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Staying Centered: Long-Time Manufacturer Sees Disruption As Opportunity from the U.S. Heartland

It’s appropriate that the leading maker of private-label bakery goods is based in Tulsa – the two are cut from the same cloth. Bama Companies is a mighty enterprise whose markets and blue-chip customers are located across the entire United States. It operates very much beneath the radar. And its resiliency has been put to the test during the pandemic and economic downturn.

Tulsa is a lot like that too. The most vibrant business center in Oklahoma has always been home to industrious and ambitious entrepreneurs whose markets and impact have been felt nationwide, in phases ranging from Tulsa’s reign as the Oil Capital of the World, to its late-Twentieth Century expansion into a center of manufacturing, logistics and professional services, to the current era in which its digital-tech credentials match up with those of any other mid-size city in America. Even during the pandemic, that parallel continues as the city, the Chamber of Commerce and its employers work together to build one of the safest environments in the U.S. for people to go to work.

“Everything we make in America comes out of Tulsa,” says Paula Marshall, the third-generation leader of a company with annual revenues north of $300 million and decades-long relationships as a major vendor to marquee foodservice and grocery retailers including McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Walmart.

“We have a central location in the United States. We’ve got a great workforce, great access to resources, and Tulsa is still fairly inexpensive. We’ve been able to stay extremely competitive by staying here.”

In fact, Bama Companies never has given much thought to doing business and expanding in any U.S. location other than Tulsa. Marshall’s grandmother founded the company in 1927, enlisting her seven children to help bake fresh pies in her kitchen each morning for several years. By the 1930s, the family was opening Bama eateries around the city, where the aromas of its fresh pies would waft across the urban plain.

Over the years, Bama Companies downplayed its own brand in favor of becoming a favored private-label supplier to restaurant brands that came to rely on the quality and innovativeness of the vendors’ products and services. “In the 1990s, when I took over at a young age, my goal was to get us out of our own pie brand and to stick with big national customers,” Marshall says. “We were going to be who we were originally designed to be: relational sellers, not retailers.”

So, McDonald’s iconic, hand-sized apple pies, for instance, are a Bama product and have been since the fast-food king began selling them in 1968 – the same year the Golden Arches introduced what became another classic item, the Big Mac. Bama has come to provide Pizza Hut with a majority of the pizza crusts and other baked products that are served there. The company also has gained some major supermarket accounts over the years, including Walmart, whose Great Value biscuits are made in Tulsa by Bama Companies.

Tulsa has been the willing and highly cooperative stage for all of the manufacturing and administrative expansion Bama’s growth has required. The original factory is in the historic Midtown part of the city. A second facility lies in an industrial complex north of town. And a third Bama factory anchors an enterprise zone in the northern part of Tulsa.

The timeline of the original Bama factory illustrates the dynamism of both the company, and Tulsa, that make them such good partners. The Midtown facility, which was opened by Marshall’s grandparents in 1937, still operates as a modern bakery after a series of significant upgrades over the years. In fact, Bama diversified the operation into production of a handful of significant products, in part because Marshall chose the plant as the one to gain U.S. Department of Agriculture certification for certain kinds of food processing.

Now, the Midtown plant with its USDA imprimatur is the locus of an exciting new initiative for Bama: diversifying into hand-held breakfast sandwiches that include meat for the first time. “We plan to go to market with this new line, which will be placed in major U.S. retailers, food courts and convenience stores,” Marshall says.

Tulsa’s chamber of commerce and city officials worked closely with Bama on training and tax credits for updating and expanding the Midtown plant, not taking for granted the needs of one of Oklahoma’s largest privately held businesses. Tulsa also has highly dependable utility networks “and electricity and water that are fairly inexpensive,” Marshall says.

At the same time the city has been supportive, Tulsa’s endemic advantages also have been extremely important to Bama’s success and very significant factors in its continued anchoring in the city. Among these factors is location, location, location – a crucial determinant for a company that supplies perishable goods to the entire country.

“We have ingredients that come in from all over the country, from some of the largest suppliers like Cargill and Arden Mills, to tiny vendors whose goods may be made many hundreds of miles away,” Marshall says. “Tulsa is at the logistical center of where we buy our products from, and where we distribute them. It’s equally distant for us to go to the West Coast or the East Coast of the United States.”

The pandemic stunned Bama Companies as it did the rest of Tulsa and the entire country. “In a two-week period,” Marshall says, “our sales went to zero as our customers assessed what was going on. We had to lay off about 300 of our 1,000 employees in Tulsa for a while. But our customers with drive-through and delivery eventually became robust again, and we got business when a lot of people didn’t.”

Bama worked with city officials to implement physical distancing, personal protective equipment and other safeguards in its plants. New company policies have included giving people a week of paid leave if they have symptoms or fail the full-body temperature reading taken each day. It has also moved to 100% virtual trainings, keeping staff up to date on changing federal regulations impacting their daily operations.

“Every person in the company can get all regulated training done over the phone, not in a classroom,” says Marshall. “We saw that as extremely important. We actually don’t see having in-person classes in the future.”

Sales – and production at its Tulsa facilities – remain behind a year earlier, but Marshall is embracing the slack capacity as a chance to ramp up production of Bama’s new meat-based products.

“We can take advantage of some of the opportunities in the hand-held environment where there’s not a lot of innovation yet,” she says.

In typical Tulsa fashion, the disruption is looked at as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. And as Bama restores output to previous levels or, according to Marshall’s strategy, even outstrips them, the company will be demonstrating its wherewithal to the world once again from Tulsa.


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