Last month Utz Quality Foods, the Hanover, PA-based snack food company, acquired Conagra’s DSD snack business. For the CPG giant, the sale of brands such as Snyder of Berlin, Tim’s Cascade snacks and Hawaiian Brand snacks comprised less than one percent of its corporate portfolio.
For Utz, the purchase provided another key piece of the company’s growth initiative, a plan that includes acquiring regional brands but also expanding its route system, manufacturing facilities and reach. The deal also vaults Utz’s annual sales past the $1 billion mark.
According to CEO Dylan Lissette, who’s been with the family-owned firm for 25 years and became chief executive in 2013, Utz will continue to fill gaps in its primary marketing area and continue to acquire companies that will help the snack foods’ firm to expand its geographic base while adding new brands and manufacturing capabilities to its portfolio.
That strategy has been in place for the past eight years when Utz acquired Zappe Enterprises in Louisiana (Zapp’s and “Dirty” potato chips) which helped the firm further penetrate parts of the South and also gave it some national recognition. Later that year, Utz purchased Wachusett Potato Chips which strengthened its already growing share in New England as well as an additional manufacturing facility in Fitchburg, MA.
The aggressive acquisitions continued a year later when Utz bought Bachman’s brands and related assets and then followed in 2014 with its first venture in the “better for you” (BFY) snack category when it purchased Good Health, which was based in Greensboro, NC, and developed a line of specialty, gluten-free and Non- GMO snack items. In 2015, it further expanded its portfolio in the BFY space by acquiring another start-up, Snikiddy.
More moves ensued. In early 2015, Utz reached an agreement with Shearer’s, an Ohio-based snack food firm, to take over five distribution centers and 70 routes, which helped grow market share in the Buckeye State and in adjoining Indiana. Later that year, it reached an agreement to acquire the Condor Snack Company, which provided Utz with a manufacturing plant in Denver and the Keystone pretzel facility in nearby Lititz, PA.
Then in 2016, Utz acquired a company that had been on its radar for over a decade – Golden Enterprises – whose Golden Flake snack products had been a dominant brand in the Southeast since the 1920s. With more than 300 routes and a manufacturing facility in Birmingham, AL, it was a major win.
As some of the largest remaining snack food firms in the country, the two organizations knew each other well, often exchanging ideas about the snack food industry and its distinct challenges.
“It’s proven to be great fit on many levels,” Lissette affirmed. “Culturally they have very loyal and dedicated associates and operated in the same entrepreneurial space as we do. They have strong brand recognition and offered us some unique and fast selling items such as pork rinds that we have successfully added to our family of brands.”
However, unlike most of the previous deals that Utz consummated, the Golden Enterprises deal was expensive at $141 million. The company, which has been family-owned since 1921, chose to partner with the family office firm Metropoulos & Co., the New York investment firm which has successful backed such food-related firms as Hostess Brands, International Home Foods and Pinnacle Foods, invested nearly $150 million into Utz to gain a minority stake.
That investment play again helped Utz a year later when it acquired Inventure Foods, the Phoenix, AZ-based company which produced such proprietary and licensed brands as BFY brand Boulder Canyon and TGI Fridays. Equally as important were the two manufacturing plants Utz acquired in the deal – located in Arizona and Indiana, further expanding its capabilities in the West. When the $165 million purchase was announced Lissette stated: “We are extremely excited about the opportunity to acquire Inventure Foods. The company’s specialty snack food products and brands, as well as its geographic footprint, customer relationships and distribution strengths are highly complementary to our business.”
From the outset, the relationship with Metropoulos was a curious one. Industry observers speculated whether the family office’s interest in Utz was made to provide financial security in the midst of the acquisition, or if it was part of a longer-term plan to ultimately gain control of the snack food firm.
In an interview with Food Trade News in 2017, Lissette said that Utz viewed that Metropolous’ stake primarily served as a financing aid for the Golden Enterprises acquisition, although he conceded that the Manhattan investment firm would have had the opportunity to increase its minority stake in Utz in the future upon mutual acceptance.
That opportunity never occurred because 14 months later, exercising an option, Utz elected to buy out Metropoulos. That move forced Utz to refinance its in debt, which it did via traditional term loan vehicles, once again leading to speculation that the company might be forced to slow its growth plans, or go public.
Lissette admitted that the capital restructuring was eye-opening to many, but he emphasized that the company’s long-term financial outlook or its shorter-term growth initiatives would not be curtailed. Case in point is its consummation of the Conagra DSD purchase. In fact, according to Lissette, it has only gotten better with the culmination of the Conagra deal, as well as more than three years of strategic execution of various synergy initiatives at all of the companies involved.
“Yes, we have new financial obligations that we’ve got to deal with,” the 47-year old George Washington University graduate acknowledged, “but strategically and operationally we haven’t slowed down a bit. Our core Utz business continues to grow year after year and we’re reinforcing our organic business growth we have in our core markets with these acquisitions which add more routes, add new brands and manufacturing facilities. When I was named CEO in 2013, I thought we could be a $1 billion company by 2021, our 100th anniversary. We’ll reach that mark a year early and there are still opportunities to expand through acquisition and organic strategy. We’ve got great associates and remain hungry to succeed.”