Both products have been a big success for the company, which has become a leading regional brand in New England.
“We have a good name for ourselves in this area,” says Walter Cekala, who has been president of the company since the mid-’90s. “I always laugh and say that it took us 50 years to become an overnight success, but that’s kind of what happened.”
Willow Tree was a state-inspected processor until the ’70s, when it began selling outside of Massachusetts. Willow Tree now cooks 15,000 pounds of chicken per week, getting its own chicken supply from small farms in the Delmarva (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) area. Its chicken pies are very popular throughout New England, and the chicken salad is now sold to more than 600 individual accounts and 1,200 grocery stores.
The company has expanded its facility in Attleboro, Mass., several times, and it is in the midst of adding new office space. It is also working to slowly expand its products outside of New England, working its way down the Atlantic seaboard.
“We just started within the last year making a push outside of our comfort zone, getting into states like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania,” explains Cekala. “It’s a slow process. We’ve got the distribution lines, and now it’s just a matter of filling in the pipelines and getting the consumer aware of our product, so we can go to more stores.”
The company is also expanding its management structure, as Cekala’s two sons, Christopher and Alex, are out of college and have recently joined the company. As they came on board, Cekala wanted to make sure that they were properly groomed for the business and not just thrown into it. He also wanted to streamline and modernize the company’s operations.
Cekala notes that the company’s front office and managerial structure had remained largely unchanged for decades. His mother was handling the accounting on a ledger, and weekly meetings were done over a cup of coffee with the company’s production/sales/logistics manager. While the company was still profitable, Cekala realized that it had to modernize.
Getting outside helpAs Cekala was having thoughts about changes that needed to be made to the company, a consulting firm approached the company with a list of things that it could do.
“They came around when we were thinking that we were really poised for growth and needed to streamline things around here,” he explains. “They talked about the things that they could do for us, and it sounded like a good fit.”
It was fortuitous timing, as Cekala had been planning on bringing in an outside auditor once two of his three sons expressed an interest in joining the family business.
“I really wanted to have a consultant come in and review the company, to make sure I was putting them into the most intelligent places I could put them, and also make sure the company was going to be profitable enough to manage eventually two more executives coming in.”
After some initial meetings and interviews, Willow Tree began to implement changes to its operation. One of the first changes was the addition of a computerized accounting system. Alex Cekala, 23, has a degree in business administration and finance, and he became the company’s controller. He was an integral part of setting up the computer system. Christopher, 25, took his degree in foodservice culinary management and took over the retail store, located adjacent to its processing plant.
Along with managing people, the company also had to become more efficient and eliminate waste wherever possible.
“You get accustomed to doing something a specific way,” Cekala explains. The waste extended to its processing and retail store activities, as well as logistics. It came in the form of damaged pallets that needed to be thrown away, product that was thrown away on the production floor and shrink at the retail store.
“We viewed it at 1 percent [waste], and it wasn’t too bad, but when you put pen to paper and realize that it equals real dollars, it makes a huge impact on a company,” he says. “Things we wouldn’t have looked at before, we look at a lot differently today.”
Estimates by the consulting firm showed $86,000 worth of food waste, as well as potential cost savings of more than $590,000. A team of experts were dispatched and spent several weeks at Willow Tree, pointing out areas of improvement and training the employees on making the necessary changes.
Culturally speaking, it was a major adjustment for the company, which has always run as a family business, even though it has more than 100 employees. Cekala has been involved in the business for 30 years, and he has known many of the workers since he was a teenager.
While most of the workers adapted to the changes, some did not, and Cekala says that separating personal feelings from the business was difficult.
“We were poised and ready for growth, and most of our employees really understood what was going on and stepped up to the occasion. The very small number of employees who didn’t just had to move on,” he says. The upside, he adds, is that Willow Tree is now better prepared for any future changes that may take place.
Cekala himself had a learning curve to overcome, as the two-person coffee meetings evolved into weekly production meetings, management meetings and retail meetings.
“At first I thought I was being buried in meetings, but they actually are very useful and help to keep the company on track as we’re moving in day-to-day operations,” he says.
Another benefit to having the different layers of management is that Cekala is able to take on more of an overseer’s role instead of having to be hands-on in every facet of the business.
“Now, if I micromanage, it’s because I want to, not because I’m forced to,” he says.
Slow and steady growthWillow Tree’s sales are around $14 million a year, thanks to consistently good product and service. The company’s recent office space expansion is just the latest in a steady line of growth. Its efforts to expand its distribution outside of New England do represent a more aggressive strategy than it’s traditionally had, but the opportunity was too good to pass up.
A buyer from New England moved into a supermarket chain in the mid-Atlantic region, and he wanted to bring Willow Tree into the stores. In order to do so, Cekala hired a broker to promote the products.
“I don’t want to just capture [the new business] and let it fall by the wayside. We want to make sure we give it the appropriate attention it deserves,” he says. “I can’t be sending sales reps from Attleboro all the way down to New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania. The broker is able to do that.”
Moving into a new region means the company is competing in unfamiliar territory against large national and regional brands. However, the company’s two product lines do have unique traits that help them stand out in the marketplace. The chicken pies, for example, are not to be compared to the traditional chicken pot pie. Willow Tree’s chicken pies have chicken and gravy but no vegetables, making it more of an entrée than a complete meal.
The chicken salad is a zero-preservative product, which makes for a point of differentiation but creates logistical issues.
“Most large salad companies would want at least 14 days [of shelf life] out of a product,” Cekala says. “We have to ship the product to all of our accounts around two or three times per week. We have a huge number of vans on the road to do our mom-and-pop shops, and we also have trucks on the road to deliver to the warehouses of the supermarket chains. We have to keep the pipeline moving just to preserve the integrity of the product, with its short shelf life.”
With the positive changes that Willow Tree has undertaken, Cekala says that the company’s goal is to hit $25 million in sales within five years, with all three revenue streams â€” retail stores, small resales, and large account sales â€” contributing to that growth. Whether or not there will be an addition to the product line is something that Cekala is leaving up to the next generation.
“I did the chicken salad, and my dad did the chicken pies,” he points out. “The third generation is in place now, so it’s up to them to think of what they want to introduce.”