Bob Simpson ensures Jelly Belly always does right by its product line

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The Jelly Belly Candy Co.’s roots go back to Gustav Goelitz opening a candy business in 1869 in Belleville, Illinois — but the introduction of the company’s namesake candy in 1976 was what really put the business on the map.

The former Herman Goelitz Candy Company was renamed in 2001, reflecting the importance of Jelly Belly beans to the business.

Jelly Belly jelly beans were a favorite of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, and proudly sit in a jar on his White House desk in a famed photo. Reagan also made them the first jelly beans in outer space, when in 1983 he sent them on the Shuttle Orbiter Challenger as a surprise for the astronauts.

Today the beans represent 85 percent of sales, according to President and COO Bob Simpson.

“We consider ourselves a full-line candy manufacturer. It helps when a customer wants a full range of candy and would like to deal with just one manufacturer,” says Simpson, who came to Jelly Belly about 15 years ago following a 30-year career with the Raley’s supermarket chain.

Although it’s a global operation, Jelly Belly remains a private, family-owned company. It’s Simpson’s job to grow the business while continuing to reflect the values handed down through the generations.

 

Doing what’s right for the bean

Companies nowadays all talk about the importance of culture. For Jelly Belly, the company culture is intertwined with the values of the Goelitz family.

Herman Goelitz Rowland Sr., chairman of the board, is part of the fourth generation involved in the business. This summer, his great-grandchildren will join Jelly Belly, marking a seventh generation of candy makers.

Simpson says being a family business has a significant impact on how Jelly Belly is operated.

“Working for a family-owned-and-operated business is different, and we actually use it to enhance our business model,” Simpson says, “because Herm has never been about instant results. It’s always been about achieving long-term goals and healthy growth.”

It’s important that any growth be sustainable rather than the result of trying to make some immediate impact, Simpson says. In that regard, he says Jelly Belly executives are fortunate that they don’t have to be concerned with fast growth that can be reported to shareholders. The company has only five shareholders — Rowland and his four children.

“It’s very easy to operate in those conditions,” Simpson says. “To have success over these many generations, this has been sustainable. Because we’re all about the bean, we’re all about quality. ‘Do what’s right for the bean.’ That’s a saying here that we are all guided by. It’s a guiding business principle for us.”

Patient, sustainable growth also allows Jelly Belly freedom to never compromise on quality.

“If we compromise, we’re just like everybody else,” Simpson says. “It’s always the finest ingredients. If something isn’t right, we won’t ship it. Every Jelly Belly bean has to be perfect. We screen them for size, shape and color.”

Simpson says he sees some of the same attributes at Jelly Belly that he saw with Raley’s, another family-owned enterprise.

“Quality operations, with people who are passionate about their brand and display great ethics,” he says. “At Raley’s if you were willing to work hard, and be promoted from within, you were going to have plenty of opportunities to grow with the company. It’s a similar situation here.”

 

Extending the brand

All businesses, including privately owned ones, are under constant pressure to grow. Simpson says the biggest challenge he’s faced at Jelly Belly was progressing from a domestic company to a global brand.

“We’re now selling in 80 countries, but it was very challenging to gear up the company for the ability to deal with the different regulations and cultures,” he says.

The company has been selling candy in England and Germany since the 1980s. But costs of producing the product here and then shipping overseas grew prohibitive, especially when factoring in the duties, tariffs and taxes.

About eight years ago, Jelly Belly built a production facility in Thailand to serve its international markets.

“That’s how we could get competitive and be able to grow our business in some of those markets,” Simpson says.

Growth has also been generated through licensed co-branding of products.

“We work every closely with Disney, and we’re licensed for some of their characters. We have a licensing agreement with Sanrio for Hello Kitty, Sunkist and a few others. The strength of two brands working together differentiates us from competition and makes us unique,” Simpson says.

In considering licensing opportunities, he looks for companies that add value to the equity Jelly Belly has in its brand. The resulting product also has to meet Jelly Belly’s standards.

As part of a recent deal with Unilever for the Popsicle line, Jelly Belly insisted that the flavor ingredients and suppliers be the same used for the beans.

“When you buy a Jelly Belly-branded Popsicle, it delivers that same Very Cherry flavor profile,” Simpson says.

There also are Popsicles with chewy centers based on Blueberry and Tutti-Frutti flavors.

