MAGEE — Quality Foods, a Little Rock, Ark.-based food service distributor that opened a plant in Simpson County in 1997, and expanded in 1998, is at it again.
Last month, Quality Foods, the nation’s 13th largest food service distributor, announced a $2.2 million expansion that will increase its freezer space approximately 30,000 square feet. Quality Foods, a privately-held company, first opened a 128,000-square-foot facility in Magee in January 1997, and added 20,000 square feet in 1998. The plant employs more than 200 local residents, and will add approximately 25 jobs when the latest expansion is complete.
“It made more sense to expand in Simpson County, particularly because of the good work ethic we’ve found there,” said Phillip A. Tappan, president and COO for Quality Foods. “We had other options around the state, but management has been pleased with the Simpson County experience and what they had to offer, so we chose to expand there.”
Approximately 45 tractor-trailers run through Magee on a daily basis. (Quality Foods owns the trailers and leases tractors.) After the expansion, that number will likely increase to 50, said Don Kirkpatrick, chairman and CEO.
Quality Foods’ initial
expansion in Mississippi
When Quality Foods decided to expand beyond Little Rock in 1991, Mississippi was pegged for the company’s first satellite distribution center “because the state was wide open,” said Kirkpatrick.
“We had a vision that there was ample business in Mississippi that could be captured by a distributor with a strong customer-service orientation,” added Tappan.
After scouting sites in various communities, Quality Foods was initially interested in Simpson County because local economic developers were marketing a new 50,000-square-foot spec building. During the negotiating process, Quality Food execs opted not to buy the spec building when they decided to triple the original investment. Instead, they built a $10.5 million facility on a 52-acre parcel fronting U.S. 49 in Magee, said Tim Coursey, executive director of Simpson County Development Association.
“Quality Foods would not be here if we had not had the spec building to give them a reason to visit with us,” Coursey said. “They liked the area, our people and our incentive package.”
Although Jackson seemed the logical choice, Magee was a better strategic fit, Tappan said.
“If Jackson had been the center of the new market, it would have cannibalized some of Little Rock’s business,” Tappan notes. “Magee got us 50 miles closer to the Gulf Coast area, so it made a lot of logistical sense to us. Also, the tax incentive package available here and the high level of cooperation we received from area government officials convinced us that Magee was the smartest choice.”
Sales success in Mississippi
During the development phase, Quality Foods regional sales manager Jasper Butler quickly built a 30-person sales team, and by the time the Magee facility opened, the team had amassed $30 million in sales in Central Mississippi.
“The national industry average is around $900 in sales per square foot,” said Kirkpatrick. “In Little Rock, we’re doing $1,200 or $1,300. Right now, we’re only running roughly $600 in sales per square foot in Magee, but when you’re growing territory, it takes a while.”
After the company built the Magee plant in 1997, Quality Foods established a 250,000-square-foot plant in Memphis, which encompasses north Mississippi. Sales figures were unavailable for that area.
Kirkpatrick said a primary investment for the company has been upgrading refrigeration systems. Quality Foods’ freezers, such as the one that will be added in Magee, are built with safeguards against leaks, a common cause of food contamination.
“We pulled out smaller refrigeration systems company-wide and installed computerized systems that will detect an ammonia leak within seconds and shut the whole facility down,” Kirkpatrick said. “Older systems won’t do that, and a leak could contaminate an entire freezer. That’s expensive. Plus, this system makes our insurance cheaper and the whole process more efficient.”
Originally know as Quality Poultry and Egg Co., the company was one of a dozen small poultry specialists serving the Little Rock market when Don and Carolyn Kirkpatrick bought it in 1958 for $2,000. In 1972, the company branched into the distribution of institutional foods.
Kirkpatrick attributed the company’s success to its leadership and management philosophy. Tappan, Kirkpatrick’s son-in-law, a former bond salesman, joined the firm in the mid-1980s and has been instrumental in the company’s growth. And the management philosophy is simple: there’s an open-door policy and everyone’s treated like family.
Duplicating the family atmosphere in Magee posed little challenge, said Tom Bridges, branch manager.
“There’s been virtually no turnover,” said Bridges. “This has helped us keep the Quality family-owned company ethic intact here. We’ve been able to hire self-motivated employees who don’t need prodding, and that helps us operate better internally and enhance our customer service.”
Simpson County’s gain
From Jackson to the Gulf Coast, U.S. 49 has become Mississippi’s Main Street and is one of the most Simpson County’s most attractive assets.
“Not only does it provide easy access for distribution, but an attractive building in a prime location is a great way to advertise,” Coursey said.
Quality Food’s presence has been a catalyst for economic development in Simpson County, which has a population of almost 30,000, with approximately 4,500 residents in Magee.
“If you draw a 10-mile ring around Magee, the 1990 Census population is over 17,000 people,” Coursey said. “Within a five-mile ring, it’s over 8,500. This represents more population density than most people realize exists in the area.”
Less than two years ago, Howard Industries cranked up production in the former Magnetek building. With a current employment of 234 people at the Simpson County plant, Howard Industries’ new production line, beginning in February, will add another 100 jobs.
RealPure Beverage, which opened in 1999, recently finished a plant expansion. Polk’s Meat Products built a new plant, and Super Wal-Mart opened within the last 18 months.
“The standards we use to measure the quality of life in Simpson County have all improved since Quality Foods came to town,” Coursey said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.