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Since 1823, New Hope Mills Manufacturing flour-based mixes have had the recipe for small business success. The company’s stitched-top products have been a Central New York household name through the ups and downs of the last two centuries. Leland Weed purchased New Hope Mills in 1947 and built the company’s brand with his hard work and strong salesman skills. Leland’s sons, David and Dale, purchased the business when he was ready for retirement in 1980. The Weed family bonds are intertwined with the business; both David and Dale raised their families next door to the mill. Today, half of the third-generation works there under the new leadership of Dale’s son Doug.
“I’ve worked for the company since I was able to walk,” recounts Doug with a laugh. “I started at the smallest level of cleaning up after the production workers at the end of the day, taking care of the trash, and helping out in any way I could. One of my eighteenth birthday presents was a full-time job. I always had a strong connection to the family business and to my grandfather, so it felt very natural for me.”
Seven years later, the business was bursting at the seams in the original mill in New Hope. Doug helped his father manage the transition of the company to its current Auburn location with minimal down time in 2004.
“We operated very efficiently at the old mill, but we knew we couldn’t get any larger because of the tight space,” explains Doug, “Since the move, we gradually increased its staff from 10 to 44 full and part-time employees in 2012.”
On the manufacturing floor, employees hoist dry ingredients and sift spices into industrial size mixers, which then drop the mixed product into 2,000-pound canvas tote bags. Each batch is tracked on the company’s computer system with bar codes and number strings for the list of ingredients required by a specific recipe. With four different kinds of buttermilk as just an example, employees must rely on the ingredient’s ID number to avoid costly mistakes. The tote bags are then ferried to the production area, where the bulk of the employees work at up to four different production lines. The company’s bar coding is replicated on each product and customized for the retailer where it will eventually be sold.
The nearby test kitchen can be found by following freshly-baked aromas of cinnamon, ginger and berries that waft from hot ovens. Every batch of mix is sampled by the test kitchen team, an exacting quality control practice that the company’s customers appreciate in a world of increasing food recalls. New Hope Mills meets safety requirements with regular inspections by the FDA and NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets and certifications from Safe Quality Food (SQF- level two), the Orthodox Union for Kosher foods, and NOFA-NY for organic foods.
“Obtaining our food quality certification has solidified our place as a player in the marketplace. Retailers are now demanding certain food certifications to carry products in response to health scares from undeclared ingredients,” says Doug.
In the test kitchen, the texture and taste of different recipes are compared in a relentless search for the best flavor combinations. The mix maestros have been busy in the last two years, adding Vanilla Chai, Pumpkin, and Gingerbread flavors to the pancake mix line. Besides their well-known pancake mix, New Hope Mills also makes waffle, crepe, muffin, cookie, scone, brownie and hot cocoa mixes. Many products are also available in organic, low carbohydrate, sugar-free or gluten-free versions.
Products with the New Hope Mills label can be found in the company’s factory store in Auburn; bulk, natural or specialty stores; Amish and Mennonite stores; and regional grocery chains such as Wegmans, Tops and Price Chopper. As a small business marketing to large grocery chains, high slotting fees, navigating corporate structure and intense competition for shelf space remain challenges for New Hope Mills.
New Hope Mills manufactures more than its own brand of mixes, with private label products comprising 40 percent of the company’s revenues. In 2010, the Weed family acquired the assets of New Hampshire-based competitor The Lollipop Tree, adding their flour-based mixes as well as Lollipop Tree brand jams, jellies and grilling sauces to the New Hope Mills portfolio. With extra manufacturing capacity available, making Lollipop Tree brand products in Auburn helped maximize production and significantly expanded the company’s geographic footprint.
As part of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Emerging Leaders e200 program in Syracuse, Doug developed his Strategic Growth Action Plan to map out the company’s direction for the next three years. Funded by the SBA, the free MBA-style program guides high-growth entrepreneurs through a nine-month course on topics ranging from financial dashboards and sales trends analytics to employee development and training.
With his sights set on the future, Doug says his experience in the e200 class of 2012 came at just the right time: “I have a vision of where I’d like to take the company. The e200 program helped me get serious about the things that I had to start doing to achieve that vision, which includes an updated website and lean manufacturing strategies. I plan to purchase the business by the end of 2012, as my father would like to retire and begin working on a new entrepreneurial venture.”
Doug also found the peer mentoring groups instrumental to his success in the e200 program. He was grouped with other family-owned businesses who could share best practices and words of advice in a confidential setting. The challenge of “working in the business” at the same time as “working on the business” required a lot of time-literally hundreds of hours-but one that Doug believes was well worth it to ensure a successful transition.
“My work schedule is 7:30 a.m. to question mark, usually five days a week. You can never escape thinking about the business, even though you might not actually be at work. Sunday dinners with the family often lead to discussions about work-it’s just part of who we are,” says Doug, who has found family and business make the perfect mix.