Betting the farm: Thompson Family Farms carves niche as potato supplier for French fries and chips.

Author:McKinney, Jeffrey
Position:Small Biz - Robert Thompson


ROBERT THOMPSON SPENT NINE YEARS working as a marketing executive for Fresh Del Monte Produce in Long Beach, California, before he decided to branch out and grow his own business.

In 2004, he launched Thompson Family Farms. That entrepreneurial shift is paying off for TFF's president and CEO. Thompson's Pasco, Washington-based business is now a potato grower for some of the nation's largest food processing Companies, including Burger King, the world's second-largest fast food hamburger chain.

Thompson, 43, got planted into the business after some colleagues, who were second-generation potato growers, assured him that growing potatoes would be more profitable and scalable than growing lettuce--a move Thompson first considered. Today, the family-run business includes Thompson's wife, Clarissa, son, Stewart, and daughters Arielle and Athena.

The Thompson family has carved out a niche in an industry that has few minority-owned farm food suppliers. Thompson expects 2013 revenues of close to $5 million, up from $1.1 million the first year in operation and roughly $3 million in 2012. He has aspirations of boosting company revenues to $10 million by 2018 through increased business with existing and new customers.

Most of TFF's growth has occurred since 2007, when Thompson became a supplier to McCain Foods USA, a Lisle, Illinois-based supplier of frozen potato and snack food products. That relationship came about after Thompson approached Burger King about joining its system of growers. About 60% of the firm's revenue comes from providing potatoes that Burger King uses for its french fries.

Thompson first met with Burger King representatives at a National Minority Supplier Development Council function. "Burger King suggested we reach out to McCain and use Burger King as a reference," he recalls. "I did just that and McCain was eager to meet. After several meetings and much due diligence, we struck up an arrangement."

Thompson says minority-owned companies, in their efforts to become suppliers to majority firms, make the mistake of misplacing their enthusiasm and asking what they can do for the customer. "Instead, we researched their business needs and matched them up to our core competencies to offer a value proposition to McCain and a service we could deliver," he says. For example, Thompson's firm provided potato varieties that met McCain's quality specifications, affording it to produce the color, consistency, and quality...

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