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Chain Accounts Lead Growth for BEK;Distributor Confident about '04 Prospects

FORT WORTH, Texas - With 2003 ending on a "very positive upswing" for Ben. E. Keith Foods, Inc., here, its president, Mike Roach, is hopeful that this trend will continue this year.

Leading this Southwest distributorship's growth have been its chain accounts, especially regional ones, which have fared better than other segments of its business, Roach told ID Access.

The reason for chains' success, observed Roach, is their aggressiveness. "I don't know whether it's the availability of money or confidence in the economy, but they are expanding. Their same-store sales are up and they're just building more units," he said.

According to Roach, the entire Southwest is growing because of population expansion and more disposable money in consumers' pockets. This has spurred them to go out, spend that money and eat, he continued. "The restaurant industry has also done a good job in promoting itself," Roach added.

The distributor executive doesn't consider the growth of chains as threatening independent operators. On the contrary, believes Roach, independents could learn from the best practices of multi-unit operators. "These regionals started as independents. In a way it's a hopeful thing for independents if they have in mind expanding their locations and becoming regional chains," Roach said.

Roach expects chains to continue growing at the expense of independent operators and there's nothing on the horizon that is going to stem that. Regionals, however, will grow at a faster rate, he added.

The ID Top 10 distributor, which was the ID Innovator of the Year in 2002 and ID Great Distributor Organization in 1989, grew at a rate of 15-16% last year compared with the previous one, Roach indicated. While there are many international, domestic, food safety and health concerns facing the industry this year, Roach is confident that they will not retard its growth.

"In spite of that I feel very confident that our industry is going to continue to grow and that it is going to exceed the growth estimates. I'm very optimistic about 2004. It's an election year and generally in an election year business is good," he said.

Living up to its innovator moniker, Ben E. Keith has taken advantage of a cutting-edge training program for its sales force, i.e. e-learning. Called "Keith IQ," the program has been in place for about a year and "it's been an exciting tool for our DSRs," Roach noted. Boasting a great deal of manufacturer participation, Roach also noted that the company is planning to expand the program.

"We're increasing our training programs for our DSRs not only in products but also in teaching them how to help operators become more successful from the back of the house to the front of the house and everything in between. We are providing training tools to improve the professionalism of our sales force," he said.

Ben E. Keith has also successfully implemented a category management procedure that Roach said has helped the company reduce SKUs as well as inventory in all of its distribution centers. "We developed a template that can be applied to any category of product that we want. We're pleased with it, we're going to continue it and we're going to look for ways to improve it," he stated.

Roach has been in the forefront of industry issues and this year begins his tenure as chairman of the International Foodservice Distribution Association (IFDA). Among his goals are to increase IFDA's voice on Capitol Hill and to boost the association's membership.

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