Paul Ellingson is in the napkin business.
It’s not just that his company, Bargreen Ellingson, sells napkins — it does — but more than that he deals in dreams that are typically sketched on napkins.
A drawing, an idea, a floorplan, a catchy restaurant name, a food-service concept.
Ellingson deals in dreams, and a panel assembled by the Milgard School of Business at the University of Washington Tacoma has named him 2015 Business Leader of the Year.
Although the family-owned company he heads continues the tradition of supplying restaurants with pots and pans, oven mitts and muffin tins, punch bowls, butcher knives, butter curlers and bread baskets, appliances, salt shakers, flatware, stemware and much more, the company has expanded to include restaurant design services and, most recently, an initiative aiming at online residential sales to complement the growing commercial food sector.
Ellingson’s father, Byron, now 92, started the company in 1960. By 1961 the company could boast four employees and a $400,000 annual gross. By 1970, eight employees generated $1.2 million. Today, Ellingson said, the company counts 474 employees working at 22 facilities in nine states and Canada. At the end of 2015, the company expects to record business “just north of $200 million.”
“You don’t think about it much,” he said. “Every year you always start again with goose eggs.”
Of the 474 employees, 156 work in outside sales.
“We call on a lot of people every day,” Ellingson said. “We make a huge point of going out and seeing our customers.”
The partnership with the Bargreen family ended years ago, and today Ellingson estimates his company is the largest design and supply house west of the Mississippi and the fifth largest in the U.S.
Back at the beginning of his career, Ellingson neither wanted nor expected a career in restaurant supply.
He had been the student body president at Wilson High School the year he graduated, 1965, and he went on to earn a business degree at the University of Washington. He later served as an air-traffic controller for the U.S. Army Reserves.
Only later did he join his father.
“We don’t allow our children to work here during summers,” he said. “It’s just a rule. After school, they must work three years outside.”
Although reluctant at first, Ellingson soon warmed to the job. He learned that it wasn’t just pots and pans, “but you were solving (customers’) problems, designing, refurbishing. We would get to know them. You formed a relationship.”
He has seen the business transform from a time when dining out was a special treat, to the days when eating away from home is a more common experience. He has watched trends blossom and fade, from the days of the steakhouse to lighter, faster food and the notion that food should be healthful and fresh.
“I was lucky enough to be in the business when double-incomes came in,” Ellingson said. “Now, the baby boomers are spending money.”
And restaurateurs, he said, are becoming more interested in sustainability, recycling, energy use.
Along with bars and restaurants, the company serves cruise lines, hospitals, supermarket delis and corporate and military dining facilities.
Bargreen Ellingson is currently working on a project in Antarctica.
Over the years, clients have paid him “in gold, jade and not at all. We did a job in the Soviet Union and got paid in vodka. We worked with the World Bank. Russia shipped it to the Liquor Control Board.”
The greatest shock to the business came with 9/11, when people simply stopped spending money. The effect of the Great Recession, however, was not monumental.
“Recessions, you can usually see them coming,” Ellingson said. “The good thing is that people drink more.”
His advice to someone considering opening a restaurant: “Make sure you have good capital.”
Over the years, he said, he has learned to listen, and “to let the customers lead us.”
Bargreen Ellingson operates, he said, under an umbrella of core principles that include teamwork, respect, taking responsibility, using good judgment, continuing to learn and having fun along the way, with the fun coming perhaps from an impromptu barbecue, or from the model train that circles above the lobby, or perhaps with the presence of a hired marching band.
Has Ellingson ever considered opening a restaurant of his own?
“No,” he answered. “I’m not that good with people and I don’t know how to cook.”
“I never dreamed I’d have as much passion as I did,” he said. “I don’t come to work. I come to play. Too many people go to work because they have to. Work isn’t really work for me.”
Brother Rick Ellingson also has a leadership position at the company, and today, retirement beckons to Paul.
But not loudly. “Giving this up is harder than I thought it would be,” he said.
“God was kind to me and gave me this job,” he said. “It’s so much bigger than just me. That’s the best part.”