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Labatt expanding Lubbock distribution site, focuses on all-local staffing

LUBBOCK, TX (August 7, 2010)—Six years ago, San Antonio-based Labatt Food Service leased about 70,000 square feet of Fleming Foods’ former warehouse space from Wilkerson Properties, needing more space to store supplies for Dairy Queen franchises in West Texas and New Mexico.

Today, it’s their building, and the facility is undergoing a major expansion in terms of offices, dry food storage, more cooler space and a huge new freezer unit as more customers have signed on with Labatt, including Lubbock Independent School District.

The facility employs about 100 people, with one distinction — the company has hired locally from the outset, rather than sending in company employees from facilities in other cities to get things started, said Al Silva, the company’s general manager and chief operating officer.

As Labatt’s business grew in the Lubbock area, Silva said, they needed space, and approached John Wilkerson about possibilities.

The food service company was sharing the building with Plains Cotton Cooperative Association, which uses the west end of the structure as a cotton warehouse.

At first, Silva said, the company wasn’t all that keen on the idea.

“We don’t know anything about owning a building or being a landlord,” Silva said, adding that the more they talked about it, the more sense such a deal made for everyone.

The expansion includes a few surprises, including the installation of a test kitchen, which Silva said will give the company better marketing opportunities to work with restaurants and other large clients on product options.

Expansion goes on. So too, the daily business.

The concrete floors are abuzz with electric forklifts and pallet carriers, as some workers pull products to fill orders.

As the workers glide along, Silva points out that something’s missing — order slips.

“Nobody reads here,” Silva said. Instead warehouse workers use a voice recognition system that helps them track down the product for each other.

“Our error rate is five in 100,000,” he said, adding that error rate is comparable to hospital pharmacy standards.

Inventory management involves taking down and replacing product with electronic bar code readers to make sure the right products come down, and new shipments are properly shelved.

It’s a very high-tech operation, says Jamie McCalib, Labatt’s local sales manager, which allows customers to place orders through the Labatt website, sends e-mails and text messages to customers to warn of potential shortages in an order, and assists the company in predicting demand and sending orders to the wholesale firm’s suppliers.

“Our technology enables people to wear many hats,” said McCalib, a Crosbyton native who joined the company in 2007.

In addition, she said, the technology keeps the error rate low “so instead of chasing what happened yesterday, we can take care of today.”

That accuracy rate — 99.4 percent — and the ability of the system to predict orders and inventory requirements is critical for the company, especially with its customers in school districts.

“If we’re out of something, it’s too late to recover at this point, if it’s a school that messes up its nutrition,” McCalib said. “Texas has one of the most strict child nutrition rules in the country.”

She graduated from Texas Tech in 2004 with a degree in agriculture and went to work for Sorghum Partners in New Deal.

“I did exports and sales, and was training to be the plant manager,” she said. “I was just about to plateau at a pretty young age.”

She heard about a sales opening with the Labatt Lubbock warehouse, and applied.

“I love to cook and I always wanted to go into sales,” she said.

Within seven months, she became sales manager.

There were three sales representatives when McCalib arrived; now she supervises four and does routing for a sales region that extends as far north as Boise City, Okla., east to Childress and nearly to Abilene, south to Presidio and Midland-Odessa, and west across New Mexico to El Paso.

“We worked some really long hours to get this off the ground,” McCalib said.

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