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Steeped in success: Hinson leads S&D product expansion

Published Friday, May 29, 2015

CONCORD, N.C. – Ron Hinson tried his hand at professional baseball and golf before turning his attention to coffee and tea – a move that would propel him to the top of an industry-leading company.

The S&D Coffee and Tea President and CEO was honored last week with an honorary doctorate from Johnson & Wales University, where the company has a beverage lab and an annual recipe contest, the S&D Culinary Challenge.

“The honorary doctorate is really for everyone at S&D,” Hinson said after he had initially declined, but later decided to accept the honor. “Our people make the difference and I could not have achieved anything in my career without the dedicated people at S&D.”

A career at S&D was not Hinson’s first choice. In fact, he had failed a couple of times before getting an entry level job with S&D.

The Asheville native played baseball at Enka High and went on the Kansas City Royals Baseball Academy, where he played shortstop. He found he just not good enough to match up with the big arms and big bats in professional baseball.

Not deterred, Hinson turned to golf. He was inspired and encouraged by his cousin, Larry Hinson, who was on the PGA Tour. He had overcome polio to make the tour and had won the New Orleans Open and the 1971 Ben Hogan Award. But the PGA tour was not to be for Ron Hinson.

At 21, Hinson was still trying to find his niche. He wanted a job with Wilson Sporting Goods in Greenville, South Carolina, but was told he needed sales experience.

His job search continued. Then came a classified ad in Asheville Citizen-Times. He interviewed for the job, but S&D officials thought he would be better suited for another job.

It was for a coffee route. It was the smallest route S&D had. He took the challenge.

“It wasn’t quite what I was looking for because it was getting on a route truck like a beer or Frito-Lay truck getting up early in the morning, but it enabled me. I was coaching a little league team so I could get out in the afternoon for sports and coaching my team. I wanted a pure sales job, but I said, ‘I’ll take it and get me some experience and go back to Wilson Sporting Good’,” Hinson said.

He never did go back to Wilson’s. Within about a year, Hinson had taken the smallest route and turned it into S&D’s largest route.

It didn’t go unnoticed and the call came from Concord for another job. They wanted him to bring S&D to Ohio in 1980-81.

In the dead of winter, he loaded up a truck and headed for Columbus, Ohio. He didn’t know a soul there but he was told to start there and work his way back toward North Carolina.

“I still remember it to this today -- it was cold and dreary and blowing snow and here was this kid who had never been out of the South headed to the big city,” Hinson recalled.

It took a while for the first sale – at a Union 76 truck stop. But they put him in touch with others and the business grew. That truck stop and chain later became Travel Centers of America.

“Today S&D is still in every Travel Center in the U.S.A., and it all started at that one Union 76,” Hinson said.

Hinson found success, especially with larger chain businesses. He worked the area for a few years, adding workers so he could concentrate on sales.

Again it didn’t go unnoticed back at S&D headquarters in Concord and the call for another project came. They wanted him to help develop a national accounts strategy.

“Over time, we became the largest supplier of coffee and tea to restaurants in America,” Hinson said.

Today from Hinson’s office at the corner of Rock Hill Church Road and Concord Parkway, he can look southward and see the Charlotte skyline and Charlotte Motor Speedway, but that’s not what catches his eyes.

He takes pleasure in seeing a new Dunkin’ Doughnuts and Bojangles being built across the street and knowing that S&D products will be served.

“It has been a wonderful journey for me here at S&D,” Hinson said.

In 2000, Hinson because president and CEO and was elected chairman of the board in 2011.


Expanding business

S&D products are served or sold at restaurants, hotels, grocery stores and retail stores, including Target, across the country. The company continues to grow and add products.

Iced coffee is a growing segment of business for S&D with launches at national chains like Chick-Fil-A.

Energy bars and sports drinks also may contain S&D products. If the ingredient label lists coffee or tea extracts, it’s likely it came from S&D, Hinson said.

“Milksplash” is one of the newest products and a national advertising campaign is being developed for the milk flavorings. “We have shaken up the category with fun flavors like Jammin’ Banana, Cookies & Cream and Orange Cream Dream,” Hinson said. “Milk flavoring had stagnated with chocolate and strawberry and with the tremendous need to get kids to drink milk, we saw an opportunity. We are turning everyday milk into milk every day.”

S&D is now taking the Milksplash to food services and has even developed a packet that can be included in fast food kid’s meals.

The company expanded its facilities in 2012 and that has meant more jobs. At the time, S&D employed about 900 people. That number now stands at 1,150, with 100 of those jobs added in 2014.

Hinson is quick to credit S&D employees and other leaders with the continued success, but Vice President of Marketing John Buckner said leadership is key and that the Johnson & Wales honor was fitting.

“We are thrilled that Ron has been honored in such a fitting way, as his inspirational leadership counts him among the elite group of figures in American dining,” Buckner said. “He has put S&D Coffee and Tea at the forefront of the industry and as the leading coffee and tea supplier to restaurants across our country. The John & Wales honorary doctorate is a wonderful exclamation point recognizing his contributions in our business.”

Contact Mark Plemmons at 704-789-9140.

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