Dave Sather’s Money Matters

April 11, 2012 

Sweet Success: Blue Bell Creameries

It’s a kid’s dream come true—having Blue Bell ice cream for breakfast every day. And that’s just what Bill Rankin does. However, for Rankin it is much more than a childhood treat and he’s no kid. Bill is a former Air Force pilot as well as a CPA and the Chief Financial Officer for the iconic Texas company--and he literally “eats the companies cooking.”
Bill was kind enough to make the journey from Brenham to Seguin to meet with the students of Bulldog Investment Company at Texas Lutheran University. For three hours he gave a command performance my students won’t forget.
In his capacity, Rankin has called Blue Bell home for more than thirty years. As such, he can quote any ratio, percentage or other metric associated with Blue Bell--or the ice cream industry for that matter.
During Bill’s tenure, the company has transformed from a quaint little operation selling frozen treats only in Texas to one that now sells in twenty one states. And although Blue Bell sells in less than half the country, it commands the third best market share in the nation. It simply dominates the markets they are in. They’ve done so knowing that if they treat their customers well, word of mouth spreads which delivers even more customers. Furthermore, they recognize it is far easier to take good care of your existing customers than it is to market for new ones.
For all their success though, some of the most valuable advice Rankin shared had little to do with numbers. Instead, it dealt more with issues of fairness, integrity and passion when dealing with employees, customers and business partners.
When asked why Blue Bell is so successful Rankin immediately answered, “because of our people.” He explained that you must have the right people and they must have passion for the job. And, of course, the company must treat its people well too.
Obviously, Blue Bell has succeeded in this category. It is one of very few companies that offer not only a 401(k) retirement plan, but also a defined benefit pension and an employee stock ownership plan. That type of loyalty has average employee tenure at more than thirty years.
Despite the cyclical nature of the food business, Blue Bell has never laid off one employee. Furthermore, they’ve not forgotten their humble roots as they often operate like the little creamery that began operations in 1907. To this day, their expansion is slow and methodical; accomplished without the use of complicated budgets or debt financing.
When quizzed about the most difficult aspect of his job, Rankin again referenced the company’s people. He said they agonize over the best way to be fair to their employees making sure that everyone is given the opportunity to succeed.
For all of their success though, Blue Bell does not worry about making money. Instead, they love the job and the money is just a byproduct. On a daily basis they focus on “doing common things uncommonly well” and believe that “success is when preparation meets opportunity.” Additionally, Rankin believes that it is hard work that allows someone to succeed and rarely do you see people fail who are willing to work hard. Doing so with integrity and high ethical standards seems to supercharge their success that much more.
It is reassuring to see that Blue Bell knows that capitalism, hard work and ethical behavior are not mutually exclusive ideas. In fact, Blue Bell has a firm understanding that those are the key ingredients to truly long term success.

Dave Sather is a Victoria CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER and owner of Sather Financial Group. His column, Money Matters, publishes every other week.