How One Employee-Owned Company Grows and Grows…

If you wanted to understand a successful, rapidly growing company like PFSbrands, you might start with the bare facts. It’s a food-service business headquartered in Holts Summit, Missouri, a couple of hours west of St. Louis. Inc. magazine has recognized it repeatedly as one of the nation’s fastest-growing private companies. Great Place to Work Institute has certified it as, well, a Great Place to Work, thanks to 94% of the employee owners saying it is indeed a great place to work. The company carries the 100% employee-owned seal from Certified EO.

PFSbrands has grown steadily, from 34 employees eight years ago to 135 today. Revenues have increased at double-digit rates for 19 consecutive years and are on track to hit approximately $70 million in 2018. The stock value has jumped from $1 a share when the ESOP became the company’s owner—January 3, 2017—to $5.88.

Next, you could go on to examine the company’s business model, although you might end up a bit confused. PFSbrands is sort of a franchisor, though it charges no upfront franchise fees and no ongoing royalties. Supermarkets and convenience stores sign up with the company to put one of its branded hot-food programs inside their existing businesses. (Champs Chicken is the flagship product; others are BluTaco, Cooper’s Express, and private-label brands.) PFSbrands will help not just with setup, marketing, and training but with ongoing support designed to help customers maximize sales and profitability. It contracts with manufacturers and wholesalers to provide the stores with product.

But PFSbrands is also a manufacturer itself: its PFS Blends division makes breading for fried chicken and other uses, not just for PFS’s own products but for other customers. The company runs a logistics division with its own fleet of trucks. It sells new and used equipment for commercial kitchens. It operates a printshop that can provide all the banners and brochures a customer might want.

“It’s kind of a unique business model,” says Shawn Burcham, chuckling. CEO Burcham, now 47, founded the company with his wife some 20 years ago.

A third path to understanding: watch some of the employee testimonials on a YouTube video. Sure, the video is a company-sponsored production—but it would be hard to fake the enthusiasm and excitement that people exhibit on camera. “The culture is something I’ve never seen before in my life,” says Andrew Reinkemeyer, a production assistant. He smiles broadly. “I didn’t really know that corporate environments like this existed.”

What is that culture? Employees use words like family a lot. They mention the laughter, the birthday lunches, the mutual support. Just the other week, PFSbrands celebrated 20 years in business and the opening of a new office facility with a big family picnic and fireworks. But it’s also a business-focused, results-oriented environment. Everyone learns financial basics through the company’s open-book management system. “We want people who are willing to set high standards, to be accountable, and to take risks,” says Burcham.

Finding those people is the primary job of Carla Dowden and her team. Dowden heads up PFSbrands’ “People Success” department. “We don’t call it Human Resources,” she explains. “That has the connotation of going to the principal’s office. We’re here to help people succeed.”

Recruiting, Dowden is quick to explain, is everybody’s job, not just the responsibility of her department. You can be in the warehouse, in sales, wherever—PFSbrands expects you to keep an eye out for individuals who can help the business grow. The company accepts applications all the time. It uses a lengthy career-history questionnaire and interview template to identify people who would be a good fit. If there are no openings at the moment, it will develop “bench players” whom it stays in close touch with. “When a job opens up, we want to be able to say, ‘We have six bench players, and here are their skill sets,’” says Dowden. “Then we can find the right one out of that group.”

Next steps for PFSbrands? More growth. Dowden expects to add 15 or 20 new people in 2019. Burcham has his sights set on nonstop business expansion over the next couple of decades, including diversifying into new markets. “We think we can go from $70 million to $1 billion in 20 years,” he says. “There’s lots of opportunity.”