It all started while we were enjoying a meal at a Greek restaurant close to our offices in Deerfield, Ill. – a habit that in the past has generated many a good idea. Breaking bread can often slice through barriers to creative collaboration. I had invited Patrick Murnane, executive v.p. of the Murnane Cos., Inc., for lunch to welcome him as a new member of Candy Industry’s Kettle Committee. Given that he was a local – although Northlake, Ill., which is Murnane Cos. headquarters, isn’t quite Northbrook, Ill., Deerfield’s adjoining suburb, it’s not Nebraska — I felt it was a great opportunity to get to know Murnane better and prep him on some of the committee’s protocols.

Although I had met the Candy Hall of Famer several times in the past, I never had the opportunity to chat with him one-on-one. The gregarious Chicagoland native didn’t disappoint. There was plenty of common ground, from being graduates of Catholic all boys high schools — Murnane from Marmion Military Academy (now Marmion Academy) and I from Gordon Technical High School (now DePaul Preparatory High School) — to bakery and confectionery industry experiences.

“A man becomes what he does.”

William Least Heat-Moon, author of Blue Highways

During our discussion, Murnane revealed that he was involved with a project called Hope Ranch International based in Luther, Mont. Originally founded as a Christian organization to help at-risk children in Billings, Mont., by offering trail rides and exposure to the Great Outdoors, it has evolved to helping children in as faraway places as Ethiopia and Colombia.

Fascinated by this revelation, I proposed to Murnane that I’d like to pursue this further. Too often the media fails to focus on the “good works” that entrepreneurs and even large corporations do. Here was a good opportunity to rectify that.

Murnane agreed to the interview, but with one caveat: “You have to come and see Hope Ranch in person.” So I agreed.

Getting to Luther takes a little doing, however. There is no direct flight to Billings from Chicago. We flew to Denver first, a relatively short layover and then to Billings. Upon landing in Billings on Saturday evening in early June, Murnane went to pick up a rental car while I waited with our luggage.

I could tell I was in Big Sky country when half of the vehicles coming to the airport were pickup trucks, each one seemingly larger than the other as they drove by. Even Murnane’s rental turned out to be a pickup truck, albeit a modest-sized version. From the airport to Murnane’s home in Roscoe (the next town over from Luther) was roughly a 90-minute drive, darkness prompting a bit more caution on the country byways.

We arrived after midnight with darkness — and I mean a pitch black that isn’t often seen by city residents — enveloping the surroundings.

Upon entering Murnane’s “log cabin” home, I was overwhelmed by the beautifully designed great room, a hybrid post-and-beam exposed pine wood celebration of all things Western. As we headed off to bed, Murnane told me he had a surprise for me in the morning.

“Great,” I replied, curious but too sleepy to quiz him further.

Morning confirmed Murnane’s promise. An expansive series of windows in the great room revealed a landscape I immediately dubbed “little Switzerland.” The verdant, hilly background, separated by East Rosebud Creek diligently making its way to the Yellowstone River, made one pause and reflect on nature’s handiwork.

It didn’t take long before Murnane told me about his initiation rite for guests: you had to have a cappuccino with him. The self-dubbed “Señor Cappuccino” got his half and half frother going and shortly thereafter we were sipping and savoring the moment on the deck, taking in the beauty and the bounty.

After a light breakfast — Murnane promised me a “real breakfast” in Red Lodge, Mont., — we jumped into the pickup truck and headed toward Luther Community Church for services. As a member of that church, Murnane has been instrumental in sharing his business acumen in helping the church grow.

A newly built church and community center, which was self-funded and constructed with the help of community members, attests to what faith, perseverance and sweat equity can accomplish. As Murnane remarked, “This is a true example of the American way; the land and building were totally self-financed; there is no debt.”

Following a lovely service and a coincidental history homily on how the church was built, we headed toward Red Lodge and that promised “real” breakfast. Just a short footnote here; it’s important to remember that distance isn’t relative in Montana; it’s real.

As Murnane pointed out, it’s 16 miles to the nearest gas station from his home, 27 miles to the nearest supermarket. And it was 16 miles from Luther to Red Lodge, about a 22-minute drive during the daytime.

The Café Regis and its “Heaping Bowl” breakfast offering didn’t disappoint. Señor Cappuccino, nonetheless, needed his fix and we dropped by Babcock & Miles for some conversation and caffeine. Naturally, Murnane knew the owners of the wine, cheese, deli and sweets shop. Although he keeps a strict regimen involving exercise and diet, he doesn’t shy away from good food.

From there, it was time to do some sightseeing, specifically a drive on Beartooth Highway, which leads to Yellowstone Park. There wasn’t enough time to drive to Yellowstone, but the switchbacks on the Beartooth proved breathtaking as we climbed to almost 11,000 ft.

And yes, there was still snow at the summit, 25-ft. tall white walls providing icy barriers alongside the highway. Upon our return, we stopped by the Grizzly Bar & Grill restaurant for a steak, not bear dinner. The weekend ended with a spectacular sunset. The day’s activities had worn me out, so I bid Murnane good night. Besides, tomorrow was a work day.

