Nashville, TN (WSMV) – Cordia Harrington was 28 years old when she started her first business, a real estate company she turned into a construction venture.
Nearly forty years later, she runs a high-speed baking company with annual sales in excess of $100 million dollars. Her recipe for success is fueled by perseverance and persistence.
“There have been many times that I have felt like that people around the table didn’t think I had a contribution to make,” says Harrington from the corporate headquarters of The Bakery Cos. in Green Hills.
Harrington’s company operates four bakeries: two in the Nashville area, one in Atlanta and a recent bakery built in Guatemala. Her company employs 560 people.
"[We make] a thousand buns a minute, 2,000 biscuits a minute and about 8-and-a-half million dozen (pieces) a day" says Harrington.
Harrington’s bakeries provide an endless variety of bagels, buns, breads, rolls and muffins to hundreds of companies – McDonald’s, Five Guys, Jason’s Deli, O’Charley’s, Hilton and Double Tree among them.
Harrington came into the bakery business after several years as an owner-operator of McDonald’s restaurants in Illinois – which she held from 1989 to 1996. During that time, she served as purchasing chair for the St. Louis McDonald’s region where she learned the intricacies of the ingredients for McDonald’s.
In the mid-1990’s McDonald’s made known it wanted diversity in its supply chain. When Harrington expressed a desire to take over a bakery, she was told she did not have the professional experience to be considered.
“I just kept being pushed off and told ‘no.’ I knew if the opportunity was there, I just had to figure out how to get to the right person,” says Harrington.
Harrington made multiple appointments with suppliers and supply chain officials within McDonald’s and recalls staying very persistent.
“I would go to the flour mill in town, go to learn about flour and put on a flour miller outfit, stand in front of the flour silos and have my picture made and send it up to McDonald’s and say ‘I want to be your baker,’” recalls Harrington.
In 1996 –after seven years as a McDonald’s restaurant owner—she was given the green light to be a part of McDonald’s supply chain. She moved to the Nashville area in August of that year to construct the bakery.
“I bought land in Dickson and in ’97 we opened the first bakery, Tennessee Bun Company – [making] 1,000 buns a minute, making buns for McDonalds,” says Harrington.
Harrington sold her three McDonald’s restaurants to avoid a conflict of interest and went full throttle as a manufacturer of baked goods.
By 1999, Harrington had an opportunity to make buns for Pepperidge Farm. The company needed items packaged and frozen in a different manner than what Harrington’s Dickson bakery was doing, so she bought a second bakery.
To gain the business, she bought and built a Nashville bakery that would increase her business and named it Nashville Bun Co.
“It was a matter of buying the [Nashville] bakery so the first bakery [in Dickson] could survive,” says Harrington.
“Nashville Bun has a fantastic high-speed biscuit line on it,” says Harrington. “We make 2,000 biscuits a minute and then we have a high-speed English muffin line.”
The muffin line provides millions of English Muffins every day which serves as the basis of the McDonald’s Egg McMuffin.
The Bakery Cos. also has a 2-acre cold storage facility in Nashville where O’Charley’s unsliceable rolls are made.
“We make all of those and they are so good,” says Harrington.
Harrington’s success has allowed her to give generously of her time and money to causes she believes in. She is currently on the Board of Directors for Emergent Cold and is President-Elect for the American Bakers Association.
During the last decade, Harrington has established two scholarships at Belmont University – one of which benefits entrepreneurship students participating in study abroad programs. In April 2016, the university honored her by naming its new 950-seat cafeteria after her, Harrington Place Dining.
Harrington’s office is filled with photos of major moments along her journey. They represent how far she has come from a single working mother in the mid-1980’s to a McDonald’s franchisee, to a manufacturing maven.
In the late 1990’s, Harrington married Tom Harrington, who now serves as Partner and Chief Strategy Officer for The Bakery Cos. They share five children between them and now four of the five work in their business.
“I get to see them every day! It’s awesome,” says Harrington.
Her next adventure
In October 2019, Harrington stepped into the role of International President for the worldwide leadership group Chief Executives Organization (CEO). She is the first female president for the group in it’s 51 year history.
Over the course of the next year, she will visit 90 countries for 27 different events. She was elected in 2017 and has spent the last two years preparing for the leadership role.
“I absolutely love what I do. I love what I can help people do because of the position I’m in and I’m very grateful.”