“We when enter into a licensing agreement, it always has to have a high-quality brand image that, when you marry it to our brand, creates an even stronger brand,” Simpson says. “We co-brand with one of the world’s largest retailers, Costco. We have a Kirkland Signature Jelly Belly jelly bean. Very few items in that store are co-branded.”

 

Delivering that ‘wow’ factor

A consistent brand message is critical for any company. For Jelly Belly, that means ensuring that every new flavor of bean created is so authentic and specific that consumers have no doubt about what they’re tasting.

“Our process is usually to identify the key flavor ingredients, the unique profile that makes up the flavor,” Simpson says. “An example would be spaghetti. Everyone has a different taste when it comes to spaghetti. But if you say Franco-American SpaghettiOs, we can knock off that flavor dead-on. If you’re talking about a mango, is it a ripe South American or a Philippine variety? The more specific you can get, the better we can be.”

The research and develop process starts with taking suggestions from consumers and other sources, and identifying which might be workable. One of the most frequent requests was for a draft beer bean. Earlier this year, Jelly Belly released Draft Beer Jelly Belly beans, the product of three years of research.

“We found out that the flavor notes we came up with were more consistent with a hefeweizen, a German wheat beer. That’s why research and development is so critical. It’s hard to have a savory flavor like beer carried off in a sweet environment. It took a while to get that right,” he says.

“There has to be a ‘wow’ with it. It has to be, ‘Wow, that really smells and tastes like a German wheat beer.’ We were able to do that.”

That hasn’t always been the case. Wine, like beer, has been the subject of frequent requests. But while cocktails like Strawberry Daiquiri and Piña Colada have been developed, wine has proved an elusive flavor.

“Those cocktails were easy because they have a distinct profile and a distinct ingredient makeup in your head that we can hit,” Simpson says.

Jelly Belly experimented with a pinot and a cabernet, but neither flavor worked as a jelly bean.

“It’s difficult to carry those flavors off. Beer can have a honey or sweetness profile to it, making it easier to do than wine. We’ve tried and tried, but just like with spaghetti, there are some many different varieties of wine that it’s hard to say, ‘Wow, that’s a Charles Krug chardonnay,’” Simpson says.

Simpson says the company doesn’t miss on flavors too often, and has succeeded in creating wacky flavors such as Earwax and Vomit for the Harry Potter Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans collection.

“Our focus is on being true to life and using as many natural ingredients as we can. Whenever we can find a color that acts as a natural coloring agent, that’s where we focus our research and development,” he says.

One recent example involved working with a flavor company to develop a spirulina green.

“That is a natural coloring, and it really works well,” Simpson says.

Jelly Belly has produced more than 150 different flavors of beans. The most popular varieties are sold in an assortment containing what are referred to as the 50 official flavors.

“Every now and then some, like Jalapeño, go out of the assortment and new ones move in,” Simpson says. “In the case of Jalapeño, the flavor migrated and other flavors started tasting like Jalapeño. So that was more of a quality control issue than anything else. People loved it. That just shows how true to life the flavors are.”

 

Takeways

  • Steady, sustainable growth is preferable to instant results.
  • Never compromise on quality.
  • Ensure partnerships add value to brand equity.

The Simpson File

Name: Bob Simpson
Title: President and COO
Company: Jelly Belly

Born: Sacramento, California

Education: Studied education at Sacramento State University

What was your first job and what lesson did you learn from it? It was a summer job I had when I was 15. I worked for $1 an hour at the Sacramento Pet Cemetery. Among other things, I dug graves for pets. I was determined to save money to buy a car for my senior year in high school. I had to give up a lot to do that, but I learned the value of a dollar and what it took to earn a dollar.

Who has been the biggest influence in your life? My parents, primarily my mother. She the reason for the values I have, the emphasis she placed on family. So she serves as a constant reminder of what family means and what’s important in this life.

What’s the best business advice you’ve received? Trust your own instincts and intuition is the best advice I can give anyone. At Raley’s supermarket, my mentor was Frank McMinn, who was in charge of marketing, advertising and brand development. He taught me the value of being a good listener, and setting a good example.

 What are your favorite and least favorite Jelly Belly flavors? For my favorite, I go back and forth between Pink Grapefruit and Toasted Marshmallow. A true-to-life flavor I’ve always loved is Coconut, because it’s made with real coconut. I hate to admit it, but I’m not a big fan of Buttered Popcorn. You either love it or don’t love it. The people who are passionate about Buttered Popcorn can’t get enough of it.