SFA Selects Circle of Honor

Pretzels, Inc. entrepreneurs survived a fire and other challenges to build a business known for quality and integrity.

Bill Mann and Bill Huggins, founders of Pretzels, Inc., Bluffton, Ind., have been selected by the Snack Food Association for its prestigious Circle of Honor Award. Both men were recognized at SNAXPO 2007 on March 25 in Hollywood, Fla., for their careers as entrepreneurs, their impeccable business ethics and their contributions to the industry.
Mann and Huggins were the first employees of the Duchess Pretzel Co., founded in Bluffton by Mann’s father, Lorin L. Mann Sr. and his partner, Frank Elzey, in 1954.
Later, Duchess merged with The Bachman Co., and Bill Mann became plant manager in Bluffton. In 1978, Bachman closed the plant, and Mann and Huggins borrowed some money and used savings to start Pretzels, Inc.
“We had been in the pretzel business together, and we decided if there was ever a time to go into the pretzel business, maybe now would be it,” Mann says.
The new company was started with a small 50-ft. oven in a 12,000-sq.-ft. warehouse. The two Bills made their own bags and stamped prices on them with little stickers at the kitchen table at night.
Huggins hit the road on sales and Mann, a wizard in operating and maintaining equipment, ran production. When a major pretzel manufacturer decided to quit making private label, the company’s future seemed secured.
Fire Strikes Plant
However, a fire destroyed half the Bluffton plant in 1997. Luckily, it left the ovens and office undamaged.
“We didn’t lose any records,” Mann recalls.
While Mann and Huggins aggressively pursued a rebuilding campaign that produced a rebuilt plant in six months, fellow pretzel manufacturers came to the rescue and co-packed for them.
“The industry was tremendous to us,” Huggins says. “We had a lot of co-packers. We had people going around and visiting different co-packers to make sure they met our standards. It kept our heads above the water, and we’re very thankful for them, and we would certainly reciprocate.”
After the fire, Huggins and Mann kept every full-time employee on the payroll, earning the company the first Johnny Appleseed award from district congressman Mark Souder. In 1998, the local chamber of commerce recognized Pretzels, Inc. as the community’s Business of the Year, in part for the dedication of the founders to rebuild and take care of their people.
Today’s Success
Today, Pretzels, Inc. is primarily a private label operation, which accounts for about 75% of its business. It also markets a growing brand of its own: Harvest Road. The company operates in a 200,000-sq.-ft. building and employs more than 220 people. Its production facilities include six high-speed pretzel ovens, 27 packaging machines, two extruded corn lines and an automated palleting system.
Both Mann and Huggins say their membership in the SFA has been a big part of their success. Mann achieved the association’s highest honor when he served as chairman for one year.
“We’ve done a great deal of networking, made a lot of friends, worked on committees,” Huggins says.
There are a lot of ingredients in the success of Pretzels, Inc., but nothing has been more important than the trusting relationship between the two one-time school pals, Mann and Huggins. Although there is a movable divider between their desks, the two owners still share a single office.
“We grew up like brothers, and we never what I would call argue,” Mann says. “We discuss, very strongly sometimes. We never leave hostile.”
“We communicate well, I think,” adds Huggins. “I don’t think we’ve ever closed the divider in all these years.”
Most of the time these days, the two owners keep in touch with headquarters via electronic communications. Their two sons, William Mann II and Steve Huggins, who are on the company’s operating committee, handle day-to-day operations. Fathers and sons get together for full-blown reviews and strategy sessions every 30 to 60 days in Bluffton, although Mann acknowledges that the meetings are less frequent in colder months, when he is loathe to leave the warmth of his Florida home.
With modern facilities, a dedicated team of associates and solid long-term business relations with many snack food producer customers within a 600-mile radius of Bluffton, the two Bills and their sons are committed to continuing the policies that have proven to be successful. Those include hard work, honesty, being fair with customers, producing a good product with good service and treating company employees properly.
“Cuz without people, we have nothing,” Mann says.