On Tuesday, L&H Distributing Company broke ground on a $5 million expansion of its distribution center.
It’s the third expansion of the 1309 N. Washington St. facility since the center was built in 1980 and, President Bob Hennigan said, “hopefully my last.”
That’s something that his two adult children, Robert and Caroline – who now, as vice presidents, represent the third generation of the company – have heard before.
“I said that the last time,” he said, recalling the 2001 expansion. “You’ll have to run me off with a stick or something, I guess.”
The newest 36,000-square-foot addition will provide additional temperature-controlled storage space for the hundreds of beverages – both alcoholic and non-alcoholic – that flow into and out of the facility each day.
“Every SKU (stock keeping unit) takes up space, whether you sell one or a thousand,” he said. “Everything is fighting for floor space out there right now.”
And so the twice-expanded building will expand once again.
The $5 million valuation listed on company’s building permit is the largest on record in Tullahoma since 2003. That’s a telling statement about a company that started as a small mom-and-pop wholesaler.
A Family Tradition
L&H Distributing Co. was founded in August of 1958 by Bob’s parents, Leroy and Mary Elizabeth, who moved from Alabama for the opportunity to represent Anheuser-Busch.
“Anheuser-Busch was changing out a lot of wholesalerships at that time,” Bob said. “They had the opportunity to get this and they did. It was just the two of them plus a warehouse guy in the very beginning.”
Leroy and Mary Elizabeth started the company with one truck and a warehouse – barely larger than a two-car garage – stocked with the only two beers they sold: Budweiser and Michelob.
“When they first started, my mom ran the office and my dad was the one who went out on the truck,” Bob said. “He’d go to work at 6 o’clock in the morning. If a truck came in, he and the warehouse guy would unload it one case at a time.”
The cases were then loaded onto the distribution truck the same way – one at a time. It would be midday before Leroy began his route, selling his beer wherever he could. He’d get home late at night, and start all over again the next day.
“It was really tough in the early days,” Bob said. But from that hard work and determination, the business grew.
Bob joined the family business in 1975. His brother, Al, followed in 1979. Together, the brothers took over the company when Leroy died in 1989.
“If he was here now, he would be amazed at what’s going on right now.”
Once a two-man, two-brand, one-truck operation, L&H Distributing now has 47 employees working two shifts, distributing 200 different beverage brands to restaurants and retailers along 11 truck routes.
“We sell more in four days now than Leroy and Mary Elizabeth did in their first year of business,” Robert said.
Since 1958, even as Anheuser-Busch added products to its own portfolio, the local distributing company has been all but synonymous in the community with the Budweiser brand.
“That’s what we’re known for and I think we always will be known for that,” Bob said. “We are in the process – and have been – of expanding our product portfolio and diversifying here and there, but we are primarily an Anheuser-Busch distributor. We wouldn’t be here without them.”
Today, Anheuser-Busch products still make up roughly 95 percent of the company’s sales; but, Robert said, “Our portfolio has changed over the last 10 years pretty drastically.”
It started in 2007 with the addition of another American beer brand, Yuengling Traditional Lager. “It’s been a tremendous addition,” Robert said. “Once we did that, we really became aware of the value of diversifying our portfolio.”
About the same time, craft beers began to experience a nationwide boom.
“The craze for the last several years has been local, local, local,” Caroline said. “We brought on more craft suppliers and have been diligent about getting Tennessee brands and Southeastern brands so that we have a good selection of local craft beers as well.”
From Nashville alone, L&H now represents the Jackelope and Black Abbey brewing companies, Tennessee Brew Works and TailGate Brewery.
But the “local” selections aren’t limited to Tennessee. Other craft beer suppliers the company now represents come from Michigan (Bell’s Brewery), North Carolina (Green Man Brewery) and Virginia (Starr Hill Brewery), to name just a few.
L&H has also branched out in recent years with the addition of non-alcoholic beverages, including teas (AriZona and Teavana), flavored and artisan waters (Sparkling ICE and Voss), energy drinks (Outlaw, Redline and Rip It), lemonades (Calypso), juices (Langer and Mr. Pure), and Faygo soft drinks.
A Community Partner
Touring the well-stocked warehouse, Robert stopped at a shelf of Nesquik ready-to-drink flavored milk.
“Part of the reason we took on drinks like this is so we can donate to schools,” Robert said.
When he started working for the company, he said, area schools were looking to company for help with events, but for a beer distributor to put its name on a student event, he said, would be “toeing a fine line.”
“We really want to give back to our community,” Robert said, “so we broadened our portfolio so we could legitimately do that and people wouldn’t look at us as a beer distributor. We can help with kid events and not use the Anheuser-Busch logo, we can use the company logo.”
That move also helps the nearly 60-year-old company claim its own identity as one of the Tullahoma’s longest-standing family-run businesses.
“So many people know Budweiser but they don’t have any idea what L&H Distributing is,” said Caroline. “There are a handful of us left in Tullahoma that are local, family (beverage) businesses – you’ve got Coca-Cola, SunDrop (Prescott Bottling) and us.”
Looking to the Future
The warehouse expansion is expected to be complete “sometime next fall,” Bob said; but the addition of much-needed storage space isn’t all the company is planning to do. The building façade will get an update, too.
“We will basically touch 360-degrees around the building doing something to it this time around,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting this done. It’s been a long time coming.”
“I think what we’re doing shows that not only are we doing well, but we’re making an investment in this community and we’re planning on being here for a while,” Caroline said.
“We want to be here as long as we can,” Robert agreed. “At the end of the day, we’re just a small business trying to do the best we can.”
Kelly Lapczynski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org