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August 10, 2015 / 2015 Women to Watch Honorees

Women to Watch: Gena Canning, Pine State Trading Co.

PHOTo / William Trevaskis
PHOTo / William Trevaskis Gena Canning is a managing partner at Pine State Trading Co., which delivers products to more than 3,500 convenience stores. Pine State and its divisions have 1,050 employees, including 700 in Maine.
PHOTo / William Trevaskis Gena Canning, a managing partner at Pine State Trading Co., started in the distribution industry when it was still dominated by men. She’s pictured at Pine State’s headquarters in Gardiner.

Gena Canning's phone rang. A frantic volunteer was trying to keep pace with his biggest event of the year, Yarmouth Clam Festival, which attracts 100,000 people over three days.

“He's saying, 'My pizza warmer is out of commission. It's the middle of Clam Festival. Do you have one we can borrow?' This isn't even a customer, but within the hour our equipment technicians had located one and loaded it in my car. I'm driving it to Yarmouth. These moments are common occurrences here at Pine State Trading because we want to steward a company that says, 'We're here to help you,'” says Canning, a managing partner at Pine State Trading Co. “The bigger you get and the more you can add technology, productivity models, trucks, equipment — all of that elevates our game. But at the end of the day when the phone rings, are we responsive? Our customers have choices and we want to be providing solutions to their needs.”

That's the kind of personal touch Pine State Trading prides itself on. The Gardiner-based company, founded in 1941 by Canning's grandfather, has built its reputation for being able to deliver for its 3,500-plus convenience store customers, who are in all six New England states plus part of upstate New York.

Canning, who is one of four Mainebiz Women to Watch for 2015, balances leadership at Pine State Trading with roles as vice chair of Bangor Savings Bank, a recent board appointment to the Maine Health Management Coalition, volunteer work with the Gardiner Area Boys & Girls Clubs and Maine Cancer Center Foundation's “Tri for the Cure.” Last year, she was named a “woman of distinction” by the Girls Scouts of Maine. She is a resident of Yarmouth.

Canning is part of the third generation owner-operators of Pine State Trading, along with her brother Keith Canning and cousin, Nick Alberding, who is CEO.

She grew up in Augusta, went to Hebron Academy and then onto American University in Washington, D.C. Growing up, she worked in the family business, often stocking the warehouse. Like many young Mainers, she had visions of a life outside of the Pine Tree State.

“I had a degree in communications and had no plans on working for my family,” she says.

The family business

Her grandfather, Charles Canning Sr., lost his job and moved the family from Rhode Island in 1940. By 1941, he started supplying old-time “tobacco and candy” shops, the small-town stores in Maine, from his station wagon.

Charles Sr. was joined by his sons Charlie and Jack in the 1950s and they saw opportunity in growing their product offerings and territory. In 1952 they opened a malt beverage division and 1971 were able to add wine to the portfolio.

“My father had a lot of vision. He could see the emergence of the convenience store market and he wanted to make sure Pine State was well-positioned to be a full-service supplier,” she says.

The Cannings built a leadership team and, by the late 1980s, started thinking about succession planning.

“My father kept telling me, 'We have something really exciting here. We need help here. I hope you'll come up,'” she recalls.

Charlie Canning hired his daughter, but gave her open-ended directions.

“There was no model for this,” she says of the business her dad had built. “He'd say, 'You'll figure it out.'”

Two rules of family business

Yet she's quick to point out some advice for those bringing recent college graduates into their family business.

There are two rules. “Have your kids go to work for someone else, so they know how to do that,” she says. “And never have your kids report directly to you. Have them be mentored by the appropriate level of management. You really need them to earn the respect of the people they work with.”

When she got started in the business, it was all men, she says.

“At that time, there were no women out in our trade. My dad put me at the table,” she says.

Changes in the business

Charlie Canning and his brother Jack possessed a keen sense of the markets they served and developed marketing strategies to grow sales.

“My father understood that if you're simply moving boxes, you can charge a price for moving boxes. That's called logistics. But in order to provide real value in the supply chain you needed a trained sales force that could provide sales data and services,” she says. “Pine State Trading and Pine State Beverage began to develop strong teams of professionals who were on the road helping store owners think about seasonality, forecasting and new items. My dad has great business instincts and continues to mentor us. He had a lot of vision and was ahead of his time.”

Jack Canning retired in 1996 and Charlie Canning retired in 2007.

Fast forward to today. Pine State Trading has eight distribution depots throughout its footprint. Its headquarters and central distribution site in Gardiner is 260,000 square feet. Pine State's tractor trailers and other trucks are on the road around-the-clock, stocking stores with fresh food, beer, wine, soft drinks, coffee, tobacco, candy and snacks as well as vending services. Pine State Trading serves 3,500 to 4,000 convenience store locations; while many are chains, about 45% are single-store operations. Pine State Beverage, which occupies 166,000 square feet in Gardiner's Libby Hill Business Park, serves a range of customers. Overall, the company has 1,050 employees, including 700 in Maine.

The company's yellow and green-trimmed trucks are a common site in Maine. But when you see a Red Bull truck in Maine, that's also Pine State Trading, which has the exclusive distribution rights here. Many trucks with strong branding names such as Sam Adams are also Pine State Trading trucks.

Pine State Trading's footprint grew as it made small acquisitions and developed partnerships with companies like Green Mountain Coffee which helped to broaden the geographic area. The growth in convenience store chains also helped strengthen the footprint and extend distribution routes.

“The real advantage we have is infrastructure,” Canning says. “That infrastructure in Maine is deep. We've been building on a great team for over 75 years. Store owners will often remark that, if you open a new location in Maine you'll find the Pine State wine representative and, when she's done, you'll find the beer representative and in the meantime the convenience store people are setting your entire shelves … So we might have eight different people assisting this customer to open their store.”

Staff members in different divisions work together to create “a seamless experience” for the customer, she says.

A year ago, Pine State Trading won a new 10-year state liquor contract to provide administration, warehousing and trade marketing for the Maine spirits business, according to the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverage and Lottery Operations. For the previous 10 years the contract had been held by Maine Beverage Co.

Throughout the changes in the retail industry, the Pine State teams have pushed the pace of change.

As big as Pine State Trading has gotten, Canning says it still has to do the basics well. Snowstorms, delivery delays, a bottle broken in transit — these are the hazards that go with the trade. That's why the managing partners are all too willing to make a delivery run on the way home.

“Keith and Nick and I still deliver orders,” she says. “Customer service will call and say, 'So-and-so forgot the hot dogs. Is Bath on your way home?' And I'll say, 'It's not out of my way at all.' We are always at the ready because we ask that of everyone in our company.”

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