When successful companies collide via acquisition or merger, sometimes egos, assumptions and stubborn experiences can derail the entire process. It happens in many industries and often leaves broken brands, employees and businesses in its wake.
What’s the secret to avoiding this fate? Take, for example, the acquisition of Swedesboro, N.J.-based Wellshire Farms by Munster, Ind.-based Land O’Frost — a deal that brought together two proven, family-owned businesses in April 2018.
In this acquisition and subsequent integration, there would be no unhappy ending to the story. In fact, one year later, both sides agree that things have worked out as well as they’d hoped, and each has designs on taking the combined company to greater heights.
David Van Eekeren, president and CEO of Land O’Frost, explains that Wellshire provides the opportunity for Land O’Frost to capitalize on a completely new set of consumers while meeting the need to fit into the Land O’Frost family from a corporate culture perspective.
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Shanta McGahey, senior manager, Integrated Marketing Communications, for Land O’Frost, Inc., discusses the company’s newest brand and product innovation — Gone Rogue — in this exclusive video Q&A:
“Our strategic vision is to be a value-added protein company that can serve multiple categories and multiple consumers across the spectrum of need, [and this acquisition] is a great move to give us a broader breadth of scope of products to give us an entrance into the natural and organic category,” Van Eekeren says. “Additionally, you can buy products and you can expand your product line anywhere, but the reality is …if you don’t have culture, everything will fail.”
He explains that acquisitions throughout the industry in the past taught Land O’Frost a thing or two about bolting on a business like Wellshire Farms.
“We learned very early on that the team here was special and we’ve seen too many examples of a ‘big brother’ family company come in and take over another company and destroy it very quickly,” he says. “We’re not taking over. They’ve got tremendous leaders here, and our No. 1 goal is to preserve this gem called Wellshire Farms — make sure it can blossom and grow.”
The timing on Wellshire Farms’ side of the coin was right, says Jessica Colameco, vice president, Marketing, for Wellshire Farms, and daughter of Wellshire founder Louis Colameco III.
“We’re a family-owned, small business, and we can only do so much: We could [grow] on our own, but it would take probably another two decades,” she explains. “[My dad and I] made a pact that we had to be real with ourselves about the future — we needed someone who was going to take us to the next level more quickly.”
When the Colamecos met the Land O’Frost team, they felt the same way about the fit.
“Land O’Frost was identified as a larger version of our own culture, and meeting with David and his mom, Donna, you could immediately see that they care about their company as much as we care about ours,” Colameco says. “It was about keeping that culture, who we are, and identifying people whom we could trust to carry that through.”
At first blush, the obvious benefit to the Wellshire business is the improved reach for its nationwide distribution, sales and marketing aspirations. Yet, in the first year of the integration, Colameco says the 20-person Wellshire team (still based in Swedesboro) has been enthralled with the sheer amount of data and insights provided by Land O’Frost.
“[Our decisions before] were based more on gut instincts, experience and [customer requests], and we haven’t gotten totally away from that grassroots approach,” Colameco says. “But the amount of knowledge, customer insights, shopper insights, that we’ve gained from Land O’Frost is already taking us to another level.”
Instinctive, gut reactions may not sound as though they’d be the wisest course of action for any company, but consider the development of the company’s sugar-free, dry-rubbed bacon products four years ago as evidence that process was more successful than not for Wellshire.
“When the Paleo diet was the ‘thing to do,’ my dad decided he was going on it, and came in one day saying, ‘I can’t eat any of our bacon now, because it has sugar! We need to change it and not have sugar in this bacon!’” Colameco relays. “We all looked at him funny, but lo and behold, he was right — we removed the raw sugar from our standard dry-rubbed bacon, and it took off. Today, for the Garrett Valley Farms brand, it’s the No. 1-selling bacon.”
Van Eekeren (far left), Jessica Colameco (far right), vice president, Marketing, for Wellshire Farms, and the Wellshire Farms team in Swedesboro pose with the sign that summarizes the corporate culture there.
The turn time on new products at Wellshire is an area of unparalleled excellence, says Van Eekeren.
“The biggest strength of Wellshire is the speed at which the team can innovate,” he says. “The reality is the Wellshire brand was an innovator, a first-to-market natural whole-ham company that has innovated up to more than 120 different products in Whole Foods.”
Wellshire prides itself on its speedy innovation process, Colameco adds, saying that the business has been known to get a project or idea and turn it around within four to six months.
