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Don Kirkpatrick; amid the elegant surroundings, he's growing Quality Foods with an open-collar style.



The offices are astonishing; antique paneling and desks, doors, beveled mirrors, marble counter tops, brass hard ware and stained glass are found throughout. There are four fireplaces.

Sitting alone, you expect to see Winston Churchill, cigar jutting from his mouth, a brandy in one hand, standing at the huge break-front that constitutes the end wall of the conference room, revising a speech to move the masses.

But this is not Chartewell. These are the offices of Quality Foods Inc., the state's largest independent institutional food distributor and the handiwork of Don Kirkpatrick, its open-collar president.

The beauty of these surroundings is compounded by the fact that the offices are located in the north end of a 250,000-SF warehouse off Asher Avenue in Little Rock.

"I just admired the old craftsmanship," says Kirkpatrick. Three years before the warehouse and offices were built (they moved there in 1985) he began buying antiques from estate sales and old hotels. He put the antiques to work by building the new offices around them.

"The antiques make for a nicer environment," Kirkpatrick says. That suits his philosophy that a nice environment means a happier employee, and a happy employee does better work.

At age 51, and 30 years as president of Quality Foods, Kirkpatrick is at the top -- and still growing.

Gross sales for 1988 topped $50 million. That's more than a $10 million increase over 1987.

"I can remember the day when we weren't selling $10 million a year," Kirkpatrick remembers. "That hasn't been too many years ago.

"Our goal for 1989 is $65 million and we think we'll hit that figure," he adds.

Amidst the elegant furnishings and atop the largest, most successful institutional food distributing company in the state, there is nothing stuffy or pretentious about Don Kirkpatrick. It's an informal, open-collar shop, with a from-the-top-down belief in comfort while working. Everyone calls the boss "Don." The atmosphere he generates is "down home."

Sitting at the head of a conference table, his eyeglasses in hand, Kirkpatrick's demeanor is relaxed, precise, proud, and in no way boisterous. In fact, he strongly understates his own achievements.

"I don't know that I've had that much success, oh, maybe some," Kirkpatrick replies, when asked about his obvious, tremendous success.

Business success can be measured in many different ways. In Kirkpatrick's case, the telephone bill is a vivid example. A copy of a 1966 telephone bill is mounted a board in the office, along with other Quality Foods/Kirkpatrick memorabilia. The average telephone bill for Quality Foods for that year was $20.78 a month. Today, the telephone bill runs between $15,000 and $20,000 a month. That's growth.

Today, Quality Foods' distribution area includes all of Arkansas and extends into surrounding states. Twenty years ago the distribution area consisted of Little Rock and North Little Rock. That explains the difference in the telephone bills.

"We have 4,000 active accounts," Kirkpatrick says. "Out of those there are probably 2,500 that I call good, solid accounts. They are our customer base.

"We carry about 6,000 to 7,000 different items, which is a long way from a poultry and egg house."

Kirkpatrick took the short route to business. He was raised on a 39-acre farm near Greenbrier, Ark. His first job, outside the farm and helping his father peddle eggs and produce from the back of a pickup truck, was driving a school bus for $80 a month while a senior in high school.

He and his wife, Carolyn, also from Greenbrier, -- "She was a top basketball player," Kirkpatrick interjects. -- married in 1955, after high school. She went to work at a West's Department Store, he tried his hand at college.

"I met one of the managers and he said, `Don, why worry about a college degree when you can make more money managing a store,'" he recalls. "It was probably bad information, but then it didn't take much to get me out of college."

Kirkpatrick and his wife were transferred to Minden, La., in 1957 where he managed his own store. It lasted four months. He returned to Little Rock to work for his uncle, Alvin Kirkpatrick, who had owned and operated Quality Poultry & Egg Co. for 20 years.

On Jan. 1, 1958, Kirkpatrick bought out Uncle Alvin for $2,000. His father mortgaged his farm so he could buy the company.

"There wasn't anything to buy really," Kirkpatrick says. "He had a couple of old pickup trucks, an old-timey egg grader and a old drum chicken picker."

