LE MARS, Iowa — He was a homesteader headed west to find a new life with his family.
But after drought dried up the South Dakota community of “Wellsburg” where he settled, Fred H. Wells Jr. turned around and headed home to Chicago. He got as far as Le Mars before running out of money. Stranded, Wells rounded up a horse, a wagon, cans and jars and contracted with a local dairyman and started delivering milk door to door.
That was in 1913 and, a century later, Wells' operation has evolved into Wells Enterprises Inc., the maker of Blue Bunny ice cream and novelties. Based in Le Mars, a community of about 9,800 people 120 miles north of Omaha, Wells is the largest family-owned and -operated ice cream manufacturer in the U.S.
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Today, in honor of its 100 years, the company is formally launching its “100 Years, 100 Wishes” campaign with Make-A-Wish. The goal is to grant 100 wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses. Wells already has started by sending kids like 4-year-old Piper to Hawaii and arranging for 9-year-old Michael to meet his idol, race car driver Jimmie Johnson.
“To reinvest back into some 100 families' lives and make a difference, it's worth the 100 years of sacrifice and due diligence the company took to get here,” said President and CEO Mike Wells, who is the great-nephew of the founder and a third-generation Wells family member involved in the company.
With about 2,600 employees (2,170 in Le Mars), the company produces more than 150 million gallons of ice cream per year. Wells makes more than 500 Blue Bunny ice cream and frozen novelty products, plus makes frozen treats brands 2nd St. Creamery, Bomb Pop, Yoplait Frozen Yogurt and Weight Watchers Ice Cream.
This year, Blue Bunny rolled out 10 new frozen treats, including a line of “new and improved” ice cream sandwiches in four flavors.
Harry Balzer, an industry analyst who tracks food trends for market researcher the NPD Group, said the ice cream making business is a good one to be in. Nearly half of all Americans eat ice cream at least once in a two-week period, he said, and that number has remained unchanged for 10 years.
“The most important thing about the category is that it's big,” Balzer said. “There's a lot of competition. A lot of people are going to be trying to get that percent” of market share.
And Wells wants a higher percentage. CEO Wells has his eye on being the largest ice cream maker in the country.
Currently, the leaders are London-based Unilever and Swiss-based Nestle. Unilever's frozen treat brands include Ben & Jerry's, Popsicle and Breyers. Nestle produces brands like Dreyer's, Häagen-Dazs and Edy's.
“There's a lot of hope here, but the hope isn't that we just hope some day we can get bigger,” Wells said. “We've got a solid plan.”
The company declined to give specifics of the plan, saying any information would be proprietary.
Wells said the company's growth over the past century is best illustrated by the expanse of its distribution from local to regional to all 50 states. Today, the company makes more than $1 billion in sales annually.
To achieve the goal to be No. 1, company officials will turn to the assets that have gotten them through 100 years: product quality and workforce. After Wells became CEO in late 2007, he spent time developing a list of company fundamentals, and one of them is that quality will be remembered long after price is forgotten.
“We really believe that,” he said. “So you go buy something on sale and you bring it home and it doesn't meet your expectations, you don't go, 'Oh, well. That was OK because I paid half price for it.' You go, 'I'll never buy that again.' Most times, you don't even remember what you paid, but you remember the quality and experience.”
The employees are the deliverers of quality, and being based in Le Mars has helped the company remain a well-kept secret while employing people who treat the company “like it's their own,” Wells said.
One of those employees is culinologist John Kennedy II. An Omaha area native and graduate of the culinology program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the energetic Kennedy is tasked with developing new and improved products using his mixed background in culinary arts, food science and food technology.
So, for example, when he helped create the Almond Butter Hazelnut Fudge Ice Cream in the super-premium 2nd St. Creamery line, he focused on the variegate, or hazelnut fudge swirl, to ensure it was evenly distributed and appealing to the eye. He did the same with the Banana Rum Reserve Ice Cream, making sure the waves of butter brown sugar sauce were just right.
Wells also uses machines to test product durability and brings in consumer panels — they had 15 last year, generally with about 12 people each — to gauge outside reaction. The panels aren't there to pick their preference, but rather to define the differences in attributes among their ice cream samples.
“Sensory,” Kennedy said, “is like a whole science.”
And it's only one of the complex areas of the company that's changed since its founding. After all, ice cream wasn't Wells' initial venture.
The company entered the ice cream market a handful of years after Fred H. Wells Jr. started distributing milk. In 1918, he built a small, concrete ice cream production facility in Le Mars. Around 1925, he and his sons began manufacturing in mass quantities, soon expanding production into nearby Iowa towns Remsen and Alton.
Later, Fred and his brother Harry moved into the Sioux City market, but Fairmont Ice Cream bought the ice cream distribution system there and the Wells' name. To re-enter the market, the Wells brothers held a “Name That Ice Cream” contest.
A Sioux City journalist won $25 for the entry “Blue Bunny” after noticing how much his son enjoyed the blue bunnies in a department store window at Easter. The name stuck.
Wells spent the next decades adding onto facilities, building new ones and expanding into the fluid milk, fruit juice, milk culture and yogurt markets. In 1977, Wells' Dairy Inc. was established.
Fast forward to 2003, when Wells reached beyond the Corn Belt to St. George, Utah, to build an ice cream plant that still supplies products to the West Coast. Also in the 2000s, the company dedicated a new corporate center in Le Mars that today employs hundreds of people. It began to exit the fluid milk, milk culture and yogurt businesses to focus on ice cream.
Selling its Omaha yogurt business in 2008 to Grupo Lala made Wells exclusively an ice cream maker and, in 2011, Wells' Dairy Inc. officially changed its name to Wells Enterprises Inc. to better reflect the functions of the company.
Le Mars Mayor Dick Kirchoff, who's lived in Le Mars for nearly 40 years, called Wells a “tremendous” benefit to the community that's helped to draw in people who otherwise might not have stopped by. The company plays a leading role in organizing the summer event Ice Cream Days and maintains a vintage ice cream parlor downtown.
“They bring in busloads,” Kirchoff said. “Tourism is a great thing they've given back to us.”
CEO Wells said that ultimately, the heartbeat of the 100-year-old company keeps on because of a desire to make a difference in their customers' lives every day.
“And along the way,” he said, “we're having fun and making a reasonable living. Life's sweet in Le Mars.”
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