Carlin O'Brien Batson
The food brokerage industry is often dominated by national conglomerates, offering a one-size-fits-all solution and little in terms of direct ownership and involvement. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, Carlin O’Brien Batson (COB) stands out in the crowded marketplace with young, hands-on, independent ownership.
As a full-service food broker and manufacturer representative, COB has expanded its territories throughout the Midwest. The company has taken on a substantial client base across various food channels by running lean and mean, offering efficient ordering and distribution technology and focusing on relationships.
“The advantage we offer is we’re more hands on in terms of ownership and management and all of our resources stay right in the marketplace,” says Ray Peuler, executive vice president of COB. “We’re privately held and our resources are reinvested back into the company.”
With a home base in Grand Rapids, COB also has strategic locations in Detroit, Indianapolis, Tennessee, Ohio and Kentucky. The company now runs the gamut in food brokerage, working with grocery items, frozen and dairy products, meat, fresh produce and confections across the grocery, food service and convenience store sectors.
In an industry that has experienced a large amount of consolidation in recent years, COB’s owners are committed to remaining independent. The brokerage firm began in 1999 as Batson & Associates. Batson & Associates joined Chicago-based Carlin O’Brien through a strategic equity partnership five years ago, forming what is now COB.
Peuler, who had worked with the partners before COB, was asked to join the company three years ago when Bill Batson retired in 2010. The senior leadership team also includes Andy Young, CEO and Al Vergilio, president of COB.
“When things started in 1999, there was a lot of consolidation happening across the industry because two national brokers — one from Florida and one from California — were buying up other agencies,” explains Peuler. “This made a lot of room for opportunities for COB, which started as a candy broker but quickly moved into frozen foods, produce, meat, dairy, grocery and full-service food brokerage.”
As the number of brokers compacted across the marketplace, more channels opened up including grocery, mass merchant and foodservice. “It was a rapid expansion, but we did it at the right pace,” says Peuler. “We’re not that old of an organization, but our experience in the market is long ranging and this helped us navigate and expand.”
Gaining ground across the Midwest
COB has picked up some key partners along the way. “We have Meijer, SpartanNash, S. Abraham & Sons and H.T. Hackney, both convenience customers; and we have a family-owned food service company based in Grand Rapids named Gordon Food Service.”
Through these key customers and many more, COB has grown throughout the Midwest. “We’ve expanded our organization from a handful of people in '99 to more than 150 employees today,” adds Peuler.
As full-service brokers and manufacturer representatives, the COB team starts by calling on customers for product representation and distribution. “We follow this all the way through to the retail level and our sales associates call on stores and pull products through,” explains Peuler. “Then our administrative staff ensures complete payment back to the client for the ordered goods.”
Pushing the perimeter
Peuler says COB is realizing major growth potential, particularly in the perimeter meat and produce areas of stores. “We just added Earthbound Farms Organic produce to our list and some free-range, organic poultry companies,” he says. “This area has expanded considerably in the last two years because it’s where more consumers are shopping and it’s key to store decision- making.”
He says COB is also seeing more opportunity in food service. “For a while, it’s been split down the middle in terms of consumer dollars in home consumption to away-from-home consumption,” he explains. “Food service is continuing to integrate into the grocery class and there’s big opportunity for growth here. Also, the c-store market is strong and we’re well positioned on the cutting edge of c-store growth.”
Lean, mean and more efficient
To keep pace with national-level competition, Peuler says COB has distinguished itself through leading ordering and distribution technology. “We have the best tools to get the job done in terms of technology,” he says. “We use iPads and laptops so our retail reps, management and account managers have access to real-time information. This allows us to stay on top of our customers’ products and make solid marketing decisions to keep a consistent flow from shelf to consumer.”
The company utilizes the MV Retail app, a mobile team management tool that empowers sales reps with real-time data in the field, while tracking, responding and taking action on projects and requests in an instant. This program helps COB increase distribution and speed to shelf, identify out-of-stock items, verify code numbers, track point-of-sale displays, make on-the-spot assignments and more.
While Peuler says the best advertising for COB is word-of-mouth referrals, the company also makes a point to attend industry trade shows and events. “We go to about six events a year — everything from the National Frozen Food Convention to the National C-Store Convention and the International Dairy, Deli and Bakery Conference,” he says.
By maintaining longstanding relationships and reaching out to new potential customers, COB is positioned for unprecedented expansion. “We’re keeping pace with the national players that continue to sell a one-size-fits-all solution because we stay up with technology and our hands-on ownership allows us to make quick decisions,” adds Peuler.
In an industry where few independently owned brokers remain, Carlin O’Brien Batson is staying strong through agile ownership, leading technology efficiencies and close customer connections.