Skilled workers, technology key for McLane


McLane Co. Inc. operates out of a 550,000-square-foot facility at the Whitaker Commerce Park in the Battleboro community.


Special to the Telegram

Monday, November 26, 2018

As 21st century industry sectors go, wholesale enterprises get short shrift.

Next to R&D and advanced manufacturing, the movement of consumer goods from the hands of producers to retailers seems, on the surface, somewhat “old economy.”

But these days warehousing, transportation and wholesaling deploy both human factors and technological sophistication on impressive levels. The result is rewards for innovative companies in the industry and good-paying career opportunities that are accessible to nearly anyone with the right attitude and work ethic. The presence of these operations also spells economic impact for surrounding communities.

On this score, few examples are better than that of McLane Co. Inc. and its busy operations at the Whitaker Commerce Park in the Battleboro community. The 550,000-square-foot facility hums with activity that blends dynamic machinery, modern information management and attentive workers trained across a broad array of industrial skill sets.

McLane, part of the storied Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate, has maintained its 760-employee logistics center in Nash County since 1996. About 70 common-carriers pull up to the site every day to unload consumer foods, beverages and other staples for distribution to retailers in Virginia and the Carolinas.

“We do 4,000 deliveries every week — just from this location,” says Charles Freeman, division president for grocery supply chain solutions at McLane.

The Battleboro location is one of 22 the Texas-based company maintains around the country, all of which are strategically situated to supply McLane’s convenience-store and big-box customers like 7-11, Speedway, Circle-K, WalMart and Sam’s Clubs.

“We serve 3,000 customer locations out of this facility,” Freeman says.

The company’s workforce spans forklift operators, truck drivers, inventory controllers, diesel mechanics, clerks and electricians. Operations include a fully-functional 18-wheeler maintenance shop and a well-trained team that takes care of McLane’s massive building and the maze of tech-driven conveying systems snaking throughout it.

“We have some exceptional teammates,” Freeman says.

McLane’s Battleboro facility runs two shifts across five days a week. Activity can occasionally run into Saturdays when supplies need to move to waiting customers. The nature of its business means there are few days when McLane isn’t operating. The company works hard to compete with manufacturers in the region for ready workers.

“Manufacturing can be seasonal,” says Gary Daniel, division vice president for grocery supply chain solutions. “The challenge is recruiting people with a year-round work mentality.”

The company’s human resource team uses social media, advertising and job fairs to attract new talent. It also utilizes NC Works, the career center maintained by the state Department of Commerce, and Turning Point, the local nonprofit workforce development board that manages federally-funded programs for incumbent workers and on-the-job training. McLane works with Nash Community College on forklift training as well as the certification of commercial drivers — both of which involve skills currently in short supply.

“We produce in-house about 20 percent of the drivers we have now,” Freeman says. “We train them to our standards.”

Driving for McLane means more than operating an 18-wheeler. The company’s drivers, who make an average of 15 stops per load, wear several hats.

“When they get to the delivery location they become customer service manager and route services rep,” Freeman says.

Given the nationwide trucker shortage, McLane works hard to retain good drivers.

“The challenge for them is achieving work-life balance,” he says. “We do pretty well at it: Our driver retention rate is 85 percent.”

Regardless of the position, McLane employees have to be comfortable using technology. Much of the company’s competitive edge stems from its aggressive use of proprietary inventory management systems. Even customers get to interact with sophisticated software programs in placing and monitoring orders.

“Just about everything here is computer-based,” Freeman says.

Among the company’s millennial workers, it’s not an issue.

“We’ve got some pretty computer-savvy people here,” Freeman says “That makes it easier.”

Freeman says the keys to McLane’s success is a matter of paying close attention to the needs of three key groups.

“It translates into how we treat our teammates, how we spoil our customers and how we deliver value to our shareholders,” he says.

The Twin Counties is the fifth stop in Freeman’s career with the company. The Alabama native and Auburn alumnus has worked at McLane facilities in Texas, California, the Pacific Northwest and Mid-Atlantic. “Rocky Mount is a great place with a great group of people,” he says. “It’s southern living, and it grows on you.”

The region fits well with the company’s family-oriented ethos, Daniel says. In fact, McLane’s business philosophy is explicitly rooted in Christian principals.

“The beliefs and values are what brought me here,” the Virginia native says. “Getting here, seeing it and believing it — it is natural to treat people the way you would want to be treated.”

Such values — in addition to benefitting employees, customers and stockholders — also yield positive results for the community. McLane works closely with the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, a national nonprofit organization that raises funds to support children’s hospitals, research into childhood illnesses and advocacy for the health and wellness of youngsters.

“Since 1987, we’ve raised more than $95 million for the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals,” Freeman says.

Employees join in the giving, and the company sponsors an annual golf tournament for the cause. In the wake of hurricanes Matthew and Florence, McLane stepped up to the relief efforts by providing truckloads of food, water and supplies to the American Red Cross, along with refrigerated trailers to keep perishable items cool.

Freeman sees a positive future ahead for McLane’s Battleboro location, which has surplus acreage and infrastructure.

“There’s a tremendous growth opportunity, and we do anticipate growth in the Carolinas Division in 2019-20,” he says. While sales of many wholesale goods ebb and flow with overall economic tides, the consumer staples McLane supplies enjoy steady demand through good times or bad.

Add a keen understanding of markets to the long list of reasons McLane Company leads its “old economy” industry in a distinctly 21st century way.

Lawrence Bivins is a contributing editor of the North Carolina Economic Development Guide.