Ben E. Keith

While distributors in many regions have seen their delivery volumes level off or even drop, at least one Texas-based distributor has expanded through the economic downturn, both from an ever-growing product mix, and a market area that is expanding exponentially as well as incrementally.

Originally founded by Benjamin Ellington Keith and his partners in 1906 as a produce distributor, the Fort Worth, Texas-based Ben E. Keith Company (BEK) has grown into the nation’s ninth largest broad line food-service distributor employing more than 3,500 people, serving customers in 11 states through distribution centers stretching from Albuquerque to Oklahoma City.

After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, beverages were added to the mix at BEK. Since then, the company’s beverage division has expanded distribution of Anheuser-Busch products throughout 61 counties in North Texas, along with import beers, craft beers, wine products and nonalcohol beverages throughout the state of Texas. The beverage division operates from 10 distribution warehouses employing more than 1,200 people, serving more than 10,000 retailers and selling roughly 40 million cases of product annually.

Although market growth can be complicated enough when it happens incrementally along with population and housing expansion, when that growth happens instantaneously as a whole county transitions from “dry” to “wet,” responding at the required speed begins to seem more like a military operation than just another day at the loading dock.

Paul Holton, VP of operations at BEK, oversees all day-to-day activities of the company’s warehouses and vehicle fleet. Having joined the company in 1980 as a mechanic, Holton’s past Army National Guard experience and mindset quickly earned him successive titles of fleet manager, operations manager and eventually vice president of operations in 2000.
Holton notes that the growth through the downturn is mainly attributable to additional counties making the shift from “dry” to “wet” on a virtually overnight basis. Even though the timing of these dry/wet changes may be known well in advance, affording some opportunity for planning, most physical changes need to wait until the change is official.

“You can’t actually ‘do’ anything about the change until it happens,” says Holton. “When we know the change is coming, we rely heavily on our general managers to put together information about what they think they need. Then we rely on our good relationships with suppliers and truck vendors to let us go ahead to put in tentative orders for equipment, so when the change actually does happen, those orders get released to production, and we try to use our spare equipment until the new trucks show up.”

While almost any growth is seen as positive, expanding BEK’s market area through the downturn has not been without its down side. “We have a lot more stops today with a lot less volume per stop,” Holton added. “So I’m using more equipment to deliver the same amount of beer as last year and the year before. A lot more equipment and a lot more people.”

Back in early 2009, BEK worked with International to take delivery on one of that manufacturer’s first diesel-electric hybrid tractors to come off the assembly line. Nearly three years into the single unit trial of the hybrid technology, fuel savings are meeting expectations, with a reduction in fuel consumption of roughly 28 percent, according to Holton. While the company does expect to see a reduction in maintenance costs, the truck has yet to reach its first brake reline, so it’s still too early to have any meaningful maintenance statistics.

As for the newly popular natural gas-powered drivetrains, while Holton’s earlier concerns about factory installation are now being addressed, the lack of a comprehensive network of fueling stations in the Dallas, Fort Worth metro area continues to keep the “gassers” off Holton’s to-do list.  

via BevergeWorld Magazine