Bargreen Ellingson, Tacoma, Wash.
Annual Sales: $180 million
Company Motto: Hire smart. Respect. Teamwork. Use good judgment. Learn, learn, learn. Communicate. Pursue change. Take ownership. Hoopla.
Who says nice guys finish last? Speak with anyone in the foodservice industry and you’re not likely to find anyone more personable or knowledgeable about equipment and supplies than the folks at Bargreen Ellingson, Tacoma, Wash. Those qualities characterize the principals, Paul Ellingson, his brother Rick and Paul’s son David, and embody the spirit of the entire company. That spirit has enabled a small family company to grow to 20 locations in eight states and Canada.
Bargreen, a coffee and supplies company started in 1892, became Bargreen Ellingson in 1959 when Paul’s and Rick’s dad came on board. The family business grew, opening branches first in Yakima, then Spokane and Seattle. Paul joined the company in 1969, and Rick in 1976, and they took over when their father retired in 1980.
“In the mid-’80s we realized we had to be something other than a small family business if we wanted to continue,” Paul says. “We saw how valuable people are, and we wanted talented additions to the staff.”
“We knew we couldn’t be in many places at once as we expanded,” Rick says, “so we established and wrote down the values we felt best defined the company. Called ‘On Board,’ we present these to people in their first job interview, let them read them over, and if they agree with them, we talk.”
“It used to be you had to have the family’s name on the door,” says Paul, “but now we have lots of families with a second generation working here. It’s been a great run. When I took over, we did about $4 million in sales. Now we’re around $180 million.”
Everything goes back to the nine core values the Ellingsons espouse in “On Board.” “We don’t try to pretend we’re special,” David Ellingson says. “We’re in the hospitality business, so we try to act like a hospitality company and treat our employees that way.”
The company hires good people and gives them a lot of autonomy. Despite the fact that it has grown to 425 employees, the company has no human resources department. Job titles on business cards are eschewed, and the relatively flat management of the company means everyone takes responsibility for success.
“We can break the business down to individual contributors and value each of them,” David says. “All of our salespeople have the opportunity to grow their business by 10%, which would grow our business 10%, even in a downturn.”
“There’s no hierarchy, no names on parking places,” Paul says. “Sure, we have a few inefficiencies, but we still get very high-touch at the local-branch level where the heavy lifting is done. Clients only see us [Paul, Rick or David] at the beginning and end of projects. Finding talented people may be tough, but once we find them, they thrive here. We like Nike’s slogan, ‘Just do it!’ People are their own bosses here.”
That phrase “high-touch” is used a lot around the company. The Ellingsons believe the industry is still driven largely by personal relationships, and sales are made by meeting clients face to face. The company invested heavily in technology to enable online ordering, manage inventory, communicate more effectively with customers and make employees more productive. But at the end of the day, the company believes in the personal nature of the industry.
“We spent a lot on computers and technology,” Rick says, “to help us be more customer-centric. The industry has focused as a whole on the ‘buy’ side of the business and has lost its focus on the customer and territory as a result. The biggest difference between us and our competitors is that we sell with added value and buy smart.”
Their philosophy has worked so well that recent additions to the company’s growing enterprise have been the result of people approaching Bargreen Ellingson. Both the Dallas and Denver branches were opened by people who came to them and the new branch opening this year in Anchorage is being staffed by employees from Tacoma who wanted to move to Alaska.
Growth so far has been largely organic, and while the company has five-year sales targets, it doesn’t have a structured growth strategy as much as a willingness to take prudent risks and leverage opportunities.
“I don’t know how much more the company will grow,” says Paul, “but I think growth is a good thing. If you’re not growing, you’re dying.”
If anything keeps Rick up at night, it’s the economy. “Ten years ago, the mix was half new construction and half replacement. Now it’s more replacement. I hope the economy comes back so we don’t end up eating each other.”
David’s big worry is that “we don’t devolve to a ‘big box’ mentality. I hope the business environment doesn’t change to the point that it’s no longer personal. The biggest reason it’s fun is because of people.”
As for Paul, nothing keeps him up at night. “I feel really good about the next generation coming in and senior management. We have very competent, talented people. I sleep really well.”