FORT WORTH, Texas — For Bill Sewell, switching gears from director of marketing to director of produce and dairy has been a learning experience.

Sewell, who has been with foodservice distributor Ben E. Keith since 1984, started out with the company in its redistribution facility, Keith Central Distribution, and has a background in consumer goods.
He was the director of marketing for eight years before swapping jobs with David Werner in July. Werner, the former director of produce and dairy, took over as director of marketing.

“The thought was that we both could bring new experience and ideas to these new areas,” Sewell said. “I really enjoy it.”

Ben E. Keith celebrated 100 years in business in 2006 with more than $100 million in produce sales.

The past year has been tougher than most, however.

“Sales had been flat, but were up over the last month, so that’s a good sign that we’re showing improvement in the economy,” he said on Dec. 17.

For Ben E. Keith, being a Texas-based company meant the recession hit a little lighter than elsewhere in the country, Sewell said.

“Unemployment’s more like 8.5% here versus 10% elsewhere,” he said.

“Foreclosures have been less and people’s home values continue to grow.”

Ben E. Keith is weathering the storm so far.

“We’ve had no layoffs. We’re not adding many (workers), though,” he said.

To help make deliveries more efficient, Ben E. Keith has implemented a system in which truck drivers scan each case of product at the delivery site to check for accuracy.

This has greatly improved delivery times and makes thing a lot easier, especially for chain business.

“The driver can have the key code and go in and deliver product without someone having to be there,” he said.

“It’s more efficient all the way around.”

The company planned to have a new distribution center in the Houston suburb of Missouri City up and running, but construction has been delayed because of site issues.

Going forward, Sewell said Ben E. Keith is looking to see how much local produce is feasible and how the company would define what is local produce.

“We’re still interested in doing it, but there is a lot of questions about food safety and good agricultural practices (with smaller growers) to consider,” he said.

More specialty items, and possibly organic produce, are on the horizon as well, Sewell said.