Where there’s hope, there are horses

Matt DeSarro grew up with a love for fishing, hunting, backpacking and trail riding. After all, as the son of a father who ran a successful outfitting business in Wyoming, those kinds of activities come with the territory.

The Black Hills University graduate who majored in outdoor education with the dream of someday using it to serve youth didn’t foresee that he would use those skills to run a non-profit organization dedicated to helping at-risk children.

DeSarro probably didn’t see himself traveling to Nepal, either. But after marrying his college sweetheart, Amanda, the two decided to enroll in a Discipleship Training School program, part of the Youth With A Mission organization that took them to China, Nepal and Tibet.

It was after visiting Hope Orphanage in Nepal, which housed 160 children, that both found their life calling.

“We met Mr. Lee, who runs the orphanage and knows all the children by name,” Amanda says. “It’s a life marked by prayer, one whereby you surrender all your resources to give back to the children, particularly those who lack hope.”

So that’s where the idea of Hope Ranch International sprouted from. The idea to minister to at-risk children by exposing them to the Great Outdoors through trail rides seemed perfect. Easier said than done, however, since the DeSarros had neither a ranch nor horses.

Undeterred, the DeSarros reached out to youth mentoring organizations in Billings, Red Lodge and Bozeman, Mont., as well as in Wyoming, Minnesota and across the United States with the goal of providing a safe environment for a child to be a child while focusing on outdoor skills and building confidence through horse therapy and adventure. Many of the children they might encounter would have one or both parents serving time in prison.

During this time, Matt’s father, Joe, had hoped he would take over the family outfitting business. Explaining to his father that he and Amanda had found their life’s work — Matt managed a nearby ranch to provide financial support in the interim — proved to be a difficult decision for Joe to embrace.

Seeing that Matt and Amanda were committed to their mission, Joseph decided to bequeath them a tract of land outside of Luther (8 acres) and 30 horses. God can work in wondrous ways, it seems. That gift took on even greater significance when a nearby landowner decided that Matt and Amanda’s new status as landowners obstructed his view.

Promising them a swap, the landowner — after several months — acquiesced to an exchange that involved purchasing another home for Matt and Amanda with enough land to continue Hope Ranch, in return for their 8-acre parcel, a deal that proved advantageous for the DeSarros’ dream.

In the following six years, the DeSarros had two of their own children and adopted four, one from Colombia and three from Ethiopia. Those adoptions led to Hope Ranch’s involvement in supporting more than 600 children in Ethiopia through sponsorships. Oh yes, the couple adopted one more child into their brood last year, this one from Montana.

It’s clear that the DeSarros walk as well as ride the talk. This summer Hope Ranch will provide 400 at-risk kids with trail rides, free of charge for the children.

As Amanda points out, “A horse is your best friend; he or she will keep all your secrets.”

After consuming our ritualistic cappuccino Monday morning, I sat Murnane down to get his story. And a fascinating one it is.

So let’s start from the beginning. It was Joseph Murnane, together with his partner Brent, who founded the Murnane-Brent Paper Co. in 1919. Seems Joseph, after working for a paper company, decided he could do a better job of servicing customers with fine and coarse papers.

The Canadian Royal Flying Corps (a precursor to the Royal Canadian Air Force) veteran — he doctored his birth certificate to join our neighbors to the north to fight in the Great War after the U.S. military said he was too young to enlist — was determined to make his fledgling enterprise a success.

Two years later, he bought out Brent and simplified the company’s name: the Murnane Paper Co. In the 1930s, the company began producing cut base cards to be used with an automatic soap packing equipment. In doing so, the company entered the world of packaging.

That development eventually led to the company supplying base cards for Oh Henry! candy bars, which were the first automatically wrapped candy bars. Welcome to the world of confections. With the passing of Joseph, the reins of the business were passed onto Frank Sr., Patrick’s father.

Continued growth, coupled with timely acquisitions and ongoing reinvestment in technology and innovation, provided the opportunity for the next generation to join the company, namely Frank Jr., the eldest, and Patrick.

Both brothers had worked in the factory during the summers while in high school and were more than familiar with the business. Both also knew what was expected of them while working for their father.

“I never forget my father’s 15-second speech prior to joining the work force while I was in high school,” Patrick says. “’Remember, you don’t work for me; you work under a supervisor. [As an owner’s son] You must work 25 percent harder than our fellow employees. To become their equal, you must earn their respect. You need to outwork them; you have to work your tail off.’”

And he did.

Frank Jr., who was four years older than Patrick, officially joined the company in 1974. In 1978, two weeks prior to graduating from the University of Notre Dame — both Frank Sr. and Jr. were alumni as well — Patrick asked his father whether there was a place for him in the business.

“’Pat,’ he said, ‘I was hoping that you would want to come into the business, but I didn’t want to force you into anything.’ So I committed to working for him for five years,” Patrick says. In doing so, he quickly established the company’s customer service department.

During that period, Denis Johnson served as the company’s vice president. The former E.J. Brach executive became Patrick’s mentor, helping him get into sales in addition to working in operations. In 1981, Patrick was promoted to plant manager, a testament to his mechanical ability. “I was able to run every piece of equipment in the plant,” he explained.

