Rollin Gianella immigrated to the U.S. from Lima in 1969 with $170 in his pocket and little else — but his relentless work ethic and drive to succeed have made the name Rollin Dairy a fixture in delis, convenience stores and supermarkets throughout New York City.
“When I first came to this country, I had no place to go. There was no family waiting for me,” says Gianella, a congenial, unassuming businessman speaking from a comfortably furnished office in Farmingdale, L.I.
“I can still remember those early days living in Jackson Heights and renting a room on Roosevelt Ave. for $12.50 a week. I had nothing,” adds Gianella, 64, the founder and president of Rollin Dairy.
Following a string of early odd jobs, including that of a shoe salesman, Gianella landed a job that would change his life.
In February 1971, he was hired as a deliveryman for Glenville Hagerman, a milk distribution company in Maspeth. “I was the milkman and I made home deliveries to Park Slope in Brooklyn,” says Gianella, who lacked formal language training but taught himself English.
The turning point came in 1980, when the milk industry underwent sea changes. This quickly led to diminished home deliveries and forced Gianella’s employer to adjust its sales strategy and begin leasing milk routes to its 65 deliverymen.
It meant that Gianella, along with the other deliverymen, would now have to buy his milk and then resell it to make a living. As a result, Gianella became an independent distributor.
Today, Rollin Dairy is the last of those original 65 distribution routes that Glenville Hagerman first leased to its employee drivers. “We not only survived but we have thrived since,” he says.
Gianella has grown his business from sales of about $75,000 per year in the 1980s to current levels approaching $20 million a year. The company boasts 35 full-time employees and a fleet of 20 trucks. In 2004, Rollin Dairy outgrew its headquarters and relocated to its current site on Smith St. in Farmingdale.
As the company prospered, Gianella’s son Juan, one of four children, joined in 1990 as marketing director and has helped to expand the company’s product offerings.
“Business is good. We get high-quality milk from a farm in Pennsylvania and we now distribute just about everything from eggs, soda, bread and juice,” Juan says.
Rollin Dairy’s customers include bodegas, delis, restaurants and supermarkets throughout the five boroughs.
As the only Hispanic-owned milk distributorship in the U.S., Gianella says he is a true example of the American Dream.
“I came here with no money, and now I have a company that employs more than 35 people. Not bad for a shoe salesman from Peru,” he says proudly.
But, as Gianella explains, success has a price. “To grow a business, it takes hard work and sacrifice. I’m talking seven days a week, 18 hours per day,” he says. “You know, I really didn’t see my kids grow. I was either working or sleeping. I was never home.”
Gianella, who became a widower in 2001 when his wife of nearly 40 years, Lenny, died, has since remarried and now lives in Smithtown, L.I.
Gianella’s other son, Miguel, recalls his father’s unflagging devotion to the business.
“He would deliver to his customers during snowstorms and even when he had the flu,” Miguel says. “He was like the ‘Iron Man’ of milk delivery. He used to tell me that you can’t ever fail your customers because they will only remember the failure.”
A retired NYPD Detective, Miguel, joined Rollin Dairy in 2002 as a warehouse manager. “My mom used to say that he was going to die at his desk because he was such a workaholic,” Miguel adds.
But Gianella maintains that Rollin Dairy is still regarded as a small company with a good niche.
“Dean Foods and Hood are multinational companies that control about 90% of the milk industry in the U.S.; they have about $20 billion in sales,” he says. “But we can compete with the big guys because of our customer service. ‘You ring, I bring.’ That’s my motto.”
As for the future of the industry, Gianella says that more changes in store.
“The milk industry is changing drastically,” he says. “Now there are only about six or seven distributors left in New York, and there used to be hundreds,” he says, adding that “soon” there will be no milk factories left in New York.
But despite the economic realities of the industry, Gianella says that Rollin Dairy is financially healthy enough for him to contemplate retirement. His son, Miguel, isn’t so sure.
“I’ll believe it,” he says, “when I see it.”