By Andy Hanacek
Shearer’s Foods succeeds because its associates truly care about the salted-snack producer, the products they make and the people working around them.
The goal of “perfection” is a level to which many companies aspire. But the companies that get close enough to get a whiff of perfection every day are few and far between. Enter Shearer’s Foods, Inc., whose tagline, “Shearer Perfection in Every Bag,” claims what many companies desire. The only difference is that Shearer’s, which won Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery’s “Snack Manufacturer of the Year” award in 2002, has perfection within its reach on a daily basis.
Not only has the Brewster, Ohio-based regional snack mogul renamed, repackaged and repositioned its namesake brand (once called Grandma Shearer’s, now simply branded Shearer’s), but it also has constructed a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment facility, added six kettles, six high-speed packaging systems and three online seasoning systems, and reworked the management structure to accommodate its growth.
But without the unique brand of workplace culture — a very deep-running, family-like atmosphere that permeates every associate’s daily routine — success would not have been easy.
Happy People, Happy Results
When Shearer’s was founded 30 years ago, it was just the Shearer family — Bob, Tom and their parents — on the payroll. All they made at first was potato chips. Today, Shearer’s uses the talents of 480 associates — as employees at Shearer’s are called — to create a wide variety of snack foods, including extruded cheese curls and tortilla chips to go along with potato chips of all kinds. Yet, the family atmosphere the Shearers established in the beginning still remains.
“A part of our culture is definitely the excellence and quality [of the products], and people caring about their jobs,” Bob Shearer, president and CEO, says. “Happy people will produce happy results, and if they aren’t that way, we wouldn’t have the results we have.”
If you believe that’s a corporate cliché spewed for the sake of sounding good, well, follow Shearer to the monthly birthday parties he throws, where associates are given pizza, cake and ice cream, and Shearer listens to their opinions on company affairs. It’s a great communication tool that helps associates know that they matter, says Tom Clark, quality assurance manager.
“Everybody knows, ‘I have to have something to tell Bob,’ because he’s going to go around the room and ask what they like, what they dislike, and you don’t just get off with a pass,” Clark explains. “He really wants to know, and he’ll stop and take the time to listen.”
The Shearers have poured their beliefs into making snacks for 30 years, and one of those beliefs — a healthy lifestyle — recently found a place in the company’s manufacturing strategies, explains Paul Smith, product manager for the Shearer’s brand.
“When we talk about the Shearer’s brand and the family aspect of it, we’re talking about healthy lifestyles,” Smith says. “The Shearers are personally committed to healthy lifestyles as well as perfection in every bag. … [And] I think the unique thing with Shearer’s is the family’s passion rubs off on everyone else.”
In fact, product renovations that Shearer’s undertook recently reflect that, says executive vice president Tom Shearer, Bob’s brother and a co-founder of the company.
“We’ve addressed the trans-fat issue by taking them out of most of our products,” Shearer says. “The majority of our potato chip products were already trans fat-free, so few changes were required. However, our tortilla chips and extruded products required some modification to eliminate the trans fat.
“The obesity issue, we addressed on our new packaging with some healthy-living stories. I think we were the only company that addressed it that way.”
But it’s not just the healthy-living stories that make the redesign of the packaging worthwhile. What the new packaging does for Shearer’s is help build better brand unity and help it stand out in the competitive snack aisle. That, in turn, could lead to sales growth, which helps in the battle for shelf position and makes selling the products easier for Mark Isler, director of sales, and his staff.
“If we show good sales growth out of our existing space, we can go to a retailer and make a good case that we need more space,” Isler says.
Enhancing the Culture
Passion for the company and the quality of the product has not been hard to duplicate amongst even the latest additions to the management team. Smith, Isler and Tom Donelan, who is vice president of supply chain, are the freshest faces at Shearer’s, and according to Donelan, it has been all about adding to the pool, not subtracting from it.
“As the growth accelerated, it was a matter of bringing in some new talents and perspectives to complement the team, not to change over the company or do everything in an entirely different way,” Donelan says. “Our job has been to find ways to compliment that team and bring some new thinking into new areas.”
Even with the new thinking, Shearer’s is not stretching too far beyond its boundaries. Sitting at No. 1 in regional potato chips and tortilla chips in the Northeast Ohio marketplace, Shearer’s also plays a big role in other markets such as Columbus, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. They’ve also heard of stores in Chicago and Detroit carrying a small amount of Shearer’s products. But, Scott Smith, chief operating officer, notes that the business has been careful not to lose its key relationships locally.
