A prompt response to customers, increased sales, a talented staff, tasty products and plenty of know-how are just a few of the reasons why Tennessee Bun Co. is all fired up and in position to continue forging ahead.

Editor’s Note: The American Bakers Association’s (ABA) Executive Leadership Development Committee (ELDC) and the Society of Bakery Women (SBW) announced that Cordia Harrington, president and chief executive officer of Tennessee Bun Co., will serve as a panelist at the “ELDC & SBW Baking Industry Leadership Forum,” held Sept. 28 during the International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE) at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

“ELDC is thrilled to announce that Cordia Harrington, president and chief executive officer, Tennessee Bun Co., will serve as a panelist on our Leadership Forum” says ELDC chairman Miles Dennis, Flowers Foods. “As one of the most successful female leaders in the baking industry, Ms. Harrington will bring her own unique perspective to the panel that will be of great interest and value to all attendees.”

Find out how Harrington keeps pace with collaborative opportunities and an ever-growing demand for quality baked goods in the following story.

By Lauren R. Hartman

When Cordia Harrington was told several times that McDonald’s didn’t need another bakery, she pressed on and created another one anyway. Now known as “The Bun Lady,” Harrington, the founder, president and CEO of  Tennessee Bun Co. (TBC), is really kicking some buns in the wholesale market.

That’s why this $50-million conglomerate headquartered in Nashville, Tenn., has been selected asSnack Food & Wholesale Bakery’s 2010 Wholesale Baker of the Year.

Active in Nashville’s business community, Cordia risked it all to do what she believes in.

For fun, she often wears an exaggeratedly large set of “fake buns” to speaking engagements. But she’s also all business and has managed to parlay her early real estate company into a McDonald’s franchise ownership. After adding several restaurants, Cordia was appointed chairman of on the McDonald’s Missouri-Kansas bun committee, and in 1996, became a McDonald’s supplier, all while building TBC as a bun manufacturing business in Music City, Tenn., a car drive away from the Grand Ole Opry.

“McDonald’s was our first customer, which is incredible,” she remembers. “One thing led to another and today, we’re so very thankful to have all of the customers we do. We found that the baking industry is a wonderful industry to get involved with.”

A Rising Star
Aside from producing a lineup of artisan-style breads, melt-in-your mouth rolls, mini rolls, hoagies split rolls, yeast rolls, buns, buttermilk biscuits and regular-size and mini English muffins  in a host of varieties and configurations, the company’s recipe for success also involves plenty of hard work and lots of creativity.

In 1999, for example, product demand and fast growth prompted TBC to establish Nashville Bun Co. (NBC), which was originally developed as a packaging facility. 

With location opportunities from Paducah, Ky., to Memphis to St. Louis, TBC settled in Nashville when McDonald’s became its customer.

“A Martin-Brower [a key McDonald’s food and beverage distributor] distribution center was based here, so we decided to mimic a successful European operating model in which a bakery was situated next to a distribution center,” Cordia adds.

That’s when sales heated up. To meet the high demand, NBC transformed into a full-service baking facility with two bakery lines, including an English muffin production line and a hearth line, the latter of which was added in 2005. 

The rising star that TBC has become also has a down-to-earth business philosophy and operates as a family business. For instance, Cordia’s husband, C. Thomas Harrington, is chief operating officer, while her son, Hunter Wilkinson, is manager of supply chain operations. In 2007, Cordia, together with her brother and business partner, Alan Barton, founded CornerStone Baking Co., a frozen dough enterprise situated about three miles from the main TBC facility that produces frozen dough product for several casual dining restaurants.

Cordia also started up a cold storage facility in Nashville that services several national food companies. And if that’s not enough, in 2009, Bun Lady Transport transformed into Bakery Express, a small, bakery-dedicated fleet of trucks operating “at-cost” for the delivery of full truckloads of bakery products.

The 70,000-sq.-ft. TBC plant produces about 1,000 buns a minute and ships to 40 states East of the Rockies and to the Caribbean. In addition to McDonald’s, TBC supplies to O’Charley’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Odom’s Tennessee Pride, Pepperidge Farm and Sheetz convenience stores, as well as a host of others.

Each production facility is highly automated and has been from the beginning, Cordia says, employing metal detectors, machine vision systems, computerized weighing and touchscreen line controls to meet TBC’s exacting standards.

“We have the quality control systems in place, the equipment in place, a dedicated leadership team and talented people who understand the business. They want to learn continuously, and we also try to stay lean,” she says. “We respond to customer needs as quickly and accurately as possible, usually within a 24-hour period. We’re resourceful and quick. We decide what they need, and try to do things with flawless execution and roll out.”

With all of this going on, the company also keeps a few hundred other employees quite busy every day, including Alan Edington, vice president of operations, and Clint Adams, NBC plant manager. Together, the staff contributes to an output of some 67 million dozen-pack products each year.

“Our major goal is to keep the right people and make sure that we have the resources necessary to do the job,” Edington says. “We try to understand our individual employees’ strengths and utilize those as effectively as possible.”