This, of course, was before the days of major chicken processors and supermarkets. For example, the drum chicken picker was a rotating barrel with rubber fingers attached inside. "After you've slaughtered the chicken, you press the weight of the chicken against the rubber fingers inside the rotating drum and it picks one side of the chicken."

At that time, there were 20 or so small poultry and egg companies in Little Rock just like him. The companies operated by driving out to farms at night, picking up chickens and eggs, hauling them back to Little Rock, processing them, then delivering them to customers. The company consisted of himself, Carolyn and two delivery men.

"We did it all: processing, weighing, packing and shipping," Kirkpatrick says. "When that day was over, then we would go out on a truck to the farms and haul poultry in. There were many days I got home in time to shave and go back to work."

Quality Poultry & Egg Company would operate out of a 28-by-50 foot building for eight years. One of the first clients was Wayne Owens, owner of Owens Frozen Foods in Pine Bluff. He laughs when asked about how different Kirkpatrick is since those frenzied first days. "He's more gray-headed."

"You can't beat Don," adds Owens. "He'll speak to anybody and he never forgets a friend. Don is one of the fairest guys you'll ever see in business. He'll give and take when it comes to business."

People who know Kirkpatrick all mention his integrity, hard work, and his "instinct."

"He just has an instinct for business," says Judge Steele Hays of the state Supreme Court, who has known Kirkpatrick and his family for many years. "If he's ever had a failure, I'm not aware of it."

Maurice Lewis, president and chief executive officer of the Arkansas Hospitality Association, has known Kirkpatrick for more than 15 years.

"I think he's an extremely dynamic individual, the epitome of the entrepreneur," Lewis says. "He worked his way to the top."

Lewis, like Owens, concludes that success "hasn't changed him one ounce."

"He never gives you any indication that you are anything but one of the neighbors," Lewis says.

The instinct and desire to grow started taking shape two years after buying out his uncle.

In 1960, Kirkpatrick purchased Times Poultry; in 1962 he purchased Seventh Street Poultry; in 1963 he bought out Kingrey Poultry; and in 1964 he built a new 6,000-SF warehouse at 1825 Woodrow Street, and increased the truck fleet to seven.

"At that time we were still processing poultry," Kirkpatrick says. But things were changing. Major poultry processors were emerging in the state; restaurant and other type chains were replacing the "mom and pop" operations. Things were speeding up. By 1970, the company stopped processing on its own and began buying from others. In 1974 the name of the company was changed to Quality Foods Inc., as it had become more than poultry and egg house.

Since the first forays into expansion in 1960, Kirkpatrick has kept up with the changes, and the technology to efficiently institute those changes. Throughout the 30 years of nearly steady growth, the adding of products and increasing customer base, the operation constantly is being updated and streamlined.

Throughout Kirkpatrick's own resume are scattered various courses and seminars: Dale Carnegie, computer management course, positive thinking seminar, human relations courses. All of these kept him a step ahead, and he's passed these opportunities to his staff.

"We make a lot of seminars," Kirkpatrick says. As a result, he says his company can quickly change to meet an existing need in the market.

Every aspect of Quality Foods Inc. is computerized; from the temperature controls on the freezers, to the analyzing of each telephone sales call to determine its cost and productivity, to each delivery truck. Has the roof become too hot in the summer sun? A sprinkler system cools it down.

Computer tapes of trucks are analyzed each week and bring forth information about gas mileage, speeding, time the engine ran at idle and how many times the breaks were applied.

This massive data collection assists Kirkpatrick and his management staff of seven in ensuring that each dollar is being used efficiently. Tracking the working dollar makes or breaks profits in a business of thin profit margins.

In this endeavor, Kirkpatrick's management style is based on fairness, hard work and delegation. Quality Foods is run together by Kirkpatrick and his management team.

"I tell them they know more about my business than I do," he says. "I've prided myself in going out and finding the best people available and letting them do their own job. They have the choice of making their own decisions, they don't have to come to me."

And when mistakes are made, that's okay by the boss "Errors are good," Kirkpatrick explains. "That's the way they learn, that's the way I learn."

