Centralization, Motivation Drive Growth of Tankersley Foodservice

by Sam Eifling  on Monday, May. 24, 2010 12:00 am  

VAN BUREN - Workers in hooded sweatshirts and parkas mill in and around the chilly inner chambers of the 150,000-SF warehouse that serves as Tankersley Foodservice's beating heart. Motion-activated doors whisk open when an employee approaches on foot or forklift, allowing speedy passage between the dry storage, the refrigerated fresh storage and the 0-degree cold freeze.

It's fairly quiet at 3 p.m. on a Monday, when the company's 36 sales reps are taking orders from thousands of clients - independent restaurants, schools, nursing homes and convenience stores - around Oklahoma and Arkansas. But this evening, the docks will be abuzz as workers rush to load refrigerated trucks with foodstuffs. "You come here tonight," says Don Tankersley, the company's CEO. "It'll be a zoo."

This operation - a combination of storage, trucking and food service businesses - has made Tankersley Foodservice LLC one of the fastest-growing businesses in the state. In Arkansas Business' annual survey of the largest private companies in the state, Tankersley Foodservice LLC popped onto the list for the first time - and clocked in at No. 65 with 2009 revenue of $93 million.

"We've been running under the radar for the last 10 years," Tankersley Foodservice President Danny Lloyd says, with a chuckle. The fact is, though, in the 12 years since moving into this former Affiliated Foods warehouse, the food service portion of the company's operations has gone from about $10 million in revenue to seven times that last year, Lloyd says.

To hear Lloyd and Tankersley describe it, the source of that growth has been straightforward. The company has carved out a niche, has avoided overreaching and has dedicated itself to finding and retaining the best people available.

"We hire the best sales reps, and we pay 'em," Tankersley says.

It was Tankersley's father, Walter Tankersley Sr., who in 1928 founded the ice cream maker, White Dairy, that eventually branched into institutional food service in 1944. In 1980, the company started supplying foodstuffs such as chicken, milk products and Little Debbie cakes to military commissaries.

"It's kind of unique for us to be a Fort Smith-Van Buren company doing that," Tankersley says. "We started with three commissaries in Panama in 1980, and it's gone worldwide."

The biggest step came in the late '90s. White Dairy sold its Fort Smith ice cream manufacturing business to Hiland Dairy in 1997, and in 1998, along with the Tankersley family's two other companies, moved to the current digs.

"Until we moved into this facility, we couldn't do it right," Lloyd says. "We were in three or four different spots, and we had to pick from this one, this one or this one. We couldn't keep up with the Syscos. They just did it better than we did. Too centralized."

Here the four businesses work in concert: Tankersley Foodservice is the lion, accounting for $70 million of the companies' $93 million in revenue last year. White Dairy International still supplies military installations, keeping GIs the world over wired on Rockstar energy drinks. JR's Trucking, a carrier that runs 35 to 40 long-haul trucks, started in 1995 to haul foods for the military supply business; its offices are on the second floor of the warehouse, overlooking the bustling floor. That warehouse is also home to Tri-Temp Distribution, which stores for Tankersley and for other clients. The four companies together employ 200 people, with an annual payroll of about $7 million.

"The food service business is the engine that pulls the train," Tankersley says. "It's the biggest company by far. But they all interrelate, and we make them all work with each other. If we need storage, we've got a storage company. If we need freight, we've got our own truck line.



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