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VOL. 41 | NO. 29 | Friday, July 21, 2017

Harrington’s profile rises with her dough

Nashville mega-baker among top female business owners in US

By Joe Morris

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Women-owned companies are just like those owned by men, which is to say some are big, some are small, some are well-known and some aren’t.

Recently the Women Presidents’ Organization and American Express took note of some larger ones in their 50 Fastest-Growing Women-Owned/Led Companies list, which included Nashville’s Cordia Harrington and her The Bakery Cos.

Companies on the list were ranked according to a sales-growth formulary that combined percentage and absolute growth. The 50 companies ranked generated a combined $7.2 billion in 2016 revenues, and employed 46,000 people.

For its part, The Bakery Cos. was singled out in part for having gross revenue that went from $58,641,000 to $90,180,000 in just the past two years, list officials say.

Harrington, who rose a spot to No. 42 on this year’s list, has been on the national radar for more than 20 years. She launched the Tennessee Bun Company in 1996, spun a trucking business to carry products to customers a few years later, and has continued to expand her bread-making empire.

Production associate Gladis Rivera-Rodriguez makes sure buns are properly positioned at her station in the Armory Drive plant operated by The Bakery Cos.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

In addition to television and magazine profiles, she’s also picked up honors from FAST Company, the National Association of Women Business Owners and other organizations. Her company, which has more than 500 employees, now stretches across factories in Middle Tennessee, Norcross, Georgia, and, soon, Guatemala City, Guatemala.

“There’s been a lot going on with us these last couple of years, primarily diversifying to add new products, which in turn has opened up new markets,” Harrington says.

By expanding production lines and capabilities to add things like cinnamon rolls, focaccia bread and organic loaf bread, she’s become the marketplace-bread vendor for Walmart. But even with such a marquee client, she says she’s a small business owner at heart.

“I still think that way; you want to diversity as much as possible so you can grow, but I’m also staying in that bread niche so that if one market goes down, we can grow elsewhere,” she points out.

Working at The Bakery Cos. off Armory Drive is mixer technician Bensonnetta (known as Benzo) Baker.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“For example, we added new lines to make different kinds of loaves in a plant here, and then bought a new facility in Georgia to be really creative with artisan products, things enrobed in seeds that are impossible to do on high-speed lines like we have in Tennessee.

“In Guatemala, we’re going to do more artisan breads, and ship to four countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.”

Even though the new product lines and physical plants mean more business, Harrington says she feels as though her career is going backward vs. forward sometimes.

“I started with high-speed line making 1,000 buns a minute, and now I’m making a whole lot less than that,” she explains.

“But we’re trying to be sensitive to what the consumer wants, and everybody wants something specialized. They want a clean label, extremely nutritious bread that’s healthy for their bodies, so we’re learning new processes and buying new equipment to provide the products consumers are looking for.”

By running a business that meets current consumer needs, while offering some looking ahead as far as trends go, Harrington admits she played it a bit safer than some startups, which wrap around goods and services that must be pitched to consumers.

Think Silicon Valley apps, for example. Some are amazing successes, some aren’t. That said, there are plenty of women working in the tech fields, as well as operating more traditional businesses, throughout Middle Tennessee.

Harrington sees their numbers growing.

“There are more and more startups here, across the board, all the time,” she continues. “Just look at the restaurants. I love seeing people taking risks like that, because this country was built on small business, normal people like us who can open something and live the American dream.

“Nashville is so energized now, and it’s not just investors in the big buildings. It’s people opening small shops, or niche service businesses. And a lot of them need bread, for which I am thankful.”

They also need capital, as well as some hands-on training to get the fundamentals in place in those critical early days, and so often turn to Pathway Women’s Business Center for that aid.

“We worked with between 900 and 1,000 women last year, and from what we can tell from follow-ups, we helped women start 45 new businesses last year,” says Amy Bunton, president. “There’s a lot of difference between filing incorporation papers and generating revenue, so we’re clearly seeing a lot of momentum.”

Women are just as drawn to tech and healthcare as men are, so they are growing in representation in those hot Nashville fields, but they’re also doing a lot of “Main Street” style startups and that’s not quite as flashy, she adds.

“The creative class is coming on strong,” Bunton confirms. “There are a lot of artisans, male and female, who are looking to monetize their passion. Some are starting businesses, some are adding staff and moving to the next level.

“Nashville should never underestimate the power of lifestyle businesses, the daycare facilities, the boutiques or service providers, which are happening now. The front page may be splashed with something that’s attracting a lot of venture capital, but there’s a lot of growth happening here in the more traditional business model as well.”

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