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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.
When Karen Wheeler-Lockwood wanted to grow some lavender for her wedding bouquet in 2003, she never knew it would turn into a business idea. Her long-time dreams of owning her own business found the perfect match in lavandula and the fertile fields along Skaneateles Lake.
Karen’s husband Gary Lockwood is a fifth-generation farmer, with crops of wheat, rye, corn and soy beans as well as wool from Corriedale sheep on 120-acres of bucolic pastureland. In 2004, the Lockwoods went to Sequim, Washington to attend the city’s world famous lavender festival and returned to the farm inspired by the versatility of lavender and the idea of agri-tourism. More than just a pretty plant to pick, lavender buds are filled with essential oils that can be extracted for soaps, lotions, candles and cosmetic uses or dried for everlasting sachets, garlands and wreaths.
“We thought “Why couldn’t we do this?” and the next year, we ordered the first 200 plants, a variety called grosso. After planting more and more, in 2005 we started to add u-picking to help harvest all the lavender,” explained Karen.
Each year, the Lockwoods added more lavender plants and today there are over 2,000 plants of 20 varieties of white, purple and blue lavender. Besides u-picking, weekend visitors can purchase items from the farm stand stocked with over 30 different lavender products. Karen’s creative side and attention to detail show in every product that she packages and labels by hand. Lockwood Farm products can also be purchased online at Etsy.com and at Skaneateles small businesses including bookstores, hotels and spas.
In 2008, Lockwood Farm hosted its first weekend festival where artists came to paint pictures of the lavender fields and sell their work on location. In 2011, over 3,000 people attended the Lockwood Lavender Festival. This year, the fifth annual celebration will be held on July 14 and 15 with 30 vendors, artists, presentations, and lavender-themed foods. For the adventurous palates, there will even be lavender ice-cream made with Lockwood lavender buds.
Customers can find more than just lavender products at the Lockwood Farm. When a local beekeeper was ready to retire in 2010, the Lockwood lavender fields became home to seven hives of honeybees and a honey product line was quickly added to the business. Karen has also started growing rosemary and created a rosemary product line of candles and soaps. Positioning the farm as a destination along the popular winery trails in the Finger Lakes region allows the Lockwoods to attract tourists looking for an aromatic and educational experience.
Karen found invaluable support after connecting with WISE Women’s Business Center director Joanne Lenweaver in 2009. As a regular member of the Creative Business Roundtable hosted by the WISE Center, Karen views the meetings as “business therapy”.
“It can be a challenge to leave the farm, especially during the growing season, but it’s so worthwhile. Being able to network with other women entrepreneurs, listen to their successes and failures, and find a lot of common ground between us is so great,” said Karen.
The latest addition to Lockwood Farm is an 864-square-foot barn. Planned for drying bunches of lavender, the barn is only part of the farm’s expansion plans, which include dedicating additional pasture for 2,000 more lavender plants. Besides her busy schedule on the farm, Karen will complete her Apprentice Beekeeper course at Cornell University this fall and take a well-deserved vacation after another long season of 18 hour days.
Karen’s work ethic and passion for what she does show as the business reaches full bloom: “I always wanted to own my own business, but I never knew it would be this. When you’re sitting in an office working for someone else, you always think you could do better, do different. To be able to develop a product from something you’ve grown in the ground, that is so rewarding to me.”
The story of Chobani is as simple as the idea for a better tasting and healthier yogurt, and yet so much more. Sitting in the yogurt section of nearly every grocery chain in the nation today is their flagship product, Chobani Greek Yogurt. Chobani is the brainchild of Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant who recognized the promise held in the yogurt market and risked everything in its pursuit. In 2005, Ulukaya was in the fourth year of running Euphrates Inc., his feta cheese manufacturing startup in Johnstown, N.Y., when he noticed a mailed advertisement for the sale of a Kraft Foods plant. Rebuilt in 1920 after a fire destroyed the original building, the New Berlin, N.Y. facility had aging yogurt production equipment and once employed 55. When Ulukaya toured the 80,000-square-foot building, he decided to buy the plant the very next day.
“When I started Euphrates, I always thought yogurt quality could be better. As an entrepreneur, in whatever you do, you need to be aware of your category-what’s good, what’s bad, where the potential is-and I saw that early on. I knew how to sell cheese to the food service industry but the retail yogurt world was a whole different ballgame,” explained Ulukaya.
