Ben E. Keith changes leaders, maintains focus

Mike Sweet

The Fort Worth firm that’s filled more than a few restaurant menus plans no major changes after a newly announced leadership shift.

When Mike Sweet succeeds Mike Roach as president of Ben E. Keith Foods on June 30, the company will continue battling the Syscos and US Foods of the food and beverage distribution world as it continues tapping technology and old-fashioned human smarts.

“We will always be customer-focused and have always prided ourselves on being very employee-friendly,” said Sweet, 44, who’s been with the company for 16 years and currently is executive vice president.

His role changes when Roach, 70, leaves the firm after 35 years. Under Roach’s leadership, Ben E. Keith has expanded sales, profits and geographic coverage while adding inventory and facilities.

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Since its creation in 1906, the company has grown into an industry behemoth with eight distribution centers serving operators in 11 states. One of Fort Worth’s oldest existing businesses, it continues opening new distribution centers and expanding its employee base while supplying produce, frozen foods, meats and equipment and supplies, among other products, to restaurants, hospitals, schools, nursing homes and other businesses.

Sales for fiscal 2014 reached $3.3 billion ($2.5 billion in the food division), up from $3.2 billion ($2.4 billion in the food division), in fiscal 2013.

In April, the company broke ground on a new distribution center in Little Rock, Ark. The facility is expected to be completed in early 2017 and help the firm better serve the Mid-South region, which includes Arkansas and parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Meanwhile, the city of Selma near San Antonio will gain a 500,000-square-foot distribution center as another example of Ben E. Keith’s ongoing growth. The facility, in the city’s Titan Industrial Park, is expected to open in 2017 and bring more than 700 jobs to the area.

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And the company’s Missouri City distribution center near Houston has become a source of pride a year after opening its doors. The mammoth location has four automated storage and retrieval systems, eight temperature-controlled warehouse zones and other technological innovations while boasting of LEED Gold status, denoting standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

Sweet vows to pursue similar expansion as Ben E. Keith continues growing its food and beverage divisions.

This is quite a transition in Ben E. Keith leadership. What does it mean for the company? Can we expect any changes?

Sweet: We’re going to continue the same great work that Mike [Roach] has done leading our 2,800 employees. We have always been customer-focused and have always prided ourselves on being very employee-friendly and have a great culture and a good place for employees to provide for their families.

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We always continue to evolve and look to the future in how to be the best company in our market. That’s through technology and new products, ways to be more efficient and be the best competitor out there.

Exactly how has technology changed or improved your operations – in terms of logistics, for example?

Roach: The basic fundamentals, the going-to-market strategy is to always keep customers at the center of our attention. But it has changed the supply chain, as well as on the logistics and operational sides of our business. But the biggest change has been in the tools we are able to provide to both our sales representatives and our operator customers. To our sales reps, we give them technology that allows them more time to devote to the customer.

Could you give me an example?

Roach: Mr. Sweet has Iearned about our new Entrée [food distribution software] system. Before adopting the system, the sales people would handwrite orders. Later on, we began to develop numerous systems for our customers to enter their orders. Our latest is the Entrée system.

Sweet: Entrée is a new product rolled out for our customers and DSRs [district sales representatives], a mobile application that allows our customers to place their orders, search inventory, pay bills, run reports, get updates on transportation and when they can expect delivery, all on one platform.

We’ve always had a system that has allowed customers to place their orders online and our DSRs have had systems to do the same. What makes this different is this is all-encompassing. I like that the Entrée system is a one-stop shop for our customers to do business with us.

It does not take away from the value we put in our sales reps. Mike Roach is famous for saying high-tech, high-touch. We believe technological tools can make us better partners, but at the same time, there’s still a value in our DSRs. They provide our customers new ideas for their menus and can help with food costing.

Has it been implemented yet?

Sweet: We rolled it out in the first of May. We’re partners with a software company called Credera of Dallas to do that. We formed a committee that included DSRs, people in our purchasing department and customers to make sure we had everyone’s perspective. People have quickly adapted to it.

It positions us well for the future. The system has an Amazon-Facebook appearance, so it’s familiar and has a lot of things like messaging, push notifications, so we’re excited about it.

Who’s its primary user?

Sweet: The independent operators, restaurant operators that make up the biggest portion of our customer base. That’s always been the case.

