ARTICLES AND PHOTOS BY DAVID BLANCHETTE
For 99 years, MJ Kellner Foodservice has been a respected family-owned Springfield business. As the company enters its 100th year in operation, it is positioned to continue its growth and success, according to owner Bill Kellner, who is also the CEO and president.
“Over the years, I have had offers to sell my business to major national competitors,” Kellner said, “but have not due to my loyalty to the employees and customers who have helped make MJ Kellner successful. I feel that a company purchasing our business would have no interest in keeping the operations in Springfield.”
Kellner’s grandfather, Maurice J. Kellner, founded the company in 1920 as a wholesale sugar distributor. Kellner’s father, H. J. “Hack” Kellner, assumed operations in 1945 following his World War II service. He expanded the business well beyond sugar, becoming known as one of the leading contract food service suppliers in the country. Third-generation owner Bill Kellner has headed the company since 1995. Under his leadership, MJ Kellner continues to supply food service items to state-operated facilities, but the largest share of the business now comes from restaurants, nursing homes, schools and hospitals within a 100-mile radius of the Springfield headquarters.
MJ Kellner, located at 5700 International Parkway., operates out of a 90,000-square-foot state-of-the-art building constructed 12 years ago just off of the I-72 and Wabash Avenue junction. The building includes 75,000 square feet of warehouse space. An older 37,000-square-foot facility, just northeast of the I-55 and Toronto Road junction, is used for overflow stock.
When local competitors Bunn Capitol and Robert’s Foods sold to Sysco, it meant a tremendous opportunity for MJ Kellner.
“That gave us an opportunity as a local, family-owned company to obtain business from customers who did not want to go with a national company. Our customers have stuck with us and even more have joined our family,” Kellner said. “We also hired individuals who had worked for both Bunn and Robert’s. Their expertise has been invaluable to our growth.”
The MJ Kellner customer service business model is one that many big corporations are now using, according to MJ Kellner chief operating officer and vice president Dave Rikas.
“People talk about Amazon, where you order online and you get it the next day. We’ve been doing that for 50 years,” Rikas said. “That’s what we do – if the customer orders today, they’re going to get it tomorrow. We want to grow enough that we can handle the business, but not so big that we forget what got us here, our customer service. That exceptional service has to remain the number one goal of this company.”
MJ Kellner is a broad-line food service distributor selling products that a food service entity needs to operate, including commercial kitchen equipment and cleaning supplies, in addition to the food itself. The company employs 86 individuals and contracts with 28 drivers, representing more than four times the workforce of 35 years ago. Kellner said the employees are the reason for the company’s growth and success.
“We have a talented sales force who have built a strong customer base and have worked hard to maintain the loyalty of those customers,” Kellner said. “Our purchasing, operations, marketing and warehouse staff have also done an outstanding job.”
MJ Kellner provides many benefits to its employees. One of its greatest benefits is the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). The company is now 30% employee-owned through the ESOP, which provides a secure retirement benefit that increases the longer employees work at the Springfield-based business. The ESOP is just one way that the family-owned business takes care of its work family, according to Rikas, who has been with the company for 35 years.
“The family atmosphere is created from the top. You walk down our hallways and you’re going to find a lot of employees who have been here 20 to 30 years or more,” Rikas said. “The Employee Stock Ownership Plan makes us attractive to future employees, given the fact that they now have a stake in the game.”
Rikas said that MJ Kellner’s customers are also part of the company’s family atmosphere.
“At our food shows there are many customers who walk up and give Bill Kellner the biggest hug when they see him.” Rikas said. “We feel it is imperative to maintain the family atmosphere and make sure that our customers are well taken care of.”
MJ Kellner will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2020 with many different events throughout the year, including a public open house who will be held in the fall at the company’s main location on International Parkway.
The main focus of the anniversary year will be to thank the community that has supported the company for the past century. To do this, the employees have created “Kellner Cares,” a new philanthropic identity with the goal of increasing their involvement in the community through volunteering.
“Our employees are currently participating in many important activities in Sangamon and the surrounding counties. I would like to see even greater participation from all of our employees as part of our 100-year anniversary,” Kellner said. “It is important that the residents of our community know that we are very involved in supporting vital organizations in our area.”
Kellner also wants the Springfield area to know that in the future the business will remain local and the next generation of company leadership will come from within the MJ Kellner employee family.
“We didn’t work this hard for this many years to see the company sold or disintegrate,” Kellner said. “We are bringing in young people, getting them trained and preparing them be the leaders 10 to 20 years from now. They will continue the innovation, creativity and work ethic that have made MJ Kellner Foodservice successful.”