A real secret to the smooth-running operation is about making sure everyone has the resources they need, Edington notes.

“During the recession, we shared people between plants, coordinated work schedules and helped our different businesses work together well. We didn’t hire anyone, but we job-shared back and forth and gave employees as many hours as possible. Our people really appreciate it and they pulled us through a difficult recessionary time.”

Developing strategic plans with customers who share a lot of the same core values is another key to its growth.

“We’re grateful for our leadership team,” Cordia adds. “Alan has helped us take on new customers and
work efficiently with customers whose sales were declining [during the recession]. With his help, our line almost doubled, and we saw a 46% increase in production in a recession year. Our goal through this recession was not to lay off any employees. And we met our goal.”

The Flexibility Factor
Even as many baking establishments struggle in today’s financial climate, TBC continues to thrive, partly because its products taste so good. Paying strict attention to food safety and quality also is equally important to the company, Edington says.

“We have a Plan to Win [campaign], which focuses on enhancing customer values, achieving superior scores on all audits, protecting the product with foreign matter control, vendor evaluation for top 10 vendors and much more,” Edington adds.

TBC also implemented new technology regarding sustainability and production and has set its own daily and hourly goals and targets, Tom says.

“We’re focused on sustainability and are upgrading our recycling efforts, our lighting, the handling of products in our wastestream, our air compressors, drives and baking ingredient technology,” he says. “We are applying our sustainability program to our cold storage warehouse to cut utility costs -- sustainability was a natural there. We have saved quite a bit in utility costs by utilizing sustainability programs. We’ve also upgraded some of our ingredient technology and vision systems and will be adding some new packaging technology equipment applied to other industries that hasn’t been in the baking area but is being adapted to the bakery sector. We are also planning to add another plant because of customer demand. We’re being asked to find out how we can innovate and improve the services related to the product so they’re more useful for customers. Customers want us to tell them what new things to do and require us to get closer to them. ”

People Power
Not everything flows as simply as warm, buttery biscuit dough, though, especially in the early years.

“We have gone through tough periods when you don’t have enough volume so you’re in the negative for a while,” Cordia says. “I wasn’t involved in making rolls and buns when I was an owner/operator of the McDonald’s franchises. So I got a chance to sit on McDonalds’ bun committee and learn about the supply chain. When we became a supplier to them, after a lot of interviews and calls and discussions, we sold about $4 million the first year. But even though we were selling, we were only producing about 28 hours a week back then, so we had to get more customers.”

Likewise, some of the biggest challenges are finding the right talent and leadership to do everything they want to accomplish, she says.

“We’re limited only by the amount of leadership that can execute flawlessly and provide the right quality and so forth,” Cordia adds. “But today, I think we have the absolute best team ever to serve our customers. We could put our team up against anybody’s team. We’ve been very strategic not only in what our staff’s skills are but what their core values are.”

That’s why TBC uses measurement tools to help understand its employees’ strengths. New employees are tested and surveyed as to what they naturally do best, which has helped strategically place new hires in the jobs best suited to them.

“When we were inexperienced in the first few years, it took us a little time to match the right people with the right production line and product,” Tom says. “Some production folks run soft buns better than they run hearth rolls, some run biscuits better than muffins, so once we got the products and the lines set with the right people, our bottom line went up.”

For its growing roster of customers, TBC also helps tie one type of customer with another when the opportunity arises.

“We’d like to be a one-stop shop to serve our customers’ needs,” Cordia says. “Customers are more sophisticated than ever before. They’re interested in outsourcing a lot of R&D initiatives they no longer have in-house.”

One of TBC’s biggest competitive advantages is that it has the same technology and equipment as the biggest bakers in the United States, if not more.

“We also have talented people who understand Lean [Manufacturing] and Six Sigma,” Cordia says. “But we also have managed to stay very lean. If someone needs a sample, a price or an answer, we provide it to them within 24 hours. So we’re quick and resourceful, whether a customer wants to look at new packaging or a new type of cutter or a project rollout. And our high attention to food safety and quality are second to none.” 

TBC also operates according to emerging trends, such as the increase in breakfast products, including biscuits, English muffins and home breakfast items, convenience store items and alternative bread

“We also are noticing products with fewer calories and things containing more whole wheat or less gluten,” Cordia explains.

For instance, products that are more specialized are very popular and TBC is working with some of its clients on research and development projects involving nutritious formulations and how to distribute those to the market.

“The Cordia factor is huge for our business,” Tom points out. “I have never met anyone who is a better networker than she is. She is a natural. Alan comes up with new ideas and Cordia rounds up the customers through whatever magical system she has. It takes work and a lot of energy to constantly deliver the best.”

The company plans to introduce some new products, including new frozen dough formulations, biscuits, mini rolls, and new ingredient formulations, and perhaps add a flatbread line. As a result, distribution should expand geographically into the Southwestern portion of the United States, maybe pursue an international presence.

“Coming out with new ingredients or adding new technology, it seems the more we get involved with more new products, the busier we are,” Cordia adds.

It’s all in a day’s work for The Bun Lady and the TBC crew.