“Geographically, we’ve not grown the footprint that much,” Smith explains. “We’ve gone a lot deeper with existing relationships and existing customers. We’ve developed some great partners from a customer standpoint, … and we’re focused on that in markets where we are trying to be the best we can be.”
Stepping Up Production
The production process hasn’t changed radically at Shearer’s since SF&WB last visited in 2002. Change has come, however, on the plant floor, with the addition of plenty of equipment to ramp up production.
In October of 2004, Shearer’s completed investments that gave the company what it views as one additional full potato chip line, composed of a potato preparation area, six batch kettles, a complete product conveyance revamping and six new high-speed packaging cells, three of which have online seasoning systems on them as well.
This new equipment injects about 10 million lbs. of potato chips on an estimated, annualized basis to Shearer’s production capabilities, which now stand at 55 million lbs. overall.
More evidence of Shearer’s reinvesting track record is the wastewater management facility, which was commissioned on March 1, 2004. The facility helps the snack producer keep in step with requirements from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, and it gives Shearer’s the opportunity to, on a smaller scale, be environmentally friendly to its neighbors, an important stance for a company built on relationships and in the local public eye.
On the continuous lines, potatoes are carried by auger to the top of a 2-stage batch-peeler and then are destoned. An associate inspects the peeled/destoned potatoes, cutting large ones in half and removing rejects. Two singulating auger conveyors take potatoes to two slicers, and the uncooked chips are washed to eliminate residual starch and sent to the fryer.
Fried chips are salted by a sifter salter, and they pass through a high-speed visual inspector that “sees” the chips pass under it, registers rejects and directs a puff of air to blow the reject off the line — all in the blink of an eye.
An assurance picker pores over the chips before they are sent on a vertical conveyor into the seasoning and packaging room.
On the kettle lines, the potato preparation is the same as on the continuous lines, except that the potatoes are processed in batches. Slicers are positioned between two kettles, and a conveyor automatically shuttles uncooked chips to the empty kettle.
After frying, the chips are sent via a network of conveyors up through the wall to seasoning and packaging. A photo-electric sensor adjust the seasoning flow based on the amount of product moving under it, so that the chips are seasoned just right.
There are seven form/fill/seal machines devoted to the kettle lines and one continuous fryer (Fryer No. 7, which produces two of Shearer’s Top 10 items). Fourteen more f/f/s machines bag chips from the other continuous fryer, the extruded product line and the corn product line.
Shearer’s makes its own corn masa, which is utilized to make traditional tortilla chips as well as its newest line of certified-organic tortilla chips. Shearer’s attained the certification about a year ago, and it has allowed the company to expand its offerings in the corn chip category.
A 100-hp boiler uses steam to cook 1,000 lbs. of corn in 100 gallons of water (with 1% lime mixed in). The corn soaks for 9 hours after which it is pumped from the holding tanks to a corn washer. There, the kernel is relieved of the husk and then drained along a belt that leads to the mill hopper. Shearer’s uses a steel plate (as opposed to stone) in its miller to create its masa.
Masa is pumped directly to a sheeter that measures the thickness with a laser and passes the sheet through several rollers to the rotary cutter. An 18-second, 650°F ride through the triple-pass oven brings the moisture of each chip down from 48%. Then, the equilibrating conveyor evens out the moisture of each chip while transferring them to the fryer.
Before heading up an incline conveyor to the packaging room, the tortilla chips cool and are seasoned in a rotary seasoner. Steve Surmay, vice president of manufacturing, says the tortilla chip line is in the process of being fine-tuned.
“We recently hired consultants to develop [standard operating procedures] for that so that we can monitor [it],” he explains “[Then] we can continually produce that same product day-in and day-out from hour to hour.”
Shearer’s extruded line pumps out several products — Baked Cheese Curls, Crunchy Curls and Corn Puffs (hulless popcorn). Cornmeal arrives in 100-lb. bags and is mixed with water in three 400-lb. mixers. The mixture hits the extruder and extruded product is carried by pneumatic conveyor to a cyclone hopper, where it is held prior to entering the oven, which stretches about 20-ft. long and bakes product for 3.5 minutes at 285-350°F.
Seasoning is applied in a drum with a cheese/oil slurry that is mixed in slurry tanks next to the seasoning system. An incline conveyor carries the product through the wall to packaging.
