The food service distribution company for which Kirk Purnell works has an illustrious history. Named for its first salesman and junior partner, Fort Worth-based Ben E. Keith Co. has been delivering food for 106 years. Purnell has been around for 28 of them, as general manager of the company's distribution center at 14200 N Santa Fe in Edmond.
The distributor has come a long way from its beginnings, when deliveries were made by horse and buggy and orders taken on “Big Chief” tablets. Purnell's center alone is home to a 100-truck fleet whose drivers deliver dry, refrigerated and frozen food to 3,000 customers throughout Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri and Nebraska. Clients, which include restaurants, hospitals and nursing homes, range from Chili's restaurants to Yukon Public Schools.
The center, which employs 400, stocks about 16,000 different items from brands such as Tyson Foods, Heinz, Sara Lee and Hormel, representing $25 million in inventory, Purnell said.
With the cost of labor, fuel and fleet maintenance, there's not a lot of room for error, he said.
“We run very lean and keep our prices very competitive,” he said. “Our customers require us to.”
Purnell, 53, recently sat down with The Oklahoman to talk about his personal and professional life. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Can you tell us about your roots?
A: I grew up in Tupelo, Miss., which had a population of about 25,000 or 30,000 then. My father worked at a poultry processing company that his father, my granddad, started in the '30s, so I have a family history in distribution. My mother was a schoolteacher, with most of her career spent as a high-school guidance counselor. I have two older brothers and a younger sister, who all still live in the area near my mother, 80, and her husband. My parents split up when I was in college, and my dad, 81, also remarried and lives in Little Rock.
Q: And school highlights?
A: I was an Eagle Scout, student manager for our baseball and football teams, and wrestled at 110 pounds. There were 350 in my graduating class. Tupelo was a great place to grow up. Everybody knew everybody, and I had plenty of role models at school and in church.
Q: What was your first job and how old were you?
A: At age 14, or maybe 15. I worked in a warehouse and on a farm. I always had a good work ethic, whether it was mowing grass, shoveling manure or baling hay.
Q: And college?
A: I went to Mississippi State, which was about an hour's drive from Tupelo. I probably should have been a better student, but I got an A in social life. I joined Sigma Chi fraternity, and learned how to build relationships and deal with all sorts of people. The experience has served me well in business. At Ben E. Keith, we're all about developing good employees, who build loyal customers.
Q: Can you tell us about your work history, after graduation and before Ben E. Keith?
A: The first year out, I worked in warehouse and other odd jobs — six months in Denver and, after my paternal grandfather died, six months back home in Tupelo. Then, with hopes of landing an opportunity in Dallas/Fort Worth, I moved to Arlington, Texas, where my aunt and uncle lived.
Q: Did your big opportunity come with Ben E. Keith?
A: Yes. I interviewed on a Tuesday and went to work the following Friday, driving a forklift in their Fort Worth warehouse. I was glad to have the opportunity to prove myself and I did. After six months, I was promoted to customer service and, after a year, moved to Denison, Texas, where I worked five years in outside sales, then two years in sales management in Fort Worth and a year in Little Rock as a buyer, before moving to Oklahoma in '93 as a general manager. It's a nice advantage as a manager to know enough about your employees' jobs to appreciate what they do. I made the most of all the places I lived, and never wanted to leave any of them. Obviously, Oklahoma is home now. This is the longest I've lived anywhere — even under my mom and dad's roof.