CEO Interview – Cordia Harrington

Tennessee Bun Company
Interview with Cordia Harrington, President and CEO of Tennessee Bun Company

Tell me about your company; how long you’ve had it, why you started it and where you see it going in the next year or two.
The Tennessee Bun Company started as an exclusive supplier to McDonalds; a bakery that I built. It was under construction in 1996 and opened in April 1997. It’s a very high speed bakery– a 1,000 buns a minute– and has since grown into a six line bakery with 3 plants. We plan to acquire another bakery this year and we’re adding about 35,000 square feet to the Nashville plant. It is a 9,000 per dozen biscuit line, which bakes 2,000 products a minute. This line will open in May 2011.

Who are your main customers?
Our main customers include McDonalds, Sara Lee, O Charlie’s, Perkins, Pepperidge Farm, Tennessee Pride, Back Yard Burger and convenient stores like QuikTrip and Sheetz. Our website has the products listed.

In your industry, how much did the recession over the last couple of years impact the restaurant business and subsequently your business?
Sales definitely declined on sandwich bun sales with all of our customers. The mid casual restaurants were down 30 percent, Quick Service Restaurants were down an average of 9%. Our Bakeries had to add additional customers in order to offset those declines, which we did. Thankfully our business has had its two best years in business in 2009 and then again in 2010.

Your company did fabulously well during a very tough time for most companies, even serving an industry hit by the recession- the restaurant industry. What do you think accounts for your company being able to achieve high performance in that time frame and how did leadership play a role?
We saw sales dip in August of 2008 . As a member of the Federal Reserve Board, we saw indicators and trends of a decline. All indicators were a recession was coming. Our leadership team, (we call them the F5) set a goal that we would not lay off any employees through the recession. There were times that we took new customers without profit just so we would have the hours for our employees. We were all united on the goal to take care of our people… believing they would then take care of our end user customer. Everyone rallied around this goal. Our employees expressed appreciation over and over again and we have had our top two years of sales and profits in the last years for 09 & 10. We have always made it a practice that when we reach goals, we share. So in December of 2010, We were able to share $484,000 bonus money with our employees. Every person that worked for us from the plant floor up, new employees, temporary employees, they all got bonuses. That is attributed to everyone coming together and figuring out less expensive ways to do things and just focusing on doing whatever we had to do to get the hours in the plant.

How do you describe your leadership style?
Definitely consensus. I am very open, we share our P&L’s with all levels of managers and I like to hear others opinions and then after hearing their opinions, then I’ll make a decision.

Was that a conscience decision to choose to be a consensus leader?
It was more a lack of expertise. Having a home economics degree from the University of Arkansas, I did not have any leadership classes so it’s truly been important to me to hear others’ opinions. I hire brilliant people and want to understand their opinions; then I have enough common sense to weigh out what sounds right. I’ve made tons of mistakes but I really do listen to their suggestions. I don’t always do what they suggest but it proves to be a good process.

How do you see your leadership style impacting the culture or operations or other aspects of your company?
We hire people that have great skills– but we keep people that have not only the skills but the human touch – the element of understanding that every person in the company is important. I have let go of people that were brilliantly, technically sound but they weren’t good to the people they worked with– they berated them, they didn’t treat them with respect. I would rather have a less skilled person that truly understands we are a family business. We consider this our ministry and as long as we’re helping people improve their life and better themselves and they appreciate it, then we love working with them. If someone feels they are not being treated fairly, we have to ask ourselves if we are doing everything we can do help this person succeed. That’s a very different philosophy from most businesses, but my management team has truly bought into this. We are faith based, we pray in our meetings, before our entire employee family picnic and we pray about the decisions we are about to make.

In life or in legend, who have been your leadership role models?
There are a lot of people that I’ve admired from a far. Two people that stand out were George Herbert Walker Bush – 41st President and Warren Buffet. In both cases, they were very humble and very appreciative of people and willing to make tough decisions and just stayed the course with what they felt was right.

Do you know both of them personally?
I do. We were privileged to spend a few days with President & Mrs. Bush and were amazed at how down to earth they were and humble and wise all at the same time.

What do you think is the best decision you have made as a leader?
To say the course. There have been a lot of times that it would have been easier to sell or give up and I think I’ve been richly blessed by staying the course and looking back on the hard times and learned lessons from them, and shared those lessons learned. It would have been easy to sell our little business to the big companies and we didn’t. I stayed the course.

