Rusty Mathis is a jeans and a T-shirt kind of guy. He doesn’t live his life by any sort of complex mantra, but values thoughtfulness and strives for genuine conversation with those he interacts with.
“Be kind. It’ll lead you to understanding people and it’ll open the door for conversation and collaboration,” says Mathis.
In his career, it has been that advice that Mathis values and applies, and combined with his love for people and a lot of hard work, it has resulted in a climb up the corporate ladder.
Mathis is the general manager for Ben E. Keith Foods, but growing up, never imagined himself in a job like the one he has today. The youngest of five, Mathis said he “grew up lean.” Now, he admires those who get by without a lot.
“[I look up to] people that live life simple and manage life simply,” Mathis says. “It’s not necessarily who has a lot of stuff, it’s really people that are happy with not having a lot of stuff.”
Ben E. Keith Foods is a distribution company that delivers food, equipment, supplies and “pretty much everything you need to operate a restaurant” to various institutions such as hospitals, schools, nursing homes and of course restaurants themselves.
As a kid, Mathis wanted to be a TV or radio announcer, but by the time he graduated high school, he wasn’t interested in more school and instead jumped straight into the work world.
“[I] have never been to college,” Mathis says. “Came right out of high school into the hospitality industry and went to work for a hotel, hotel led to restaurants, restaurant led to food service sales and distribution and that’s how I got into this side. Hospitality is one of those career paths that doesn’t always require formal education.”
Hospitality is also a career path that involves a lot of social interaction. And that is how Mathis flourished. A self-described “social butterfly,” Mathis says that engagement with people is really what motivates him on a day-to-day basis, which was not something he expected when he first assumed his position in the food distribution industry.
As a customer, Mathis saw the industry revolving around cost and timeliness, but when he began working for Ben E. Keith, he saw how it went beyond those business principles. Mathis found that being in relationships with the customers and collaborating with them was in fact the best way to partner with them and have the most success.
He deals with problems and requests from consumers and staff on a daily basis, and even when he leaves the office, his favorite pastime is simply to socialize some more. But as a general manager, he works with clients more than what might be expected.
“I’m probably more engaged with my customers than typical people at my level of what I do because I started as a sales guy,” Mathis says. “I’m ultimately a salesperson. I have really good business people that work for me and I don’t really care much about that. I prefer to engage and socialize.”
And Mathis is planning to create an office space which caters to just that. The company broke ground in April on a new distribution facility in North Little Rock, where it will consolidate the two central Arkansas locations that house the company’s Mid-South Division. Mathis said the center should be open and running in about two years, and wants it to be more modern and welcoming than the usual office. He described a space with elements like the idolized Google offices.
“We’re doing a study through the Herman Miller Company on workplace environments and hoping to build something kind of cutting edge and that we can collaborate on,” he says. “I’d like to have almost an operating Starbucks inside the building, a collaborative space where customers will be in my building every day. It won’t be your typical office-and-cubicle kind of space.”
Mathis’ love for people and socializing doesn’t stop at Ben E. Keith Foods — he and the company are also involved with a number of charities.
Mathis first became involved in nonprofit work after the death of his college-aged son in a car accident 14 years ago. He still tears up talking about it, but can also reflect on the positives that came out of the tragedy.
“It was the worst thing that ever happened and one of the greatest things that ever happened because it made me grow,” Mathis remembers. “It was horrible but it was life changing for the better. I have friends that have lost children and there’s that fork in the road and it can totally wreck you or you can make something good out of it. That’s where the philanthropic part of me started. When I realized that trying to climb the corporate ladder or overachieve wasn’t that important. It was what I had.”
Mathis himself is on the boards for Our House and the Thea Foundation and has staff members involved with a number of other organizations. As a business, Ben E. Keith Foods strives to give back to the communities where they are involved.
“Our company has a very philanthropic mission; we’re engaged in about every nonprofit and fundraising element in town,” Mathis says. “Culinary is really hot so every fundraising event in the world is based around food and culinary idea, and once you do the first one everybody else comes seeking your help so we oblige a lot.”
Beyond his philanthropic interests and busy work schedule, Mathis doesn’t have a lot of hobbies, but he does enjoy traveling with his wife. Their favorite destination as of late has been the southwest (and more importantly, a drier climate). One of the best parts of traveling, according to Mathis, is the new food.
“I know what my own cooking tastes like,” he jokes.
And food is very important in a business that revolves around distributing those goods. Although Mathis never knows what his workday will hold, he can always guarantee one thing: “lunch will happen.”