Purchase ensures legacy of Wells family will continue
LE MARS — Wednesday’s announcement of the purchase of Wells Enterprises, Inc., by The Ferrero Group (Ferrero) of Italy brings together two family-owned companies with a commitment to their heritage.
After meeting with employees Wednesday morning, Mike Wells, chief executive officer and chief engagement officer, spent time at the Wells Ice Cream Parlor talking with media about the change and how it came about.
He stated this has been a number of years in the making.
“The last couple of years I have realized that as the only active family member in the business, I had an obligation to find a path forward that didn’t include our family in order to sustain our 109 years of history and look to the next 100 years of growth,” Wells said.
“I was introduced to the Ferrero group some three years ago back in 2019 while on an unrelated business trip to Europe. We started to build a relationship around a vision of how we might use their confectionary brands in our ice cream,” he said. “It led to further conversations around their interest in the ice cream category.”
What he found was a perfect solution in another private family business with the same values and culture.
“Giovanni Ferrero, their executive, was here in June right ahead of Ice Cream Days, experienced what our community does and who we are and saw our facilities and said would you have an interest. I said let’s talk, and we ended up doing this transaction in a way that honors our community, ensures employment for all our wonderful employees across the United States and sets the company up for growth that quite honestly, our family couldn’t support anymore,” Wells said.
In initial conversations specifically with Giovanni, their chief executive chairman, and Wells, two family leaders and family owners, Wells stressed how important Wells was to this community of Le Mars.
“And I can tell you as I hauled Giovanni around when he was here in June, we went by the football stadium, and we went by the trail system and all the wonderful things that Wells over the years has had an opportunity to make an investment in,” said Wells. “And he got the punchline quickly, that our commitment to this community is what makes this community what it is, and that they would have an ongoing obligation to that.”
That continuing commitment to the community extends to the Wells Ice Cream Parlor and Visitor Center, to what tourism means to the community as far as its operation, and just the public presence of Wells.
“I let my deal team get into all the behind-the-scenes numbers, revenues and expenses and all that stuff, but the cultural aspects were things that I had an opportunity to speak directly into,” Wells explained. “The truth is, they do the same thing in every city they do business in and where they operate, so it’s not counter-culture to them, it’s just a natural extension of what they are doing as a company.”
He continued that Wells Enterprises, Inc., will have 100 percent autonomy in running the business.
The Ferrero group operates stand alone businesses and have several businesses in North America.
“One of the things Giovanni shared with the group today is they have 8,000 employees in North America. They have made acquisitions as far back as 1969. They still operate as stand alone businesses, independently, they come under the Ferrero group, which I think is good,” Wells said.
He admits that if he himself was a younger man with more time and more money, he would have looked to a similar strategy of building a holding company that had a variety of different companies to create the diversity and a little bit of risk management across it, versus single family ownership in one business in one category.
“It’s a great business model that they do run those independently,” Wells pointed out.
“The Wells name will stay on the outside of the building. The management team will stay in place, they need all of our employees,” he said. “And that was a central part of what I call it the trifecta — how to protect the employees, how to commit to the community and how to honor my family and its 109 years of ownership.”
Wells also pointed out Ferrero buys successful companies and everything will stay under the Wells company brand.
“One of the things I shared with our employees today is that many families find themselves in a transaction because the business hasn’t done well. We’ll have one of our best years yet this year. And they buy successful companies in order to continue their success, they do not buy companies in distress that need to be fixed up. So they are proud of the Wells name and so is my family,” Wells said as he sat in the Ice Cream Parlor. “This is the heritage of our family and, quite honestly, pays homage to our community.”
Wells Enterprises has a total of 4,100 employees, with about 2,700 working in Le Mars.
“We are the largest employer in Le Mars, and by the numbers, I understand, the second largest in the Siouxland area. We’ve always taken that as a huge responsibility and opportunity,” Wells said.
With the sale of the company to Ferrero, Wells said it opens up doors that he and the company couldn’t have done on their own, such as access to global confectionary brands.
“The vision that Giovanni gives me credit for having brought to the table, will allow a deeper penetration in the ice cream category, to be able to compete with the multi-nationals with global brands,” Wells said. “And quite honestly, Ferrero has a vision of taking our company and our brands, on top of the use of their brands, and being a global leader in the ice cream category. Something for which we could have worked years and not been able to accomplish but a single transaction has just made a reality here.”
In the meeting with employees, Wells said he felt they got the bigger picture about the sale and the care that’s gone into finding the right partner in a transaction that looks to grow.
There were the natural questions, such as “Will I keep my job,” and “Is my pay going to change.”
“We know there have been other transactions done in the Sioux City area where the new owners have made changes. They have no intention of that,” Wells said.
He told employees the 2023 budget is in place and has aspirations of another growth year.
“A few people called out the fact that the Wells family could have done anything and they chose to do the right thing and I was very honored by those comments,” Wells said.
He continued that he and his wife Cheryl will continue to call Le Mars home.
“As I told the group, Cheryl and I aren’t going anywhere. We’ve recently purchased some downtown buildings. We continue to invest in the community. We love what we’ve been able to do such as Christmas in Hometown Le Mars and bring in tourism to our community and we intend to continue to play a bigger role as we move forward as I think about my life after Wells.”
Wells also announced his change in status with the company, moving away from CEO.
“Liam Killeen for the last year plus has served as president. I actually restructured a year ago and empowered Liam to run the business and moved all my direct reports to him. He will assume the CEO position,” Wells said. “I will step out of the business at closing in January and serve as an advisor to both Ferrero and to the Wells management. I joked on stage today that I imagine even 20 years from now somebody is going to call, ‘what did we do when,’ or ‘where do we keep this.’
“Our ongoing commitment to living and investing in this community means I will be accessible forever. Somebody asked how long will you advise and I said, the good news it’s not a contract it’s a commitment, and I will always be available,” he said.
The biggest transition is the company will have a different ownership group.
“Liam will have one gentleman that he reports directly to and they will check in monthly. But they won’t put feet on the ground and they won’t come here to sit in offices and oversee it. They will expect for this management team to represent for them and to deliver the results in growth,” Wells said.
Wells reflected on what it means to have the Wells family heritage carried on in this manner.
“I can’t imagine a single transaction that could have honored the family more, honored the community that has helped us get here and empower the employees for a long-term future,” Wells said. “I was super-excited when Giovanni said to me, ‘We will honor your family’s legacy and your name will continue to be on the outside of the buildings and your brands will be brands that we will continue to support.’ What an honor to generations, I’m third generation of ownership, 109 years of heritage and how much (that means) to the community of Le Mars.”