What was the toughest decision?
The toughest years, were when we started the second Bun Company plant. The sales just weren’t there to cover our fixed overhead and a customer that promised us a certain amount of business, just didn’t have it to give. There were many months over 2 years, that we lost between $250 – $300,000 in a month. So much of the money we were making at one plant was being used to just subsidize the other. There were so many sleepless nights, so many tears and so much frustration and I just felt I was watching myself go bankrupt in slow motion. It was very tough. That was the toughest time but everyone goes through tough times. It’s very personal.

You mentioned that this is a family business. Many family businesses have unique dynamics, in addition to typical corporate challenges. Who in your family is involved and what kind of extra dynamic does that create?
Thankfully, I married my CPA. His name is Tom and he has not only become our CFO but he has recently become a partner in the business. We’ve been married for 14 years and he is brilliant. He adds humor and passion. He is very dynamic in his own right. His daughter Beth has been my CPA since my last business and she’s brilliant and humorous and she is 2nd in line in our accounting department. My oldest son, Hunter, is running our cold storage facility. My youngest son, Tyler, is in training for bakery. My brother is my partner in another bakery. My brother-in-law is over one of the departments at one bakery. It’s just lots of family and the family has been very respectful. They understand that it’s my business and I have the final say. We don’t have issues about them being supportive even when they don’t agree with the decision. We will talk about the decision at home, but not at the office. They are very, very supportive. They see and agree with how we approach our employees, we know they will make mistakes, but as long as we know it wasn’t intentional and as long as their heart is in the right place, we will forgive and forget and move on. We try to treat them the way we want to be treated.

What’s next for Bun Companies and what’s next for Cordia Harrington?
Since the beginning, I dreamed of owning a baker overseas. The goal is to have that bakery up and running by January 2013, but we expect to get that accomplished by the end of 2011 or first quarter of 2012. We are building a high-speed bakery in China and we’ve got the customers secured, in fact we’ve gotten two customers secured for that and I’m very excited about that. My husband thinks I’m crazy, but I’m really excited about it. Along that same line, in the US we are in the process and under construction to add a line at the Nashville plant that will open up in April of this year. We are also acquiring a bakery in another state in 2011. 2011 going to be a really busy year. The last few years I’ve taken off the month of January to recoup but this year there’s no time to take off.

Cordia Harrington is the founder, CEO, and president of Tennessee Bun Company. Founded in 1996, Tennessee Bun Company supplies buns to restaurants such as McDonald’s, Chili’s and Pepperidge Farm. TBC is one of the most highly automated bakeries in the world, producing 1,000 buns per minute, and ships to 40 states east of the Rockies and to the Caribbean.

Harrington also opened Nashville Bun Company, a producer of English muffins for McDonald’s, Sheetz, Perkins and more, in 1999. She added a Hearth line to NBC in 2005 to supply McDonald’s and O’Charley’s. Bun Lady Transport was also founded in 1999. In 2005 Harrington purchased the Cold Storage of Nashville freezer facility, and CornerStone Baking Company began production in 2007.

An active member of the community, Harrington is a member of the Minnie Pearl Cancer Foundation, Leadership Nashville, Committee of 200, Chi Omega Foundation, the St. Thomas Health Services Fund and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta Board. She is very involved with Ronald McDonald House Charities locally and nationally.

Harrington has been nationally recognized in many media outlets. In 2005 she was featured on the CBS Early Show, ABC’s Money Matters, NPR’s Motley Fool and NBC Nightly News. She was number 16 in FAST Company magazine’s Fastest Growing Woman-Owned Business list in 2004 and Woman Business Owner of the Year in 2000 (National Association of Women Business Owners). Her companies have received recognition in Nashville’s Future 50 since 1999. Most recently, Harrington was named a finalist in Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year Awards and in the Nashville Business Journal’s Best in Business Awards. In 2007, Harrington was recognized as Executive of the Year by the Excellence in Manufacturing Awards, and she was named Chi Omega’s Malinda Jolley Mortin Woman of Achievement. The Bun Companies were named in the 2007 list of the “Top 100 WBEs Impacting Supplier Diversity.” In 2007, Nashville Bun Company was honored by a visit from President George W. Bush.

Start Scaling Your Business Now

Contact Breakthrough Masters For a Consultation