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Headshot of Ben E. Keith and his company's logo.

Card program pays off.

The leaders of The Ben E. Keith Co. (BEK) could write a textbook on how to run a successful distribution company.

In addition to distributing food and beverage products in 18 southern states, the Fort Worth-based company is the largest Anheuser-Busch wholesaler in the nation.

“Most distributors think of themselves as logistics companies,” explains Kevin Bullock, Controller of the 116-year-old company. “But we’re more of a people-centric organization. Throughout our history, we have focused less on inventory turns and more on delivering excellent customer experiences.”

In practical terms, that means, BEK’s more than 600 district sales reps spend much of their time listening to their customers — restaurants, schools, hospitals, and food service companies. They treat each customer like a business partner, assisting them with everything from menu pricing to inventory management.

“One of our customers is a mom-and-pop restaurant in New Mexico that prefers a certain type of burrito,” recalls Bullock. “We carry it in our inventory just for that customer. Most distributors would not do that. But this burrito is important to our customer, so it’s important to us.”

BEK’s high-touch service requires significant customer contact, including frequent travel to and dining at customer restaurants, hosting events at food show exhibits and other outreach. Employees have historically used their own personal credit cards to complete these purchases, later submitting their receipts for reimbursement.

“When you have 1,500 people turning in paper expense reports, the tracking and payment process is cumbersome,” notes Bullock. “We knew there was a better way.”

In hopes of finding it, BEK sent out a request for proposals in Fall 2020. By Christmas, the company awarded a contract for a purchasing card program to Commerce Bank.

“While we had not done business with Commerce before, they had been calling on and meeting with us,” Bullock says. “What drew us to them was how they took the time to understand our business. They didn’t just come to our office and tell us how their program worked. Instead, they listened to our needs and explained how they could tailor a solution to meet them.”

Two other things in Commerce’s proposal stood out, according to Bullock. “First, Commerce would have an in-house team enroll our vendors in the program. We trusted they would handle it in a sensitive manner,” he says.

“Second, they were flexible. We needed a program that was easy to administer and could integrate with the new expense reporting platform we were also implementing,” he says. Commerce assured him that the transaction data from the purchasing card program could be synced with the data in the Chrome River software for reconciliation.

“The combined system not only automates the process, but also makes it easy to pull analytics and reports on everything from the average cost of a hotel stay to individual vendor expense totals,” notes Bullock. “The rebates are also appealing.”

Beginning in the Fall of 2021, BEK rolled out the program in three waves, with purchasing cards eventually ending up in the wallets of about 1,500 district sales reps, marketers, and managers.

“We’re very methodical,” Bullock says. “Commerce has been good about providing the resources we need and allowing us to move at a comfortable pace.”

“Throughout the entire process, Commerce has also treated us like we treat our customers. They want us to have a good experience and that’s exactly what they’ve delivered.”

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