Karl Schledwitz loves numbers. For example: if you put every King Cotton bacon strip sold in 2015 end to end in a straight line, it would reach from Memphis to Acapulco – almost 1,400 miles. And here are some more digits to consider:
“We are 13 years old, and we have averaged 40 percent compounded annual growth rate,” he says. “We have a plan over the next five years to continue with a similar growth trajectory. I’m also proud that over the last 13 years we’ve had a 42 percent compounded growth of our EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization) or cash flow, however you want to refer to it. So, it’s not just top-line growth, it’s been bottom-line growth as well.”
The chairman and CEO of Monogram Foods was honored six years ago when this publication was named MBQ. He’d done impressive things with Monogram and now he gets the nod again because the company has gone even further. The company’s pro forma sales for 2017 are expected to exceed $700 million with 2,800 employees in seven states, and Schledwitz sees the $1 billion mark in the not too distant future.
But he’s glad to put it in less fiscal terms: “It’s a fun, challenging, and rewarding ride with more to come.”
To pull off that kind of impressive growth rate requires clear thinking and some agile business strategy. Schledwitz says it goes back to 2004 when he and his partner Wes Jackson purchased King Cotton and Circle B brand meats from Sara Lee Corporation. Its processed products include beef jerky, sausage, hot dogs, and pre-cooked bacon.
“We were committed then to create a good place to work and a company that did good things,” he says. “We have never backed off of that. Our biggest challenge, the larger we get, is maintaining the culture that we have. That is what drives us and allows us to continue enjoying the success that we have. If we ever lose sight of that I don’t think it’ll bode well for the company.”
And what is that culture?
“Like everything else, it’s evolved,” he says. “But we have behaviors that we value, and we preach and teach here in the company. Giving back to the community where we live and work is one of those. People enjoy working for companies that give back, and people feel good about it. We not only give a lot of money to charities, but we give a lot of our time and product to children’s charities everywhere we are.”
Monogram has significant involvement in charitable causes, particularly its annual Monogram Loves Kids gala in Memphis the last Thursday in October. “Last year we netted more than $500,000,” Schledwitz says. “It was done with all Monogram volunteers, so more than 92 percent of every dollar we raised will go back to a children’s charity. We’re proud of that.”
Every spring, the company has its Penny Hardaway essay contest for eleventh graders. A hundred are chosen to go to a basketball game with Penny and the top 10 get $1,000 scholarships to post-secondary education.
There is also a strong focus on hiring the right kind of employee. “Embracing positive energy is one of the behaviors we value,” Schledwitz says. “We try to bring people into the Monogram family that share similar values and have positive attitudes. And we try to get rid of what we call energy vampires. We try not to hire them. But if they slip by us, or they develop, we try to coach them up quickly or coach them out.”
To make it at Monogram, you have to have that positive energy, embrace diversity, enjoy giving back, and enjoy the entrepreneurial spirit. “This isn’t an eight-to-five job,” the entrepreneur says. “The leaders here work long and hard. When you’re growing as fast as we have, you always will have lots of growing pains. It takes a certain kind of personality to deal with all the constant change and uncertainty that comes with being part of a rapid growth company.”
Schledwitz says it surprised some people that Monogram’s growth has been more organic than by acquisitions. “We certainly get publicity when we do acquisitions. And we’ve done a lot and plan on doing a lot more. Really, 60 percent of our growth has been organic.”
And change, Schledwitz says, is coming: “The company is really at a flection point right now. We are an entrepreneur-driven company that has built what we have today off of a combination of hard work, a never-never-give-up attitude, and developing some great relationships. But as we go to the next phase — the business books talk about going from an entrepreneur stage to the pioneer stage — it’s going to require us putting in a different level of processes, and bringing in some people with skill sets to supplement and complement what we have, because we’re trying to build this company to last. We’re not building this company to sell. We have plans, and goals of going over a billion dollars in revenue in the coming years. And we plan on being around here for a long time.”
With the aggressive business plan and the corporate culture, Monogram is also trying to remain more transparent that a typical private company.
“We have quarterly town hall meetings with hundreds of folks,” he says, “bringing them up to date on how we’re doing financially. We report our strategy and we try to communicate early and often.”