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Monday, April 19, 2021

Ben E. Keith Co. honored with Chamber’s Spirit of Enterprise Award

Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce 137th Annual Meeting

When: April 17, 2019

Where: Omni Hotel

Sponsor: Frost

What: New Chairman Lonnie Nicholson takes the gavel from Allyson Baumeister.

Spirit of Enterprise Award: Ben E. Keith Co.

Susan Halsey Executive Leadership Award: Michael Williams, UNT Health Science Center

The Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce 137th Annual Meeting had plenty to say about economic development – past, present and future.

Fort Worth currently has 70 active projects in the economic development pipeline, said Chris Strayer, senior vice president of Business Attraction, Retention and Expansion for the Fort Worth Chamber.

“We’re looking at a lot of different opportunities in distribution centers, manufacturing (large scale manufacturing), corporate HQ, technologies, back office and others,” he said. “You name it, we’re looking at it.”

Strayer said 2,305 jobs were added to the area last year through projects the Chamber worked on. “We were still immensely successful in my opinion,” he said.

Strayer then discussed economic development with Robert Hess, vice chairman of Newmark Knight Frank, a consulting firm that advised New York on its bid for Amazon HQ2, one of the most public economic development projects in recent years.

Hess said one of the areas Fort Worth, as well as North Texas, should emphasize when looking to attract new employers is the amount of technology and technology talent available in the area. While the area doesn’t have a Microsoft or an Apple, companies like Bell, Lockheed and GM are massive users and implementers of cutting edge technology.

At the meeting, Fort Worth Chamber Chairman Allyson Baumeister, principal in charge at CliftonLarsonAllen LLP, turned the gavel over to Lonnie Nicholson, president and CEO of EECU.

Before the meeting, Dr. Michael R. “Mike” Williams, president of the University of North Texas Health Science Center, was honored with the fourth annual Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce Susan Halsey Executive Leadership Award. (See page 60)

Fort Worth-based food and beverage distribution giant Ben E. Keith Co. was honored at the meeting with the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce Chairman’s Spirit of Enterprise Award.

The Spirit of Enterprise Award, the Chamber’s highest honor, recognizes a local organization that has demonstrated a true commitment to business growth and community development. The award is sponsored by BNSF Railway.

“For more than a century, Ben E. Keith proudly has called Fort Worth home,” said John H. Hallam, CEO of Ben E. Keith. “As we have grown our beverage division to serve more than 60 counties across Texas and our food division to 15 states, we have stayed true to our Texan roots and the values instilled upon us by our founders here in Fort Worth in 1906.

“On behalf of all the Ben E. Keith employees, especially the 600 plus living and working here in Tarrant County, we thank you for the honor. We will continue to give back to this community, support the growth and success of our customers, and promote the economic development and prosperity of the region for years to come.”

Ben E. Keith is the largest privately-owned company in Fort Worth and one of the largest and oldest in this region, earning close to $4 billion in 2017.

“Like a lot of old companies, we had very humble beginnings,” Hallam told the crowd. “We had a single warehouse probably not too far from here with horse-drawn wagons as our only mode of delivery.

“In fact, I’m not even sure if we had wagons plural. I think we just had one wagon. In that year of 1906 a man named Benjamin Elliot Keith was actually hired as our company’s first sales rep. And what a fortuitous decision now to come. Easily the best HR decision in the history of our company I’m sure,” Hallam said.

“Mr. Keith, as you may recall, had what we would call the pioneering spirit that was apparent from the very beginning. He quickly rose up the ranks of that small company becoming a partner in five years and by 1918 he was a controlling partner and in 1931 the company would come to bear the name of then Ben E. Keith Company. At that time, we were well on our way to delivering fresh produce throughout the Fort Worth, Texas region,” Hallam said.

Ben E. Keith continues to grow. The company is currently expanding facilities and engaging in new construction. Among those projects is the addition of a $22 million, 185,000-square-foot project at Ben E. Keith’s south Fort Worth campus. The initiative is expected to create 283 jobs by 2025.

The company owns two manufacturing facilities – Dallas-based Winn Meat Company and Kelley’s Foods of Alabama – which accelerates the ordering and delivery processes, making it possible for customers, such as restaurants, to receive next-day shipments “Fresh From Keith’s,” as the slogan goes – a line created in 1941 by Keith’s assistant, Trula House.

Ben E. Keith has been a familiar name for decades in North Texas as a distributor of produce and Anheuser-Bush products, a relationship that began in 1928 when Keith met with Adolphus Busch, founder of Busch Beers, and became an independent distributor for the brewer.

Today the company’s Food and Beverage divisions sell a vast universe of food, premium beverages, equipment, supplies and much more to customers that range from neighborhood eateries and white tablecloth restaurants to high-profile national and regional restaurant chains and institutions such as schools and hospitals, with more than 94 million cases shipped annually.

“I think Mr. Keith would be proud to see what this company has become,” Hallam said. “Going from a small partnership with one sales rep doing business in a single city to a company operating in all of our 15 states with over 5,000 employees today.”

Hallam said Keith would have been proud too that the company still carries the values he instilled years ago.

“Those values include respect, fairness and integrity in all dealings with our customers, our suppliers, vendors, communities where we do business, and most of all, our employees,” Hallam said.

Besides being an innovative businessman, Ben E. Keith was deeply involved in the community, Hallam said. That included being one of if not the youngest chairman of the Fort Worth Chamber at the age of 35.

Ben E. Keith was also key to the city being chosen as the site of Camp Bowie during World War I and the military has been a key to Fort Worth’s economic fabric ever since.

“Lastly, let me just say that Fort Worth has been a great home to us,” said Hallam. “We’re very proud of our Fort Worth heritage. I firmly believe that the culture that Mr. Keith helped create and foster was also forged in the culture of the city itself.”

Hallam said he sees a lot of shared values between the Ben E. Keith Company and the city.

“When I think of Fort Worth and its leaders and its people, I think about the value of hard work, value of personal relationships, that get-it-done attitude and

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Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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