By Charlene Oldham | Photography courtesy of Monogram Foods
The ‘can-do’ attitude at Monogram Foods is a reflection of its leader whose mission has been to create a good place to work.
Karl Schledwitz was just 18 when his father died, and he didn’t get a big inheritance in the traditional sense of the word. But the senior Schledwitz, a salesman and serial entrepreneur, did pass down his love of building businesses.
It’s a trait that’s served the younger Schledwitz well over the course of a career in which he’s spearheaded a number of successful business ventures in the Memphis area. That winning track record and his commitment to rewarding investors before anyone else involved draws a payout has helped Schledwitz raise more than $200 million in private capital to fund his entrepreneurial enterprises over the past 20-plus years.
“Basically, when I raise money for a new venture, the investors are put first,” he said. “The formula over the years has worked. So, if it isn’t broke, you don’t try to fix it.”
His latest company, which he says is his last, is Monogram Foods, which makes and distributes packaged meat products, snacks and appetizers. Monogram began when Schledwitz and cofounder Wes Jackson acquired regional brands including King Cotton and Circle B from Sara Lee Corp. in 2004. Monogram also manufactures products under licensed brands, private labels and co-packing agreements.
The product mix has helped Monogram achieve a compound annual growth rate of more than 40 percent over the 13 last years. Its impressive expansion has landed Monogram on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. for eight years running, and projections indicate continued growth, Schledwitz said. But customers shouldn’t expect to find King Cotton hot dogs and Circle B smoked sausage in stores far outside the Mid-South.
“You’ll never see Monogram with a national brand going against the big boys—the Krafts or the Tysons of the world,” he said.
Instead, Monogram tries to spot trends within its targeted product lines, which led to a marriage made in meat heaven.
“Up until five years ago, there was no such thing as bacon jerky. There was turkey jerky, beef jerky, venison jerky. But nobody had ever taken pork belly and converted it to bacon jerky until we did. So, today, we probably make 80 percent of all the bacon jerky sold in the country.”
But Schledwitz hasn’t always been bringing home the bacon in the literal sense. While Jackson, the company’s cofounder, came to Monogram with extensive experience in the food industry, Schledwitz has launched everything from a home inspection company to a rent-to-own retail chain. And the veteran businessman got his start in law and politics, which he says shaped his approach to entrepreneurship.
For instance, when he managed statewide campaigns, he often had to choose a county campaign manager after only a day, making a quick call about the person’s character and commitment.
“And it’s a decision-making process that has helped me in business because, at the end of the day, the thing we have that’s different than our competitors are our people and our culture.”
Monogram’s can-do corporate culture is, in part, an extension of Schledwitz’s outlook on work and life, which he honed in the years after his dad’s death.
“Since my dad died so young, I had to work virtually full time to get through college and law school,” he said. “I think having to learn that work ethic was very influential.”
His early experiences also illuminated the impact community and educational institutions can have on people’s lives. Schledwitz, a native Memphian, has served as a member of the Board of Trustees for the University of Tennessee, his undergraduate alma mater. His current volunteer titles include positions as a board member at Memphis’ Orpheum Theatre and the Memphis Zoo.
He says he always gets back more than he gives to charitable causes and community institutions. And he thinks his coworkers share that philosophy. Through its Monogram Loves Kids Foundation, the company administers grants to service agencies in communities where it operates facilities. And Monogram encourages individual volunteer efforts, as well.
“And that’s been really good for our company because good people want to work for companies that are doing good and trying to be sensitive to the needs of the communities where they live and work.”
Unlike many private companies, Monogram publishes many of its financial specifics online and in communications with shareholders and potential partners. And, while solid revenues and earnings per share have been essential ingredients to Karl Schledwitz’s recipe for success as an entrepreneur, building businesses that enrich employees’ lives is the secret sauce.
“Creating a good place to work where people can advance their own careers in an environment that’s giving back to the community and, at the same time, make money for the shareholders — when all that comes together, it’s a wonderful thing.”