Some companies’ names are self-explanatory. At first glance, Request Foods appears to be one of them. After all, granting customer requests is exactly what this contract processor aims to do.
But, if you ask President Jack DeWitt about the name’s origin, you’ll find out that there’s more to the story - and the company.
“It came from sitting around the dinner table. There was a boat out on the small lake that we live by here in Holland, [Mich.] and it was named Windquest. And we thought windquest … sunquest, starquest,” he explains. “Then we came up with request and we ran that by different sales people and tested how it sounds when you answer the phone. And that’s how it came to be.
“It’s a great word,” he adds with a smile.
It’s fitting that Request’s name was born out of a DeWitt family dinner. That’s because family plays into nearly everything that happens here at Request’s 370,000-square-foot Holland plant and headquarters.
“Our company philosophy is family,” DeWitt says. “We’re a family here and we communicate well and we express our opinions. We seek input from every level of management on major decisions. … It’s just in our culture.”
This family-values philosophy permeates every aspect of Request’s business - from the “People Services” programs in place for the company’s more than 400 employees; to the trust-based collaborative relationships it establishes with co-packing partners; to the way executives communicate with each other.
“We love the family atmosphere,” says Steve DeWitt, director of purchasing and quality assurance, and one of DeWitt’s five children. “It starts at the top with dad and trickles all the way down. We want to keep the family atmosphere as we continue to grow and add new members.”
Still, Request already has seen impressive growth and has managed to keep the family feel in tact. In 1988, DeWitt gathered a team of investors to buy the convenience foods division of his father’s turkey company (Bil-Mar Foods), back from Sara Lee Corp. Since then, Request has seen a 10 percent average sales increase per year with sales expected to reach $200 million in 2009. The company now has the capability to process more than 400 different SKUs of frozen entrees and side dishes - including best-sellers such as lasagna, macaroni and cheese and stuffed peppers. In order to meet increasing customer demand, Request’s Holland operations have expanded at least four times in the last 10 years with the latest addition due for completion this spring.
“We are close to 90-percent capacity right now,” DeWitt says. “We do have some property across the street, approximately 20 acres and that possibly is where our next step would be. But that depends on the customers and their location and where the products need to be shipped.”
Today these customers include some of the nation’s largest food brands, foodservice distributors, club stores, retailers and restaurant chains. In fact, Request recently completed a second test kitchen so that its research and development team has more space to work and develop products for its growing customer base.
Taking care of your ownDeWitt believes one way to ensure a top-quality product is to take the best possible care of your workers.
“We had a customer here a couple weeks ago and they couldn’t believe how happy our people were,” he says. “When you walk through our plant, people will be smiling.”
That’s because DeWitt makes sure that they have something to smile about. This starts with nixing the sterile-sounding “human resources” in favor of the friendlier “people services” and making sure that workers have healthy lifestyles. DeWitt introduced a smoking cessation program with incentives for quitters, and he claims to have not hired an active smoker in 10 years. Four years ago, the company built an on-site recreation center with treadmills, bicycles, weights and other fitness equipment.
“We are very conscious about healthy people,” DeWitt says. “We just want to have healthy people because we believe that they are going to work better and get along with their peers.”
Request also offers free off-site counseling services and has four part-time chaplains on staff (one fluent in each language spoken by plant workers).
“Dad does an unbelievable job of taking care of all 430 employees,” Steve says. “He has a genuine concern for all the people that work here.”
In return, these Holland-area workers reward DeWitt with loyalty. Turnover rate is less than 8 percent, including retirees.
“We have a performance bonus plan for everybody. Everyone gets new objectives that they have to obtain every six months, and they are measured,” DeWitt explains. “The system works and it helps us manage the business better because everyone knows what they have to do. It’s a generous program. We love to share with everybody who works here, and it helps us grow.”
Request expects to grow even more during the next five years. At least 200 new members will be hired to staff a 100,000-square-foot section of the plant currently under renovation. Michigan news source mlive.com reports that Request signed a 10-year contract with the Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J., to process 100 million pounds of frozen soup per year for foodservice distribution - necessitating the $26.1 million expansion. Also included in the renovation is a new waste water treatment facility, which will be partially funded by Michigan Economic Growth Authority grants, mlive.com reports.
After the current construction project is complete, DeWitt says Request could be looking at even more physical growth.
“If business remains strong, like it has been, we will probably look at plans for building a new facility - either across the street or some other location,” he says.
Extended familyIf history - and the current economy - are any indication, there’s no reason to assume that business will slow down. For food companies looking to launch innovative products quickly and cost-effectively Request’s impressive research and development team is a viable option. In fact, Request officials say the company’s R&D team often functions as an extension of its customers’ businesses.
“We continue to meet the needs of our customers in providing more than a manufacturing resource,” says Jeff Gehres, director of sales and product development. “The R&D team has been able to work side-by-side with our customers’ product development teams to develop great national food branded products and private label items that were introduced to retail and foodservice customers throughout the year.”
