Paragon Foods invests in its people for the well-being of all

 

President and CEO Elaine Bellin, who comes from an Italian family, never expected to run the family business, Paragon Foods. If anything, that was reserved for the son, she says.

But Bellin joined the company in the 1980s, discovered she loved it and took over for her older brother in 1993 when he faced serious health problems. Under her leadership, she’s brought a $12 million company to more than $80 million in annual revenue and nearly 200 employees.

Paragon is expected to grow even more over the next couple of years — now that it has built a new facility in Warrendale that’s twice as big, created the brand JustCut and acquired John V. Heineman Co.

“Over these past several years, as I knew we were going to build a new facility and grow, I spent a lot of time and resources on recruiting and networking so that I could augment the corporate management structure, and that’s what I did,” Bellin says. “I feel that we are very well-poised for the accelerated growth because of the positions that I have filled with strong leaders.”

She’s invested in both the physical — buildings and technology systems — and people.

“The people were more important, frankly, because if I don’t have the people to lead the group and inspire the group, then what good are we?” Bellin says.

Here’s how Bellin invested in her people, which were not only her greatest challenge, but also her greatest opportunity to encourage Paragon’s growth.

Augmenting the talent

When a company grows beyond a certain point, it needs more corporate structure and that means investing in human resources. Bellin saw that need coming by observing it in other organizations and learning from her peers; she knew she needed to act for the future well-being of Paragon.

“I knew that for us to get to that level of structure and discipline and good management that I was going to have to build both a strong C-level team and a strong middle-management team,” she says.

While Paragon still has flexibility with individual ownership and an ability to keep red tape from being so sticky, it needed a sustainable corporate structure. That meant spending time and resources on recruiting and networking to augment Paragon’s management. Then, the company would be poised for accelerated growth because strong leaders were already in position.

Bellin had to recruit from the outside because she was filling positions the company had never had before, such as a human resource director. As she did, those new employees could strengthen Paragon’s training, as well as develop manuals, SOPs and specific guidelines in writing.

“There has been a great emphasis on training. Probably more needs to be done though, and we’ll continue to evolve in that area,” she says. “So we’re not done yet. I think we have a much, much better foundation now to do the things that we want to do.”

With this kind of investment, Bellin says the quality of the individual that you hire is paramount. It’s critical to know exactly what kind of positions you want, to define the actual job descriptions and to spend time getting to know the candidates.

“When you’re adding people, you cannot spend enough time getting to know them, making sure they’re a right fit,” she says. “Because I think that will continue to be my challenge personally moving on, because if we grow the way I want to grow, then I’m going to have more people come on board.”

If an employee has a relationship with the CEO that goes back 20 years and suddenly a new person comes in, it can get tricky, Bellin says. It’s natural to have a period of reservation, especially if you’re adding management layers between them and the C-suite.

“I think that can be a challenge, and I think one of the ways in which we have made it less of a challenge is, frankly, that we were all part of the process of bringing new people on. We all had a hand in hiring all of the new C-level people and the middle managers.”

Not only were the employees part of the interview process, they collaborated on the job requirements for the new positions.

Change is always hard. Bellin says she’s had people who have worked for her for a long time and every time Paragon went through change, they got worried. But because all those changes have led to improvement, she feels like she’s finally earned their trust.

On the cutting edge

Many employers have trouble recruiting, but Paragon isn’t one of them. Bellin believes Paragon’s progressive reputation — and new and inviting facility — made it exciting to prospective employees.

It’s important for a company to advertise its strengths and competitive advantages so people want to work for it.

“We’ve created an atmosphere where they can challenge themselves, they can participate in the growth and they can be a part of all of these exciting things,” she says. “I think that’s what’s helped us to recruit such fine people.”

While Paragon’s JustCut brand is just one of its latest progressive moves, it has a history of innovation.

It was the first company in the region to track its products so it can identify exactly where all of the products in a case came from to better manage its food safety. It also developed relationships with local farmers. While local food is big now, Bellin says it was unheard of in 2000.

“Basically, we begged the farmers,” she says. “I’ll never forget the first meetings we had. They were so skeptical of a business because they had not — and there were only a few of them then — had the best experiences.”

