Fast Fixin’ Fanatics

By Barbara Young, Editor-In-Chief
Growth continues to define OK-based Advance Brands, thanks to an insightful business platform girded by enthusiastic associates and innovative products.
Do not even try to convince Billy McPherson or Bill O’Neill the restaurant-style products their company — Advance Brands LLC — develops for retail won’t entice consumers into eating one more meal at home. The handwriting on the wall tells the story, especially since experts confirm their theory with reports of a swinging pendulum — pinpointing a lifestyle shift in consumer eating habits.
“We are fanatical about focusing on opportunities,” McPherson, vice president of sales and marketing, enthuses. “The retailers’ battle against take-out and restaurant meals will always be a factor, but we’re taking it one step further.”
O’Neill, vice president of business development, explains how. “If we focus more closely on enticing the consumer to impulsively purchase just one more meal at the supermarket, therein lies our true opportunity,” he interjects. “If you do the math, the impact is impressive.”
Based on trend-watcher assessments, busy people want to spend more time at home with their families at dinner and less time planting their feet under tables in restaurants.
“Economy of time and product quality are key contributors to people wanting to eat at home more,” Brian Thompson, chief financial officer, attests. “Not to mention that eating restaurant-style products at home is a better value and more convenient.”
That being the case, McPherson says the range of fully cooked, restaurant-style meals by Advance Brands fit the bill.
Its Fast Fixin’ Restaurant Style products — a line now boasting more than 20 varieties — reads like a menu from today’s casual-dining restaurants. Items include fully cooked Philly beef, chicken-fried chicken with gravy, a 4-ounce fully cooked burger line, and steak fingers. The company’s Fast Fixin’ and Fast Fixin’ Restaurant Style brands offer more than 200 selections of fully cooked convenience meat products to retail grocery and club stores nationwide. The foundation of each brand was laid at Advance Food Company, where Fast Fixin’ was launched more than 17 years ago.
Headquartered in Oklahoma City, OK, Advance Brands — a joint venture between Advance Food Company, Enid, OK, and Cargill Meat Solutions, Wichita, KS — is an independent, limited-liability business, posting more than 30-percent growth annually since its inception in 2001. Advance Brands’ yearly double-digit growth is attributed in part to its parentage and the independent operating authority they allow.
Advance Brands operated without a president for much of its existence until 2003, when Advance Food Company veteran Tom Harpenau, assumed the position after resigning his position as senior vice president of operations at the parent company.
“Our philosophy is about putting the right people on the bus,” O’Neill says. “It’s important to find the right people for the right position. Our success is a direct reflection of our team members and Tom Harpenau’s leadership fit the bill perfectly.”
Along with extensive leadership abilities, Harpenau brought to the table the production expertise needed to maintain the company’s fast-paced growth program. An $18-million expansion project at the Advance Brands plant in Orange City, IA, is the latest tool for growth. The 31,000-square-foot addition is designed to increase production capacity by 45 percent, while adding additional stainless equipment, coolers, and storage areas geared to upgrade the company’s stringent food-safety program.
“Food safety is a priority because we can survive fires and tornadoes, but not product quality issues,” notes Harpenau.
Food safety also means identifying and removing allergens and controlling Listeria monocytogenes with various anti-microbial inhibitors.
“We are committed to providing top-quality innovative products to our customers,” he adds.  “This expansion strengthens our ability to reach beyond their expectations. We want to do a great job and we are working daily to meet that goal.”
Taking Advance Brands from good to great, as suggested in the title of the Jim Collins book, is the focus of the company’s management team.
“We have our strengths,” McPherson says. “Our mission is to keep building on these strengths with the right people, opportunities, and retail partners that will take us to the next level.”
That means always moving forward to leverage past successes.
“We don’t have the time to look back,” O’Neill acknowledges. “It’s not good enough to just put quality products in packages. It’s more about how you differentiate your products, which is a constant work in progress.”
For Harpenau, Advance Brands’ strengths reflect a formula comprising quick turnaround capability, research and development, innovative packaging, customer service, retail execution, flexibility, and committed employees. “These strengths are just part of the equation,” Harpenau explains. “Our plan for continued growth lies in product development, acquisitions, and the passion of our team members.”
The Advance Brands team on the business operation side is all inclusive — everybody has a say when it comes to covering all the bases concerning product development, packaging, sales, and marketing.
“Sales people here are business managers,” Thompson notes. “We don’t have positions, everybody is involved. We have a culture that says once we identify what to do, we make it happen.”
Taking it a step further, McPherson says, “It’s the same with our retail partners. Our approach to selling is to diagnose and then prescribe. You can’t find out what a customer truly needs until you ask and then make decisions together that lead to the right product mix.”
Teamwork is the ultimate working-style for Bridget Little, marketing manager.
“Everybody at the table is a decision-maker. Regardless of department, when anyone is asked to help, they jump onboard. We don’t operate under a fear of failure. If we did, it would take us three years to introduce a new product,” she concludes.
Time is a major factor in Advance Brands’ product development initiatives to the extent it marks beginnings and endings. Fast turnarounds define an aspect of its approach to new product introductions. In three months time, its burger bites went from concept phase this past June to the retail shelf in August. The drawing board currently includes dinosaur-shaped chicken breast nuggets, Oriental chicken for lettuce wraps, and Mongolian beef. The Advance Brands team understands that products must not only meet and exceed consumer expectation, they must also engender a certain kind of cachet.
“It’s all about great product quality and differentiation, while connecting with consumers and retailers to make them as fanatical as we are,” O’Neill notes.
To this end, Advance Brands is initiating a new consumer loyalty program in the new year entitled “Fast Fixin’ Fanatics.” The program is designed to make consumers a more integral part of the product-launch process and reward them for brand loyalty.
“Our niche in the marketplace is being flexible,” McPherson says. “We have positioned ourselves as unique and fast-paced. We want to always be a small, nimble company able to respond to our customer, the retailer.” NP