NEW YORK – When the president wants to show the world the American Dream is alive and well, he does well to look into the Greek-American community. Peter Mouskondis of Salt Lake City, UT were invited to Washington to sit in the special box with First Lady Michelle Obama during last week’s State of the Union address.
Mouskondis is the CEO and President of Nicholas & Company, Inc., a third generation family-owned and operated foodservice company. They are a broadline distributor, which services a wide variety of accounts with a wide variety of products. As an intermediary between food manufacturers and the food service operator, they provide food and non-food products to restaurants, cafeterias, industrial caterers, hospitals and nursing homes.
Middle man sounds simple, but it’s not an easy operation by any means. High-quality food must be there all the time, on time.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” he told TNH.
They have more than 500 employees with their headquarters in Salt Lake City and this summer they will open a large new facility in Nevada.
At the turn of the 20th century, Mouskondis’ grandfather came to Salt Lake City from Chania, Crete via Athens. He booked boat passage in steerage and passed through Ellis Island before getting on a train headed west.
During tough economic times, he was 17 years old and was send to join relatives working in the Kennecott Copper mines.
Mouskondis told TNH, “He was 4’ 9” and about 100 lbs. He was introduced to the president of the company and was given a jackhammer and was sent into the mine told to dig for gold, copper and coal– can you imagine?”
After his shift he excitedly showed his cousin a piece of paper saying, “Look they gave me a raise.” He quickly learned the meaning of a pink slip.
Undaunted, he took odd jobs until he obtained a bread distribution route, which also entailed picking up flour and wheat at the Union Pacific railroad station.
He noticed that the cans delivered to the station with dents were thrown away, and asked the conductors if he could have them. When delivered his rolls to his customers, he would tell them “by the way I also have canned peaches and pears and beans.”
He first operated out of the back of his house, and when he got married his wife, Anna, opened a storefront. “They went from one truck to two to ten and now we are one of the largest independent food distributors in the nation.” An orphan, Anna was a pioneer in her own right. Before the church was built she started the Sunday school.
Mouskondis’ father, Bill, who is still the chairman of the company, was the youngest of four. He met his wife, Elyce, in Salt Lake City. She was baptized Orthodox, taught Sunday school, and sang in the choir.
Elyce was also figure in the company. She built the HR department and when she retired Peter’s wife Nicole took it over. “She is now responsible for cultural integration and helps me run the company,” he said. “It’s funny. My parents offices were right next to each other and now my wife works right next to me.”
They have two children, Nicholas, 10, and Alexanna, 12 who love soccer, basketball, and Greek dancing.
His sister Marcella, who lives in Dallas, also worked for the company “but she took a different path,” he said. She just became engaged; the family is preparing for the wedding in Chania this June.
Peter was active in GOYA basketball and played tennis for a while but then got into the family business. “Dad provided me a job but I had to work for it… He and my pappou would say there is no free lunch.”
Mouskondis’ father was tough on him, but now he appreciates the experience. “How can you run a company without understanding every facet of it by doing every job here.”
Told that his dad was old school, Mouskondis said, “yes, the school of hard knocks. I paid for school and rent but, he gave me a great opportunity.”
He also learned to give back.
He is a member of Leadership 100 and his family remains very active in the community. He attended Greek School and feels his heritage very strongly. His mother is the proverbial convert who was more Greek than the Greeks.
His father was his prime example and mentor in life. “I learned hard work and perseverance…and that when you are passionate about something, just do it, be the best you can be at it.”
“He was fair but firm,” he said, and he taught me the value of common sense,” which Mouskondis combines well with what he learned earning his economics degree.
He praised his mother for her compassionate heart, but his father was also imbued with benevolence. “He would always give people the benefit of the doubt. When he believes in you he is really committed to you.”
One of the reasons Mouskondis loves his work is the human interaction, building relationships face to face. “You can’t do that over the phone.”
A culture of innovation is one of the keys, but he believes the spirituality that was inculcated in his own family through their church participation was important to their success.
Mouskondis said his family has conveyed to their team members that providing good service to the customers has a “feel” component. “You may not be the cheapest guy in town but people say, ‘that Nicholas and Company, I know I can count on them,’”
Integrity and reliability are the backbone of a successful business. And it gets you invited to the White House.
He received a call from the White House press office the Thursday before the presidential address on the following Tuesday. He wasn’t sure why at first, but they said the president wanted to know more about his company and his commitment to providing for his employees, and its consistent appearance on lists of best companies to work for.
As he was preparing to go to the airport for a trip on Saturday, they called again and told him he and Nicole were invited to the White House.
His schedule had to be juggled, but he was thrilled. “You can’t say no to the President.”
They enjoyed “an amazing private tour of the White House,” and had conversations with Michelle Obama. “She and Nicole really connected.”
The most exciting part was being bundled into the SUVs of the presidential motorcade for the ride up Pennsylvania Avenue with sirens screaming and lights blaring.
After the speech he joined the President and First lady for a private reception where he spoke with both of them.
The following day he had a private lunch with the Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez.
Nicholas & Company also distributes Greek food products like Cretan olive oil, Kalamata olives, pasta items and cheeses, among their 14,000 line items. Mouskondis is talking to a few companies in Greece about more products and is working with marketing guru Billy Vassilides of R&R partners in Las Vegas, who coined the phrase “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
They are both committed to helping Greece export its products. “We want to help the Greek economy…we bring in things from all over the world. If somebody in Greece has products we’ll bring it in for them.”