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Growth of family firm is not just a fish story

As the fifth-generation leader of family-owned Palmer Food Services Inc., Dwight Palmer often relies on the wisdom of those he employs.
 
“We’re constantly challenging our folks to help us do things better, more effectively, leaner,” says Palmer, who is known as Kip, from company offices at 900 Jefferson Road in Henrietta.
 
“The folks that do it every day really have the answers. But so many times we fail to ask the people that really have the answers. We’re trying to get away from that.”
 
Palmer, 58, has been CEO since 1991. He oversees 185 employees at a business he expects to generate $80 million in sales this year.
 
“Kip is a wonderful businessman and a dear friend,” says John Martin, president of Roberts Wesleyan College in Chili. “He’s compassionate and caring. He has very strong opinions about helping society in general and cares for his workers. He’s just an all-around good man.
 
“He is a man of great integrity, ethical in everything he does.”
 
Palmer Food distributes fresh and frozen seafood, meat, poultry and groceries to restaurants from Buffalo to Utica. Its contract business stretches to Albany and to Dinosaur Bar-B-Que locations, one of which is in Harlem.
 
Henrietta operations are part of the Palmer Family of Cos. Inc., which includes a redistribution business in Syracuse that services 500 distributors in 18 states.
 
Its leader is not complacent about any aspect of the company.
 
“I think we’re only as good as our next sale,” Palmer says. “We have to bring value every day to our clients. That’s one of the reasons why we came up with the Crave Local promotion. It’s our responsibility to help our clients reach their goals.
 
“It isn’t enough anymore for us just to deliver the product on time in the right condition. The expectation is that you’re going to bring a lot of value-added services. … I think it’s a work in progress. It’s 162 years old, and we still haven’t grown up yet.”
 
Crave Local Restaurants featured discounts on selected menu items from April 20 to 29 at 120 area eateries. Palmer hopes to make it an annual event.
 
“We’ve had a ton of positive comments,” he says.
 
“I work hard, but I like to have fun. I like to do things that are different, that bring value, that other people don’t do, and that helps us continue to communicate to our clients that we care about them and their future. And we want to be part of their future.”

19th-century start
The company was founded in 1850 as the Centre Market on Front Street in Rochester by Palmer’s great-great-grandfather, Levi Palmer, and business partner Seth Green. It became Palmer Fish Co. when Green left to raise freshwater trout and eventually founded the New York State Fish Hatchery in Caledonia, Livingston County, in 1864.
 
Levi was succeeded by his son, Dwight, in 1863. Dwight passed the business on to his sons Dwight II and Lawrence in 1910. They were succeeded by Dwight “Bud” Palmer—father of the current owner—in 1951.
 
“You can’t put what would be a IV or a V next to my name,” Palmer explains, noting that his predecessors had different middles names or no middle names. “My name is Dwight McGregor Palmer. My middle name is my mother’s maiden name.”
 
The nickname Kip was determined before Palmer was born in July 1953.
 
“My mother was expecting yours truly, and they were on Canandaigua Lake during the summer at a friend’s cottage,” he says. “They heard a woman call her son in for dinner. And she called him Kip. My mother looked at my father, and my father looked at my mother and said, ‘If we have a boy, we’re going to call him Kip.’”
 
The nickname satisfied a requirement of his grandmother.
 
“My grandmother refused to have two people in the same house with the same name, so if she called them, they would both come,” Palmer says.
 
Palmer grew up in West Irondequoit. His first memories of the family business involve going to its former location at 141 State St. with his dad after church to make sure the refrigeration equipment was running.
 
“I remember being dressed in my Sunday best, walking through the fish market and all different freezers and coolers to make sure everything was working,” Palmer says. “Then we would go out for Sunday dinner. My mother and dad had four children, so it was a busy house. Sundays were the days we would go out for dinner, or we would go to my grandmother’s for dinner.”
 
Palmer was intrigued by the business.
 
“I’ve always had a natural curiosity about it,” he said. “I liked feeling a part of it. My dad would talk about the business to me and to all the family members. We all felt part of it,” he said. “I’m sure he desired for us to come into the business, but there was never any pressure that way. He really just wanted us to be happy and do things that brought us joy. I always say it was one of the best soft sells in the business.”
 
Palmer began working in the company store when he was 14 years old. He worked Saturdays and holidays in high school, and summers and holidays after enrolling at Wittenberg University in Ohio.
 
