Sweet Success

By JoAnn Guidry • Photos By John Jernigan

The next time you shake a can of icing to decorate a cake, eat a candy cake decoration like a rose, put sprinkles on your ice cream or cupcake, you’re more than likely using a product made and/or distributed by Signature Brands.

Next trip to your favorite grocery or discount store, go to the cake decorating aisle. Pick up a can of Betty Crocker Easy Flow decorating icing, look on the bottom of the back label, and this is what you’ll see: Distributed by Signature Brands, LLC, Ocala, Florida. You’ll find the Signature Brands name on other Betty Crocker and Cake Mate products such as decorating spray, candied fruit, candy cake decorations and candy sprinkles toppings. Got a birthday coming up? It’s a good bet that the candles you put on the cake were imported and distributed by Signature Brands – the company is the largest importer of birthday candles in this country. All birthday candles are made in China and exported throughout the world.

When you were a kid, you probably dyed and decorated your Easter eggs with a PAAS kit. And now your children or grandchildren do the same, right? Since 1999, Signature Brands has owned the PAAS Easter Egg Decorating Company. The PAAS kits are now packaged here and distributed from the Ocala plant.

Signature has an 80 percent share of the dessert decorating market and a 54 percent share of the Easter egg decorating business. An international company, Signature distributes products in such countries as Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Australia and Canada.

Signature Brands may have an impressive share of the industry now, but their success is even more amazing when you consider their modest beginnings in 1951. It was then that Louise Crawford and her brother Bobby Jones founded the Pioneer Decorating Company. Prior to that, Louise and her husband George had operated Ocala Bakery downtown. It was during that time that Louise first began designing and making decorative icing roses for wedding cakes. The demand for her creations was what led to establishing the Pioneer Decorating Company, based out of the Crawford home.

The company grew and prospered, moving into a new facility at 808 Southwest 12th Street in 1959. The manufacturing plant and corporate offices remain at this location today.

Through a series of acquisitions and mergers with companies such as General Mills and McCormick & Co., Signature Brands grew to include the Cake Mate brand of desserts, and the distribution of Betty Crocker products.

To Gary Stenzel, vice president of operations, the good fortune and success of the company is no secret to him. “It’s the people behind the company,” says Stenzel, who has been with Signature Brands for 10 years. “Every step of the way, we have been involved with good people with a positive vision of what this company could be. The philosophy has always been that we’re not a diamond in the rough, but that we’re a diamond.”

Stenzel began his stint at Signature as the manufacturing manager. He quickly advanced to director of manufacturing and has held his current position as vice president of operations for the past five years. He witnessed two significant turning points in the company – the joint venture with McCormick & Co. and the acquisition of PAAS.

“Our sales doubled overnight after the merger with McCormick,” says Stenzel. “That growth continues to this day and our sales are six times now what they were in 1996. We’ve had two major expansions here at our manufacturing plant and we built the distribution center in the Meadowbrook Industrial Park.”

Stenzel admits that the rapid growth also created a learning curve. “Suddenly our production rate soared and we had to figure out how to handle it,” he says. “And we had to do it in a very short period of time. But our people came through and that’s why we are where we are today.”

Over time, the plant was automated to keep up with the growing production demands. But the personal aspect of the company was never forgotten.

“The increased automation was necessary, but we used it to upgrade the skills of our employees,” says Stenzel. “We began training them on the various machines, switching them around to make them capable of operating as many as possible. We have some employees who are qualified to handle every processing and packaging station.”

There are currently 34 different processing and packaging stations in the Signature Brands manufacturing plant. A walk-through tour reveals an efficient blend of manpower and automation. The plant is also self-contained, handling all of its own maintenance and sanitation.

During the peak production period of December through February, the plant runs 24-hours a day, seven days a week. The focus of this period is the packaging of 13,000,000 PAAS egg decorating kits. That’s right – 13 million. A staggering number no matter how you look at it.

Also consider this: 1,100 pounds of sugar are pulverized per hour; 10,000 pounds of sugar are processed a shift; 30,000 pounds of sugar are used in the manufacturing of products in 24 hours. All this sugar is used in making colored sugar crystals, sprinkles, gels, icings and candy cake decorations.

In addition to the Betty Crocker licensing agreement, Signature also has similar deals with Mattel (Barbie), Warner Brothers (Looney Tunes and Scooby-Doo), and DreamWorks, LLC (Shrek).

Signature Brands also maintains its own product lab, which is responsible for product research and development, quality control and testing.