In the last year these products have included all-natural and clean label lines, single-serve meals and family-size cartons with a variety of products packaged together.
“Expedience is a must for any [customer] who is coming to us,” adds Mike Bader, manager of product development. “Development times - concept to market - are just so much quicker now. Everybody, as soon as they start working with us, they start watching the clock. And they want to hit the target flavor and appearance just as quickly as they can.
“I think more companies are recognizing that they can really speed up development by having their research scientist or development technician come in and work with us,” he adds.
For this reason, Request recently built a second 1,300-square-foot test kitchen. Tucked away in a low-traffic area, this new kitchen even has its own conference rooms and offices.
“The plan is still to do most of our development in our original kitchen and use the second test kitchen for visiting customers,” Bader says. “So they can work on development with a little bit more privacy and dedicated resources.”
Balancing collaboration with multiple companies - some who may be competitors - is something that Request pays careful attention to.
“It’s a huge deal for us to maintain confidentiality since we could be co-packing competitors’ products right next to each other on the same day in the plant,” Bader says.
The co-packer relationship makes trust and openness on both sides of the relationship a necessity, and Request Foods’ business philosophy is uniquely suited to the challenge.
“We try to build relationships [with our customers] because that’s what it’s really all about, communicating and maintaining good relationships by being innovative and showing them new products and new ideas,” DeWitt says.
Bader adds, “Once a customer realizes you do have integrity and that you don’t promise something that you can’t deliver, they’ll want to do more business with you. They come to us next time because they know they can go to Request and get solutions and creative thinking.”
Executives are quick to point out that Request’s unique R&D team is never short on ideas. Each of the company’s seven chefs comes from a culinary training background.
“That’s always been the Request Foods philosophy,” Bader says. “It’s always been to hire culinary backgrounds as opposed to food science backgrounds. That definitely makes us unique.”
Adds Gehres, “This department is the heartbeat of Request Foods and we are always looking for new and innovative ideas from them.”
Lean on meBader says he takes pride in his team’s innovative ideas, including better-for-you formulations “that actually look and taste good.” Even so, he is quick to add that the product development process involves the entire Request family.
“We work very closely with production people, we work very closely with the quality department and purchasing,” he says. “It’s definitely a team effort so that there aren’t any surprises once you get to market. Once you are gearing up for that first production run you don’t want to suddenly realize that you left some other department out of the loop, and they say ‘we can’t buy that in time’ or ‘that won’t work in our plant.’”
Request officials say the hallmarks of co-packing - temporary contracts, steady streams of new orders and hundreds of different SKUs - can add up to a world of confusion without clear communication.
“We have bulletin boards all over where we communicate everything,” DeWitt says. “Every quarter we have a company update where we talk about sales, profits, new customers, new products and open up [the discussion] to questions.
“So all the information we need is at our fingertips,” he adds. “We know how we’re doing within five days of the last month. This is important if we have to make adjustments and decisions.”
And, similar to many others in the food business, Request found 2008 was a year of making unprecedented adjustments.
Says Gehres, “Commodity pricing has been brutal on us over the past year. We purchase very large quantities of dairy items, meat, vegetables and semolina flour, and all of these ingredients increased this past year and caused us to look at how we go to market with our pricing.”
Even as commodity and fuel prices are beginning to level out, the company still is recouping.
“Last year, it was historic and we just couldn’t keep up,” Steve says. “Some prices went up 200 percent. We thought, we’ll just ride it out. It can’t last forever. We were all surprised that it lasted longer than we expected.”
Request found other ways to save. For example, sourcing more ingredients from local Michigan farmers and consolidating ingredient supply cut down on shipping costs.
“We process a lot of vegetables and we’ve been working with vegetable growers in Michigan,” Steve says. “We’re really trying to focus on buying locally, which saves money for everybody.”
Clearly, something is working. In fact, later this year Request anticipates opening a new plant.
“We’re pretty close to maximizing this facility. So, a second facility is definitely in the near future,” Steve says. “My goal definitely is to continue dad’s vision. We’re not done yet. We still want to grow and provide for the many families that work here - and for new families who will join the team.”
Request Foods At a GlanceTop executive:Jack DeWitt, President
Location: Holland, Mich.
2008 annual sales: $172 million
Products: More than 400 frozen entrée and side dishes
Profile: In 1938, Request President Jack DeWitt’s father and uncle started Bil-Mar Foods, a Zeeland, Mich.-based turkey processing company. As the company grew, Bil-Mar began producing dishes such as chicken cordon bleu and other convenience foods. In 1987, the DeWitt family sold Bil-Mar to Sara Lee Corp., Downers Grove, Ill. In 1989, Jack DeWitt and a team of investors bought the convenience foods division of Bil-Mar back from Sara Lee and broke ground on the Request Foods plant and headquarters in Holland. From 1990 to 1993, approximately 40 percent of Request’s business was frozen airline entrees. Since then, the processor has specialized in co-packing for some of the largest national foodservice distributors, retail brands, retailers and club stores.