With an SBA 504 loan through Empire State Certified Development Corporation and KeyBank, Ulukaya was able to purchase the plant in August 2005. Ulukaya hired five seasoned Kraft employees and spent the rest of the summer covering the outside of the facility with a fresh coat of white paint. Chobani started out making private label regular yogurts for other large companies but Ulukaya believed he could make a better yogurt than the competition: “We aimed at people who never liked yogurt. We couldn’t blame them because what was available was not what the rest of the world was eating.”
The recipe for Chobani is thicker and creamier than regular yogurt, with twice the protein and none of the preservatives and artificial flavors. What’s in the yogurt- five live and active cultures, including three probiotics- is as important as what’s not, and Chobani turned this competitive advantage into the yogurt’s slogan, “Nothing But Good.” Ulukaya described the philosophy behind the product: “We look at our yogurt as pure, healthy, simple and something that you enjoy tasting. That is very, very important for us.”
Existing Greek yogurt lines were most often sold in expensive specialty stores, so Ulukaya marketed his yogurt brand to a wider customer base through mass distribution channels of grocery store chains. After more than a year developing Chobani’s trademark taste, in October 2007 Chobani’s first shipment included five different flavors- blueberry, peach, strawberry, vanilla and plain- sold to a single Long Island grocery store.
The yogurt became a sensation, with customers spreading the word about Chobani to friends and family; customer demand led more and more Northeast grocery stores to place orders for the 6-ounce single-serving Chobani containers. Chobani has had to adapt quickly to the meteoric rise in demand, adding employees, equipment and square footage at breathtaking speed.
“We broke all the records along the way. We became the number one selling Greek yogurt, passing brands that had started six or seven years before us. We became the number one yogurt in the Northeast, and then we became the number one brand in the country,” said Ulukaya. “Even though we make a lot of it, every batch has attention from us, meeting certain criteria to make sure it’s good. We want to make good yogurt.”
With less than 50 employees when Chobani first hit the shelves, Chobani has grown to employ over 1,200 today, providing valuable employment opportunities in Chenango County. The plant is a hive of activity, with workers in white lab coats and safety glasses working busily while construction crews expand the facility in seemingly every direction. Chobani now has two full-time shifts, with multiple production lines running 20 hours before stopping for cleaning and maintenance for four hours.
Chobani has invested the bulk of their profits into increasing production capabilities, adding two milk delivery bays, new production lines for kid-size 3.5 ounce Chobani Champions and three flavor Chobani Club Packs, and most notably, constructing a brand new distribution facility across the street in only three months. The distribution warehouse is the largest of its kind in the Northeast, with capacity to store 2.4 million cases of Chobani yogurt in 150,000-square-foot refrigerated space and 14 tractor-trailer bays for faster distribution. According to Dairy Management Services, Chobani’s weekly order for 25 million gallons of milk from local farms provides an annual economic impact of $300 million for the New York State farming community. And Chobani’s impact is moving beyond New York State.
The company recently broke ground on a second U.S. production site in Twin Falls, I.D. The high-efficiency facility will span 900,000-square-feet, making it the largest yogurt plant in the country, and will allow Chobani to produce even more of its #1 selling yogurt as well as bring new innovations to market. Twin Falls production is slated to start later this year and will create 400 new jobs in the area.
Chobani also recently began importing its beloved Greek Yogurt to Australia and Canada after countless fan requests. The move marks the beginning of a global expansion initiative for the company, which will eventually bring Chobani into new markets across the globe. Five years after launching, the success of Chobani is inspirational, with 1.7 million cases of Chobani made weekly. And in spite of working seven days a week, Ulukaya and his team are enjoying the dynamic journey: “A lot of exciting things are happening for the company. If you put your mind to something, put good people around you, and believe, anything is possible. Chobani’s story is, for me, if you really try hard, you can do anything,” he said.
It is this philosophy that led Chobani to become the official yogurt of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team. Chobani will be naturally powering Team USA at U.S. Olympic Training Centers in Colorado Springs, Colo., Chula Vista, Calif., and Lake Placid, N.Y. Additionally, Chobani will follow Team USA to London where it will be served at the USA House and High Performance Training Center during the London Olympic Games.
Chobani is also committed to supporting local farmers and strengthening economic growth in the communities where it is located. Chobani gives 10% of its annual post-tax profits to passionate individuals working towards positive long lasting change through its Shepherd’s Gift Foundation, the company’s charitable arm.
Chobani has been selected as the 2012 national winner of the Entrepreneurial Success of the Year Award by the SBA. The award recognizes the firm for its dramatic growth in employees, sales and business size as well as charitable contributions. Chobani’s Ulukaya will be recognized at the SBA’s National Small Business Week celebration in Washington, D.C. on May 22.