The following article is used with permission from Identity Marketing. It was first published in their August 2013 issue.
You started Maple Ridge Farms about 30 years ago. How did that come about?
Riordan enjoys spending time on the water sailing or cruising on his pontoon boat.
Then, back in 1979, I got the idea that instead of putting the cheese company’s logo on the box, I’d put the logo of the company that was actually giving the gift on the box and the recipient would know and remember who the gift was coming from. I had a friend in the cheese business so he had the cheese and I had the boxes and we decided to give it a go.
Well, we did $24,000 in sales in a couple of weeks then about $50,000 in a couple of weeks the following year – just about all local – and realized that we might be onto something. At that point we started to look at ways to get national distribution and that’s when I found out about the promotional products industry.
Our first year in this industry, we did about $60,000 and $300,000 the second year. By our third or fourth year we were doing over $1 million and that has grown to between $10 million and $15 million today.
The crazy thing is that it’s all done in about 60 days! Here’s an interesting stat: more than half of our orders for the year come after November 12 and before December 12 – all for delivery before Christmas, so as you might imagine, it gets pretty intense.
Riordan points to Harry Rosenberg as one of his early mentors in the industry.
It certainly has to do with the quality of the foods we offer, but a lot of it has to do with the total customer experience and the packaging of the products we sell. And, of course, our employees. Our managers teach them, from the day they start, to have a quality focus and it’s become ingrained in the culture of the company.
One of the amazing things is that the staff is mostly seasonal, yet the large majority returns every year – and they bring that quality focus back with them every year. Once they get it, it’s really remarkable.
Our creative packaging also is a key and we’ve found a lot of ways to deliver a food gift. Traditionally, it would come in a typical candy box or corrugated carton. But we take it a few steps further. For example, we’ll package cheese with a knife and cutting board, or fill a logoed cup with chocolate in the most basic offerings. Today we offer hundreds of options.
I know your antique trucks with candy and nuts are a popular packaging option. What’s the story behind them?
They’ve certainly been popular. The first year we put it in our catalog, I believe 2001, we had no idea on how they’d sell, so we ordered 30,000 trucks, two containers. In no time we found that people loved them and we were going to need more. We ordered another container and had it shipped by air. The cost of the freight ended up being more than the cost of the trucks!
With such a compressed season, how tricky is it to forecast your product needs and what unique challenges does that present?
We wrote a solid program that helps with our forecasts and a lot of it is based on our early numbers from September and October. And I have to say, we’re right more than we’re wrong. We’re constantly fine tuning our needs and fine tuning our orders with our vendors as we see changes in the demand curve. The biggest challenge every year is doing so much in such a short amount of time. Again, I have to go back to our people. If we didn’t get 75-80% of our employees back every year it would be a lot more challenging.
The fact that you are dealing with perishable products adds another factor to the equation. Correct?
It’s a good thing our in-season conveniently takes place when Mother Nature is helping us – in November and December. If it were June and July, there would be a lot more shipping concerns. Logistics plays a large part in our business and we try to make sure we ship on a day when the products will arrive in perfect condition. For example, we would not ship an order of chocolates to Miami with anticipated arrival on Monday. If something happens, we don’t want that order sitting on a truck in Miami so we’ll suggest to the customer that Thursday might be a better delivery day. We constantly analyze those types of things. I have to say, when it comes to our chocolate products, the incidence of melting is a rarity. When it does occur, most times it’s because the delivery person did something wrong, like leaving the package outside in the wrong spot if no one was there to accept delivery.
A few years back, you completed a major expansion of your facilities. What has that allowed you to do?
It allowed us to do a number of things that ultimately resulted in increased efficiency. During the busy season, we were running three shifts. With more space, we were able to hire more people and eliminate the third shift. We also don’t work Saturdays or Sundays any more, so we were able to reduce overtime, which has resulted in a huge cost savings. Prior to our new facility, we had a separate warehouse and had to shuttle products back and forth. Now everything is under one roof so we’re a lot more efficient.
