BOWLING GREEN As great ideas go, Jeff Twyman s wasn t much.
Pick some green beans. Trim off the ends. Seal them in bags.
But 25 years after Mr. Twyman founded GreenLine Foods Inc. in the garage of his Bowling Green home, he is the king of packaged fresh green beans.
Today, his green beans are sold in grocery stores and served in top restaurants across the United States and Canada.
From nothing in 1984, he created a $150 million-a-year business. Researchers at the Nielsen Co. estimated the firm supplies 96 percent of green beans used by professional chefs and family cooks not satisfied with canned and frozen alternatives, Mr. Twyman said.
Preparing to retire now at age 55, he finally has time to contemplate his achievement. You never pat yourself on the back while you re fighting your way up the ladder, he said. It s once you ve got to the top you spend a second or two saying, Gee, I accomplished that.
He will depart Dec. 31, having turned over the president s job about a month ago to operations chief Jeffrey Rettig. Mr. Twyman will stay as chairman of the firm, which has been majority-owned since 2006 by a New York private equity firm, Riverside Co.
Seated in his second-floor office at GreenLine s Dixie Highway headquarters last week, he reflected on the firm s origins, growth, and challenges.
With the nation slipping into recession and households reducing spending, producers of bagged salads, pre-cut carrots, and other value-added produce face the possibility that cooks across the country will go back to basics: that they ll begin peeling, paring, and mixing veggies for themselves. Another threat: that people will return to cheaper, though less tasty, alternatives.
We re already seeing a little of that, conceded Mr. Twyman, who in his spare time fishes for trout, hunts, and researches a book on art history. Sales for 2008 are about 6 percent below projections, although they are still expected to be ahead of last year s. Grocers have told the firm that sales of peanut butter, corn flakes, and other staples have taken off.
That is directly attributable to the economic conditions of the country, Mr. Twyman said.
Still, he doubts that people will abandon vegetables that simplify meal preparation.
People who buy his green beans tend to be slightly more affluent than average Americans, thus more insulated from economic turmoil, he noted.
Plus, cooking has become a lost art in many households, especially those headed by people in the 21-to-40 age bracket. Companies such as Campbell Soup have basically convinced people that they don t have to be a chef, that they just have to follow directions on the box, Mr. Twyman said.
And, because of a short shelf life, fresh green beans are not as common in grocery stores in northern climates as are salad fixings, carrots, and some other vegetables in cold-weather months.
Julia Stewart, spokesman for the Produce Marketing Association, an industry trade group, doubts that hard times will take a serious bite out of products like GreenLine green beans.
Some shoppers are value oriented, she said. But there are a bunch of us for whom convenience is going to be more important. Anything that is going to save me time is worth the extra money.
The organization represents 3,000 firms in the produce business including GreenLine.
A 12-ounce bag of the firm s beans sells for about $3.
Restaurants, hospitals, and other institutional users account for about 40 percent of sales.
Among restaurants serving the beans is Toledo s Mancy s chain, operator of Mancy s Steakhouse, Mancy s Italian Grill, and Shorty s Bar-B-Que.
We re always looking for fresh product, said Gus Mancy. This is a great product and it s consistent through the year.
Mr. Rettig, who will become chief executive when Mr. Twyman leaves, joined the firm in 2000 from bottle-maker Owens-Illinois Inc.
It s an amazing story here, he said. But very few people know about us.
However, the firm is well known within the produce industry, he said. He praises the current CEO for his entrepreneurial spirit and setting up an organization that would be ready for huge growth.
Mr. Twyman retains a 15 percent ownership stake in GreenLine Foods, which operates a fleet of 100 refrigerated trucks and five plants in Bowling Green, Las Vegas, Rock Hill, S.C., Vero Beach, Fla., Chester, N.Y., and Hanover, Pa. It has 400 employees nationwide, about half of them in Bowling Green.
The firm ships 100,000 cases of green beans each week. To satisfy demand for the product, GreenLine uses the harvest of 10,000 acres annually. It relies on farms in the Midwest in summer, moving to southern Georgia and northern Florida in the fall, and the area south of Miami in winter.
A confidentiality agreement prohibits Mr. Twyman from discussing how much the private equity group paid for its share of GreenLine in 2006.
People who valuate businesses say it is impossible to estimate the firm s selling price without a detailed study of profits and revenues. Still, they acknowledge that it isn t uncommon for firms to sell for two times revenues.
Although declining to discuss the selling price, Mr. Twyman said: I m comfortable. I m in the enviable position of being able to decide what I want to do for the next third of my professional life.
The new owners plan to enlarge the Bowling Green firm by adding similar product lines. In April, they bought HerbThyme Farms Inc., of Los Angeles, for a reported $51 million. The firm distributes fresh herbs and spices.
In buying GreenLine three years ago, the private equity firm said the Bowling Green businesses success is a classic entrepreneurial story, and growth has been driven by continuous innovation and improvement.
The statement went on to describe how GreenLine pioneered the introduction of the value-added green bean product.
The story actually begins with radishes.
For a time in the early 1980s, Mr. Twyman, a graduate of Indiana University and the University of Toledo law school, worked for a firm in nearby McClure, Ohio, that sold packaged radishes.
He returned to the practice of law, but missed the business world.
It was a period when cooks increasingly were seeking fresh ingredients to replace processed products such as frozen or canned vegetables. Bagged salads were beginning to achieve success on their way to $500 million in annual sales.
Mr. Twyman had no interest in radishes. It s such a minor item, he said. If I was going to get back in the vegetable business, I wanted something the public wanted.
What would be the next hit? Mr. Twyman wondered. He settled on the green bean. Grocers jokingly say that for loose fresh beans, which have a typical shelf life of just five days, the trash bin is the best customer.
Mr. Twyman developed packaging methods secured by three patents that nearly tripled shelf life. Still, sales of the new product were sluggish. But a simple innovation, trimming the beans ends, made sales take off.
Grocery-store shoppers weren t interested. But chefs at restaurants, hospitals, and other places were enthusiastic. They could expand their menus with a fresh vegetable that would otherwise have been too labor-intensive to prepare.
Over the next two decades, GreenLine periodically tried to reintroduce the product in grocery stores. Once, executives teamed with Green Giant to market the beans under that vaunted name. The experiment was a miserable failure, Mr. Twyman conceded.
Then, in 2004, Kroger agreed to make another run at it. The product was a hit. And the Cincinnati grocery chain s competitors began stocking the beans. Today, beans packaged by GreenLine under its own name and private labels are available at most major supermarket chains nationally.
The Wood County firm has competitors, but they tend to be small local and regional enterprises, the founder said.
Frozen and canned green beans continue to dominate the nation s dinner tables, he acknowledged. But he estimated that fresh, packaged beans make up as much as 20 percent of green bean sales.
Over the years, the firm has introduced other packaged produce: snow peas, squash, sweet potatoes, and zucchini.
But nothing has achieved the popularity of green beans, which Mr. Twyman calculates could grow to a $200 million-a-year business.
At 55, he doesn t plan to stop working, but he hasn t determined what to do next. Offers have come from business and academia. For the time being, he will tend to his farm in rural Bowling Green, where he is working to preserve endangered tree varieties such as the ash and the elm.
After a quarter-century of working with green beans, he confesses that they are not his first choice at meal time. I ve eaten so many green beans that they are not No. 1 on my list any longer.
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