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Ready. Set. Serve. A Q&A With Andy Hamilton, Chief Executive Officer, Markon

Ready. Set. Serve. A Q&A With Andy Hamilton, Chief Executive Officer, Markon

Among the most valuable treasures in our industry are experience and time, both of which we cannot steal, borrow, or get back.

But, we can share.

After taking the captain’s seat in October 2020, Andy Hamilton stepped up at a tumultuous moment not only in Markon’s long history but in foodservice overall. As he observes, even the longest tenured in produce had not gone through a global pandemic, certainly not one since technology radically changed how our world operates. But strong ties to the past and a carefully constructed foundation hold echoes of the experience Markon and its members need, and time has seen patience grow into perseverance.

Now, on the cusp of a new year, the Chief Executive Officer says his team has much to share as it readies itself not to survive this new era, but to help lead it.

Melissa De Leon Chavez: Andy, we are now in the second half of 2021 with a year and a half of pandemic lessons behind us, but not gone. Will you tell me a bit about stepping in to take the helm for Markon at such a challenging time? What strengths and/or wisdom from previous experiences helped you navigate that?

Andy Hamilton, Chief Executive Officer, Markon: Our Board Members were all very supportive of Markon, and they provided a lot of guidance. When I started last October, Markon already retained our key leaders in critical positions throughout every functional area. Moreover, we had key veteran leaders, such as Mark Shaw, our Vice President of Operations, who helped navigate Markon during this transition. My job was to ensure we kept growing and developing our talented staff to position Markon for supporting our members’ upcoming sales and business growth. Since our members possess the physical assets, Markon brings solely our people and their talents to our members and customers.

Markon’s past and present leaders have done a tremendous job building a timeless organization whose people have long demonstrated unsurpassed industry leadership.

While I’ve worked a long time in the produce industry, my background is quite a bit different than almost everyone else in our business. I was an engineering major at Georgia Tech (Georgia Institute of Technology), and although I don’t recall employing differential equations since I graduated, there’s a process and mentality which never leaves. The problems we must solve may be tactical, strategic, or a combination thereof, but I always approach every situation as a process and work with our team to formulate a plan.

Since the first day I joined this fine company, the entire Markon organization has responded with consistent grit and focused execution.

MDC: It certainly has. What would you say has laid the foundation of that spirit, which continues to stay so strong amid challenges like the pandemic?

AH: We know a lot of amazing people who have spent a lifetime working tirelessly in the produce industry, but even our oldest veterans, who “had seen it all,” hadn’t quite worked for 100 years. We would need someone that old to have applicable global pandemic experience. Of course, the challenges facing the foodservice industry were unlike any our industry has seen since World War I. However, Markon had many benefits and advantages versus other companies which helped us navigate the pandemic. Our membership, including Gordon Food Service, Ben E. Keith, Nicholas, and Shamrock, have an average business age of well over 100 years, which means two of our member companies actually had battled through and survived the last global pandemic, the Spanish Flu.

Each member is family-held with decades of financial strength and stability. Moreover, our members all had a long-term perspective and were retrenching and ensuring their businesses would be even stronger coming out of the pandemic.

MDC: Looking back over 2021, what are some key challenges and milestones that set the tone for the year, in your opinion, for Markon and for the sector in general?

AH: With our membership’s investments in people and sales during 2020, we knew we were well-positioned to capture sales in 2021. With so many labor disruptions, we emphasized our labor-saving Ready-Set-Serve® value-added line to help our customers become more efficient in their kitchens. In a year of multiple disruptions, customers need dependability and consistency, which are two qualities where Markon has always been strong in the industry.

First, we’re relentlessly focused on our member/customer fill rates to keep them in stock with produce. Second, our Quality Assurance team provides insight and integral quality information to ensure our members and customers receive the best produce available. Third, we focus a lot of energy on delivering vital products under our Markon brand, which brand operators and chefs have trusted since 1985. Fourth, but not least of all, Markon has always provided extra confidence in every case through our focus on food safety. Kate Burr started in January as our Food Safety Director, and she has been relentless in her vigilance to continue to raise the bar with Markon’s 5-Star Food Safety®.

In addition to these value-providing tenets, despite the ever-changing COVID-19 situation, Markon hasn’t stopped providing educational tours to our members and customers all summer. I’ve attended many produce visits and tours throughout the world, but through education, interaction, and our Markon team’s unparalleled knowledge—particularly with our Quality Assurance group’s approach—there really is no comparison to our Markon customer events.

"Markon’s past and present leaders have done a tremendous job building a timeless organization whose people have long demonstrated unsurpassed industry leadership.”

Andy Hamilton, Chief Executive Officer, Markon

MDC: As the year comes to a close, what innovations or introductions might we expect, and what needs do you see this servicing?

AH: As we discussed earlier, Markon started back in the ’80s with an industry-defining dedication to food safety and innovation. We continue to enhance our 5-Star Food Safety requirements, including full compliance with GS1-128 labeling with our Markon-branded suppliers in 2022. Improving transparency in the supply chain is an ongoing priority for our members and operator customers. Understanding produce’s supply chain from the origin at the farm and throughout the journey is important to our customers. Providing this solution is a priority for Markon. We’re seeing alternative growing methods emerge as a potential solution for both local and sustainable needs. One of our founding member companies, Gordon Food Service, is paving the way with indoor farming by partnering with Square Roots—a business employing a modular, scalable farm-tech platform which can be deployed in a dense city or near a distribution center.

And finally, we continue to launch new fresh fruit and vegetable products, such as our new Markon First Crop Trimmed Leeks. These value-added Markon products reduce food and packaging waste while saving valuable kitchen time for chefs.

MDC: A busy year indeed! For the new leeks launch, specifically, can you tell me a bit about what prompted that development and brought it to fruition?

AH: Our Markon team always searches for innovative solutions for our customers. We work closely with our supplier partners to identify where we can save time, labor, freight, and energy, as well as reduce food waste—and our new leek product conforms to each of these criteria. Our marketing group constantly monitors new trends, and packing leeks in a smaller, sustainable pack size reduces waste in landfills through the trimmed tops and by producing less packaging.

Therefore, Markon First Crop Trimmed Leeks provides a quality solution to our customers and the environment as well.

MDC: Looking ahead to even more accomplishments, can you give me an idea of what Markon is working on or goals it might have going into the new year? How has the past year influenced your ideas for the next?

AH: We’ll continue to stay focused on trends and efforts to assist our members and customers.

We’ll also invest in technology to ensure we stay efficient and cost-effective. You’ll see continued efforts in important areas ranging from sustainability to labor savings. Despite the pandemic, we continued to partner with berry suppliers to eliminate plastic supply chain waste. So far in 2021, we’ve eliminated over 60 tons of plastic, which would clog landfills or pollute other channels.

In terms of labor savings, you’ll see more Ready-Set-Serve products to save time in kitchens where, frankly, there just isn’t any available labor. We expect labor will remain an issue throughout 2022, and we retooled our Ready-Set-Serve line to better position these products. With less prep and waste, kitchens can move faster, get more creative, and save money in their food budgets. Markon plans to continue investing in innovation around lightly prepped options to minimize this costly labor and provide solutions to help chefs focus on creativity. Regardless of what happens throughout North America in 2022, expect Markon to lead the foodservice industry.

As we enter the frenzy of the holiday season, generosity and gratitude herald a time of renewal and rebirth at year’s end. And while time is one thing we cannot get back, it is certainly something Markon can look back on, gleaning what it needs to ensure that whatever is on the horizon can be handled.

Just as it always has. Just as it will continue to do.