Raised on a small family farm in central Indiana, Keith Kidwell thought he knew the trajectory his life would take after graduating from Purdue University with a degree in agricultural sales and marketing.
“I was positive that I’d be in that specific industry and, sure enough, my first job out of college was as a sales rep for a leading pet food company,” Kidwell says. “Only one year into it, I realized it was the exact opposite of what I wanted and expected. This was corporate agriculture, when I was used to a small farm environment.”
Kidwell found what he was looking for at Central Restaurant Products, after answering the company’s newspaper ad for a buyer in April of 1995. “I decided I would look for a position that was the exact opposite of sales,” he says. “I’m good with math and numbers, but I still like the relationship part of a business and knew I wanted to be on the other side of the table.”
Founded by husband and wife Rick and Rita Weinstein, Central Restaurant Products was a small call center and catalog house at that time, with about 20 employees. Kidwell joined the company during a period of rapid growth, which allowed him to create his own career path.
“Up until I became president in 2018, there was only one position that existed for me and that was the one I was hired for — a buyer,” Kidwell says. “All the other positions I served in were newly created, so I was able to write the job descriptions myself.”
Those roles included purchasing manager, a role he took on in 1998, followed by director of merchandising in 2005, then vice president of merchandising in 2009 and eventually chief marketing officer in 2014. He was promoted to president in 2018.
“I was fortunate early on that Rick gave me these many opportunities and believed in me,” Kidwell says. “This meant I could try new things and develop my career.” Kidwell admits he didn’t have that internal growth mindset when he first joined the company. His initial plan was to stay at Central Restaurant Products for two years, as he didn’t want to be labeled a job hopper.
In those early days, Kidwell confesses, he was a tough negotiator, and it was all about winning. He then discovered this mentality was not well suited for an industry that was more about relationships and people choosing who to do business with. As a result, he gained a deeper understanding and vision of what his role was really all about.
“Central was a very small company, and I came from a large high school, university and Fortune 500 company,” Kidwell says. “But the longer I was here and the more trust I earned, the more special I felt.” He has discovered that he can learn from anyone, whether upstream, downstream or those working at the same level.
“This is a people industry, and we all have choices,” Kidwell says. “People can choose to do business with you or without you — none of us in this industry are 100 percent self-contained. If you ignore the people part, you won’t be successful.”
Kidwell says coming to this realization was a learning process that started with enjoying the rush of seeing an idea come to fruition and experiencing success as a result. This continued through his early days in management, as he felt his way through unfamiliar territory, making mistakes and
uncovering his blind spots.
“One of the most challenging times for a manager is taking a team and replicating what you know to develop people, while simultaneously allocating responsibilities to others,” Kidwell says. “Because the more you hold on to being a micromanager, the more you create a bottleneck by looking over everyone’s shoulders.” That is an inefficient approach, he believes, and a waste of everyone’s time, because if a company is only as deep as one person, it will never be a strong company.
In addition to assigning tasks as a manager, Kidwell counts category management implementation as one of his biggest successes. “This took us from being a traditional mom-and-pop dealership and brought us into the corporate world,” he says. “Once we started specializing, and we had someone who was concerned with fill rates, things got interesting and growth began.”
Kidwell also brought a mathematical perspective to his role as chief marketing officer. This approach reallocated the marketing budget to efficiently get more touches (impressions) and develop more leads by balancing resources. The result was to increase both web and print content.
“It was a numbers game,” Kidwell says. “How do you most effectively contact your customers and prospects in the most efficient way at the right time? The answer was to see what you were spending on who and how you’re allocating resources on those touches.”
Now, coming up on his second year as president of the company, Kidwell admits he’s still getting his feet wet. Yet, three large initiatives have been deployed under his watch — the development of an executive team into a highly collaborative working body, strategy deployment and an investment in technology.
Change is something Kidwell continues to embrace. “When I joined the company, the fax machine was a new piece of technology,” he says. “Today, if you’re not texting with customers or don’t have automated marketing platforms, you’re not current. Business requires investments in technology, people and training, so you had best be really comfortable with change.”
In addition to being a forward-thinking individual, Kidwell prides himself on his industry involvement. He serves as a board member and vendor chair of the International Foodservice Equipment Distributors, an equipment buying group Central joined in 2009; he has also been involved with the Foodservice Equipment Distributors Association.
When asked what motivates him the most, Kidwell says it’s his family. “I’m a husband, married 23 years to Susan, and father to our daughter Grace, who is 22,” he says. “On my office bulletin board is a photo of Grace as a newborn baby first home from the hospital and another taken during her senior year of high school at her open house. Beside these is a note Grace wrote saying she loves me and is proud of me.”
In addition to Weinstein, Kidwell credits his parents with his success and instilling a strong work ethic that has helped shape him. As for the successful attributes of a dealer, he says being strategic, proactive rather than reactive and acting as an agent of change are imperative.
Despite his upward trajectory at Central, Kidwell hasn’t strayed too far from his roots. Up until about two years ago, he was a pig farmer for about a decade, raising hogs with his daughter, who was in the 4-H Club. “My goal was to teach her about what a good work ethic is and the life lesson of accountability,” he says. “At one point, we had 100 hogs we raised for 4-H shows. It was a great family bonding experience and provided life lessons for all of us.”
The time commitment during this decade was a true testament to Kidwell’s work ethic. Not only was he commuting two hours a day to and from work, as well as spending extra time in the office climbing the corporate ladder, but the pig farm required three to five hours of his time each day as well. “My wife is a pharmacist, and we both shared the same comment one day that pig farming actually had a positive impact on both of us and our careers,” he says. “It’s definitely an ice breaker during conversations with others.”
Introspection: Keith Kidwell
How he approaches change: “What got you here today won’t get you here tomorrow, so we have to constantly look for ways to make improvements because sitting still is falling behind.”
Influential life experience: Having a child, since making the best decisions possible becomes more important once there is a dependent youngster who needs a provider
Career mission: Develop people and their careers
Industry involvement: International Foodservice Equipment Distributors board member and vendor chair; Foodservice Equipment Distributors Association assistant chairman to the convention in 2017 and co-chairman for the 2018 convention