Staff Photo by Mike Pare / Southern Champion Tray was one of the BBB's Torch Award winners at a luncheon on Wednesday. From left are T.W. Francescon, the company's corporate human relations director; Mark Smith, a designer; David Chapman, designer; Amy Urbaniak, culture champion; Matt Holmes, trucking manager; Kelly Bilbrey, executive liaison; Ed Curtis, general manager; and Bruce Zeiser, executive vice president.

People over profits.

A Southern Champion Tray official on Wednesday brought up that concept, cited earlier by a high school student, while accepting an ethics award from the Chattanooga area Better Business Bureau.

"If you put people over profits, if you get that right, a lot of good things happen," Bruce Zeiser, executive vice president for the Chattanooga-based employer, said.

Southern Champion Tray was one of several companies that received a BBB Torch Award for Ethics at a luncheon at the Chattanooga Convention Center. Also, 10 area high school students were awarded scholarships after writing winning essays on what ethics mean to businesses and communities.

Southern Champion, which makes such products as food sleeves, trays and cupcake inserts while employing 650 people in Chattanooga, won the Torch Award for companies with more than 100 workers.

Also winning Torch Awards were JHM Certified Public Accountants, for companies with 50 to 99 employees; The Double Cola Co., for companies with 11 to 49 employees; and Lady Bug Exterminating Co., for companies with one to 10 employees.

Zeiser said in an interview after the luncheon that companies need to make sure their priorities are right.

"People are the main thing," he said. "Profits are the oxygen. You have to have it, but you don't live for it."

Southern Champion, a 95-year-old venture, is building a $60 million expansion at Centre South Riverport off Amnicola Highway. Zeiser said steel is going up on the project, which will include more than 1 million square feet of space in a new manufacturing facility.

"We hope to be in the early part of next year," he said about the business that employs 850 companywide.

The company official termed the past couple of years amid the pandemic "a roller coaster for us."

Immediately after the pandemic lockdown in early 2020, sales were cut about in half, Zeiser said.

"That was a six- or eight-week thing running about half of normal," he said. "We made it through that with no layoff or furloughs. We're grateful we were able to do that."

When business came back, Zeiser said, it did so in a big way.

"Right now, it's so busy we're unable to fill all the demands out there," he said, noting labor and supply chain shortages. "We've never experienced that."

Zeiser said he expects 2022 to be a record year for the company if trends stay on pace.

Michele Mason, president of the 21-county BBB in Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia, said in a statement that 10 area students received $1,000 scholarships after their essays were selected from nearly 120 entries.

The BBB has awarded more than $170,000 in Students of Integrity scholarships during the past 18 years, she said.

This year's winners were: Kellan Baker, of McMinn Central High School; Elizabeth Baxter, of South Pittsburg High School; Kaitlyn Boller, of Ridgeland High School; Bladyn Bowman, of Trion High School; Luke Bryant, of Gilmer High School; Leah Easterly, of Whitwell High School; Kendall Heath, of McMinn County High School; Shealeigh Hott, of Coahulla Creek High School; Sarah Reed, of Ringgold High School; and Parker Taylor, of Heritage High School.

Contact Mike Pare at or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.