Sanitation at the company is another area of operations where the positive Shearer’s culture has had a profound effect. First of all, Surmay provides the proper support for the sanitation department to do its work. Yet, he gladly passes credit to the efforts put forth by Clark, sanitation manager Don Asplin and food safety manager John Stephenson.
“I’ve never seen three guys from quality and sanitation work more harmoniously together,” Surmay says. “They find a way to get the job done in the best interests of the company.”
The sanitation process works well because the associates are cognizant of their role in keeping things clean and operational, Clark says.
“We foster the attitude that it is everyone’s responsibility to keep the plant neat and orderly,” he explains. “It is a two-pronged approach. Everyone is involved with general housekeeping so that the sanitation team can focus on the duties for which they are specially trained.”
With growth and reinvestment remaining a priority, there is no doubt Shearer’s has set high goals. And the culture of the company should keep everyone focused on those achievements.
The package redesign, the reorganization of management and the constant proliferation of corporate culture are the intangible efforts that keep Shearer’s on top of its game. But don’t expect the company to stand pat in the future. It’s always thinking ahead and planning for the next improvement, says Scott Smith.
“A lot of what we’ve done … is positioning us for future growth and building that infrastructure,” Smith says, “so that we can continue to go after good opportunities — confidently go out there, win the business and serve it.”
Service — to its customers, its products and, most importantly, its associates — is the name of the game at Shearer’s.
As the company strives to achieve its motto, “Shearer Perfection in Every Bag,” it is taking the standard for perfection in snack manufacturing and raising it to new heights.
At a Glance
Company: Shearer’s Foods, Inc.
Headquarters: Brewster, Ohio
Founded: 1974 by the Shearer family (Jack, Rosemary, Bob and Tom)
Volume: 55 million lbs. (2005)
Routes: 65 company, 60 distributor
Products: Potato chips, kettle-cooked potato chips, tortilla chips (yellow, white, blue and organic), cheese curls and puff corn (hulless popcorn).
Manufacturing Capabilities: Hand kettles: 18 @4,500 total lbs./hr.; Continuous potato chip lines: 2 (1 @2,100 lbs./hr., 1 @1,000 lbs./hr.); tortilla chips: 1 @2,000 lbs./hr.; extruded cheese curls: 1@ 1,350 lbs./hr.
Distribution: Midwest, New England states and parts of Canada via company-owned routes and a network of select distributors. Six distribution centers in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Fleet: 12 tractors, 40 trailers, 65 step vans
Contact: www.shearers.com or 1-888-GREAT-CHIPS
President/CEO: Bob Shearer
Executive VP: Tom Shearer
COO: Scott W. Smith
CFO: Fritz Kohmann
VP, Manufacturing: Steve Surmay
VP, Supply Chain: Tom Donelan
Director of Sales: Mark Isler
National Sales: Brian Newland
QA Manager: Tom Clark
Director of PR: Melissa Shearer
Director of HR: Christine Hoffer
Product Manager: Paul Smith
Part of what has made Shearer’s Foods so successful over the years is its consistency. Processes, such as seasoning application, have been standardized at Shearer’s by a quality assurance department that works hand-in-hand with the manufacturing department.
Tom Clark, quality assurance manager at Shearer’s, joined the company about three years ago and saw the possibility for improvement right away.
“The way we did most of the things in the lab was the way 90% of all the other snack food companies did it,” Clark explains. With the company’s support, Clark instituted a couple of changes.
One of those changes involved investing more than $60,000 in three titrators, machines that allow analysis of the salt concentration down to one-hundredth of 1% of salt.
“Most snack food companies say they like to put a certain percentage of seasoning on the chips,” he continues. “They look at it, … and they say, ‘Well, it looks about right,’ or ‘No, it looks a little light or heavy.’ It’s very, very subjective.”
Titrators allow Shearer’s to perfect the process of adding salt and other seasonings. Thus, when consumers get a bag of Shearer’s products, they’re getting the same taste. Consumers can hone in to what it is that they like and expect that taste every time they buy the product.
Product consistency is helped by the efficiency of the crew and its adherence to regulations. During the last couple of years, Shearer’s has incorporated some 300 different procedures, policies and forms to help control processes better.
“That’s the key to any job,” Clark says. “People need to know what’s expected of them and have the methodology on how to accomplish that.”
With the leadership strategies at Shearer’s, the reinvestment into the company and the well-motivated, hardworking associates completely buying into the culture, the accomplishments for Shearer’s should keep piling up.