Mr. Roach, what would you consider your greatest accomplishments or contributions to the company under your leadership?

Roach: I don’t believe there is anything that I have done that is any more important than to have been able to bring the foods division into a position of respect in the industry, into a position of being a major player in food services in the U.S. while still being able to maintain and build upon a culture that was first established by Mr. [Ben E.] Keith himself and, later on, [former president and chairman] Mr. Gaston Hallam.

Sweet: One thing Mike Roach is known for internally for is developing leaders. We have a number of programs we developed internally to develop our employees’ careers through personal development.

Did you participate in any of those programs?

Sweet: We partnered with TCU [Texas Christian University] a while back in developing a yearlong class that met three or four times a year and worked on case studies on how we can improve real issues we face in our industry. It was made up of the employee base from sales to purchasing to operations and was a great class.

What did you gain from the experience?

Sweet: The process was great, and TCU taught us general business practice, ethics and a number of issues that also were helpful, but the biggest thing was working together and putting together different perspectives. If we are trying to address an issue that’s sales-driven, make sure it’s always addressed on the operator side, for example.

Even though we’re in different departments, we don’t work in silos. We work together as a team.

Will you continue following the path made by Mr. Roach in terms of plans he had, or are you scrapping or revising some company goals and pursuing your own ideas?

Sweet: Our founder, Mr. Keith, was famous for saying pioneering is internal. Mike [Roach] has certainly made a mark with his leadership. We have a great culture, a great employee base. We are good partners, and certainly that will not change.

But as we look to the future, we’ll always find ways to be better, to evolve as a company. We certainly enjoy our success, but we always look toward the future. We have a numbers of things to do.

Could you give me an example or two?

Sweet: We’ve had a history of continuing to leave our footprint. We have a great reputation within the industry that Mike has led us on.

You mentioned growth. Would your regional facility in Arkansas and your project in Selma near San Antonio be examples of that?

Sweet: Yes, they’re examples of our continuing to improve and be better and better. For example, in Arkansas, we have been there a long time and that facility will be an upgrade to the current one. The last one we did was in Houston, which got LEED certification.

The recession hit many industries hard. Energy and real estate took a big hit in Fort Worth, for example. Did Ben E. Keith feel the sting as much, or since people still eat and drink regardless of the economy, did the downturn affect you that much?

Roach: Is was not business as usual. If you recall back then, survey after survey of consumers, the number-one way that [they] would cut back was in dining out. At that time, the food service industry outpaced the retail-grocery industry by about 2 percent. It wasn’t too long into 2008 that that was reversed and people quit eating out as much.

The impact of that was felt by the entire food-away-from-home industry. We quickly realized that even though the impact was felt greatly by us, it did not have as much of an impact on us as those in other parts of the country.

If a prospective client asked why they should choose Ben E. Keith instead of Sysco or another food distributor, what would you tell them?

Roach: The short answer should be that we’re easy to do business with. Our focus on the customer is unwavering. It runs through our entire organization. We provide the operator with consultative ideas and solutions. We have a culture of listening to our customers that I think is far more important than to some others in the industry.

Would the company ever consider going public?

Sweet: We do not see ourselves ever becoming a publicly traded company. We have been privately held and family owned for 109 years, and that has allowed us an entrepreneurial spirit and customer-first culture, which has made us the company we are today.

Any other new projects in the works, aside from those in Selma and Arkansas?

Roach: Mike and I are involved mostly in the food division, so at this time the food division has no plans to do a major expansion in the Fort Worth market. We will continue to, as our business grows, continue to hire employees in all functions.

Sweet: Fort Worth is our home and we have our largest facility in Fort Worth. In our food division, we have 2,800 [employees] and the total company, which includes beverage, is 4,200.

How many are in the Fort Worth area?

Sweet: About 500 to 600 in Fort Worth. We have three Fort Worth locations: our food DFW facility – our office is next door to our general office, our corporate office. And our corporate office in downtown off Seventh Street supports both beer and food, where our CFO and CIO and HR are located.

Lastly, what are your retirement plans, Mr. Roach? Will you continue being involved in Fort Worth’s business community, or are you planning life on the lake or golf course?

Roach: For the first six months, I’ll continue to work with Mike [Sweet] and the rest of the organization on an advisory level. After that, I’ll stay local. I’ve been with Ben E. Keith in Fort Worth 35 years.