A taste for the finer side of gift giving has positioned this diversified food company at the top of its industry. Wisconsin Food Gift Company, LLC (WFG) operates as both a retailer and a retailer supplier. Founded as a small mail-order gift company in 1946, the company expanded in the 1960s and ’70s by adding marketing and production platforms.
WFG serves end consumers through its catalogue business, The Wisconsin Cheeseman, and its Mille Lacs business unit supplies wholesalers and companies in the gift giving business with components that go into personal and corporate gifts. Last but not least, WFG operates in the school fundraising arena as Scott’s Fundraising Resource.
“When you think about the kids and all the cutbacks in school funding these days, it’s more important than ever that the fundraising industry is there to help bridge the gap with things like candies, cheeses, and other articles that groups, clubs, and teams sell through the schools,” said Mike Repp, senior vice president of operations.
As a vertically integrated business, WFG has an advantage over its competitors, which are typically marketers that outsource the manufacturing and development side of the business.
By making many of the products it sells, including specialty chocolates and cheeses under its own and private label brands, the company controls quality and shortens the time it takes to get products to market.
By diversifying its customer base across end users and wholesalers, as well as the fundraising and industrial markets, the company has gained a broader view of market trends. “We can identify and leverage opportunities in the marketplace faster than our competitors,” said Repp.
In its supply chain, WFG works to create strategic partnerships with key vendors. One example is G&R Foods, a local importer and exporter of commodities and ingredients and a primary cheese supplier. G&R understands the scope of WFG’s manufacturing capabilities and works with the company to identify new customer and product opportunities.
“If we were strictly one channel focused, it would be more difficult to find opportunities,” Repp said. “We have great relationships with raw material suppliers and other vendors bringing opportunities to us in all of our segments because we do have manufacturing capabilities.”
Over the past several years, WFG has evolved into a market-driven organization, a strategy that has led to new products and new customers. Quality and food safety remain top priorities and create opportunities to build strong relationships.
The company views its suppliers, for example, as more than just a means to an end. “Those companies present us with opportunities to capitalize on new markets with their materials, giving us an idea of how to approach different markets with products we already use,” said Repp. “We view them as strategic partners.”
One corporate strategy centers on the philosophy of quality at the source, which bodes well for the end user consuming the goods. “We installed the necessary processes to make sure we qualify our vendors, ensuring our materials and supplies are of the best quality when they come to our door,” he said. “It helps us stay consistently reliable while managing our costs.”
WFG works with local producers whenever possible, gradually expanding its search to the county, state, and national levels. Repp said the company uses this approach as a marketing tool. Focusing on customer needs and treating suppliers as strategic partners has helped WFG deal with its greatest challenge of late: softening markets.
The recession forced consumers and corporate customers to cut back on gift giving and drove a number of distributors out of the school fundraising industry. Maintaining the company’s volumes in those two areas has become a challenge.
Rather than throwing in the towel, the company studied its customers and worked with suppliers to identify new opportunities in the dairy and cheese categories. One result was manufacturing and distributing higher quality specialty cheeses and pairings that include dried fruit and nuts. Another was actively marketing the company’s flexible manufacturing capabilities to grow in the specialty contract-processing arena.
“We are looking at additional cheese products for potential items to anufacture…products you would find in a retail store in your dairy case,” said Repp. “This allows us to expand our customer base into a broader range.”
Behind the scenes, WFG remains hard at work. A sense of ownership has been instilled into its culture and is a key tenet of the company’s success. “Whatever your position within the company, you own it,” said Repp. “Ownership allows our employees to be creative.”
The company flattened its organizational structure and created a 16-member strategic management team, SMarT, that steers the business day to day. “The team is empowered to run the organization, make the right choices, and do the right things,” said Repp. “Those choices are then overseen by an executive team.”
WFG also has a unique talent model, going outside the company for new skills and experience while staffing key positions inhouse, repositioning people who have been with the company for many years. Repp said the combination of the new and the old has created a dynamic team, led to new ways of looking at things, and built a solid platform for growth.
On the manufacturing side, the company adopted the philosophies of lean manufacturing and is practicing VMI (vendor-managed inventory) with its suppliers. “We start with our priorities and work down to our smaller guys,” said Repp. “VMI has helped us be just-in-time by combining systems to make us much more effective in the warehouse and reducing staffing by making better use of our employees’ time.”
WFG also developed a new market-driven product development process. Led by a vice president of product development, the process includes team discussions about market trends, customer needs, and fit with core competencies. This ensures all products adhere to three important tenets: they are products customers want, they are profitable for the organization, and they have long-term potential.
“New products are not just items we’re going to try to sell for the next month,” said Repp. “We take a long-term view of our products, as well as our processes and our people. This is all part of our overall strategic plan.”