Editor’s Note: Chief Executive is kicking off a new annual tradition this year by celebrating every sizable (over $100 million in annual revenues) standalone company turning 100 in 2023. Check out the rest of this year’s class for tips, insights and, above all else, the inspiration you need to keep going….and going.
DISTRIBUTOR TO GROCERIES AND RESTAURANTS
HQ: Kent, Washington
Revenues: ~$1.7 billion
Over a century, the growth of Harbor Foods has depended on adjusting to the vagaries of business—and taking leaps of faith to invest in opportunities that ultimately created the largest food distributor in the Pacific Northwest. It’s also the fifth-biggest family-owned business in Washington state, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal.
Now in its fourth generation of family ownership, Harbor is run by Justin Erickson, the CEO, and, until his recent death, Scott Erickson, his cousin and co-owner. To get to 100 years as a private enterprise, Harbor Foods has emphasized comprehensiveness, scale, culture and caring since its founding by Swedish immigrant Carl Erickson in Aberdeen, Washington, where he supplied local logging camps.
Today, the company’s Harbor Wholesale branch services convenience stores, grocery stores and quick-serve restaurants, while its Harbor Foodservice wing focuses on the rest of the restaurant industry. Northlink, which provides third-party transportation services and logistics, also is part of Harbor Foods.
Harbor scaled up over the decades with the growth of the regional economy, but in the mid-1970s, Mike and Steve Erickson, with the blessing of their elders, made a bold bet that would elevate Harbor’s ambitions beyond the pace of expansion of the ambient economy. They invested $120,000 in a computer that allowed them to scale up distribution operations and establish a professional face to Harbor’s invoicing. “We knew we needed to invest in that if we wanted to compete,” Mike Erickson told the Journal.
In 1985, Harbor executed its biggest relocation, from Aberdeen to Tumwater, Washington, to be closer to the Interstate 5 corridor. In 2011, the company moved to its current complex, a 212,000-square-foot headquarters in Lacey. Products from more than 800 suppliers go into Harbor’s warehouse there, and then they go out to more than 6,000 retail outlets across California and Alaska as well as the Pacific Northwest.
Along the way, the Ericksons have nurtured the business in two channels, grocery and foodservice. The strategy has helped increase Harbor’s revenues rapidly, from $375 million in 2012. So has the company’s regular habit of acquiring other distributors—including MTC Distributing and Halfon Candy, in 2022 alone.
But Harbor acquires only other companies that also are family-owned. This is part of a broader culture of hewing to family management that has been crucial to building its business.
“We have developed a culture here where we treat employees like family because, in the beginning, it was family,” Justin Erickson told the Journal. “Now our family isn’t just the Ericksons, it’s everyone who works here. We have a culture of caring for our people and their families.” A related attribute: “We always do what we say we’re going to do,” he told a magazine, “and that comes from being a family business.”
Dividing the enterprise into two divisions and tending to company principles and culture also would prove crucial for Harbor Foods when the company confronted its biggest crisis: the economic and health disaster of the pandemic.
Globally jangled food-supply chains put a strain on everyone. But while the company’s foodservice wing was simply trying to help clients survive the crisis, booming demand by its grocery clientele and fast-food eateries helped Harbor survive. “We were able to weather the storm because we have those multiple lines of customers,” Erickson said.
At the same time, he made sure Harbor executives were treating their employees and customers well amid the crisis. “Think about what we’ll be remembered for when it’s all over,” he said repeatedly. People “will remember how we handled the crisis, how we treated people and what we did for our customers.”