Behind the Brand of Gilster-Mary Lee
From the ghostwriter who never takes credit for his words to the hidden stagehands who bring theater productions to life, success often starts behind the scenes. Case-in-point: Gilster-Mary Lee.
A leading food company, headquartered in the small southern Illinois town of Chester, it produces more than 8,000 food items for more than 500 private-label brands. With products ranging from baking mixes to popcorn and pasta, Gilster-Mary Lee staples sit in cupboards and pantries around the world.
“We’re kind of a quiet business with deep ties to Illinois,” says Vice President Tom Welge, descendant of the German immigrants who founded the company. “Gilster-Mary Lee has been around in one form or another for more than 120 years.”
The Gilster brothers and sisters started the Gilster Milling Company in 1895. The soft wheat “family flour” they marketed became a bakers’ choice, selling to the tune of $1 million by 1900.
“But in the 1950s, we saw the market for flour changing as consumers moved toward pre-baked bread and baking mixes,” Welge says.
The company did not have the capital to compete in those markets. But it found a niche that served it well.
A Taste for Private Labeling
“Early on, we hitched our wagon to private labeling,” Welge says. “Typically, a national-brand label will launch a product, and then the retailer or wholesaler will want to make a store-brand version they can sell at a cheaper price.”
That’s where Gilster-Mary Lee comes in.
“We develop a product exactly like the brand standard leader,” Welge says. “Our private-label products offer better value to the retailer, and the consumer saves as well.”
This strategic focus helped the organization survive and thrive through a number of mergers and acquisitions. Today, Gilster-Mary Lee employs 4,000 people at 14 facilities in Illinois, Arkansas, Colorado and Missouri.
Its products – which include macaroni and cheese, marshmallows, pie crust and chocolate syrup – make their way to more than 30 countries around the globe, not to mention every major grocery chain and wholesaler in the U.S.
Thanks to companies like Gilster-Mary Lee, the Land of Lincoln ranks fourth in the nation for food companies.
While the company focuses on customer brands, Gilster-Mary Lee also produces its own Hospitality brand for food service at facilities, such as nursing homes and schools.
Along with geographic growth, the company grew vertically over the years. Today, Gilster-Mary Lee produces its own shipping cases and owns trucking fleets, a truck garage, and warehouse space doubling as trailer lots.
“Our truck divisions give us flexibility in delivering product to the customer,” Welge says. “They also give us complete control over food security.”
As regulations ramped up around food safety in recent years, Gilster-Mary Lee pursued an independent, internationally recognized certification through the Safe Quality Food (SQF) Institute.
“The SQF certification is a very extensive, voluntary process that promotes food safety and quality,” Welge says. “We had strong programs before, but SQF stepped it up in terms of traceability and security.”
Beyond food safety, food manufacturers must navigate an ever-changing landscape of challenges, from trends in consumer tastes to federal and state regulations.
“Our customer base has changed dramatically, and we face challenges from a regulatory standpoint. But there are still good opportunities for food production,” says Welge, noting Illinois’ advantages in terms of cropland, geographic position and infrastructure. “Keeping the industry healthy makes it possible for us to continue to supply food domestically.”
Illinois Farm Bureau’s Illinois Agribusiness Roundtable helps do just that.
“Agriculture is critically important downstate where there are not a lot of other industries. It’s great that we have strong partnerships in Illinois among farmers, food producers and retailers – the entire food chain,” Welge says. “The Farm Bureau does a good job of getting us together to work on issues important to us.”
Taking the Long View
Along with those industry partnerships, Welge values company relationships that withstand the test of time.
“We have long relationships with our customers and suppliers – we have several generations of employees with us as well,” Welge says. “We’ve had factories in small towns for many years, and we are committed to those communities.”
He believes family-owned businesses enjoy a certain freedom.
“We have to be competitive, but as a private company we have the luxury of operating with a long-term focus rather than focusing on pleasing the analysts quarter to quarter.”
Looking to the future, Gilster-Mary Lee will continue efforts to “clean up” products in terms of removing artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. Welge also expects the company to explore premium store brands in an effort to meet the tastes of millennials.
But primary focus will remain on what they do best: shelf-stable, grain-based products, such as baking mixes from pancake to cornbread and boxed dinners from pasta to potatoes.
“There is a big segment of the population that must make every dollar go as far as it can. And processed, shelf-stable food is still the best deal,” Welge says. “Providing food to people who have to make every food dollar stretch gives me a sense of pride.”
The founders of Gilster-Mary Lee could not have imagined where time would take their family flour mill, but the important things remain unchanged.
“I think of values as things you shouldn’t have to think about – they’re just in your DNA. We are committed to employee safety, food safety and ethical business conduct,” Welge says. “From the customer’s perspective, we try to provide the best combination of quality, value and service.”
What better recipe for success?
Roadmap For the Future
- Improving health
- Contributing to the economy
- Creating jobs
- Employing new technologies
- Preserving the environment
- Adapting to a changing climate
- Helping underserved communities
Led by Robert Easter, Ph. D., president emeritus of the University of Illinois, today FARM Illinois coordinates efforts to implement the recommendations in its strategic roadmap. Members of the FARM Illinois Council include distinguished leaders with renowned experience in agriculture, international markets, global food security, sustainability, community development and related issues.
Learn more at farmillinois.org.