Once upon a time there was a single mother living in the little town of Willamina. At night her two little boys couldn't wait for her to read their bedtime story. But there was no Good Night, Moon for them. No Curious George or Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.
“I read the book Sugar Blues to my boys,” confesses Betty Lou Carrier, president of Betty Lou’s Inc., a McMinnville manufacturer of healthy snacks. “They didn't want sugar after I read that to them.”
Bedtime reading of a 1975 diatribe against sugar did the trick. Carrier recalls that her sons, now middle-aged men who are executives in her company, would even give away their Halloween candy, preferring to feast instead on their mother’s homemade peanut butter nut balls.
Those balls eventually bounced her business to unimaginable heights. Now, at 63, she oversees a multi-million-dollar company that employs 125. Six of those employees are food scientists, who work in two labs contained in the 104,000-square-foot warehouse. Their combination of ingredients, specially composed to accommodate the most common food allergies, sensitivities and diet preferences, are the heart of the business.
About 70% of the balls, bars and other snacks are created with private labels for clients, who include Gardenburger founder Paul Wenner and Elisabeth Hasselbeck of The View. But Carrier says Betty Lou’s is shifting gears this year by putting more emphasis on products under her own Betty Lou’s and Just Great Stuff brands.
Most of her contract clients are people she met at trade shows. She started showing her products at trade shows (and still does) during the eight years that her business was still in her home kitchen. Back then her product wasn't even packaged. Customers removed the peanut butter nut balls with tongs from a large jar. Natural foods stores from Seattle to Sacramento were part of the sales route she regularly drove.
She expanded her territory during a drive to visit her family in Ohio, selling jars of balls the whole way. With her earnings, she made more balls and sold those on the return trip. Back home, she refilled her growing orders by shipping from Willamina.
After getting swamped with orders at a 1986 trade show, Carrier decided it was time to go big time. With financial backing from friends and family, she bought manufacturing equipment and moved into a 2,600-square-foot space in downtown McMinnville. In time she had 12 employees. Then, as now, the bulk of the business was contract work for people who brought their healthy snack ideas to her.
“In a sense you feel like a little dream maker,” says Carrier. “I had a dream, so I’m very compassionate to people starting out.”
In addition to contract work, the company’s success rests on the sales of a variety of Betty Lou’s healthy bars and protein shakes. The products are widely available at Fred Meyer and health food stores; online shoppers at bettylousinc.com can browse by diet types.
New products are in the works, thanks to a recent move and the acquisition of more equipment. In 2009 Betty Lou’s moved from a 32,000-square-foot plant in McMinnville’s Granary District to the former site of an RV factory.
The key to her success is good personal relationships. Indeed, a visit to Betty Lou’s is like an invitation to a love fest. Carrier can’t make it down a hallway of the company without employees calling out friendly greetings or exchanging hugs with her. Food scientist Susan Jeffries, whom Carrier hired eight years ago to help her with R&D, remembers leaving her job interview thinking, “I knew she was somebody I could grow to love. And I have.”
Paramount, Carrier says, is her relationship with her banker. “It’s vital that they trust you and believe in what you’re doing,” she says. She liked her first banker so much she hired her. Carole Maylender, her loan officer for 10 years, is her executive assistant.
Carrier also believes in going full steam ahead, trusting her instincts and her faith.
“Some may play it safe in this economy,” she says, “but I’m looking to the future, seeking out ways to expand our capabilities and our processes.”
Betty Lou’s chalked up 34% in growth from 2010 to 2011 and now, with a new bar line and enrobing system that will allow for a greater variety of Betty Lou’s products, Carrier’s outlook is healthy, as usual.
“I never was looking to start a business,” she says. “I just wanted to make healthy things for my kids to eat.”
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