Food For Thought

October 5, 2010 12:02

One of the most consistent ingredients in Blount Fine Foods' recipe for longevity may just be the ability to embrace change, reports with reference to Blount Fine Foods.

The Fall River-based manufacturer of handcrafted soups and seafood products, has, in fact, seen many changes since its launch in 1946.

"We re-conceptualize our business almost every year," said Todd Blount, the third-generation president of the company.

When Blount joined the company (then known as Blount Seafood) in 1994, it had largely made its name from selling custom clam meat products. Blount's father, then-president Frederick "Ted" Blount, gave his son responsibility for growing the market for soup as a product extension of seafood.

"We knew the clam market was limited - primarily by resource, but also by customer interest," said Blount, 42. "The soup market, on the other hand, had unlimited potential."

By the time the younger Blount was appointed president in 2000 (Ted Blount now serves as chairman), the company's soup business was beginning to take off. Today, the company produces more than 60 million servings of soup per year. Think clam chowder, lobster bisque and chicken noodle, among others.

The company has some 350 customer accounts. Its customers include national restaurant chains for which it makes custom soups, and the deli departments of supermarkets, which offer Blount-created hot-to-go soups and store-brand cups of soup. It also sells fresh and frozen soups to restaurants, club stores and retailers nationwide under the Legal Sea Foods, Panera Bread, and Blount Fine Foods brands. Meanwhile, its specialty clam products are sold to other soup makers, restaurants and retailers.

Matt Berkowitz, director of new business development at Legal Sea Foods, said Blount's value proposition is two-fold: "It's the integrity of the product they make. It's the way they cook it, and the ingredients. Secondly, it's the quality of the people in the organization."

Blount Fine Foods, which employs 200 people year-round and an additional 100 seasonal workers, has seen its revenue grow from $80 million in 2009 to projections of $94 million for 2010.

"A growing business gets used to growing," said Blount. "Once you stop, you go backwards."

As part of its strategy, Blount said the company is constantly looking for new products that build off its experiences in the recent past. In the last year, the company has introduced a line of gourmet dips and spreads. Examples are a caramelized onion dip it produces under the Panera Bread name and a crab and ale dip it produces under the Blount Fine Foods name. The company is currently developing wet salads, such as lobster and pasta salad, as its next prepared food offering.

A strong driver of the company's growth, though, continues to be its soups - which will account for $75 million of total revenue this year, as compared to $7.6 million in 2000.

"The economy has actually helped soup consumption, because of price points and variety and quality," said Robert Sewall, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Blount. "People don't feel like they're trading down at dinner time."

That growth has prompted the company to make another major change: It's undertaking an expansion of its main Fall River facility. The 58,000-square-foot expansion project will nearly double the size of the pre-existing 65,000-square-foot facility. The project, which will cost about $16 million - covering the construction itself, the addition of equipment and fit-out - is expected to be completed in January.

For Blount, there's a feeling of deja-vu: Between 2003 and 2004, he had initiated the move of the company's headquarters from Warren, R.I. (where it continues to maintain an approximately 45,000-square-foot facility), to Fall River. The company invested about $15 million - partially funded from a National Marine Fisheries Service loan program - in the project.

The construction project was largely undertaken to accommodate its growing soup business, for which it was providing soups - mostly frozen bags - to restaurant clients. With the addition of a couple of clients in the club store and retail segments, though, the company soon found itself also in the business of making refrigerated cups of soup.

The current expansion once again represents a commitment in the company's future capacity - but that's not to say there's not some anxiety.

"We want to repeat the success we had (in 2004)," Blount said. "And while I thought I would go into it with the same confidence, it still comes with some degree of fear and trepidation."

However, Blount added, those fears are abated by a driving need to be forward-thinking: "It's clear to me that if we had not made that investment in 2003/2004, we would never have made it through the past two years of high-volume (production)."

The company has also made two recent executive-level promotions: Sewall, who has led the growth of the company's refrigerated and frozen soup markets; and another veteran employee, William Bigelow, who has been named vice president of business development.

Those appointments are key, said Blount, when you consider that the company has a mandate to constantly develop new products and recipes.

"These guys keep the pipeline full," said Blount. "The promotions allow for us to build continued R&D and sales capacity beneath them and also given them the authority to make decisions directly with customers."

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