For Ingredient Innovations, working closely with clients is essential, founder Roxanne Armstrong says. “It is all about relationships,” she declares. “I create relationships with food companies that are my customers now and could be my customers in the future. Armstrong is the founder and sole employee of the Kansas City, Mo.-based company, a brokerage firm that represents a range of specialty food ingredients, including enzyme-modified cheese, vegetarian sausage, and food coloring and flavors.
She notes that Ingredient Innovations serves such firms as Mother Murphy’s Laboratories, Kellogg’s Keebler Food Ingredients Group, Summit Hill Flavors, Prime Ingredients and Jeneil Biotech.
Armstrong founded the company in 1997 after working as the general manager of a food plant that made cereal ingredients. Because the company was too small to have its own sales force, it hired independent food brokers to sell its products.
In the process of interviewing brokers, Armstrong became interested in changing her career. “I saw how many brokerages did their work and conducted their businesses,” she says.
Doing Things Differently
After looking at the structure of many food brokerages, Armstrong started her own business, but with the philosophy that she would only serve five clients. Most competitors represent 20 to 30 companies, she notes.
But Armstrong feels that by serving only five, she can concentrate more on her clients’ businesses. “How could you possibly specialize or know their product line [while] representing so many?” she asks. “It’s impossible.“
“Right at the outset, I knew there was no way I was going to go out and not be an expert [on my clients’ products],” she says. “You really need to understand the product lines, how they’re going to work in your customers’ applications and how you’re going to be of value to them.”
In addition, while many industrial food brokerages limit their reach to their own regions, Armstrong has not. “During my 13-year career in this business, I’ve covered nearly the entire country,” she says. “I get on a plane for my customers, while most get in their car to go to theirs.”
This allows Armstrong to maintain a close relationship with her clients. Often, she will pay them regular visits and take them to lunch. “When they ask me for ingredients for new projects, it’s super critical to be there when they want,” she says.
Armstrong also says she has found it easier to operate the company without a staff. For instance, she eliminates the need of managing others or renting business properties.
Instead, the only thing close to an employee Armstrong has is a virtual assistant. “When I travel, I transfer my phone and database to my virtual assistant,” she says. “She is then 100 percent current on what’s happening in my business.
“There’s somebody to answer the phone from 8 to 5, and there’s someone to respond to e-mails every business day,” she says. “Product developers and buyers feel pressured to make something happen right now. I don’t want them ever to feel frustrated.”
After all these years, Armstrong says she still enjoys her work. “I’m a foodie,” she says. “It’s very much a passionate interest [I have] in food.”
She adds that she has not encountered many challenges as a woman-owned business. She admits that a “good ol’ boy” network exists in this industry, but she has joined with other women.
“The response of us gals has been to create our own ‘gal network,’” she says. “We call each other to discuss issues. Women seem to communicate better than men. We talk about solutions and how to handle them.”
Looking ahead, Armstrong says she plans to put more technologies to use at Ingredient Innovations, including video conferencing. “As communication technology becomes better and faster, I will have to adapt … to keep the business going,” she says.