Doing what the market wants has worked out well for John Gates, president of Lancaster Foods, Jessup, Md.
When customers wanted a vendor with longer hours, he answered the bell. When delivery was needed, he was there for that. The theme continued with organic and fresh-cut produce. More than three decades after he and his brother founded the company, Lancaster Foods employs hundreds and operates a 220,000-square-foot state-of-the-art distribution and processing center.
After working in his uncle’s grocery stores as a teen, Gates graduated from Penn State University with an accounting degree.
He worked for a couple of years as a CPA but then turned his attention back to the food industry, and specifically the produce industry.
Gates said he liked the people in produce and the action of buying and selling.
“It interested me so I kind of became a student of the industry; I just really like working with customers and suppliers,” he said.
Gates and his brother Dave started Lancaster Foods in 1986.
When the company started out, a lot of the business was on the terminal market, and the market wasn’t open on the weekends.
“So the first thing we did was we started working on the weekend, and we attracted a good customer base because of that, because there was a demand for it,” Gates said.
In the same way, terminal markets weren’t offering many delivery options back then. Gates countered with deliveries.
“I put trucks on the road, and I was open weekends. And so it was kind of an easy no-brainer, conceptually — but it was a lot of work.”
The company added organics in the early 1990s and fresh-cut produce in the early 2000s.
“It was just a natural progression for us. And we’ve been able to grow and then of course, we spread out geographically, we focused on logistics.” One step led to the next, and before long, Gates and his brother had grown a good-sized company with a large distribution footprint.
The company’s best growth opportunities have come by focusing on consumer needs. After starting in the banana business, Lancaster Foods later added banana ripening to meet buyer demand.
“The basics still hold true, service and quality — much more so than price,” he said
“You have got to do what you say you’re going to do for your customer, but you also do what you say you’re going to do for your supplier, because really without them, you don’t have a whole lot to sell.”
Managing a large company, Gates said he keeps in touch with every aspect of the business, but naturally focuses on sales, procurement and quality.
Gates allows people at the company do their job, said Jack Scriber, director of fresh-cut operations for Lancaster Foods.
“Basically (the message) is, ‘This what we need to do, here are the resources to get it done — get it done,’” Scriber said. “He hires people who he trusts and relies on them to get things done.”
And when it comes to customer service, Gates has a hard time saying “no” to customers.
“I really don’t think he can articulate... I don’t think he can get his mouth to say the word ‘no.’”
Gates has a passion for produce that few can match, Scriber said.
“His passion is buying and selling — he built everything, this giant facility that’s got 800 families relying on him — everything has been built upon the buy and sell,” he said.
“He’s one of those few people that can get the buy, and he can get the sale, and a lot of people fail at either one or the other — he can do both.”