What worked for this Philly CEO: Food distribution. College? Not really

Howard Klayman, president and chief executive of Benjamin Foods Inc, a food and commercial kitchen supply business.

Sometimes, people and college just don’t get along.

“One semester, and that was it,” said Howard Klayman, 42, founder, president, and chief executive of Benjamin Foods Inc., a 200-employee food-distribution and restaurant-supply business in Hatboro.

One thing about Klayman: He’s a quick study of what’s not working for him. College was one thing. A brief stint managing property didn’t gel, either.

“After a month, I said, `I’m not happy.’ ”

Perhaps it’s because being in the food-distribution business is hard-wired into Klayman. “It is a high-volume, low-margin business,” he said. “You have to be on top of your game, always. Just when you think you know and understand certain things, something else comes up.

His grandfather started a business supplying Philly pizza parlors with everything from sauce to boxes. The uncles and his father came into it next, and right out of the family-business textbook, they started squabbling. They broke the business into chunks. Klayman went to work for his father, same business, different pizza parlors, all in Bucks County.

And, just like another chapter in that family-business textbook, Klayman began to chafe working under the thumb of his father. He had just gotten married, and it was time to re-evaluate.

So what happened?

I started to realize that while I really loved the business and this is truly my passion, something needed to change. So, in the beginning of December, I went in to my father and said I’d be leaving the family business in the beginning of January. On Christmas Day, he had a stroke. I was supposed to leave the following week to start a new job. I said, `Dad, don’t ask me for anything. I’m not going to hang you out to dry. I’ll stay with you until you can get back on your feet.’

Then you went to work in sales for another food-distribution company.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, it was another family business, and there was a family dynamic there. So, after five years, I started to get the idea that I could do this on my own.

In between is when you took that brief break to manage real estate, right?

I was managing real estate, and my customers kept calling me, saying, `I need food. I want you to get it for me.’ So I started making phone calls. One thing led to another. Before you know it, we’re invoicing, shipping products, and the company was born. We rented space in the back of someone’s warehouse in Germantown.

Now, your father works for you. How’s that going?

He’s working for us at one of our satellite facilities, Phoenixville.  It’s interesting, to say the least. We don’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things.  He’s still my dad.

You love cars. Do you judge people by their cars?

No, in fact, I make it a point to never judge anybody. I’ve learned that the person over there in the most raggedy clothes could be a billionaire. How did I learn that lesson? I think it was a culmination of a bunch of things in my life. One of them was going to buy a car when I was young, and I was treated inappropriately. I probably walked into a dealership with a T-shirt and ripped jeans and they didn’t treat me right. I was fortunate enough to be able to afford what I was looking at. It really turned me off. It also turned something on in me. I don’t value people by the amount of money they have.

You started this business in 2007, at the age of 32. What was the biggest adversity you faced?

Hiring people that we thought were going to be a benefit to the organization, only to realize that they were a distraction. The training and the prior experience they had that was supposed to help the business was so much of a distraction that it caused ripples in the organization. What we realized is that we ourselves have the capability. We are open-minded. We are willing to learn and to dig and to get into things.

Any problems finding help these days?

The market for drivers is very tough right now.  There’s a shortage in the country.

What’s hot in the food business?

Gluten-free, farm-to-table, organic.

HOWARD KLAYMAN:

Home: New Hope, with wife, Gina; sons Benjamin, 10, and Jacob, 6.

Diploma: George Washington High School.

Resume: Worked in his family business before leaving to work in another food-distribution company. Started his own business in 2007.

Indulgences: Cheesesteaks from Steve's Prince of Steaks, Comly Road, and driving his Ferrari.

BENJAMIN FOODS:

What: Wholesale food and commercial kitchen distribution business.

Where: Hatboro headquarters; three other locations: Malvern, Phoenixville, Reading; 200 employees.

Revenues: $123 million

Point of pride: Ranked third by revenue in the Philadelphia 100, a list of the region's fastest-growing privately held companies.