This Rhode Island native wanted to move the HQ of his big company to the state. He says he got a ho-hum response
MANSFIELD -- A Rhode Island native who runs the nation’s largest restaurant supply company says he had hoped to open his corporate headquarters on the former Route 195 land in Providence.
But I-195 Redevelopment District Commission officials displayed “low interest” and offered “mediocre” incentives to bring the headquarters and its 200 high-level jobs from Massachusetts to Providence, TriMark USA President and CEO Jerry Hyman told the Globe last week.
“They were pleasant enough,” Hyman said, recalling his 2017 meeting with I-195 commission officials. “But for whatever reason, they were not highly interested in a world headquarters for a $2 billion company.”
So TriMark ended up moving into a 120,000-square-foot headquarters in a Mansfield business park three months ago. “It’s not personal. It’s business. I did this instead,” he said after leading a tour of the headquarters, which includes a 24-seat white-marble conference table.
But there’s more to the story: Hyman said he is now interested in opening a 450,000-square-foot distribution center and division headquarters in Rhode Island, perhaps on the former I-195 land.
“Call me crazy,” he said. “But it is my sincere hope that in 18 months I can have a beautiful 450,000-square-foot building somewhere in the state of Rhode Island.” While those jobs don’t pay as much as those at corporate headquarters, he said, “It’s 350 people that will be working and living and eating and going to the movies.”
Why try Rhode Island again?
Hyman noted he was born at Providence’s Women & Infants Hospital, graduated from Pawtucket schools, got married at a North Kingstown country club and now lives in Barrington. “I started my business career in Rhode Island,” he said. “And it would be a shame if there was no TriMark presence in the state of Rhode Island.”
“He has coffee milk running through his veins,” said Providence restaurant owner Robert I. Burke, a friend who introduced Hyman to I-195 officials.
Hyman’s experience raises questions about the vision for the 20 acres that opened up after I-195 was relocated in 2007, offering a once-in-a-generation opportunity to spur the economy and reshape the heart of the city.
Burke believes the TriMark proposal fit with the original vision of attracting high-wage jobs to the former I-195 land, but he noted plans now include proposed condos, restaurants and hotels. “There’s no question the buildings were supposed to be full of workers and the state was supposed to earn payroll taxes,” he said. “They have slowly bent that mission.”
Hyman said he got the feeling I-195 officials would prefer mixed-use development including apartments, retail and a hotel -- rather than an office building.
“This is not a sexy business,” he said. “We are not high tech. We are not research. We are not Brown University. We are just a little company that sells pots and pans.”
When asked about TriMark, I-195 Redevelopment District Commission Chair Robert Davis said the commission receives many inquiries from businesses that don’t end up making formal proposals to the commission.
“Commission staff welcomed TriMark and had an initial meeting and several follow-up calls with members of their team,” Davis said in a statement. “Our staff offered to connect them with Wexford and developers with whom they might collaborate on a proposal to the commission.”
On Wednesday, Governor Gina M. Raimondo and other officials took part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the $88-million, seven-story Wexford Innovation Center, which they say will become a “beehive of innovation” and the “catalytic centerpiece of the I-195 District’s redevelopment.”
Regarding the possibility of a TriMark distribution center, Davis said, “We — or our partners at Commerce RI — would be happy to speak with TriMark’s leadership about an appropriate site for a distribution center in Providence.”
State economic development officials say they explained the incentives available to TriMark for its corporate headquarters and suggested other sites if the Providence location proved too expensive.
“The business development team wants companies to grow and relocate in Rhode Island,” Rhode Island Commerce Corporation spokesman Matthew Sheaff said. “And if (Hyman) has other projects he is interested in pursuing, then we would love to have those conversations.”
Hyman said he began working at the restaurant supply company in 1981 when it was a family-owned operation in North Smithfield with $15 million in revenue and 20 employees.
When the company outgrew its North Smithfield location about 15 years ago, Hyman approached state officials. “I wanted to stay in Rhode Island,” he said. “So I went to the state, and they said unfortunately there were no programs for anybody like me.”
So he moved the company headquarters to a 205,000-square-foot site in South Attleboro, near the train station, and later leased an additional 100,000-square-foot site in Rumford.
Today, TriMark USA has 3,150 employees, 66 buildings, 14 divisions and $2.1 billion in annual revenue. Its customers range from a $44 million food service contract for the new Los Angeles Rams stadium to a $55,000 contract for a new pizza parlor.
Hyman said he intends to grow from $2.1 billion in revenue to $4 billion in revenue in the next three years. He said that when realized he’d outgrown the South Attleboro site, he went looking for a new corporate headquarters and again turned to his home state.
Hyman is on the board of the nonprofit Independence Trail Education Foundation, which Burke founded. Burke said the foundation wanted to create a visitor’s center on a parcel of former I-195 land, and that process piqued Hyman’s interest in locating his corporate headquarters on a former I-195 parcel now covered with sunflowers.
Burke, who owns the Pot au Feu bistro, thought TriMark headquarters would provide a perfect complement to the nearby Johnson & Wales University culinary school and to Providence’s “robust restaurant economy.”
So, Burke said, in October 2017 he and Hyman met with I-195 commission staff members, including then-Director Peter McNally (who left recently to take another job).
Hyman summarized his pitch this way: “Corporate headquarters for a $2-billion company, 200 jobs, a first-class office facility, a showplace -- something people could point to and say ‘This is the largest company in an entire industry and they chose Rhode Island as their corporate headquarters.’ ”
Hyman said he told the commission he would need parking for his employees and tax incentives. Burke said a TriMark legal, human resources and real estate team followed up with the commission, but the incentives were aimed at companies struggling to raise money.
“It was a very cordial meeting,” Hyman said. “But there was no meat to it.” As a businessman, he said, “I don’t have time to fool around. Either in or not. It’s a big business. And the level of interest was low.” He said, “I couldn’t get anybody’s attention.”
So he turned his attention to the Cabot Business Park, in Mansfield. He said he did not receive any tax incentives from Massachusetts or Mansfield.
“Massachusetts brought a knife to a gun fight and won,” Burke said.
But Hyman said he will approach Rhode Island officials in the next 30 days about the distribution center.
“My lease in Attleboro is up. I’m a tenant at will in Rumford,” he said. “I need a 450,000-square-foot facility that will house 350 employees. Guess where I’d like that new facility to be?”