Madisonville company boosting pay in bid for workers

Jacob Cowan pulls items to fill orders.

The remains of the old Goodyear building on the north side of Madisonville are almost gone. In its place will rise a 540,000-square-foot, state-of-art distribution facility. And that building will be home to 100 to 120 new employees who will earn starting pay of between $13.50 and $15.50 an hour.

The Webstaurant Store, an e-commerce restaurant supply business, is expanding from its current 142,000-square-foot building, which also is home to a customer solutions center.

When the company came to Madisonville in 2011, starting pay in the warehouse was $11 an hour, said Morgan Stone, Midwest operations manager and a graduate of Hopkins County Central High School and Western Kentucky University. Webstaurant is aggressively raising pay for a couple of reasons, Stone said, including a need to be competitive so they can hire the best of local workers and a desire to provide employees with an adequate living.

"We want to be competitive and get the best people here," Stone said. "We want to try to pull some from GE, Carhartt, Ahlstrom."

Stone is over the logistics side of the business, which involves receiving supplies, processing orders, filling those orders, packaging them and shipping them out. Right now, she has 110 employees working in three shifts.

Tricia Wilkerson, a Madisonville North Hopkins High School and Murray State University grad, is customer solutions team leader. She has 11 people in her department, with eight vacancies.

"Our company is very committed to investing in our employees," she said. "Providing a good wage is a way for the company to invest in employees."

Jobs in her department start at $40,000 a year.

Stone and Wilkerson said that the hiring process is very deliberate at The Webstaurant Store. Potential employees are interviewed three times before an offer is made.

"We are very picky," Stone said. "We are looking a building the ideal team."

Traits sought include those with a good, positive attitude, those seeking to work for more than just a paycheck, and those who are people smart.

"Hungry, humble and smart," Stone said.

To those traits, Wilkerson adds a desire for people with strong written and verbal communications skills, and the ability to solve problems.

Hopkins County Schools, Madisonville Community College and the local economic development community are all emphasizing "soft skills," which include such simple things as firm handshakes, looking someone in the eye and showing up on time and calling in when sick or late.

That emphasis is well placed, Stone and Wilkerson said.

"Attendance gets more people fired," Stone said, saying she's had employees who show up 10 or 20 minutes last and think nothing of it until they are let go.

Stone said the company relies on local labor -- that Madisonville is not a destination location for people in the job market. However, she and Wilkerson said the quality of life improvements that have been made, parks, concerts, etc., make the community more attractive in keeping people here.

The Webstaurant Store is a division of Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based Clark Associates, Inc., a privately held corporation. Founded in 2004, the division has really taken off in this decade. The company sells everything a restaurant or food-service business needs through it website, from toothpicks and glassware to cocktail mixes and commercial ovens. Customers range from major chains to mom-and-pop diners, Stone said. Even individuals can order from the site. Since locating in Madisonville, warehouses have opened in Georgia, Maryland, Nevada and Oklahoma.

The new warehouse in Madisonville is expected to be open sometime in the second half of 2019. Stone said originally the company was going to repurpose the old, 192,000-square-foot Goodyear building, but eventually decided the construct a new building.

Ray Hagerman, president of the Madisonville-Hopkins County Economic Development Corp., talks about logistics as a good fit for this area, and Webstaurant's plans back that up. Stone said Madisonville was chosen because it would soon be on Interstate 69 and had close proximity to the FedEx hub in Memphis and UPS facility in Louisville.

The fact that wages at Webstaurant are relatively high -- non-supervisory jobs in the warehouse can top out at $22.50 an hour -- shows that warehousing and logistics type jobs can pay well.

E-commerce warehouse work can have a bad reputation, but Stone said that's not the case at Webstaurant. Employees get breaks, are not paid by the piece, and she doesn't ever see automation replacing humans.

Jacob Cowan of Madisonville has worked in the warehouse for six years.

"I love it," he said. "Everybody's like family here."

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