That philosophy goes right down the line to the 170 employees. In addition, Kirkpatrick says you have to pay people to get top performance.

"I don't think there's any company in the state that will pay better wages than what we pay," Kirkpatrick crows. "But wages is just part of it, not all of it."

Most warehouses pay their workers by the hour, their truck drivers by the mile. Quality Foods pays warehouse workers by how many pieces they can pick. A standard is set, say 100 cases of product an hour at $7 per hour. Should the worker pick 140 cases an hour, he is paid 140 percent of his hourly wage, or $9.80 an hour.

Truck drivers are paid by the mile, by the stop, by the number of pieces delivered and the dollar value of merchandise on his truck. All of this information is fed into a computer to derive a driver's pay. "They are well paid, but they're not over-paid for the work they do because the work is some of the hardest you'll find."

Of his business, Kirkpatrick is the type to talk all day long, of the intricacies of how the operation is set up and how it works or doesn't work. As for himself, he is reticent.

"I'm not a leader, I'm a follower," Kirkpatrick says. "I always want someone else to take the limelight."

Many people who know Kirkpatrick disagree with part of that statement. They say he is the best kind of leader -- he leads quietly and by example. There's certainly no indication he has ever been a ring-in-the-nose type follower. It appears he's always gone his own way and taken care of his own business.

He does not put himself in the limelight. Modesty is the code word.

A search of newspaper files for the past 20 years reveals very little about Kirkpatrick. There are quite a few clippings on Quality Foods and each development in its growth.

He is a member of the Arkansas Poutry Federation; sits on the Board of Trustees for the Scimitar Shrine Temple; and traveling and boating are hobbies.

There have been a couple of times Kirkpatrick found himself in the glow of the spotlight.

In 1972 he ventured to tear down an old house at 18th and Broadway, and build a 7-Eleven convenience store. For the developing preservationist movement, that was the first round in what became known as The Battle of Broadway.

The neighborhood mobilized and fought against having the old house torn down. Kirkpatrick just wanted to improve his property.

"I didn't want the battle, but I had put my money down," he says. The battle raged, the house was torn down, the 7-Eleven built. The neighborhood group remained organized, fought future battles to stop the razing of old houses, and somehow Kirkpatrick was indirectly responsible. "Maybe it was good," he says with a shrug.

For a man who had sought to be fair and open in building up his business, the publicity followed him. A few years later he became owner of a deteriorating old house in Little Rock's Quapaw Quarter district and began renovation.

"Another newspaper article came out that said I had a change of mind [about the 7-Eleven incident] and was trying to mend a wrong," Kirkpatrick says. "That was not really the case. I had become interested in old houses and antiques."

"I fixed it up and spent a lot money," Kirkpatrick says. "I owned it for five years. I enjoyed it. I never lived there. My daughter and son-in-law lived there for a couple of years in the carriage house in the back. I took a lot of pride in it."

Kirkpatrick never has strayed very far from the success of Quality Foods, choosing to follow his instincts and beliefs that he knows the food business best. For a brief time, Kirkpatrick was part of group that held a Coors Beer distributorship in the early 1980s. However, he sold out four years ago.

"I'm not a beer distributor," Kirkpatrick says. "The fact of the matter is I was raised in the Baptist Church."

He says sometimes you get involved in a battle to get something, and then realize you need it "like a hole in the head."

Being president of Quality Foods, being on top, is Kirkpatrick's love. Two of his three children, a son-in-law, a brother-in-law, a niece and a nephew all work in the business.

He still puts in long days, even after heart-bypass surgery six years ago.

"The first year [after surgery] I slowed down a little bit, but gradually forgot about that," Kirkpatrick says.

A typical day begins at 7 to 7:30 a.m. He says until 6 p.m. On Saturdays, he says he comes in for a couple of hours.

With that type of schedule, you get the impression only Don Kirkpatrick could explain his devotion to the task at hand by saying:

"You might even classify work as a hobby." Joe Holmes is a free-lance writer living in Little Rock.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Holmes, Joe
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jan 30, 1989
Next Article:Calvin King.

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