“We are a proactive company. Every year we look at unique products to market,” says Stenzel. “We look at old products to revive and new products to produce. We look at everything and every day as an opportunity.”

Echoing Stenzel’s view is Jim Schneider,president and chief executive officer of Signature Brands since 1998. “Our success is driven by our great employees and by our consumers,” he says. “One benchmark of productivity in our business is net sales per employee, and we have one of the highest ratios in the country. We have never had an employee layoff. We believe in involving our employees in what we do here and they are a source of many ideas.”

Signature utilizes an in-house idea-generation program called ‘Eureka!’, which encourages employees on all levels to submit product ideas throughout the year. One idea is picked quarterly and its author is awarded with a cash bonus.

“We also get a lot of calls from consumers, who through using our products come up with user-friendly ideas,” says Schneider, who first came to Signature 1992 as vice president of sales and marketing. “And we have product inventors come to us to pitch their ideas that we can tie our brand names to.”

An example of the latter is the Easy Writer food decorator pens, now marketed under the Betty Crocker brand. Resembling colored markers, they contain edible food coloring and can be used to write or make designs on baked goods or other foods like apples and mashed potatoes.

In his 18 years in the consumer product business, Schneider has seen the consumer demographics shift significantly.

“People are so much busier now,” he says, “and in most families, both parents work. So there’s not a lot of time for mom to be at home, baking. But what we’ve learned is that when our products are being used, it’s become a family activity and we’ve designed our products to fit that scenario.”

Schneider points out that the trend is to “create products that are ultra-convenient, goof-proof, and fun for everyone in the family.” With that in mind, Signature is also focusing on seasonal-driven products.

“When it comes to Christmas, Easter, Halloween, birthdays, and other special occasions, people will make time to bake things and make it a family project,” says Schneider. “That’s the long-term direction we’re going in with our product developments and acquisitions. We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished, but we’re just as excited about what we can do in the future.”

Long term or short term, look for Signature Brands’ sweet success to continue.

By the Numbers

Betty Crocker, Cake Mate, PAAS — those are some big names. Producing and/or distributing their products are big business. How big? To give you a better perspective of Signature Brands, let’s look at some numbers.

60,000,000 Number of birthday candles imported from China annually

13,000,000 PAAS kits packaged and distributed annually

7,000,000 Pounds of sugar bought per year

200,000 Square feet of offices, plants, and warehouses

80,000 Square feet of distribution center

30,000 Pounds of sugar used in a 24-hour period

28,000 Number of grocery stores distributed to regularly

6,400 Number that are Dollar Stores

3,500 Varieties derived from total product line

1,516 Number that are Wal-Mart Super Centers

1,095 Number that are Target stores

428 Number that are Sam’s warehouses

258 Number that are Costco stores

235 Employees

33 Number of different products produced

It’s An Eggstravaganza!

When Signature Brands purchased PAAS in 1999, it also acquired a long-standing tradition of the Easter egg decorating company sponsoring the White House Easter Egg Roll. Inspired by that, it was decided that Signature Brands will start a tradition of its own in Ocala and the initial PAAS Ocala Eggstravanganza was on April 22, 2000.

Under the direction of Pat Reddish, director of Human Resources at Signature Brands, the event has become an eagerly anticipated annual affair. “We provide about 20,000 colored plastic eggs with candy inside for the kids to collect,” says Reddish. “There is also another 1,200 boiled eggs for them to decorate and every child will receive a free PAAS egg decorating kit. We’ve averaged about 5,000 kids each of the past four years.”

Reddish expects another large turnout for this year’s event on April 10 at Tuscawilla Park. “In the past, we held it at the McPherson Complex. But we thought it was time to change the location and the park will give us more hiding places for the eggs.”

On hand to celebrate with the kids will be the PAAS characters — Cotton the Bunny, Feathers the Duck and Terrence the Turtle. In addition to the egg coloring, there will also be cookie decorating and face painting stations. There will be train, carriage rides, pony and hot air balloon rides as well.

“It will be a great day for the family to have a good time together,” says Reddish. “We especially want to thank our co-sponsors, the City of Ocala, WMFQ-92.9FM and Re/Max, as well as the Ocala Police Department and the Marion County Sheriff’s Office for all of their support and help.”

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Tuscawilla Park


Egg Coloring o Cookie Decorating o Face Painting

Egg Hunt Times:

Children With Special Needs – 10:30am

0-4 years old – 11:00am

5-7 years old – 11:45am

8-10 years old – 12:30pm

Posted in Ocala Style Promotional Features

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