Utz Brands is the youngest 100-year-old company in the nation. Its storied history also tells the tale of two snack manufacturing businesses that have succeeded over the years in two different but complementary ways.
Founded in 1921 by William (Bill) and Salie Utz — who believed they could make better potato chips in a simple, farm-fresh way — the Hanover, Pa., snack maker expanded organically over its first 90 years, becoming a well-respected brand nationally. Since 2010, however, Utz has made 16 acquisitions, making it one of the fastest-growing snack operators with more than $1.1 billion in annual sales.
Moreover, last year the company began a new phase, publicly trading on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol “UTZ” and officially becoming known as Utz Brands, Inc.
From a manufacturing perspective, Tucker Lawrence, executive vice president and chief supply chain officer, has been through it all. When he joined Utz 17 years ago, the then family-owned business had just built its fourth snack food facility in Hanover. Today, the public company has about 3,300 associates, many of whom work in 15 plants located in Pennsylvania, Alabama, Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan and Washington.
Each week, those plants produce more than 5.5 million lbs of potato chips, pretzels, cheese snacks, tortilla chips, party mixes, pork rinds, veggie snacks and more.
These items are sold nationally under a battalion of “power” brands that include Utz, On The Border chips and dips, Good Health, Boulder Canyon, Hawaiian Brand and Zapp’s, to name a few.
The company also offers several smaller “foundation” brands such as Vitner’s and Tim’s Cascade Snacks that are regional favorites with a loyal following all their own.
“If you look at Utz over the past 100 years, the last 10 years have been transformational through our acquisitions along with our growth with new brands and production facilities,” Mr. Lawrence explained. “The other part of our history is our growth internally, helped by our productivity and manufacturing execution systems, equipment and technology advancements, and of course, our talented and dedicated associates across the entire supply chain.”
Utz offers hundreds of SKUs packaged in every way from family-sized bags and vending, single-serve packs to its iconic barrels of cheese balls and even 10- to 48-count variety packs that can turn a pantry into a household convenience store. The list also includes untold seasonal items, custom displays and drop-shipped case packs designed to customers’ specifications for easy display on the store’s floor.
If the operation appears complicated, it is. But it’s the primary reason for Utz Brands’ historic success.
“We work very hard on the supply chain team to partner with sales and marketing to be very supportive of key initiatives that can make a real difference at retail,” Mr. Lawrence said.
He noted that the desire to “do it all” is part of Utz’s culture that fueled its growth for the first 90 years, while external expansion sent the back end of the company’s revenue bell curve in a much steeper trajectory.
“It’s always been that willingness to be flexible and nimble in all aspects of the business that has allowed us to grow exponentially,” Mr. Lawrence observed. “From a manufacturing perspective, it’s the ‘Yeah, I think we can make that new product.’ I think there’s a drive to do new things that has always been here.”
Utz Brands’ acquisitions have created a distribution system that’s difficult to replicate and serves myriad customers ranging from mom-and-pop shops, foodservice outlets and supermarket chains to mass merchandisers, club stores and even baseball stadiums. What else would you expect from the “Official Salted Snack of Major League Baseball”?
Brian Greth, senior vice president, corporate services, pointed out products are shipped via a hybrid system that includes direct-store delivery (DSD) with more than 1,760 routes. The company also offers direct-to-warehouse nationally, partners with regional distributors and provides direct-to-consumer service via its burgeoning e-commerce business. And, yes, it also operates a local company store in Hanover for its hometown fans.
“We don’t have the ability to make every product, everywhere,” said Mr. Greth, who manages more than 160 properties, including 145 distribution centers. “That’s the challenge. Behind the curtain, we get the product to where it needs to be. We’re understanding our network better as we have gotten bigger. We now can ship products around and look for opportunities for more manufacturing of products in different regions.”
He also oversees data management systems, which allow operations to coordinate with sales and pinpoint manufacturing and distribution efficiencies, especially as Utz Brands integrates acquisitions, expands its geographic reach and increases overall sales across the country.
