Building a value network
One of the oldest and most successful food service companies in the nation has partnered with St. Mary’s University to provide valuable internship and job opportunities to students.
by Alex Z. Salinas (B.A. ’11)
Blair Labatt III, director of information technology at one of the largest food service distributors in the nation, personally visits St. Mary’s University each year to handpick Engineering students to intern at Labatt Food Service’s San Antonio headquarters.
Considering the company is the 10th-largest food service distributor in the nation, with more than $1 billion in annual sales, it’s a surprisingly hands-on approach.
For Labatt III, the annual trip to the St. Mary’s campus to interview candidates and select interns helps ensure the third-generation, family-owned business keeps its edge.
Although the partnership officially launched during the 2014-2015 academic year when the food service company first sponsored a few Engineering students’ senior research projects, his connection to the University started years earlier.
Labatt III remembers attending a basketball summer camp at St. Mary’s as a kid, a positive experience that left a lasting impression. Years later, when Rafael Moras, Ph.D., Professor of Industrial Engineering, offered him a chance to co-instruct a course on workplace ergonomics, Labatt III happily accepted. It started a professional relationship and personal friendship that is now serving both the company and the University’s students well.
With Labatt’s five major distribution centers and a large fleet of trucks delivering goods to schools, hospitals, military bases and many other businesses across five states, the company’s reach is ever-growing, as is its need for bright young minds.
Whether it’s enhancing software to calculate more efficient routes for drivers or building a proprietary cloud system from scratch through which employees can better collaborate ideas, “Labatt wants talent. They want brainpower,” Moras said.
Internships at Labatt provide a unique chance for students to learn the latest and greatest in automated warehousing and transportation technology, Moras said.
“Our dream is that every student gets to do deep engineering work by the time they graduate,” he said. “Because Labatt is an innovator in its field, our partnership with them has been a tremendous résumé-builder for our students.”
Flor Jurado (B.S. ’17) and Abdulaziz Alamoudi (B.S. ’17) were hired this summer and are now among about 20 Rattler alumni working at Labatt, including St. Mary’s Athletics Hall of Famer Gary Tomaszewksi (B.B.A. ’77).
After Jurado completed an internship during which she improved processes for a barbacoa production line, she signed on as the first business analyst for a new Labatt subsidiary Direct Source Meats, a 65,000-square-foot, $28 million meat cooking facility in San Antonio.
Jurado said her internship with Labatt helped her grow as an engineer and a problem-solver.
“Their attitude was, ‘Go observe and learn, and come back to us with what you find.’ Sometimes you have to find the answers on your own, and they allowed me to do that,” she said.
It’s this “go-getter” mentality, Labatt III said, that separates St. Mary’s students from the rest.
“St. Mary’s does a great job of instilling values and technical learning in their students,” he said. “They have an incredible appetite for work and resilience in the face of challenge. It’s clear that a lot of character development happens while they’re on campus.”
Take it from Breann Field (B.S. ’03), Labatt’s vice president for purchasing and marketing, who first joined the company in 2004.
“My Industrial Engineering degree from St. Mary’s prepared me by giving me a toolkit I could rely on to create simple solutions to complex problems,” Field said.
The next big thing for Labatt involves integrating robotics in its processes and warehouses. While that will increase the demand for employees with specialized education, the company’s greatest need still comes down to a person’s ability to think outside the box — something St. Mary’s takes pride in developing in its students.
“There’s always a need for very smart people with values,” Labatt III said. “The technical skills needed will change but the work ethic, integrity and values will not, and that’s why our relationship with St. Mary’s is strong and will get stronger over time.