Five years ago the economy was humming along, and Service Foods was humming right along with it. The Norcross, Ga.-based gourmet food supplier was growing steadily throughout its five-state Southeastern base. But CEO Keith Kantor was uneasy, because he felt his company was vulnerable. Many of Service Foods’ customers regarded the company’s home-delivered fare as a luxury. If the economy were to turn sour, some customers would start cutting their household budgets — and luxuries would be among the first things they would cut.
“Several years ago, I started to feel like we were headed toward an economic downturn,” Kantor says. “I thought the boom would still continue for a period of time, but with all the signs we were seeing — debt going up, oil prices going up, prices going through the roof, especially in real estate — I didn’t feel like it would last. The bubble was going to burst.
“So I got our leadership together and I said, ‘This is what I think is going to happen, and this is why I think it’s going to happen,’” he says. “And everybody basically agreed.”
Service Foods’ leaders had to do something to reduce the company’s level of vulnerability. After a series of brainstorming sessions, they concluded that Service Foods had to radically change how customers perceive its products and services. It had to change the perception of its offerings from luxury to necessity.
“The overall strategy we came up with was we had to change how customers regard our products and services from a ‘want’ to a ‘need,’” Kantor says. “What I mean by that is, while we’ve always sold mainly all-natural foods, before we made this transition, we simply marketed it as the highest-quality, best-tasting food you could get. And even though a lot of the food we sold was all-natural, we weren’t pushing that aspect of it. That wasn’t one of our key points.
“So we decided we had to switch how people think of our offerings from a ‘want’ — you know, to want high-quality, great-tasting food — to a ‘need’ — where all of the food we offer is all-natural, and it’s needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle. And we knew we would have to create a lot of new services to back that up.”
Break it down
Making the transition from “want” to “need” would be a laborious undertaking for Service Foods. The company’s leadership broke it down into several strategic components, each one an extensive, time-consuming project of its own:
- The company would have to ensure that all of its food offerings were all-natural, and it would have to get them certified as such.
- It would have to hire and train a team of health professionals — nurses, dietitians, chefs, fitness experts — to educate its clients about nutrition and related aspects of healthy living.
- To reflect its new identity as a purveyor of all-natural foods and healthy lifestyles, Service Foods would have to become more tech-savvy in its use of social media, and it would have to overhaul its website and its marketing program.
- To be able to effectively lead this new kind of company, Kantor, who at the time held an MBA and a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry, decided he would need to obtain two more degrees: a master’s degree in nutritional science, followed by a doctoral degree in the same field.
“To make the transition, we had to do a huge number of things, and we had to do them fairly quickly,” Kantor says. “We had to resource all of our foods and make sure we got them certified by the USDA as all-natural. That in itself was a big project. You rarely see the USDA all-natural seal, and now it’s on all of our foods.
“It was a long, time-consuming process,” he says. “First we had to get the USDA’s approval to label our products all-natural. Then we had to get the approval of the All Natural Food Council of North America and the Natural Products Association.”
At the same time Service Foods was moving through this certification process, Kantor, in his early 50s, decided it was time to go back to school.
“Although I already had my master’s, I went back and I got another master’s in nutritional science,” he says. “Then I went on to get my Ph.D. in nutritional science. I knew I needed to do this in order to make sure I had tool and skills I would need to head up this program.”
Get the right people
The staffing component was central to Service Foods’ evolution from purveyor of high-quality, great-tasting food to a company that would be able to guide people on how to lead healthier lives.
“We had to hire a team of registered nurses, registered dietitians, all-natural chefs and fitness experts,” Kantor says. “Fortunately, I have family in some of those fields, so that made it easier in some ways. My wife is a nurse. And my daughter is a fitness expert. So she set up that part of the program for us.
“Adding all these health professionals to our staff has greatly increased the value of services we can offer our clients,” he says. “It makes it clear that healthy living and mitigating disease are central to our company’s mission.
“Now, if you’re one of our clients and you want to talk to a dietitian, you can do it virtually 24/7, online and through all the social media. The same thing with a nurse; the same thing with fitness experts. And we even have some doctors and dentists that do this for us.”
Another component of the transition is that Service Foods now accepts referrals from doctors and insurance companies.
“We get a lot of referrals through a company called Vital Healthcare Group, which has about 7,000 doctors in their group,” Kantor says. “What they do is, they’ll tell us this patient has this particular health problem, so please put them on the proper diet. So if somebody has diabetes, we’re able to put them on the proper diet for diabetes, with the proper food. And if somebody has a history of cancer in their family, we can put them on the proper diet for that. Heart disease, et cetera, all those things. So now, you can get the great-tasting, super-high-quality food, but the reason you’re doing it is different. You’re doing it for healthy-living reasons, for the health of your family, versus because it tastes good.