“I learned the business in virtually every area,” he says. “There’s only one area I’ve never spent a lot of time in, and that’s administration: accounts receivable, accounts payable, general ledger, that kind of stuff.
 
“It’s not that I don’t understand it, because I do. But I’m much more of an operational, buy-sell personality.”

Path not taken
Palmer went to college intending to become a lawyer. He graduated in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics.
 
“As I went on further at college, I began to realize that the law profession is a great profession but I really liked the business, too,” he says. “At that point, I had finished the political science major and had started taking some economics, and really enjoyed it, so I got the dual major.
 
“Some people ask why I didn’t major in business. Economics is more my cup of tea because it’s more about people’s behaviors and how you can anticipate what people will and will not do.”
 
Palmer decided during his senior year, at about the time he would have to apply for law school, to forgo that career and join the family business full time.
 
“I graduated in 1975 on a Saturday and started Monday morning,” he says. “I worked in every department there was. I worked operationally, whether it was putting up fresh fish orders or selecting product for trucks or loading trucks. That was where I got my start.”
 
Palmer joined the family business with the goal of one day taking over for his dad.
 
“I always intended to run the company,” he says. “That’s why my father and I never really worked together until later in his life. We were always very competitive with each other. I mean, we had a wonderful relationship as father and son, but we didn’t always see eye to eye on stuff.”
 
The elder Palmer ensured that his son never reported directly to him.
 
“He always kept somebody between us because he never wanted the business relationship to impact the personal relationship,” Palmer says. “My father was a pretty wise man.
 
“When you get into a business and you’re right out of college at 22 or 23 years old, you think you have all the answers. You really don’t. My father was very patient. As time went on, his son matured. Towards the end of his life, probably the last 10 years, we worked much closer together.”
 
Bud Palmer died Feb. 1, 1997.

Beyond seafood
Palmer Food began to expand from seafood to other products shortly after Palmer started working full time. In 1978, it moved from State Street to Henrietta, on property owned by the Genesee Valley Regional Market.
 
“My father and I were convinced that, long term, our survival depended on our becoming a broad-line food service distributor,” Palmer says. “When I joined the company, we basically sold fresh and frozen seafood.”
 
The company’s first acquisition was Jacobson Meat Co. in 1981.
 
“Years ago, you didn’t put fish and meat on the same truck,” Palmer says. “When I started in the business, it was very fragmented. You had meat guys, fish guys, produce guys. You had canned goods, dry goods, frozen goods. There were people with equipment and supplies.
 
“Over time, as national distributors began evolving, as an independent distributor, we had to become a broad-liner or we probably would be out of business.”
 
The company bought another seafood business in 1984, the Syracuse redistribution business in 1989 and another meat purveyor in 1994. It purchased two produce and dry goods businesses in 1996 and 1997.
 
It bought a janitorial company in 1998 and an equipment and supplies business in 2002.
 
“The equipment and supply company was the last needed piece of the puzzle,” Palmer says. “That means we’re basically a one-stop shop for restaurants, nursing homes, colleges and universities.”
 
Fresh and frozen seafood account for 15 percent of revenue now, he says, with meat and poultry the largest generator.
 
The company has expanded physically as well. Its Jefferson Road facility has grown from 15,000 square feet in 1978 to 125,000 square feet.
 
“As we acquired companies and as we grew organically, we first started moving south and took up all the bays they would give us,” he says. “Then we moved north and constructed.
 
“This is a series of buildings. Where there were buildings, we connected them. Where there weren’t buildings, we built them.”
 
The last expansion became Palmer’s Direct to You Market.
 
“The regional market came to us and said, ‘We have this property available; we’re going to knock the buildings down,’” Palmer says. “We were right next door to that property. We literally share common walls.”
 
The company originally planned to build a warehouse there.
 
“I said maybe we could have some fun and build a new market,” Palmer recalls. “Let’s go back to our roots, because that’s where we started 162 years ago as a retailer. It’s been a nice addition to our business and gives the public a better understanding of what the company is about.”
 
The Direct to You Market opened in 2009.
 
“It’s a small portion of the revenues,” he says. “We consider it a separate entity versus our wholesale distribution. They’re a customer of the food service company. We do a lot of things together. There are some personnel sharing and some other things, but we operate it autonomously.”
 
