What Ron Hinson Learned Leading S&D

May 29, 2015, 6:00am EDT Ken Elkins – Charlotte Business Journal

Ron Hinson has been CEO at S&D Coffee & Tea since 2000.

When Ron Hinson heard that Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte wanted to award him an honorary doctorate degree and speak at the commencement ceremony this year, his first instinct was to decline.

Hinson, chief executive of S&D Coffee & Tea in Concord, had to be convinced by Tarun Malik, interim president at Johnson & Wales, that he should receive the honor.

“I didn’t feel like I was deserving,” Hinson says. “I didn’t go to college, I didn’t graduate from college. Who am I to talk to these folks?”

Last weekend, he delivered the address and received his degree. “This is a very high honor, and I am flabbergasted,” Hinson says.

Hinson dug deeply into his career and life to give the Johnson & Wales graduates some poignant advice about being a more fulfilled person. During a recent interview, Hinson recalled a few points of his commencement speech.

“I did not know how to work hard and also balance my life and build relationships,” he says. During his first 15 years at S&D, he didn’t take vacations and disparaged those in the company who did.

Hinson, who has worked almost 37 years at S&D, is changing that. Today, he complies with his wife’s ban on iPads and smartphones during a few hours of their time together each evening.

That brings Hinson to another point he made in the commencement address: Face-to-face communications are vital in today’s impersonal world of texting, emailing, Tweeting and Facebooking.

“We’re all in the fast-paced world boom, boom, boom,” he says. “But don’t ever, ever neglect face-to-face communications. Major decisions have to have that aspect.”

Hinson talked with me about his career and plans for the future at S&D.

S&D isn’t just coffee and tea anymore, right?

We have a growing iced-coffee business that has done very well with recent major launches at national chains, like Chick-fil-A. We have our own line of single-serve cups including a more recyclable version than the K-Cup. This line is going well.

Finally, we launched a line of retail milk flavorings for kids called MilkSplash, available at all Wal-Mart stores, and locally at Harris Teeter and Food Lion. We have shaken up the category with fun flavors like Jammin’ Banana, Cookies & Cream and Orange Cream Dream. Milk flavoring had stagnated with chocolate and strawberry, and with the tremendous need to get kids to drink milk we saw an opportunity. We are turning everyday milk into milk every day. The response has been so positive that we are taking this line to the food-service industry and already getting tremendous interest.

How important are the new business segments to the company? In other words, are they contributing to the bottom line yet?

They are contributing significant profit, but the real growth is still ahead of us. We have a lot of runway out there on the newer businesses. It’s not just profit; they are strategic. New businesses are changing our perception from strictly coffee and tea to a broader beverage-solution provider. We are deep in major accounts, so the new segments allow us to penetrate further with menu innovation.

While we’re on the subject, how important are innovation and new products to S&D?

They have never been more important. For instance, we are pioneering “sparkling tea.” We have a dominant iced tea business that we would like to grow even more. By adding carbonation to healthy tea, we can pick up some of the disaffected carbonated soft drinkers who have left the category.

We must have given out 10,000 samples in Chicago at the (National Restaurant Association) Show that just occurred. Sparkling tea is the next big wave in dispensed beverages. Our customers love the profitability of tea, so now we can give them a way to expand their tea platform.

S&D bought some space in West Winds Business Park a few years ago for an R&D Center. Is that going to be enough space for you now?

Yes, we are very pleased with our West Winds facility. We now have a fully fashioned roasting facility that is up and running. Our marketing department has occupied that space for several years. We are looking to add a redundant tea facility there in the near future to provide additional tea capacity for the growth in that business.

How many employees do you have now and are there any plans to hire more?

We had around 900 people in 2012. We are at around 1,150 right now. We added 100 in 2014. We will continue to add people as our business needs require.

Is S&D still the nation’s largest private roaster of coffee?

There are several distinctions that we hold: After reviewing market-share studies, it is clear that we are the largest supplier of coffee and iced tea to restaurants in America. And there is no doubt that we are the largest custom roaster in the nation. Finally, we sell more iced tea to food-service customers than anyone in America.

Is McDonald’s still a big customer?

Yes, we are proud of our partnership with McDonald’s. We are also a major part of the Dunkin system. We also supply many outstanding local chains such as Bojangles’ and Krispy Kreme.

What are Ron Hinson’s plans with S&D? Are you retiring soon?

No, I am absolutely engaged in our business and our people would tell you in every aspect. This is a very exciting time at S&D. Our growth potential is significant. It all comes back to our people. We have been able to attract experts in various phases of our business from all over the country. They are adding so much value here.

For instance, we just hired our first corporate chef and made him vice president of innovation and product development. Now, we can go “chef to chef” in dialog with our major customers and they speak the same language.

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To view the full commencement speech, click here.

Ron Hinson has been CEO at S&D Coffee & Tea since 2000.