“We’re able to tap into our co-pack network, which truly helps us, and with Land O’Frost, that’s only getting better,” she says. “It’s something we tout, because customization is really how Wellshire was built, and we’ve really mastered it now.”
For its part, Land O’Frost has capitalized on the acquisition beyond simply tacking on to its product portfolio. First, Van Eekeren says, adapting to the Wellshire approach has been an eye-opening — and beneficial — process for the Land O’Frost team.
“Learning how to procure finished products and the speed at which you can innovate when you’ve got the resources of 30 different manufacturing facilities who are all willing, wonderful partners to help you has been a game-changer for us,” he explains. “Then there’s significantly more cost in yield loss when you talk about Wellshire products versus the products we make at Land O’Frost, and that’s been a shift in mindset to have to understand and accept the fact that you will not be the gold standard of yield and efficiencies [on these products].”
Van Eekeren says those learnings will help Land O’Frost brands wherever they make sense for the end consumers, and the company will continue to exchange knowledge between the businesses for that reason. In addition, Land O’Frost has benefitted from Wellshire Farms’ deep relationship with Whole Foods Market, having secured the contract to produce the retailer’s 365 Everyday Value deli meat business within the last year. But Land O’Frost doesn’t plan to be satisfied staying there.
“Whole Foods is growing, and its parent company, Amazon, has eyes on doing things outside of Whole Foods,” Van Eekeren says. “So we have a lot of opportunities in retail, club and convenience stores, but one that’s burgeoning is the online / e-commerce channel, and because of our relationship with Whole Foods, I think we’re poised to partner with Amazon in their growth pattern as well.”
Conversely, the Wellshire team sees a wide horizon ahead — “much more opportunity with the race horses from Land O’Frost,” Colameco says. “Having Land O’Frost people here that we can tap into — their thoughts and experiences — it opens up a whole new world of thinking for us.”
Van Eekeren believes the two companies together will thrive for a long time, given the similarities in culture and determination.
“It has been cool that, in Land O’Frost’s 60th year, we brought on board the best partner we’ve found through many acquisitions, transitions of products and innovations over those 60 years — we brought on a 20-year-old company, and I think together we’ll make it to 100 years,” he concludes. “We couldn’t have asked for a better 60th anniversary gift than finding Wellshire and having them fit so well with us so quickly.” NP
New look, new name for legacy brand
Andy Hanacek, editor-in-chief: What was the origin of the Garrett Valley Farms brand?
Jessica Colameco, vice president, Marketing, Wellshire: Garrett Valley was the original name of the brand, which started in 2008, in response to becoming exclusive to Whole Foods with the Wellshire brand. We knew that we had to reach consumers that were outside of Whole Foods at that time, so the brand was created. Garrett Valley Farms has had the same mission since the start — same foundation, same morals, same responsibility that we feel really almost all companies should have. The product is no antibiotics, humanely raised animals, no hormones ever, less than 10 clean ingredients all the time.
Hanacek: With the brand having shown success over the last decade, why did you decide to renovate and relaunch it in April 2019?
Colameco: Land O’Frost recognized that Garrett Valley had been a successful and strong brand with consumers, but peeled the layers back and asked, “That is what you stand for, but does the packaging really relay that? When you look at the Garrett Valley logo do you really see that mission?” Truth be told, I don’t know that as a consumer you would have recognized it, so we took a step back and said, “We need to get back to our roots, so that consumers can recognize and know that they can trust us.” Adding “Farms” to the name and refreshing the look is a way of recognizing the family farms we work with and [communicating the values] to those consumers that have followed us for all these years, letting them know we’re not changing.
Hanacek: What was your messaging to your customers and consumers on these changes?
Colameco: We did a reveal on social media so that our consumers could see what to expect, but it was also so important that we let them know nothing has changed. Even though the look on the package is different, everything that’s inside that package, that you consume and you feed your family, follows the same values as before. We are transparent and our mission is going to remain the same.
Hanacek: So with the brand relaunch under way, what is the next move for Garrett Valley Farms?
Colameco: We’ve tapped into the Land O’Frost sales force, and those connections and relationships have opened so many doors for Garrett Valley Farms already. It’s been incredible, but we still are making sure our natural channel customers are well-served and know we won’t forget where we started and how we grew. We have about 40-45 items under the brand, and we started with six deli meats and six bacon products for the change. Now that we have that core set out and finished, we’ll start trickling in to the hot dogs, snack sticks, smoked sausages and holiday spiral ham products.