Bill Frantz was a tax guy. He had no idea that he was about to become a potato salad guy.
“I was with Ernst & Ernst,” he says. “I went to law school, so I’m a lawyer. I intended to be a corporate and tax lawyer — it’s kind of where I thought I would head.”
“I think we had caught him right after tax time when he had probably worked a 90-hour work week and decided he didn’t want to be in that field for much longer,” says Mark Sandridge, CEO, of Sandridge Food Corp.
The food manufacturer, which was founded and owned at the time by Vincent R. Sandridge, was a client of Frantz’s. One day, the father and son approached Frantz about working for them.
“We had a beer, talked about it, and next thing you know I’m leaving Ernst & Ernst, and I’m going out to Medina to make potato salad,” Frantz says.
He was 30 when he started as vice president of finance at the 32-year-old Sandridge Foods.
“We probably thought we knew a lot more than we really knew,” Frantz says. “I found out it was a lot of hard work.
“I didn’t know much about the industry, and the business was pretty small, but I felt like it was a chance to make a difference. It was a chance to be a businessperson and make something happen, make something grow,” Frantz says.
He recently ended his career as president of Sandridge Foods, having helped the small company grow exponentially. Here’s a look at what it takes to drive that growth.
School of hard knocks
It’s often said the peaks and the valleys of a seasonal business can get to be too much, leaving companies scrambling to earn enough for a whole year in just a season. For some, it’s a question of survival.
When Frantz started, the company was small, doing most of its business — potato salad, coleslaw and macaroni salad for picnics — between the summer holidays.
“During the busy times, Mark and I were out in the plant making potato salad to try to serve our customers because we couldn’t ramp up that quickly,” he says.
Sandridge Foods had 60 employees then and just as many products, operating out of an older, 18,000- to 20,000-square-foot building.
Realizing the company couldn’t survive selling such seasonal products, Sandridge Foods expanded its lineup — pasta salads, some upscale potato salads. But the big find came when the company got into the soup business 20 years ago.
“Our business was the first warm day of spring until the last cold day in the fall when sales dropped off,” Frantz says. “We talked to a guy in the soup business and he said his business picked up the first cold day of the fall and drops off the first warm day of spring. So we started to diversify in fresh soups. Now we’re one of the leaders in the country in the fresh soup business.”
Today, the company has 600 employees working at its Medina and Morton, Illinois, plants.
“From a product standpoint, potato salad alone was 50 percent of our total volume. Now, potato salad is down around 15 percent of our total volume. We have 500 different products that we make today. And we serve customers all over the country,” Frantz says.
Putting it together
Adding the capacity to produce a wider variety of products certainly helped Sandridge Foods grow its offerings. But a new sales approach contributed to the proliferation of those products.
“When I first started, we used to go into a sales call and we’d take all of our stuff with us — here’s all my products, and here’s my price list; ‘What do you want to buy?’” Frantz says.
“I had to learn how to go sell, to be honest with you, because I was a food scientist by training,” Sandridge says. “And anyone who’s an engineer or a scientist wants to sell the features and benefits, but that’s bologna. People don’t want to buy features and benefits. They want you to learn what it is they need and then, by doing that, you come home and start developing products.”
Sandridge elicited the help of a sales coach who had a system to discover what the consumer really wanted.
“I’ve sent everyone in management to this sales training course because it’s just psychology; it’s not sales,” Sandridge says.
Now the company’s sales process looks completely different.
“We’ll go in to a customer today and show up at the first meeting with nothing other than a list of questions. And they say, ‘Well, where’s your samples?’ How would I know which of the 600 items you wanted me to bring?” Sandridge says.
Developing and producing the products Sandridge Foods needs for its customers requires a diverse team of people.
“If you’re not going to be the low-cost, high-volume producer, you have to pick a different strategy. And we picked the strategy that said we want to be more important to our customers. Therefore, we have to have more flexibility,” Sandridge says. To do that, the company has a culinary team and an innovation team that is able to discover what the customer needs and react.
“We spent a long time building a nice team of people that fit the puzzle,” Sandridge says. “Running a business is a big puzzle. Trying to fit all the support that you need here under this roof to fulfill the customers’ desires is our challenge. And that’s what we did very well.”
Losing a piece of the puzzle
Exit strategies are important as a planning document, but how do you predict what the thought process and emotional reactions will be?
“As you get in business for a while, you start thinking about where you’re headed,” Frantz says. “You think, ‘When is the right time to leave?’