“In addition to that, we’ll send to the doctor in electronic form a list of what we’re giving the people, and they actually break it down into grams and milligrams of cholesterol, carbohydrates, protein, et cetera, and then the doctors can actually put this information into their patients’ medical records, electronically. So this helps them with the diagnosis and treatment of their patients. And we also do this with supplementation — vitamins and minerals. We’re the first company in the United States to do this.”
While Service Foods was converting to all-natural products, getting them certified, and hiring staff, the company also advanced its use of technology to deliver its new message, its new identity and its new services to its clients.
“We totally redid the website, making it very interactive,” Kantor says. “Now we not only list every product, we also include the nutritional breakdown and any allergens the foods contain, such as gluten, peanuts, MSG, et cetera. And we now have special calculators on our site so clients can see the breakdown of products they buy at stores or in restaurants. And we also had this all done on a mobile site to make it easier to use on the go.
“In addition, we developed our own supplement line called Purely Natural Supplements, and our site has videos on the products and a questionnaire so clients will know what they need. And we researched and had articles written on almost every major disease and on what foods and supplements will help.
“Lastly, with the help of my son Ryan, we became active in all the social media — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr, YouTube — so we can keep our clients informed and make it easier for them to communicate with the health experts.”
As he has led Service Foods through its transition from a company whose products and services are regarded as luxuries to one whose offerings are considererd necessities, Kantor says the key thing he has learned that he would recommend to CEOs facing a similar situation is that it’s crucial to listen to your staff and to trust them.
“The most important thing you need to know is you have to listen to your people,” he says. “You know, you may be the CEO and the head of it, but all the ideas don’t have to come from you. You’ll just want to make sure the ideas are properly implemented. We broke everything down into teams and let them feel free to help and make suggestions and plan goals. That is by far the best way. You have to really listen closely to the feedback you’re getting. Ninety percent of it may be off base, but 10 percent of it will be good stuff — and stuff that you never would have thought of yourself.”
Kantor has one other piece of advice to offer CEOs looking to make a major transition in their company’s mission: “It’s going to take way longer than you think and cost way more than you think, so you’d better be prepared for that.
“If we had come up with this plan further in advance, it would have been much easier,” he says. “We did it in response to what we foresaw as a financial crisis coming on. But if we had been able to do it just as if it were a change in marketing strategy, we would have had more time to ease into it. That would’ve made it a lot easier.”
Turning the corner
Overall, Service Foods’ conversion took between three and four years to accomplish, and the company has at last begun to see tangible results.
“What happened is that mostly because of this transition, during the real recession we didn’t dip much at all, which was a huge thing for us,” Kantor says. “And we started gaining some market share. But at the same time, we were spending a lot more money to do a lot of the same things, and some new things, with a different purpose in mind.
“The volume stayed the same for a while. Then it started increasing, but the profit didn’t increase — in fact it decreased some because of the extra money we were spending making the transition: the sourcing, the labeling, the certifications, the marketing, the education. So the results we saw were that we didn’t lose market share, then we started to gain market share, but we lowered our profits to do it. Now that’s starting to turn, where we’re still gaining market share, and the profits aren’t deteriorating anymore. They’re starting to stabilize and slowly going up.
“The transition took us a number of years, but it obviously worked pretty good, because we’re now the No. 1 healthy living company in the country,” Kantor says. “But it took a long time and a lot of effort.”
HOW TO REACH: Service Foods Inc., (800) 872-3484 or www.servicefoods.com
THE KANTOR FILE
Name: Keith Kantor
Company: Service Foods
Born: Bronx, N.Y.
Education: B.S. biology and chemistry, City College of New York; MBA, Chapman University; master’s degree, nutritional science, Kaplan University; Ph.D., nutritional science, Corllins University
What’s the most important thing you learned during your years as an officer in the Marine Corps Reserve?
If your people feel like you’re truly loyal to them and will go to bat for them, you will get that back tenfold. If you have the trust and loyalty of your people, you can do almost anything. Of course, as a Marine, I always relate it to battles and things like that, but of course it’s not quite that bad in the corporate world. It’s more petty and less deadly.
Do you have an overriding business philosophy that you use to guide you?
I’m very pro-American and pro-veteran. A lot of my employees are veterans or are in the reserves, and we do a great deal of stuff to back those efforts, like Toys for Tots. If any of my people are activated, they get paid in full. Not just the difference — they get paid in full plus whatever they get when they’re on active duty.
What trait do you think is most important for a CEO to have?
Loyalty. And, you know, sometimes loyalty can be a fault, when you don’t change things up quickly enough out of loyalty, but most of the time I think it’s a positive attribute.
What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
You can give somebody fish and they’ll eat for a day, or you can teach them to fish and they’ll never be hungry again. My dad told me that when I was little. I didn’t understand it very well then, but I do now.
How do you define success?
Leaving your mark on society in some form or fashion. That’s why we’re so excited about the new direction our company has taken. If we can truly make a dent in the health care crisis, that’s a legacy that any company or organization would be proud of.