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Iowa ice cream-maker wants bigger scoop of sales

Published: Monday, Oct. 8, 2012 12:34 p.m. CST • Updated: Monday, Oct. 8, 2012 1:52 p.m. CST

LE MARS (AP) — The family that owns Wells Enterprises wants to grow the Iowa company into the nation’s largest ice cream-maker by 2020 and scoop out a bigger share of the $10 billion market.

CEO Mike Wells has already seen company sales improve 24 percent to $1.175 billion during his first five years leading the Le Mars company.

But the company faces tough competition from two of the world’s largest food companies. Wells is currently the nation’s third largest ice cream-maker behind Switzerland-based Nestle and London-based Unilever.

Wells told The Des Moines Register that the company is seeking outside investment to increase advertising and boost sales of its Blue Bunny ice cream.

Blue Bunny ice cream is already available nationwide, but it’s not as well-known as the Dreyers, Edy’s and Breyer’s brands that Nestle and Unilever sell.

“We’re a well-kept secret,” Wells said. “We’re this billion-dollar company, employing 3,000 people, sitting in northwest Iowa that nobody knows about.”

The company produces more than 120 million gallons of ice cream a year at its facilities in Le Mars and St. George, Utah.

Analysts who follow the industry say Wells has good manufacturing and a knack for developing unusual flavors, like Bunny Tracks and Red Carpet Red Velvet Cake. But the company’s advertising trails far behind Nestle and Unilever.

“They’ve been gaining market share the past five or six years — there’s no question about that,” Eric Scher, a food industry analyst at Sanford Bernstein, said of Wells. “But it is a market where you are going head to head with the big boys in terms of Nestle and Unilever, and those guys have big wallets. Nestle gets a quarter of its $90 billion in annual sales in the U.S. alone.”

Analyst Harry Balzer, with the NPD Group food research firm, said it might be a long shot for Wells to become the No. 1 ice cream-maker, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth striving for.

“For Wells to embark on something like this is just good, aggressive business,” Balzer said. “For them to successfully take on Nestle and Unilever, they have to have something new, (and) in the long run they have to show consumers that it’s quality.”

Mike Wells said this ambitious goal should help the company continuing growing, which is important to him because the nearly one out of every four people in Le Mars works for the ice cream-maker.

“These are my next-door neighbors, the people I go to church with, the people I serve on boards with,” Wells said. “They’re all either indirectly impacted or directly employed at Wells, and I take that very seriously.”

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