It took a lot of convincing to get those local growers to trust Paragon, but now the company is often a farmers’ first choice to sell to.

JustCut supplies both food service and retail customers with fresh pre-cut produce that is locally sourced as much as possible — items like zucchini noodles or vegetables for GetGo’s sandwiches and salads.

Bellin says Paragon also embraces technology, such as social apps. If a chef gets done working in the kitchen at 11 p.m., he or she can get on his or her smartphone and put in an order. The company even uses algorithms for its inbound purchasing.

“Our industry seems to lag in technology, but we’ve embraced it and tried to use it to be on the forefront,” she says.

While some of the long-term employees don’t always have strong technological skills, Bellin and her managers are willing to spend time convincing them that it will make life better for everybody, ultimately, while also training and retraining them.

A clear fit

Not all of Paragon’s growth has been organic. Last year, it acquired John V. Heineman Co., a gourmet food supplier that was more than 100 years old.

Bellin says both companies emphasized fresh, clean and natural foods. (Paragon follows a three-day distribution model.) They had worked together for years, with Paragon buying epicurean products for customers outside of Heineman’s delivery radius.

“It just made sense for us because of the clientele that we serve — schools and universities, health care, country clubs, high-end white tablecloth restaurants, independent restaurants,” she says.

While their customer bases and commitment to quality food were similar, some differences had to be overcome. As a smaller company, Heineman wasn’t as technologically advanced.

“It was definitely a little bit more work initially because we didn’t recognize that the technologies didn’t talk to each other in the same way when we integrated,” Bellin says.

The rest of the integration went smoothly because no C-level leaders or managers came onboard. The lower-level employees could just start working in Paragon’s purchasing, customer service or warehouse divisions.

“They couldn’t grow where they were, they would have to get a new facility, so it worked out for both of us,” she says. “We had the facility, we had the technology, we had the delivery system — everything we had was more favorable to them growing that particular line of products.”

Going forward, Bellin hopes to keep focusing on the strategic development of the company, whether that means more acquisitions or opportunities to move into other geographical areas.

“As you get older, you want to mentor a little bit more and coach a little bit more rather than being in the day to day,” she says. “So I’ve been able to do that because I’ve been able to have strong people in the day to day.”

 

Takeaways:

  • Seek employee input when growing the management team.
  • Use your strengths to attract quality talent.
  • Change is easier when you’ve built up trust.

 

The Bellin File:

Name: Elaine Bellin
Title: President and CEO
Company: Paragon Foods

Born: Pittsburgh
Education: University of Dayton, sociology degree

With your degree, how did you end up leading a business? I did not anticipate doing this at all. Never did. But it worked out really well because I just have a passion for the business which, again, was kind of accidental.

This is a family business. My grandfather had always been in business. He had several small retail grocery stores in the city, and so he saw wholesaling in 1962. He was a visionary; definitely, he’s the guy that I think I most resemble in terms of my vision. He saw a need for food service in the early ’60s — and he was right.

So he started Paragon and set that up for my father to run. My father did that starting in ’62. I finished college, started working here part time and fell in love with it. I just thought, “Wow, this is really terrific.”

What was your first job? I worked some odd jobs. I worked in a bakery. I worked in restaurants. They were just jobs in high school to pick up extra money working in the summer. I would do some babysitting, but it never crossed my mind to work for the family business.

When I went to school, I was going to be a social worker. That’s why I went for sociology; I wanted to help people. Hopefully, I’ve helped some people in a different way. I’m employing people with good wages, good benefits, the whole bit.

When you’re not working, what do you like to do? Oh, my gosh, I do everything. I have crazy energy.

I’m a health and wellness nut. This is probably what appeals to me so much about this business — it’s fresh, it’s clean, it’s healthy foods. So I’m very active, physically. I’ve been a runner for years, but I’m not running as much now. I like to exercise because I’m energetic. I have to have that outlet.

We do family skiing. I love to enjoy sports here in Pittsburgh. We go to the baseball games. I’m involved, too, with some professional associations, my church, some boards, so that keeps me active outside of work.