Photo by Jeremy Charles.
Paula Marshall never really intended to take the reins as the third generation leader of Tulsa’s iconic company, Bama.
“My favorite things to study in school were languages, and I took multiple languages,” says Marshall, one of the city’s most recognizable – and respected – business leaders today. “I wanted to go to school overseas. I thought it would be cool to work for the United Nations.”
Fate, though, had different plans for Marshall, an energetic and engaging businesswomen who, destiny aside, radiates charisma like her company’s pies emanate sweet unctuousness.
That’s a fragrance Marshall grew up very familiar with, despite her intentions to pursue other interests. As a youth, while attending Holland Hall, Marshall kept busy working at the commercial bakery and learning every aspect of the business.
“My dad and mom were intent on us learning about what we did,” recalls Marshall. “When I was in high school, my dad would wake me up early in the morning before school to show me the pie line.”
While the company was already a local legend, Marshall says, as a young person, she wasn’t necessarily aware of Bama’s reach. “You don’t realize how big of a deal [the family company] is until you come home from softball practice and McDonald’s [executives] are there, and your parents are traveling around the world,” she says.
Bama was already a big deal when Marshall was in high school. Her grandmother, Alabama “Bama” Marshall, started the business in her own kitchen making pies. Marshall’s father, Paul, and his wife moved to Tulsa from Texas in 1935, and in 1936, the company followed suit and was incorporated in Oklahoma. In addition to selling their pies via local route distribution all the way into the mid-1980s, Bama also has provided products commercially for numerous restaurants and restaurant chains over the many years of the company’s existence. It was always a family operation, with several generations involved, and it’s always been a family environment for employees, which has only expanded in magnitude under Marshall’s leadership.
Ironically, perhaps, Marshall says her father “never liked the fresh pies.”
“He liked the frozen ones,” she continues. “He wanted people to be able to eat in their cars, that was his obsession. That meant frozen, hand-held pies that were a good value.”
Fate once again intervened, and because of events in her own life, Marshall found herself in a tough personal situation. “I needed a job, so I called dad,” she says. Straight out of high school, Marshall began working on the manufacturing floor. Her dreams of the United Nations grew further away.
But Marshall refused to be a victim. She went on exploring her own interests, earning a bachelor of science degree from Oklahoma City University in 1982 and a decade later, her Ph.D. from there as well.
Marshall’s immersion in the world of Bama continued as she moved up from the pie line, learning virtually every job, role and responsibility in the company – even as both the family dynamic and the demands of the marketplace were changing.
“I think a lot of people thought that my father would never retire,” she says.
Marhsall found herself working side by side with her mother to keep the company moving ahead after her father and brother both suffered heart attacks. “My mom was a beautiful person and loved this place,” Marshall says. “After growing up a lot, I began to share her love of the company and of the people who worked here. She felt the same, but she was also afraid of what would happen if something happened to her or my dad.”
Finally understanding that he couldn’t live forever, Paul Marshall scanned his options for a viable successor. His daughter had been a seasoned employee for 12 years, and even though it was unheard of at the time, he named her the active CEO. Marshall took over as CEO in early 1985 – when many might have least expected it.
She stepped up for her family, for its company and for a community that loved Bama’s products. Even though she had clung to thoughts of a different career early on, she embraced her new role heroically. As for her personal interests, she still pursues those too: She is also an author these days as well as a semi-professional angler. Bama is still her main focus, and the company has never been stronger.
“It was hard to find ways to grow the company within the community,” Marshall says. First came a plant at a second location, in North Tulsa, to produce biscuits.Then came things like pizza dough and frozen dough as Bama expanded its offerings.
Both Paul and Paula Marshall believed in the value of automation and that with the right product and supervision, it could have a huge impact on productivity.
They were right.
To date, Bama has exploded under Marshall’s leadership, with plants around the world ranging from Poland to China.
“We’re exporting to more than 50 countries,” Marshall says.
A company founded in a grandmother’s kitchen has evolved today into an international player in commercial baking while maintaining the quality upon which it was built. Marshall wouldn’t name all of the international eateries that rely on Bama – name-dropping isn’t her style – but Bama’s customers include the largest hamburger chain in the world, the largest fried chicken chain in the world and the largest pizza chain in the world. Marshall smiles sheepishly and says, “We never bake and tell.”
However, good employers are something different, and there is no doubt Bama qualifies. Even though Bama doesn’t directly serve products to the community anymore, the company and its employees serve Tulsa through the astonishing rates of charitable giving, volunteerism and innovative culture that make them one of Oklahoma’s best employers.
“It’s a family environment and that’s a mission we have,” Marshall says. “Really it’s our mantra, and it’s why our work force is so stable.”