CHARLES ANDERSON has turned CLARK COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT's foodservices into a profitable enterprise by:
• Reorganizing staff, reducing payroll, and making procurement, production and distribution of meals more cost-effective
• Restructuring the bid process to take advantage of price fluctuations
• Investing in program enhancements that ensure more children will be able to afford school meals
• Challenging employees to perform at a higher level and then recognizing them for their efforts
In the mid-2000s, the foodservice program for the Clark County School District in Nevada was losing millions of dollars annually. By 2007, CCSD’s CFO, Jeff Weiler, had had enough. To try to stop the bleeding, Weiler turned to a seemingly unlikely “fixer:” a middle school principal named Charles Anderson.
“[Weiler] backed me up against his pickup truck and said, ‘before you say no, hear me out,’” Anderson recalls about the offer to take over the district’s foodservice program. “You’ve been a successful principal, so you know the education side. You’re retired military, so you’ve dealt with large organizations, and you have a business degree.”
Anderson also is a man who rarely backs down from a challenge. So he agreed to see what he could do—which in his first few months wasn’t much.
“I was here only four months of that fiscal year,” he says. “I could make a few changes but not a lot. Bottom line was a train wreck. We were deep, deep in the red.”
Nonetheless, he didn’t waste any time demonstrating to the foodservice staff that he meant business. His first step was to take control of finances.
“I told the staff, you will not spend another nickel without my personal approval,” he explains. “I had to see where the money was going. That’s the way you cut costs.”
He then set an audacious goal for his first full year: to be in the black, “even if it was only by one dollar,” he notes. The department ended that year $46,000 to the good and has turned a profit each succeeding year, which has allowed Anderson to upgrade the district’s central kitchen.
The largest district: Clark County, which includes the city of Las Vegas, is the largest school district in Nevada. There are 327 schools in the district, spread out over 8,000 square miles, and more than 300,000 students—75% of all the students in the state.
Virtually all the food served in the district comes out of the central kitchen, which is overseen by Assistant Director Virginia Beck. Elementary schools receive either preportioned trays that are reheated on site or meal components prepared cook-chill. Eighty percent of the elementary schools serve the trays, while the remaining schools dish up items off serving lines.
Middle and high schools receive meal components but have the equipment to assemble the meals on site.
Overall, the system was neither efficient nor cost-effective. Among the problems Anderson faced were rampant overtime, overstaffed schools, poorly organized routes for shipping food to the schools, an overstocked warehouse and a procurement system that needed to be restructured.
“I consider myself the CEO of the Clark County School District foodservice group,” he notes. “We have 327 franchisees out there. The first week I was here I looked at the financials and I would have closed 150 franchisees right then, if I could have. Of course, I couldn’t do that so we had to work out ways to become more efficient.
“We’re profit and loss, and we operate on a day-to-day basis. Being a business, we have to have people who truly understand the bottom line, because we don’t take a nickel from the general fund. We pay rent, indirect costs, just like any other business.”
Anderson started by assessing his executive team, making hires as necessary and reassigning current staff.
“We had some very talented and qualified people,” says the former U.S. Army officer. “They were just in the wrong jobs.”
One of his key additions was Assistant Director Beck. A registered dietitian with a master’s degree in psychology, Beck was familiar with Clark County, having performed reviews of schools in her role with the state’s Department of Child Nutrition and School Health. Anderson brought her on as a dietitian, then placed her in charge of procurement and the operation of the central kitchen. Together they lead the 14-person executive team that has turned the program around.
“Charles Anderson is an exceptionally strong leader, but at the same time he is compassionate and into treating everyone equally,” says Beck. “He commands a lot of respect, not just in our department but throughout the district. He doesn’t have the foodservice background, but he is extremely intelligent and has so much [outside] experience to bring to the table.”
Cutting staff: The team has tackled each challenge in systematic fashion, starting with reducing staff.
“When I arrived here we had two high schools,” Anderson explains. “Generally, we can run a high school kitchen with six to eight people. The two high schools had 24 employees each. They couldn’t figure out why they weren’t making any money. We can’t afford to have people in jobs unless they are being productive. That’s what’s killing so many districts right now.”
Anderson also reduced staff in the central kitchen, mostly by attrition, to improve the meals-per-man-hour rate.
Next, the department cut three delivery routes in order to make sure that trucks were being used as efficiently as possible. Anderson had discovered that because of poor organization, trucks were sometimes leaving the central kitchen and warehouse only half full.
The team also reduced warehouse inventory significantly, and Beck, working with the purchasing department, reorganized the bid processes to make them more cost-effective.
Anderson also hit on a way to get a better handle on prices, particularly of volatile items like milk and orange juice. After the district saw a 36% increase in the price of milk from one bid to the next, the department began to keep track of milk futures.
“We kind of got back-doored on that one, and I vowed that it wasn’t going to happen again,” says Anderson. What he found out was that there was a three-month period in which the price of milk actually decreased. But with an annual bid, the district wasn’t seeing any benefit from that price drop. The solution: switch to a quarterly bid adjustment.
The department also has made food safety and training priorities, creating positions for an inspector general and a training officer, and last summer all school cafeteria managers and department heads became certified in ServSafe.
Protecting value: “Here at CCSD we employ not only ROI, which every businessman knows, but VOI—value of investment,” Anderson says. “Is it worth the cost even though there is no revenue produced?”
One thing Anderson says he will not do, however, is cut costs or programs at the expense of the students. The district spends more than $2 million a year to help students and their parents. For example, the district absorbs the extra cost of preparing special meals for students with various medical needs, to the tune of $250,000. The department eliminated the reduced-priced category, instead qualifying all students who fit into that category for free meals.
“The bottom line is, we’re putting a lot of money back into the system to benefit the students,” he says, adding that the cost savings realized through operational efficiencies has allowed the department to do that. What it also has allowed staff to do is make capital improvements in the central kitchen—the department has replaced or upgraded nearly every piece of equipment in the kitchen—which, in turn, makes the kitchen operate more efficiently.
Anderson is very fond of reminding visitors that the CCSD foodservice department is successful not because of what he has done but rather what the people who work there have accomplished. He tries to make sure that top performers are recognized.
“We can’t give them monetary awards because of union rules, but we can and do give them awards, certificates and citations and we find ways to let everyone know that these people are being recognized,” he says.
One award that is easily recognizable is the manager’s badge. When an employee is promoted to manager, along with a certificate he or she receives a bronze badge, to be placed on the employee’s ID card—which must be worn at all times. After five years, the manager’s badge is swapped for a silver one, and after 10 years that badge is traded for a gold one.
Cafeterias and kitchens are inspected regularly and those that receive no demerits in two consecutive inspections are given a plaque to display in the school. Anderson says this recognition has contributed to a 310% increase—in one year—in the number of demerit-free inspections.