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Recipe for growth Featured

10:03am EDT July 22, 2002

When a local dairy distributor started imposing service charges on customers placing small orders in early 1997, the phones at Mitch Kroll's Weisberg Meats began ringing. They wanted to know if the Solon meat distributor could provide the dairy products they needed.

Kroll, who bought Weisberg in 1996, turned those queries into an opportunity. He shed the company's 40-year-old image as solely a meat distributor, without losing his focus on serving his base clientele or having to inject large sums of money into the business.

With a few quick phone calls, Kroll lined up a supplier. Within a week, Weisberg Meats was in the dairy business. A week after that, Kroll was delivering dairy products, along with regular meat orders, to nearly one-third of his customers.

That opportunistic expansion allowed Kroll to begin a systematic change at Weisberg-one reflecting the company he believed it could become when he left a high profile job at Matrix Essentials to run his own company.

Today, Kroll has expanded his customer base, from 150 to 350 accounts; increased his workforce, from eight to 20 employees; and boosted revenues to nearly $10 million a year. He's also changed the name from Weisberg to The Food Co., to reflect its new focus. But Kroll's plans for growth didn't develop overnight. Like a package of beef which thaws slowly before it becomes dinner, Kroll changed Weisberg gradually-one step at a time.

When Kroll bought Weisberg, he wanted to take a small, established company with a solid customer base to the next level, much in the way he'd watched Matrix grow. He'd spent nine years with the hair care products company-from 1987 to 1996-and worked his way up to become director of operations.

When he joined Matrix, it was a $30 million company with 300 employees. When he left, Matrix had more than 1,000 employees and revenue in excess of $200 million.

"I was tremendously caught up with the entrepreneurial fervor of Arnie and Cidell Miller (who owned Matrix)," says Kroll. "I saw how they took a small company and expanded it."

In 1994, Bristol-Myers bought Matrix from the Millers. Kroll realized he didn't want to work for a large corporation and under "the necessary controls they put in place," so he began looking for a company he could call his own. Two years later he found it. An old family friend, Dave Weisberg, was interested in selling the meat company that his family had founded in 1956.

Immediately after buying it, Kroll thought about ways to enhance the company's image, even though he knew nothing about the food business. Says Kroll, "That was OK. I didn't know anything about the hair care business before I worked at Matrix. The key was that it was an entrepreneurial company marketing to other entrepreneurial companies-restaurants. So I looked at it from that standpoint and said, 'How can I market to these people?'"

His goal was to take current customers who bought meat and offer them different product lines.

"I knew it was a competitive business," he says. "There's nothing really more competitive than the restaurant business."

But he also needed a way to do that without pulling away too many financial and personnel resources from the core business. He decided to move slowly and convince his employees that the moves could work before implementing them.

When the dairy situation arose, Kroll was able to show his employees that the customers would accept Weisberg as more than a meat company.

"That was our first real critical point," he says. "When the market accepted that, we could change. When our customers said, 'Yeah, we'll give you a shot.' It also gave the entire company confidence that we could do this, so we looked to expand into other products."

Less than a month later, in February 1997, Weisberg rolled out fresh produce. In the first week, 20 of the company's 200 customers added produce to their orders. A few weeks later, that number more than tripled. Today, more than 60 percent of The Food Co.'s 350 customers order produce.

"The employees were so excited that they were ready to sell everything our customers needed," says Kroll. "It was like a rocket ship, ready to take off. But I wanted to do it right, and that meant to keep doing it one step at a time and do justice to each line."

But there was still another caveat-Kroll didn't want to tie up money in inventory while he expanded Weisberg's product line. So he sought out suppliers willing to make more frequent deliveries without charging him a higher price. In return, he made a commitment to use their services for the long haul. "They gave us a chance," he says. "That strategy allowed us to devote resources to our infrastructure-adding employees and equipment."

So Kroll sat on meat, dairy and produce for a few months and focused his efforts on marketing those products to his current customers and drumming up new business. He also brought three of his former Matrix co-workers into the fold to help acclimate the Weisberg staff in how to handle major expansion.

Then, in May 1997, Kroll added dry goods-such as canned vegetables and hot sauces-to Weisberg's fare. A month after that, he added frozen foods. Finally, in late summer, Kroll put the last product lines in place-paper goods and chemical products.

"That made us a full-service distributor," he says.

But the changes-while improving the company's bottom line-created a new problem. Neither its name, Weisberg Meats, nor its image-still largely as a meat distributor-reflected the new focus.

So Kroll drew on his Matrix experience, and in early 1998 embarked on a marketing campaign to change the company's name. He also hired designers to create flashy advertising materials which promoted the company's new, expanded line of products and services. Says Kroll, "I had seen the impact of style and image on a company that could provide good products. Restaurants seem to be very creative and image conscious, so we decided to try to relate to them the best we could."

Then in September, Kroll put the final pieces in place. He renamed Weisberg as The Food Co., complete with a '90s-style logo and tagline: "Weisberg meets its future..."

"We wanted to recognize who we are, with a new image," he says. "We're a different company than we were two years ago. But we also wanted to reflect where we've come from and let our customers know that we are still proud of our past."