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Kirk Purnell starts 29th year with Ben E. Keith Co.

General manager joins food service distributor's illustrious history.
by Paula Burkes Published: December 2, 2012

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.

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by Paula Burkes
A 1981 journalism graduate of Oklahoma State University, Paula Burkes has more than 30 years experience writing and editing award-winning material for newspapers and healthcare, educational and telecommunications institutions in Tulsa, Oklahoma...
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Position: General manager, Ben E. Keith Oklahoma division

Birth date: Sept. 25, 1959

Family: Wife Shannon, an interior designer. They were friends five years before they started dating; married 10 years ago and have one child, Sam, 7

Residence: Edgemere Heights

Education: Mississippi State University, bachelor's in business marketing

Community involvement: Attends Westminster Presbyterian Church and serves on the boards of the Oklahoma Restaurant Association, the Oklahoma Hospitality Foundation and the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma

Pastimes: Running (a former marathoner, he meets friends to run Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings, and swims Sundays), reading (latest read “Quiet Strength” by Tony Dungy), dining at area customers' restaurants and helping coach his son's sports teams


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