Palmer worked in purchasing, sales and other departments for at least 10 years before his dad promoted him to a management position.
 
“Even today, with 185 people, we have a pretty flat organization,” he says. “I’m very focused on promoting a very participatory culture here. I don’t like silos. I don’t like situations where people are ill at ease reaching out to others. You need to have the type of organization that talks together and works together.
 
“If a salesperson has an issue with a product, don’t call their manager, who then calls the purchasing manager, who then talks to the buyer. Call the buyer yourself. There has to be that communication so everybody feels like they’re part of the decision, part of the team.”
 
Department heads huddle each workday morning, and departments meet monthly, Palmer says. All employees participate in quarterly information sessions on budgetary and financial updates.
 
“We share with our associates,” he says. “Not only do we provide a 401(k), we also provide profit sharing where they can earn up to three weeks’ pay, depending on how the company does. And we share those results.”
 
Palmer Foods was not severely hurt by the recession, Palmer says, because eating out has become a common practice.
 
“In 2008 and 2009, our higher-end fine dining group had some tough sledding,” he says. “But when I was growing up, a special occasion was going out to dinner. Today, a special occasion is bringing your family to your house and cooking for them. The whole dynamic has changed in my lifetime.”
 
The company has taken a conservative approach in bidding for contractual work, which has affected sales since the 2008 economic collapse, Palmer says.
 
“But our core business, which is basically our up-and-down-the-street restaurant business, has continued to grow each year, in spite of the recession,” he says.

Off the job
Away from the office, Palmer spends most of his time with his family.
 
“I really don’t have any hobbies,” he says. “I spend time with my fiancee and her children, and my own children, and my grandchildren. I enjoy reading. I’m in pretty good shape, reasonably good shape. I try to exercise and take care of myself as best I can,” he says.
 
He serves on the boards of Roberts Wesleyan College, the Hoselton Foundation and the Seneca Waterways Council Inc. of the Boy Scouts of America.
 
“He obviously runs a very successful business, so he has served on both our business affairs committee and on the advancement committee, which is the development committee,” says Roberts Wesleyan’s Martin. “He has given some wonderful ideas about cost-effectiveness and proper ways to move forward in education.
 
“He really does understand organizations and leadership. We’ve had him speak at one of our leadership breakfasts, to a group of assembled business types, because he runs a very efficient business and understands how organizations work.”
 
David Hoselton, chairman of Hoselton Auto Mall and CEO of the Hoselton Foundation, has known Palmer since the 1960s when his company leased vehicles to Palmer Foods. Hoselton, like Palmer, sits on the board at Roberts Wesleyan. He is an advisory board member with the area Boy Scouts organization.
 
“Kip has served on the family foundation for many years,” Hoselton says. “I would describe Kip as a no-nonsense guy. What he says is what he means.”
 
As for the future of Palmer Foods, Palmer is taking the same approach his father did.
 
“I do talk to my children about that,” he admits. “I would echo what my father told me years ago, and that is ‘I just want you to be happy. If the Lord wants you in this business, then you’ll come into this business. If the Lord doesn’t want you in this business, then you probably won’t be here.’”
 
He has three daughters. Kailey, 24, gave birth last month to her second child. Meghan, 19, is a freshman at SUNY College at Fredonia, majoring in musical theater. Mallory, 12, is in seventh grade.
 
Palmer Foods’ current senior executives, including Chief Financial Officer Jack Whittier and Sales Manager Daniel Walsh, and its department managers are capable of maintaining the company’s long-term viability, Palmer says.
 
“I know that my responsibility is to build the management team of this company so that if a Palmer is running it, that’s fine,” he says. “If a Palmer is not running it, OK, as long as we stay true to the vision of what we’re all about.
 
“I believe the Palmer family will continue to own it, but whether the Palmer family actually runs it long term, that’s still a work in progress.”

Dwight Palmer
Title: President and CEO, Palmer Food Services Inc.
Age: 58
Home: Victor, Ontario County
Education: B.A. in political science and economics, Wittenberg University, Springfield, Ohio, 1975
Family: Daughters Kailey, 24, Meghan, 19, and Mallory, 12
Hobbies: Reading, running and walking
Quote: "People say this, but I believe this to the core of my being: People are the most important part of your business. It’s important to me that we’re giving everyone in this company a chance to achieve their goals."

5/4/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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