Serving Up Excellence

There aren't many foodservice distributors that have been around for one hundred years. But then again, Ben E. Keith Foods, the foodservice division of Ben E. Keith Co., isn't your ordinary distributor. The company celebrated its 100-year milestone three years ago, thanks to a century of unsurpassed customer service and innovation.

The company, founded as the Harkrider-Morrison Co. in 1906, started as a small onion and potato distributor in Fort Worth, TX. Ben E. Keith was the first salesman and junior partner. Under Keith, the company transformed from the produce business into foodservice distribution and was renamed Ben E. Keith Co. in 1931. Today, it's ninth-largest broad-line distributor in the nation. "Pioneering is eternal," was Keith's motto and the entire company continues to embrace that belief today.

While Ben E. Keith has had a strong track record throughout its history, the last 10 years have seen phenomenal growth. In 2000, the company combined its Dallas and Fort Worth offices into the DFW distribution center, which is its flagship operation and headquarters for the company. Over the decade, the company continued to build and renovate distribution centers--without any disruptions to service--while more than doubling its sales volume in market areas served.

Ben E. Keith has ongoing operational improvement programs company-wide and is an industry leader in technological advancements. In fact, it has developed its own proprietary warehouse management system, dubbed KWCS, which stands for Keith Warehouse Control System. All of its facilities run on the system.

In addition, the company is a strong supporter of the foodservice industry and maintains an open door policy. It contributes to the communities it serves through direct funding of programs, grants and sponsorship of fundraising events.

But most importantly, Ben E. Keith places its highest priority on people--the customers and suppliers that it works with, as well as its associates. The distributor strives to maintain the loyalty of its customers by providing top notch service and responding to their needs as quickly as possible. And it provides all of its warehouse associates and drivers with opportunities and incentives for advancement.

"I attribute our success to our corporate culture--we've created a winning atmosphere and recognize all of our associates' achievements," says Keith Pittman, the company's senior vice president of operations and management. Pittman is responsible for operations of all of the company's seven distribution centers and for the direct management and profitability of three of the facilities in Oklahoma and Amarillo and San Antonio, TX.

"Our customers need us to be able to rapidly respond to their changing needs and we're able to do that for them," he adds. "We do everything that we can to help them to succeed."

A 40-year industry veteran, Pittman joined Ben E. Keith in 1970. He has held various positions in sales, purchasing and operations, and was general manager at two of the company's DCs. He has served as a co-chair for the International Foodservice Distributor Association's annual conference and also participates on a number of IFDA committees.

For its dedication to the industry and exemplary leadership, Ben E. Keith has received Food Logistics' Golden Pallet award in the foodservice distributor category. The Golden Pallets, sponsored by Food Logistics, are the first food industry awards to recognize excellence in warehousing.

Expanding With Technology

Ben E. Keith services some 22,000 customers in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kansas, Tennessee and Missouri. Customers include white tablecloth and casual dining restaurants, hotels, schools, healthcare and other institutional foodservice facilities. The distributor offers more than 20,000 products, including national brands as well as its own private brands, in all broad line distribution categories.

In addition to the DFW facility, it operates five broadline distribution centers in Amarillo and San Antonio, TX; Little Rock, AR; Oklahoma City, OK; and Albuquerque, NM. It also runs a systems distribution center in Little Rock.

At almost 600,000 square feet, the DFW is the distributor's largest facility. It was built to consolidate three other distribution centers that the company had outgrown, according to Pittman. Ben E. Keith worked with Montreal-based Kom International to design the state-of-the-art facility, which services more than 6,000 accounts and warehouses 23,000 SKUs.

The DFW is conventional in terms of the types of equipment installed, but what makes it high-tech is KWCS, the company's WMS which manages the flow of product and orders in the facility. Product is slotted and sequenced based on physical characteristics, movement and customer order profile. Orders are picked on double pallet jacks in route delivery sequence to facilitate loading. Slow movers are picked from VNA (very narrow aisle) floating slots in batches of up to five truck routes at a time based on cart capacity and are consolidated at the shipping door.

"The end result of this blend of practical material handling concepts and computer technology is an excellent overall productivity, which is upwards of 175 picks per hour in the VNA alone," says Allan Kohl, president of Kom. Ben E. Keith has worked with Kom on a number of projects over the years, including facility consolidation and implementation, multiple facility re-sets, a capacity study and the design and construction of two new facilities, among other endeavors.

Most food distributors don't develop their own WMS, Kohl points out, but Ben E. Keith has a strong IT department and has the bench strength to maintain the system. "Most foodservice distributors just don't have the in-house capability to keep it up," says Kohl.

Ben E. Keith designed KWCS as an open system, so it has interfaces with a variety of other solutions, such as routing, slotting, voice picking, yard management and business intelligence.

Beyond the warehouse, the distributor has automated other areas, including its delivery process. The company has installed onboard systems on all of its trucks, so drivers can scan labels and capture proof of delivery at the restaurant.

Pioneering Spirit Continues

Success starts with the associates, and Ben E. Keith makes sure that it hires the best. The company has implemented a pre-employment screening program to find the right candidate for any open position. And the company does everything it can to retain its talent.

"We've instituted an employee recognition program that has boosted morale tremendously," says Pittman. "Every month, each of our six distribution centers recognizes four associates who are exceeding at their job. All warehouse associates and drivers on all shifts are eligible. The associates have a chance to become the employee of the year at their respective distribution centers, as well as for the company."

Ben E. Keith also has an annual truck rodeo and drivers at all of its distribution centers can compete for the company championship. That winner gets to go to the IFDA Truck Driving Championship.

The company has implemented its wellness initiative, KEWL, short for Keith Employees--Well For Life, which offers associates incentives for practicing healthy behaviors.

Ben E. Keith's pioneering spirit continues into the next decade. The distributor has plans to build a facility in Houston, which will feature a mini-load crane, and will continue to invest in technology that will make it faster and more responsive to its customer's needs.

"One of their secrets to success is their flexibility and total dedication to service," says Kom's Kohl. "Customers say that it's easy to business with Ben E. Keith--it's as simple as that. The company is easy going and the folks are very friendly. But when it comes to their operations, they've got their eye on the target and they shoot straight."

Guiding Principles Are The Key To Success

Throughout the organization, Ben E. Keith's management and associates stay true to the company's guiding principles:
• Our customers are the primary focus of our efforts;
• Our actions must always be rooted in honesty and integrity; and we should always foster trust, faith in others, fairness and respect;
• Our learning through study, review, dialogue, and experimentation benefits our customers, ourselves and our organization;
• We must continually work together to create and improve processes, and eliminate those that are no longer valuable;
• We cannot tolerate actions that crush people's self-esteem, aspirations, individuality or dignity;
• We must recognize that every employee adds value to the company; therefore, we must not allow job titles to stand in the way of an employee's ability or willingness to contribute;

We must acknowledge and use the experiences and insights brought to the organization through people's diverse backgrounds, choices, life-situations and perspectives; and ensure the freedom to express our diversity;
• We must be flexible as individuals and as an organization;
• We must share ideas, information and knowledge freely, candidly and unencumbered by organizational structures or individuals;
• We must responsibly act as faithful stewards of the resources entrusted to us by others;
• Work should enrich and bring joy to everyone.

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