At Your Service: Fred Blank maintains tradition of Tri-State Theatre Supply

Cinemas Features

Robert Fred Blank, Jr. is the president and principal owner of Tri-State Theatre Supply. He is the second president Tri-State has ever known in a three-generation family organization. Born and reared in Memphis, Tennessee, Fred has spent his entire life making sure concession operators are fully stocked with supplies and equipment. Town to town, community to community, he has grown this people business by serving the grass-roots concessionaires in the Mid-South region.

After graduating from State Technical Institute in Memphis in 1980, Fred went straight to work assisting his father in the equipment business that served the theatre industry with projectors, speakers and presentation supplies. His company now represents an entire line of cinema goods including popcorn, candy and paper supplies. Under Fred’s leadership and direction, the company has grown ten times in annual sales revenues from when he became president.

Fred Blank is the product of a family that was disciplined and stable. He is the youngest of five siblings, and while his three brothers have moved on from the distribution sector, his sister Linda has been a mainstay at Tri-State. His father, Bob, kept things simple: “We went to school, did our chores, did homework and then worked in the business. The highlight of the day was listening to the Cardinals on the radio at night,” Fred recalls.

The family business was centered around helping theatre owners equip and service their movie equipment. And the key to this business was service before anything else. That code of conduct is the foundation of the Tri-State mantra. No job is too big, no customer too small—the idea is to keep everyone in business. “My dad emphasized the point that we were in the business of service first,” Blank declares. “I would like to think we don’t have customers, we have business partners.”

Growing up in suburban Memphis, Fred spent his early years loving baseball. “I played second base, it was easy to make the throw to first,” he jokes. “My aspirations have always been to spend time outdoors. I love fishing, target shooting and clay pigeons, but never been much on hunting.” Like all traditional cinema folk, Fred’s first job was at the neighborhood movie theatre, Village Twin. He worked as the projectionist and traded responsibilities when he was asked to work at the concession stand. 

In 1980, Fred, in association with his cousin Paul Koehler, purchased the family business from his dad. It was at that point that it began to change its complexion. Tri-State started to take on new products and established a longer list of supplies to include food and perishables. As the trends changed and menus became more complex in theatres, he and Paul had to increase their capabilities on multiple fronts.

In 2000, Paul made the decision to retire and Fred had to govern the business on his own with some eight employees. Today, Tri-State Theatre Supply employs over 30 employees in the warehouse, and Blank’s oldest daughter Maggie has taken the reins as director of operations. “We have come a long way since 1980—we once had a simple bob truck for deliveries, now we operate three 18-wheelers, three bob trucks, vans, an entire fleet of mobile services,”

Fred gets emotional when he confides, “Having Maggie join the company is one of the best moments of my life. I am so proud of her, she inspires me.” His second daughter, Shelby, has no interest in the distribution business but is totally supportive of the family’s mission.

Blank credits his success to timing. “When my dad decided to retire, it was the right time for me to take over. Even better, there was so much potential with new markets in concessions, new products, new disciplines of business. I decided to take on zoos and amusement parks, fairs and expos, stadiums and arenas as well as cinemas.” 

The cinema channel of business has its own set of challenges while he manages the day-to-day properties. “On the food side, we have tremendous competition from the ‘mega distributors.’ Our unique style of service is intimate, we try to contour our deliveries to each location to fit their needs. We will never be ‘big box’-type distributors,” Blank professes.

On the customer side, Fred sees the cinema industry as capital-intensive, which creates enormous burdens on smaller operations. “Independents do not have the cash resources to complete all the renovations as time has changed. The stadium seat phenomenon transferred to the digital rollout, to the redesigns of auditoriums to handle recliners. Too many of my partners do not have the capital to stay in business.”

It is hard to determine where Fred’s loyalty lies when it comes to baseball: He makes an annual trip to Boston with friends each year to catch a weekend of Red Sox games at Fenway Park. He will make at least one trip to Chicago to cheer on his beloved Cubs. Then he treks to St Louis to root for the Cardinals. Not sure how you can be a fan of the Cubs and still like the Cardinals (they are arch rivals), I asked Fred how he can support both. His answer is true to the sport; “I love baseball—this way I can pull for both teams.” To understand his deep love of the sport, ask Fred to do his Harry Carey impression: Be sure to close your eyes as he gives his rendition of “a high fly ball, deep, deep, deep and caught by the shortstop. It’s time for another Budweiser.” You will swear you have just listened to a radio version of the belated sportscaster.

With leadership from his father, Fred Blank was instrumental in developing the Tri State Theatre Convention. “Reel People serving Real People” is the slogan that supports the mission of the convention; there is that word again—serving. Fred should be credited with building the convention from about 25 local independent theatre owners to a convention with over 250 attendees, 60 tradeshow booths, trade screenings, a golf tournament and—something rare—a skeet shoot.

“Tri State is the only convention where we bring operators and suppliers/manufacturers together, give the buyers shotguns and then tell them to go have fun!” chuckles Fred. In keeping with the down-home attitude of the convention, Fred can be seen calling out Bingo at the opening reception, reminding us how simple life can be if we just relax.

In 2005, Tri-State Theatre Supply began its distribution efforts and was challenged to create a distribution web of digital-cinema equipment representing all manufacturers and presentation systems. Equally as important, the company offers projector maintenance services. Tri-State now supports over 30 technicians who can repair or install digital presentation equipment at a moment’s notice anywhere in the U.S. “The irony is that the forecast for the future was that digital equipment was going to eliminate the service requirements and put companies like Tri-State out of business, [but] we have gone from two techs to over 30. Turns out digital projectors need a lot of maintenance.”

Fred has his priorities set when it comes to movies: comedies, all comedies. His favorite is Austin Powers and he can be seen imitating Mike Myers regularly. His favorite book is The Magic of Big Thinking by David Schwartz. When sitting in the theatre, he will opt for popcorn and is happy to see wine and beer being sold nowadays, as he enjoys a cold Bud Light when permissible. If he could travel the world, he would choose Key West, Florida first as he loves the ocean, fishing, food and the beach.