“I’ve been with the company 29 years. I’m 58 years old. So I’ve been with the company half my life. The company is in a great place. We’re in the best financial position we’ve ever been in. We’re the strongest company we’ve been. We’ve got the best people in place that we’ve ever had, and it just felt right to me that now was the time to leave.”
Frantz retired from Sandridge Foods in April, leaving the company he worked most of his life to build, and his long-time friend.
“I will miss him. He’s been a friend for a very long time,” Sandridge says.
“You spent the better part of your life with an individual every day, going through the wars, going through the tough times and the good times, and there’s a lot of emotion to it.”
The two, however, had been preparing for Frantz’s inevitable retirement.
“I have a great group of people, young people, that are working in the business and a group of middle management people, middle-aged people, that are going to run the company for the next 10 years,” Sandridge says. “And then my boys will be ready, hopefully, at that point.”
Sandridge says he started putting together a succession plan nine years ago after his sons graduated from college, and it was determined they were interested in the business.
A big part of the plan was to identify people within the organization who can be the future leaders and how to prepare them for that role. So the two started by putting all the employees’ names on a list.
“We had our organization chart and we said, ‘Who can move up in the organization and where can they move up to? Who has potential and who doesn’t have potential?’ There are some people you realize don’t have potential. They’re doing a great job where they are, but they don’t have any interest or maybe don’t have the ability to do a different job,” Frantz says.
“We’ve created new positions, we’ve hired new people and we’ve promoted people. So we’ve got some homegrown, and we’ve got some new hires. We just have to find where those gaps are and figure out if there’s somebody internally who can fill the role or not.”
A transition team was also put in place, which consists of the top people in the company — “The people that should be the authorities in their particular field. That’s the group that’s going to train and school the next level of managers,” Frantz says.
Sandridge also brought on advisers specializing in sales, strategy, finance and psychology who understood the dynamics of a family run business to offer their input.
“It’s unusual to have a second generation be successful,” Sandridge says. “It’s even more unusual for a third generation to be successful. The only way I know to help prepare them is to have some really smart people who are really good professors and teachers. I wanted to make sure that I had a lot of ‘doers.’ And you need to make sure the doers can transition to teachers as they get a little more mature in their business careers.”
The succession plan the company has this time around is much different than the one Frantz and Sandridge had when Sandridge’s father transitioned out of the company.
“He just threw us the keys and said, ‘Have fun, boys,’” Sandridge says.
But the two can look back on tremendous success.
“I don’t think we would ever dream the company would be as big as it is,” Frantz says.
Though Sandridge’s dad passed away in 1999, Frantz says he’s sure he’d be happy with what they’ve been able to accomplish.
“He’d be smiling,” Frantz says. “He’d be very proud.”
- Sell consultatively.
- Learn from your customers.
- Plan early for major transitions
The Frantz and Sandridge File:
Name: Bill Frantz
Name: Mark Sandridge
Company: Sandridge Food Corp.
Education: Frantz has a bachelor’s degree in finance from Miami University in Oxford and a law degree from the University of Akron.
Sandridge has a bachelor’s degree in food science and technology from The Ohio State University.
What hobbies are you looking forward to indulging in now that you’ve officially retired?
Frantz: My golf game has really suffered the last five or 10 years — I’ve not played much. I used to be a single-digit handicapper. My goal for the summer is I want to get back to single digits. I’m hoping to do that by being able to play more. My fear is that I’ll play more and my game won’t improve.
Sandridge: We used to golf quite a bit, then we got busy working. I’m sure he’s going to take my money (on the golf course).
What advice would you offer the person who ultimately takes on your role at the company?
Frantz: Be honest to the people. I think most of the people would say that if I tell them something they believe me. I think, the next person to sit in that seat, if the people believe them they will do extraordinary things. You’ve got to always strive to improve to change things, make it better. If you’re standing still you’re losing ground.
How do you hope you’ll be remembered at Sandridge Food?
Frantz: I want people to look back and say Bill Frantz was a fair and honest guy. He didn’t always make the decisions I wanted him to make but he was fair and honest. And I’d also like them to say he was a pretty important person for our company to get us to where we are today. I guess if people thought those two things I’d be pretty pleased.
Sandridge: (Bill will be remembered) as an intricate part of (Sandridge Food’s) success. The company wouldn’t be here today without the two of us working as well as we did together. (Like) Batman and Robin. I was always Batman.