manually enter their daily numbers, they just don’t get it,” she said. “It’s a very frustrating new world for a lot of older owners.”

Difficult changes

At Buffalo Wire Works, Abramo also had to revamp and modernize operations. The company was in the red when he took over. He said it wouldn’t have survived without changing. With a focus on personnel development and innovating manufacturing technology, and an aggressive foray into foreign markets and opening plants in other states, the company’s sales have grown by more than 20 percent, and the number of employees has grown. Additionally, more than $5 million had been invested in improvements to its 150,000-square-foot plant and staff.

“I had to bring in specialized professionals,” he said, “They complimented the workers who have been here for 30, 40 years by bringing in new ideas.” And he implemented a new approach to automating manufacturing, and its custom service to undercut stiff competition from Chinese manufacturers.

At Buerk, operations were also outdated. A high-tech machine was purchased that enables the firm to keep more work in-house, and changes emphasized efficiency by “cross-training” employees.

“There were too many people in the office and not enough in the shop,” Wilder said. “We needed new thinking, a new computer system.” Service was also expanded to include 24-hour emergency maintenance.

The company has been profitable the past five years and the number of customers has tripled, Wilder said.

But as with many ownership transitions, these did not happen without some traditions and some people getting bruised.

Before Will Poultry Co. was sold, its owner assured workers the changeover would be seamless and most of them would keep their jobs. Donald Will even said he would continue to work for the company.

But since the sale, he is out, along with as much as half of the 113 workers he employed.

The Teamsters Local 264, which had a relationship with the business for more than 70 years, is also gone. The union said 50 to 60 of its members were employed there, and 35 of them were laid off three days after the sale.

“We tried to forge a relationship with the new owners, but they weren’t interested,” Robert Bonilla, business agent for the union.

Brendan Little, the attorney for Will Foods, said his clients weren’t aware of any assurances Donald Will gave employees. Will Poultry was an asset sale, and it was in the company’s “best interest to proceed without a union,” he said.

While Buerk changed hands without impacting the workforce, transitional pains were evident at Buffalo Wire Works. In 2006, there was a nine-month strike, and some 38 union machinists lost their positions, which were eventually filled with non-union workers.

Depending on a new owner’s plan for a company, the workforce could be subjected to plenty or no change at all, Couzo said.

“It’s hard to say,” she said. “There might be cuts because of the new technology; they might decide to outsource. You never know.”

Jack Manley said the company currently has 95 employees, 25 of whom are new hires. He said the company retained the employees who were in line with its goals and approach to teamwork. He said he has been thanked by several employees for saving their jobs.

email: esapong@buffnews.com