At 105 years old, Wood Fruitticher Grocery Company has seen a few successions in management. Sometimes succession was pure accident. In the most recent transition, however, John and Dave Wood decided to take control of the company’s destiny, rather than waiting for lightning to strike.
Wood Fruitticher supplies food and restaurant-related products to institutional foodservice establishments ranging from restaurants and nursing homes to schools, hospitals, camps and day care facilities. The company serves over 4,000 customers in six Southeastern states including Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and South Carolina. Currently Wood Fruitticher serves these customers out of a single facility in Birmingham, but the newest generation of family management has high hopes for expanding.
Previous family transitions were forced by tragedy. Dave Wood opened the company with Oscar Fruitticher in 1913. In 1948 Dave Wood died in a car accident on a rainy Sunday night, on the way from his farm in the Black Belt. Bill Wood, Dave’s son, had just returned from serving in the Air Force during World War II and was studying at the University of Alabama. He dropped everything to come home and run the company. In 1980, Bill Wood suffered a heart attack, dying shortly thereafter. Bill’s sons John and Dave took over, again, well before they had hoped. Thankfully, good planning made the most recent transition a more pleasant one.
In 2017 the torch passed to a fourth generation of family ownership. John and Dave Wood retired from the company in December 2017, handing the reins to Dave’s son Dave Wood III, who is the Chairman of the Board, John’s son John Halsey Wood Jr., who is Director of Purchasing, Dave’s son-in-law Martin Clapp, who is Director of Information Technology, and Dave’s other son-in-law Ford Hamilton, who is President and CEO.
What will make Wood Fruitticher successful in the future is simple, say these four: It’s the people. There are three key constituencies that make Wood Fruitticher successful, they said. The first is their employees.
“We want to take care of our employees, because our employees have taken care of the Wood family for 105 years,” Hamilton said. “We wouldn’t have anything without them, and they are what sets us apart. As leaders in the company, it is our job to make this the best place to work in Birmingham. We are a family company, and it’s not just the Woods. We have dads, sons, daughters, uncles and cousins in virtually every department. We’ve nailed nepotism. We’ve got it figured out,” he said, laughing.
In addition to employees, Wood Fruitticher’s success has been tied to the city of Birmingham.
“Our business has grown up with the city,” John Halsey Wood said. “Birmingham’s growth is really exciting, especially the way we’ve become a destination for good food. As a company, we’ve been proud to serve historic establishments like Niki’s and the Bright Star, and we hope to prove ourselves to all the delicious places in Birmingham’s new food scene.”
Finally, there are John and Dave Wood. Although John and Dave are retired, their experience remains invaluable.
“We lean on them almost every day. It couldn’t be a more ideal situation,” Hamilton said. “I don’t know where we would be without them. They are the wisest, most generous men I’ve ever known in my life. I’ve never had better mentors or friends.”
And they are innovative in a way many companies aren’t, said Victor Brown, vice president of business development for the Birmingham Business Alliance – they had an airtight succession plan.
“It’s an amazing story,” Brown said. “The company is family-owned and the succession plan includes family. We need more companies to have succession plans. We don’t need to let our companies close down or sell when the owner dies, gets sick, or is incapacitated. They had a vision and survived through the death of their key founder. Things need to be in place [with all companies] for that to be able to happen. It is inspiring.”