“It’s providing information much quicker so we can spend less time getting the data, and it’s helping us fine-tune the decisions we make. Now we have more time to analyze it and go after new opportunities,” Mr. Greth said. “We are continually trying new ways of doing things to keep competitive.”
In recent years, Utz has made acquisitions to fill gaps in its product portfolio, increase sales in different geographies, broaden its distribution capabilities and add production capacity closer to its newer territories.
During the past year, for instance, Utz Brands acquired H.K. Anderson, which produces filled pretzels. It also acquired the On The Border chips and dips brand and a manufacturing plant for making tortilla chips, in Grand Rapids, Mich. Moreover, it bought the Vitner’s brand and distribution network in Chicago.
From an operations perspective, Mr. Greth said, such expansion makes for exciting times for everyone involved.
“You get to build new production lines and add more capacity. Who doesn’t want to add new capacity and capabilities? That’s why these acquisitions breed a lot of excitement and bring a lot of energy into the room because our company is changing all the time,” he explained. “You have to like the high pace and activity level. For our engineers, it’s exciting because you get to work on new projects or build a new plant.”
Despite Utz Brands’ experience in acquisitions, Mr. Lawrence said, integrating a new operation into an existing one takes time, often six months to a year to learn the new business, identify the operational synergies, maximize efficiencies and blend the cultures together.
“We just celebrated our 10-year anniversary on our first external acquisition that wasn’t a homegrown Hanover brand,” he recalled. “There’s no one size fits all. A lot of times, the companies that we are acquiring think that we have this magic wand. We tell them upfront, ‘We don’t have all of the answers. We have dedicated people, we have knowledge, we like to learn, and we will work together for the new plant or brand and Utz as a whole to succeed.’ ”
Mr. Greth suggested every location comes with distinctive regional habits and cultures.
“That’s why you have to go into a market, see what’s happening, then figure out how to react to it before you put your playbook together because it’s not cookie cutting,” he said. “You have an outline, but you always have to adapt to a market and see how it works and learn. It takes a lot of communication.”
Take the most recent purchases of the On The Border and Vitner’s brands, which couldn’t be any different.
“On The Border is largely serviced nationwide through a direct-to-warehouse method,” Mr. Lawrence said. “Unlike Vitner’s, which is literally distributed by a Vitner’s DSD route system in Chicago, where our associates are selling bags of Vitner’s and putting them on the shelf, On The Border is the exact opposite. We make On The Border in multiple locations and use many co-manufacturers to minimize the cost of freight, then ship mostly direct all over the US.”
While a local distributor has also serviced Chicago-area supermarket chains with Utz branded products for several years, the company added several brands to the newly acquired Vitner’s local distribution network.
“As you infuse other products into the mix that are made elsewhere, that’s when it starts the ball rolling,” Mr. Greth said. “We’re getting pretty good at it. It just takes more collaboration to do it.”
Overall, Mr. Lawrence said, its brands are made in various facilities. Vitner’s chips are produced in western Pennsylvania, while Utz, On The Border and Zapp’s snacks are made in multiple plants to provide fresher products and leverage
For Utz Brands’ operations, driving continuous improvement while constantly expanding capacity to meet sales is fueling its can-do attitude.
“Our focus is to be the fastest-growing snack food company in the industry,” Mr. Greth explained. “That’s part of the excitement, even though sometimes the activity level can be really high. It’s exciting that we always have something new going on.”
Such growth has been the story for the company’s first 100 years, and it’s certainly the focus for the foreseeable future. Mr. Greth said that’s something that motivates the manufacturing team.
“To get up every morning and know that you have those opportunities in front of you, why wouldn’t you want to get out of bed to do that?” he asked. “It’s never going to be what it was like yesterday.”
That’s because at Utz Brands, history is in the making every day.
This article is an excerpt from the October 2021 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Utz Brands, click here.