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One on One: Rex Clothier

Senior VP, procurement, center of plate, U.S. Foodservice

Rex Clothier, Sr. VP, procurement, center of plate,
    U.S. Foodservice, Chicago
By Fiona Robinson
July 01, 2006

Rex Clothier is focused squarely on the future of U.S. Foodservice's center-of-plate procurement department. He has little to say about the rebate scam that put the broadline distributor in the headlines a few years back, except that the company's entire upper-level support staff is new, and he is working long hours while the procurement department is in "rebuilding mode."

It's been almost three years since an internal audit at Ahold discovered accounting problems related to its U.S. Foodservice subsidiary. Four USF executives and nine vendors, including three seafood executives, pled guilty to charges of conspiring to falsify U.S. Foodservice's and Ahold's books. Seafood veteran Clothier was hired in 2005 to take over the embattled center-of-plate procurement department.

There's no question Clothier is in the right position at the right time in his career. The Alaska native grew up gutting fish on a "slime line" at a fishing resort in Ketchikan and later became a fishing guide. He received a degree in finance from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, in 1987. After college he worked as a production foreman at Unisea's Dutch Harbor plant.

He left Alaska to attend Thun­derbird: The Garvin School of Inter­national Management, where he studied in Phoenix and Tokyo. Upon finishing grad school in 1991 with a masters in international marketing, he returned to Unisea to train distributor reps and territory managers about seafood. He then became Unisea's Canadian national sales manager.

Clothier left Unisea in 1999 to work as Darden Restaurants' director of crab and shrimp for two and a half years before being named senior director of commodity purchasing (for chicken, beef and pork). At Darden he focused on resource utilization, which has helped him in his new role at USF.

Clothier has his work cut out for him. USF operates 67 broadline divisions, five standalone beef operations (stockyards) and 12 multi-unit divisions that were recently put under the North Star Foodservice brand name. USF Broadline serves independent restaurants and the healthcare, lodging, gaming and government sectors. Seafood customers have included Brin­ker Inter­national.

I spoke with Clothier in early May as he prepared his wife and two kids for a big move to the Windy City.

 

Robinson: What prompted your decision to join U.S. Foodservice?

Clothier: I enjoyed the time in my career working with territory managers and focusing on working at the street level in broadline. I was impressed and excited to have the opportunity to work with John Inwright, chief procurement manager at U.S. Food­service, to set up global procurement. With all their hardships in recent years, I was very impressed with the new management team that was onboard to manage through the road to recovery.

 

What does your job entail?

Most of what I focus on is developing supply-chain solutions. We try to build a relationship [with suppliers] close to the resource, called our Resource to Recipe strategy. Early on there was a lot of development overseas. I've had quite a bit of travel, as has Greg Brown. I'm responsible 
for center of plate, and Greg is my 
director of seafood.

 

Any big changes in store for USF?

We're all moving to Chicago [this month]. All of the USF procurement functions are going under one roof and will be part of a new company-within-a-company called Monarch Foods. We'll develop our own brand and build supply-chain strategies across all categories.

When I came onboard, I focused on getting out into the divisions and putting together sales strategies on specific product categories. Now we have a more integrated approach on the procurement side. We'll focus on sourcing strategies and more focused procurement initiatives. We'll have a brand team to focus on strategic product introductions. We'll also have an R&D department, which is new to us. [We'll have a] much more integrated approach to our brands and mapping what our customers are looking for. Our whole enterprise is customer-centric.

 

Are there any changes planned for the seafood program?

When you look at our brand strategy, it's to provide clearer choices. What's in a box? You have to know. When a fish comes out of water, [the quality] gets nothing but worse. When you get to the back door of the customer, you have to know what's in the box that you are selling.

We used to have 60-plus brands [not just seafood], and it made it more difficult to focus. Now we have 20 power brands; the two seafood brands are Harbor Banks and Bluewater. Harbor Banks is upper quality, and Bluewater is a structured value tier. We have a strong vendor pool with commodity product.

Our strength has been heavily skewed to commodity. I think you'll see a focus on R&D to try to find ways to make more value-added products available.

 

What percentage of food sales does seafood represent, and is that

increasing?

Close to 5 percent is seafood. Of the $19 billion food total, seafood is close to $1 billion. It's an area we've identified for growth because of the health benefits and trends in the market. It's an area we can be quite strong in.

 

How many seafood vendors

does USF have?

Thousands. The value proposition is for us to find vendors that can support a bigger percentage of that. About 550 to 600 seafood vendors are active.

 

What is USF's corporate philosophy about seafood purchases?

The foundation of our entire procurement, and entire organization, is integrity, accountability and responsibility. On seafood, we're trying to drive out short weights, mislabeled species, transshipped products. To my knowledge, we're one of the only broadliners that is testing its finished product. Most organizations aren't taking as proactive a role as delivering economic integrity - that makes us stand out a little bit.

I'm consistently frustrated when I get into the marketplace and see a lot of short-weighting and substitution. And customers are accepting of it.

There's a huge push to get closer to the resource. Resource to Recipe is a completely new strategy. We're putting together direct contracting with processors overseas.

In terms of Alaska product, we're focusing on working with folks who control the resource and with bricks-and-mortar companies that are in it for the long haul.

What is U.S. Foodservice's approach to developing a

sustainable-seafood program?

We are learning from our sister companies in Europe and Ahold USA. They have resource-intense practices. We've had global meetings already with different arenas, which have been more of a knowledge transfer than a directive [from Ahold].

In three to five years, there will be a huge emphasis on sustainability and chain of custody and our ability to have visibility back to the source [to ensure] that all the right practices are being made.

 

What do you like best

about your job?

I'm proud of the seafood industry and the right practices that take place. I'm ecstatic that I've been empowered to take the hardline economic-integrity stance that I have. Regardless of why our company has taken a high road to integrity and sustainability, it's a pleasure to have it supported unequivocally through everything I do, every day.

 

What do you expect the seafood industry will be like in 10 years?

I think the seafood industry and the food industry as a whole will be much more globalized. We'll continue to see more consolidation on the supply side and larger companies will get more active in the seafood category. It's a much smaller arena that we play in; companies will be more engaged at the resource.

 

What about the seafood program at USF?

We'll work with other seafood companies to participate in good stewardship initiatives. We really need to help the industry instead of just taking from it. That's something that I suspect our vendor community would acknowledge, but others may not know it's going on.

 

Editor Fiona Robinson can be 
e-mailed at frobinson@divcom.com

 

 

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