Last December, Jim Walt was promoted from within to lead Valley Services Inc., a Jackson-based national foodservice management company that manages an annual volume of approximately $200 million.
Every day, the company dishes up more than 300,000 meals throughout the U.S. Its more than 200 client accounts include hospitals, colleges and universities, industrial cafeterias, commercial and office building cafeterias, senior and correctional services, daycare facilities, prisons, jails, and elderly feeding satellite meal contracts.
The Mississippi Business Journal caught up with Walt, a Hattiesburg native who joined Valley Services in 1989, during the very busy post-Katrina days. He graciously answered a few questions about his journey to the top, post-Katrina impact and the goals and challenges ahead for the company.
Mississippi Business Journal: How did you get into the food services industry and did you have a particular mentor or inspiration?
Jim Walt: As a youth, I enjoyed being around the atmosphere of restaurants with the different foods and types of people. As a college student, the Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Administration program at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) was a good fit for me. (Walt graduated from USM in 1986 with a B.S. in the hospitality degree program.)
My first job out of college was in the hotel business, and then I returned to USM in 1989 as the food service director at the athletic dormitory. This facility was a contract operated by Valley Services. I progressed upward through various positions with Valley Services, which culminated in my being named president and COO in December 2004.
I was influenced by my athletic background in the sense that playing sports requires dedication and commitment to practice and conditioning and the development of characteristics of team play. In the food service industry, several of the supervisors that I had along with the way with Valley Services inspired me to learn everything I could about the business and to be dedicated to the companies and my personal vision and values. These influences inspired me to continuously improve and grow and to work at becoming the best at what I was doing.
MBJ: What are your priorities as the new president of Valley?
JW: Valley has three main goals that govern our actions each year: increasing customer satisfaction, increasing employee satisfaction and increasing profitability. Those goals lead us to fulfill our vision of 100 % customer satisfaction by Serving with PRIDE (People Responding In Dedicated Excellence). Each year, Valley develops strategic initiatives, which are based upon these goals and vision.
In terms of operations, we are working on expanding our geographical base. Valley currently has over 160 physical locations in 21 states, mainly in the southeast portion of the U.S. We would like to spread out our operations to other parts of the country. In addition, we have expanded our frozen and shelf stable meal production and would like to serve additional markets and industries with these products.
Valley has over 2,700 employees all over the country. We have been investigating ways to provide them with enhanced benefits and career opportunities in order to increase our ability to compete for the best employees. Employee turnover has been historically high in the hospitality industry. Our goal is to retain quality employees so that we can continue to promote from within as our business grows.
MBJ: What is the next planned level of business development for Valley?
JW: Valley continuously seeks opportunities to expand the number of contracts that we operate and manage. As we do this, we must enhance our infrastructure, including our means of communicating with the various locations all over the country. We are expanding our ability to negotiate alliances with other service providers and vendors that we utilize so that, in partnership, we can provide the best possible services to our clients in the most cost effective and efficient manner.
Valley is planning strategically for the next five years so that we can be responsive to our projected growth. This requires us to look at our employee base and establish development and business plans which will result in our being “job ready” when expansion occurs.
MBJ: How has Hurricane Katrina impacted operations at Valley Services?
JW: Hurricane Katrina, and later Hurricane Rita, certainly left their mark with Valley. We had over 30 locations that were impacted by the storm. This came in the form of lost facilities and equipment due to wind and water damage, lost product due to high water and power outages, displaced employees, lost operating days resulting in lost revenue, etc. We still have not located seven of our 87 employees who worked in facilities on the Mississippi Gulf Coast or in New Orleans. In addition, since one of our operating divisions is primarily a meal delivery system, the increase in gas prices and road damage has impacted our ability to perform those services.
On a positive note for Valley, we have responded to the storms by producing over a million shelf-stable meals that were delivered to victims of the disaster or to disaster relief workers. A few of our facilities increased the services they were providing due to evacuated prisoners or hospital patients.
In addition, Katrina has caused us to look at some of our systems and develop better plans for dealing with such a disaster. We learned some valuable lessons about what happens when the corporate headquarters is without power or phone services for several days, especially when many locations were not impacted by the storm and were in need of continued support.
MBJ: How would you best describe your management style?
JW: I guess team sports taught me that you have to have a participative management style. I rely on the expertise of my management team to provide me with the information, ideas and solutions to the various issues that arise. The team meets on a regular basis, either formally or informally, to discuss current situations and collaborates on the direction to take.
I expect the department heads to work together and to communicate with each other. Every area of our operation is very dependent upon the other areas; therefore, there must be a cooperative spirit. I see my role as the link that makes sure that happens.
I also must communicate with the board of directors and the shareholders to ensure that they are aware of current operations and financial situations and to obtain their input when it is required, either by company policy or because their expertise would be beneficial.
MBJ: What is the biggest challenge you are facing right now, professionally?
JW: One of our biggest challenges is locating quality employees, training them, and retaining them. This means that, as a company, we must provide opportunities, benefits and working conditions that are competitive with what they could obtain elsewhere. Since the hospitality industry operates with lower profit margins, it is a challenge to be able to keep up with what other industries can provide. We are finding that there are fewer quality employees willing to work in what is a very labor-intensive industry. In addition, the work itself makes it difficult to find the time to provide training opportunities that would help employees grow into other positions. This is something that has to happen so that we will have employees ready to fill our needs with continued growth.
In addition, our customers want the same variety in food menus and nutritional opportunities that you find in the general public. This is a real challenge for a contract food service that deals mainly with institutional type settings. We strive to meet these consumer needs as well as remain cost effective for our clients.
MBJ: What factors have greatly contributed to Valley’s success?
JW: Valley’s success has been dependent on the dedicated service of its employees. They are innovative in developing new products and processes and they are very committed to doing what they can to meet the needs of our customers.
Another part of our success is the willingness of our long-term clients to continue our partnerships and support us in our efforts to grow. Recommendations from our current customer base are one of our best sources of new business. Our clients’ interest in helping us be successful so that they can be more successful is evident in the working relationships that we have.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.