Cordia Harrington was tired of standing up all day and smelling like french fries at night. A property developer, she also owned and operated three McDonald’s franchises in Illinois, but as a divorced mother of three boys, she yearned for a business that would provide for her children and let her spend more time with them.
Her aha moment struck, strangely enough, after she was nominated in 1992 to be on the McDonald’s bun committee. “The other franchisees, all men, thought that was hilarious because of the word bun,” she recalls. “But the joke was on them: They didn’t know the company would be picking me up in a corporate jet to see bakeries around the world. Every time I went to a meeting, I loved it. This was global!”
The experience opened her eyes to business possibilities. When McDonald’s decided it wanted a new bun supplier, Harrington became determined to win the contract, even though she had no experience running a bakery. “You see a tiny crack in the door, and you have to run through it,” she says. “I really believed I could do this.”
Harrington studied the bakery business and made sure she was never off executives’ radar. “If you have a dream, you can’t wait for people to call you,” she says. “So I’d visit a mill and send them photos of myself in a baker’s hat and jacket, holding a sign that said ‘I want to be your baker.'” After four years and 32 interviews, her persistence paid off.
Harrington sealed the deal with a handshake, sold her franchises, invested everything she owned, and borrowed $13.5 million. She was ready to build the fastest, most automated bakery in the world.
The Tennessee Bun Company opened ahead of schedule in 1997, in time for a slump in U.S. fast-food sales for McDonald’s. Before Harrington knew it, she was down to her last $20,000, not enough to cover payroll. And her agreement with McDonald’s required that she sell exclusively to the company. “I cried myself to sleep many nights,” she recalls. “I really did think, I am going to go bankrupt.”
But Harrington worked out an agreement to supply Pepperidge Farm as well. “McDonald’s could see a benefit if our production went up and prices went down, and no benefit if we went out of business,” she says. “That deal saved us.”
Over the next eight years, Harrington branched out even more: She started her own trucking business, added a cold-storage company, and now has three bakeries producing fresh buns and frozen dough—all now known as the Bun Companies.
Speed is still a priority: It takes 11 people at the main bakery to turn out 60,000 buns an hour for clients across 40 states, South America, and the Caribbean.
Grateful for the breaks she’s had, Harrington is passionate about providing opportunities to all 230 employees. “Financial success is the most fun when you can give it away,” she says. “We had a project that came in under budget one year, and we gave each of our project managers a car with a big bow!”
The current economy, Harrington acknowledges, is challenging. Some of her clients’ sales have declined, but she’s found new clients and improved efficiencies to help sustain the company’s double-digit growth.
Cordia Harrington doesn’t have to stand on her feet all day anymore. Her sons are now 27, 25, and 23; two of them work for her. And she’s remarried—her husband, Tom, formerly her CPA, is now her CFO.
“This is more than a job,” says Harrington. “It’s a mission. I’m always thinking, How can we best serve our employees? If we support them, they’ll do their best to look after our clients. That’s how it works here.”
Why did you become an entrepreneur?
I had good roots of love and encouragement. When I got crazy ideas, my dad would say, “You can do that!” Even when I was 11, I had a nursery school in my backyard, and I’d charge 25 cents for three hours. At the end of the summer, I’d saved $60. Entrepreneurs always believe there’s a better way to do things.
Did you ever doubt yourself?
I wasn’t intimidated by what I didn’t know. In some ways, it was better that I wasn’t an expert, because I would ask questions that helped the team to say, Why not? I never know where a stupid question will lead.
Do you have very high standards?
Extremely. I don’t want us to just pass an inspection. I want us to get the highest marks. The industry rejects standard is about 4 percent, but ours is 2 percent. We give everyone a $50 bill to reward that high standard.
Are you an impatient person?
Either that or antsy. My nickname is Aunt C (antsy)! When I was a little girl and they’d say dinner’s ready, I’d run around the house ten times first! I’ve been high energy all my life.
What is most important to being successful?
Integrity. Doing what you say.
What was your darkest moment?
When McDonald’s gave me a chance to be an owner-operator and put me in a restaurant in Little Rock, Arkansas, to learn the business. I would get up at 3 a.m., drive 78 miles, work eight hours, drive home, work at my real estate business, pick up the kids, put them to bed, and study. I was always exhausted, and some days it all felt hopeless. And yet somehow I kept going. Survival is a good motivator!
You don’t give up easily, do you?
Instead of complaining when problems come up, I take that negative energy and put it toward getting to the next level.
Do you bake?
I love to cook, but I’m not a very good baker! I take our frozen dough home and bake that. But if I had to do it from scratch, my guests would be in trouble.