At the same time, he asked to retain three sales accounts that he had personally acquired and/or developed special relationships with. Come September 1983, however, Patrick informed his family that the five-year commitment had been fulfilled. He was headed to Guatemala as a physical education instructor at Marmion Academy’s Colegio Seminario San Jose there.

“During the past four years I had been working as an assistant football coach at Marmion Military Academy in addition to working at the family business, so I had kept in close contact with the monks there.”

It proved to be a transformative year, with Patrick coaching basketball and soccer, teaching English, learning Spanish and even earning his chops in farming.

“I also read everything I could get my hands on, from St. Augustine to Thomas Aquinas,” he says. “I even considered becoming a priest.”

Although that vocation never blossomed, another replaced it: songwriting. Come January 1985, Patrick headed out to Los Angeles. In order to support his dream, he worked three jobs: Western Airlines baggage handler; telephone sales for a chimney cleaning service; and cleaning boats at Marina Del Rey.

Two years of 70-hour work weeks later and one professionally-released CD featuring a couple of Patrick’s songs, he received a call from his brother Frank.

“He told me that he was buying out all the remaining partners in the company and that he wanted me to come back and help him run the company,” Patrick recalls. “But he had three conditions: First, I would have to drive a ‘professional’ car, no SUVs as was my preference; second, no part-time coaching; and third, I’d come back as his partner.”

Come October 1987, Patrick was back at Murnane Co. It was then that the company acquired Filcas, an Italian manufacturer of candy pads that had a plant in Nashua, N.H. His first assignment was to learn everything possible about how the plant functioned, with the idea of moving operations to Northlake.

On Jan. 1, the company was producing candy pads at its facility. It also created a separate company under the Murnane Specialties name that was focused on confectionery, bakery and other food and beverage packaging needs.

The year proved to be momentous for Patrick since it was then that he took Mary Ellen Sloan to a Chicago Blackhawks hockey game at the suggestion of one of his best friends, Brian Manning. Mary Ellen happened to be Brian’s cousin. And it seems she was destined to be Patrick’s wife.

“I knew from that first date that she would be my wife,” he says.

What he didn’t know was that he would undergo a life-changing intervention. It was during a sales trip down South, an area that the company was looking to rebuild sales, that Patrick had his epiphany.

“I was calling on Jackson Cookie Co. in Arkansas,” he says. The buyer there was an attractive young woman. After our meeting, she asked me what I was planning to do that Friday night. I told her that I would go out partying with friends, although the truth was I simply planned on driving home. Who knows what would have happened if I had gone out with her.”

Having been impacted by a book he’d read in college – “Blue Highways” – Patrick habitually abandoned the interstates whenever business didn’t demand a quick journey. Later that night, while driving on a two-lane country road, he suddenly felt like he was suffocating.

“There was a crushing force on my shoulders, and I literally could not breathe,” Patrick recalls. “I pulled over onto a dirt shoulder. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I kept hearing, ‘you compromised a little bit — how much are you willing to compromise?’”

During his sojourns down South, Patrick had been listening to sermons by Rev. J. Vernon Magee. It helped pass the time and proved stimulating, prompting him to verify quoted passages in the Bible. The momentary trauma on that country road proved to be a catharsis.

“It was then that it all came together and I knew I couldn’t keep on compromising; I gave my life to Christ,” he says.

Patrick hasn’t looked back since then. A year later he married Mary Ellen, who gradually — without any pressure from her husband — joined him in his ministry.

“I just gave her a Bible; no pressure from me,” he says. “It was her decision.”

Since then, he and his wife have been involved in their faith, as well as bringing up three daughters, Irene, Kathleen and Abigail. While living in Wheaton, Ill. and as a member and elder of Parkview Community Church, he founded a ministry called Manna, which would serve as many as 300 local homeless people over the course of a year.

“In the early days of the ministry, I would go to the shelter and pick them up in my car and bring them to church and out for a meal,” he recalls. The Murnanes continued to help the homeless for 15 years, ending that commitment when they moved to Minnesota.

Manna was replaced by another outreach program, Hope Ranch International located in Luther, Mont. There’s, of course, a story to that connection as well.

“We were looking to buy some property in Montana, where Mary Ellen graduated from and spent 10 years of her life,” he explains. After several showings of various sites, Patrick found what he was looking for, a plot of land that included a cabin on one side of the East Rosebud Creek and land across the other side as well.

“We stopped on a bridge crossing the creek and I immediately knew this was what Mary Ellen and I were looking for.”

After committing to purchase the property, he and Mary Ellen started looking for a community church to belong to. After an exhaustive search, which did nothing to move the spirit, Patrick stopped by the Red Lodge Tourist Information Center to deal with a most immediate calling.

“I rushed in asking where the bathroom was,” he says. It was there that Mary Ellen discovered a blurb mentioning Luther Community Church.

“I had told her I was done exploring churches,” he says. “She convinced me to take one last leap of faith. And it proved to be the one.”