Eight years ago, Karl Schledwitz crossed the line between politics and business that he had crossed many times before.
But the food sales and marketing company he cofounded has grown so rapidly that Schledwitz talks these days of missing the business of running campaigns and political organizations.
“It gets in your blood,” he said. “I still follow politics. I’m still a supporter, but I’m not a campaign worker. I miss the excitement of it.”
That’s not to say Schledwitz, who is chairman and CEO of Monogram Food Solutions, doesn’t have plenty to keep him busy.
Monogram, which made Inc. magazine’s list of the fastest-growing businesses in the country for the fifth consecutive year, is known for brands of processed meats such as King Cotton and Circle B, and also as the originator of bacon jerky sold under several brand names, plus other types of jerky, including turkey jerky.
Monogram, whose corporate headquarters are on White Station Road in East Memphis, began with five employees and now has 1,500 here and in four other locations.
“I’m a kind of serial entrepreneur,” Schledwitz said at a Frayser Exchange Club luncheon last month.
Raising $100 million in venture capital over the years, Schledwitz’s resume includes developing and selling such businesses as ValuePawn, RentRite and AmeriSpec.
He and Monogram co-founder Wes Jackson began by buying the King Cotton, Circle B and Farmers Pride brands from Sara Lee Corp.
“One thing I learned when I was running political campaigns is if you give things away people like you,” Schledwitz quipped while passing out coupons and packages of jerky at the Frayser luncheon.
The Circle B and King Cotton brands, which represent 5 percent of what Monogram does, are sold in the Memphis area and dominate the market. But the company promotes the brands more than other brands it makes under other names for distribution elsewhere in the country.
“Unfortunately for Memphis and Shelby County, most of our job growth is where we are buying and developing manufacturing facilities in other states,” he said. “The headquarters, though, is in Memphis. … We spend obviously a disproportionate amount of our money we make in Memphis.”
Schledwitz is a Frayser native, growing up in the blue-collar suburb through high school. Even in high school, he was running for office on the student council. But lessons in business were there as well.
During his Boy Scout days, Schledwitz got a tour of a Memphis bank, including a trip to a vault. A bank officer put a million dollars in bill bundles in Schledwitz’s arms to give him a feel for how much a million dollars was.
Schledwitz ran for and was elected student body president at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he earned his Bachelor of Arts in political science. He earned his law degree from the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
His political roots go back to working as an aide to U.S. Sen. Jim Sasser shortly after Sasser upset Republican incumbent Bill Brock in the 1976 election.
In the Democratic resurgence, Schledwitz was better known for his political connections, but there was always a business side to his pursuits. Schledwitz said there are similarities and differences in private and public endeavors.
“I ran political campaigns, and to do that, you are building an organization and trying to manage it,” he said. “Running a business or building a business, there are some similarities. We’re trying to get people to buy King Cotton instead of vote for somebody. There’s still consumer marketing, and it’s still building an organization and getting people to trust you.”
Politics has its own kind of rough-and-tumble existence that isn’t always measured when all of the votes are counted, especially for those who work with candidates but are not the candidates.
Indicted on bank fraud charges with Memphis Rep. Harold Ford Sr. in 1987, Schledwitz, Ford and two other codefendants were tried twice.
The first trial ended in a mistrial. The second trial, in 1993, ended with an acquittal on all charges. Schledwitz emerged from the trials with his name cleared.
The trials and politics seemed in the distant past as the audience in Frayser, which included a group of teenagers, immediately quieted down and began looking intently at Schledwitz as he was introduced as a former Frayser resident whose businesses had achieved a number of impressive accomplishments.
Schledwitz recalled the 800-square-foot clapboard house that was his family’s first home on Overton Crossing, and the hills of the Sky Lake subdivision where he lived for most of his youth – parts of the landscape with which the children are still familiar.
Schledwitz fielded questions from the audience, including one about locating a plant in Frayser.
“The only plant that makes hotdogs in Memphis is in Frayser,” he said, referring to the Feinberg plant on Warford. “We tried to buy it, and I would have expanded it. But it’s in rough shape. Unfortunately we don’t build new plants. What we do is buy existing plants and fill them up. I have looked. I haven’t been successful yet. Nothing would make me happier than to have a plant in Memphis.”