Being in the foods business, would you consider yourself a “foodie?” Do you have a favorite “celebrity chef?”
I guess I’d have to say yes, to a certain extent. It’s one part of my job that is a heck of a lot of fun. Every year I go to the Fancy Foods Show in San Francisco and I get to sample some incredibly good food – as part of my job!
My favorite chef is Paul Prudhomme, who’s famous for his Cajun food, which I love. I’ve met him several times and it’s always fun to chat with him. I also do some cooking and cook for some fundraisers, including an annual event at the University of Wisconsin campus in Wausau. For that I make a Andouille sausage gumbo or a shrimp gumbo using Paul’s recipes.
Riordan and his wife, Mary Kate, are avid skiers, logging about 30 days a year at their local area, plus and occasional trip to another resort. Here they’re in Sun Valley, ID
We are very fortunate to have a great ski area about 10 minutes from our house and I get in about 30 days a year. It’s not the Rockies or the Alps, but it’s a pretty nice hill for the Midwest. I also like to sail and love spending time on the water. We live on the Wisconsin River, which doesn’t lend itself too much to sailing, but we have a pontoon boat and go out on that quite a bit, quite often for sunset cruises.
Is there any company or person in our industry who you admire and glean advice from?
When we got into the promotional products business I didn’t know a lot about the food business and even less about the promotional products business. In 1984, I attended a week-long supplier management seminar hosted by PPAI.Well, I learned more about promotional products in one week than I could have learned in years just kicking around. In particular, I learned a tremendous amount from one of the presenters, Harry Rosenberg, who is now in his 80s and, at the time, owned a pen company. We’re close friends today. I also learned a lot from Don Edwards, a customer of mine from Connecticut. I got to know him very well a bit later in my career and, being a distributor, he gave me a perspective and insight that I really needed.
If there is one person who has helped make Tom Riordan Tom Riordan, who might it be?
Interestingly, I never took a business course in my life. When I was young, I was on track to go to medical school and majored in psychology. But my father was in business and I certainly learned a lot of good business practices and judgment from him. He taught me how to read a balance sheet and was always ready to help and offer advice when I needed it.
With health and nutrition becoming prominent topics in the news these days, have you noticed any trends or changes in the types of products you offer or that your clients are buying/asking for when compared to your earlier days?
That question reminds me of the MacLean hamburger, that was introduced as a “healthier alternative” but never made it. While there is a little monutritional interest coming in the industry, from a pure business perspective, it’s rather insignificant.
However, we do try to share with people the benefits of the products we sell, such as nuts. According to the Mayo Clinic, people should eat at least a handful of them a day.We’ve also added some nutritious snack mixes to our line so if they want it, we have it.
Our biggest sellers still remain our chocolates. Now, dark chocolate has been shown to offer numerous health benefits. Despite that, 75% of Americans prefer milk chocolate. If you are sending a gift to 100 people, you might want to include some dark chocolate. But if ou’re sending it to one person, you’d better send the milk chocolate. In the end, no one really eats enough of our stuff to affect their health. They typically receive it once a year so it is a non-issue.
What is the biggest mistake you see distributors making when selling or attempting to sell your types of products?
The biggest mistake is that they don’t try to sell them at all. They overlook the food gift market and that’s a mistake. I used to fly about 40 times a year, traveling to distributor shows, etc. Typically I’d be seated next to a business person. Now, I’m not really chatty on a plane and will usually read or do some work. But before the plane landed, I’d always ask them about their business and tell them that I’m in the food gift business. I’d ask them if they purchased food gifts for the holidays and the vast majority said “yes.” Next I’d ask them where they purchased them and in 40 years, I never had one say “from a promotional products distributor” despite the fact that many said they bought other types of promotional products. I am acutely aware of how much food business is out there yet distributors don’t get it because they either don’t ask for it or think that it’s not worth it. For most companies, it’s a once-a-year purchase. Because of that it’s easy to overlook. But it can be a significant business that is ripe for the picking – business that a lot of distributors are not getting because they don’t ask for it.