Wells Enterprises to be acquired by Ferrero Group

Published: Dec. 7, 2022 at 10:38 AM CST
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LE MARS, Iowa (KTIV) - A big announcement from Wells Enterprises, the ice cream company based out of Le Mars, Iowa.

According to a press release sent out Wednesday, Wells will be acquired by Ferrero Group.

The release says Wells Enterprises will remain a stand-alone business with its offices in Le Mars. Production will also remain in Le Mars, as well as in Henderson, Nevada and Dunkirk, New York.

“That’s the beauty of this transaction,” said Mike Wells, a member of the founding family and current chief executive officer and chief engagement officer. “Everybody keeps their job, they love what they do, they love where they do it. The Wells name is going to stay on the outside of the building, employees still work for Wells.”

After the transaction closes, Mike Wells will serve as an adviser to support the transition and maintain his active role in the Le Mars community. Current Wells President Liam Killeen will be named CEO, and the existing leadership team will remain in place.

Like Wells, Ferrero is a family-owned company and has a history of making sweet-packaged foods. Ferrero’s brands include Nutella, Kinder, Tic Tac and Ferrero Rocher.

“We are a 100-year-old company focused on adapting for the next 100 years,” said Mike Wells. “Ferrero is a like-minded company with a commitment to providing high-quality, premium sweet-packaged food products that bring joy to consumers around the world. This acquisition puts the business in the best possible hands, and I look forward to supporting the entire Wells team and Ferrero with the transition.”

The transaction is expected to close in early 2023, but the terms of the transaction are not being disclosed.

This deal continues the Ferrero Group’s expansion in North America. In 2017, Ferrero acquired Fannie May, then in 2018, they acquired the former Nestle U.S. confectionery business and Kellogg company’s cookies and fruit snacks businesses. As of 2022, Ferrero has 8,000 employees, 9 offices and 18 plants in North America.

“As Wells transitions from one family to another, we are committed to a long and successful future, building on their legacy of fantastic products and looking after the welfare of employees and the wider community in Le Mars,” said Giovanni Ferrero, Executive Chairman of the Ferrero Group. “I strongly believe that Wells and Ferrero are the perfect match and would like to thank Mike Wells and the Wells family for entrusting ownership of this great company to us.”

Ferrero began in a town called Alba, Italy in 1946. It has grown to become a global leader in sweet-packaged foods, including confectionery, biscuits, ice cream and better-for-you-snacking. It sells over 35 brands in more than 170 countries, and globally, it has more than 38,000 employees.

Interview with CEO Mike Wells

KTIV was able to interview Mike Wells one-on-one Wednesday to ask him several questions about Ferrero acquiring Wells Enterprises. The questions we asked him included:

  • Yours is the largest family-owned production facility of its kind in the world. Is it staying put and how about the corporate jobs?
  • Might there be an expansion at some point?
  • Wells Enterprises has been in your family for over 100 years, what are your thoughts now that is about to change?
  • Are there any visible changes that the community of Le Mars and the surrounding communities will see at all?

Reactions to Wells announcement

With such a major announcement, people both locally and across the state are reacting to these new developments.

One of them is Le Mars Mayor Rob Bixenman, who told KTIV that it’s understandable that people in the community, especially employees, might be anxious after this announcement. But at the end of the day, he says this is a good thing.

He said the Ferrero Group will keep all of the current Wells employees because the company doesn’t have its own infrastructure in the ice cream space. Additionally, Bixenman said he knows employees are worried, especially after Tyson Foods recently moved its corporate headquarter from the Siouxland area. But he’s stressing that not all of these big business transactions go the same way.

“I really want to thank Mike Wells and the efforts that he put forward in finding the best buyer for Wells. And we truly feel like this is the best fit imaginable,” said Bixenman.

Bixenman said he knew about the merger a few months ago because Mike Wells was the last member of his family actively involved in the business, meaning it makes sense to bring in an outside ownership group.

“You could see the dilemma that the Wells family was going to have with Mike and being the last active Wells family member in the business. The writing was on the wall for quite some time,” said Bixenman.

But Ferrero’s acquisition will have ripple effects on other Siouxland businesses as well. Schuster Trucking is headquartered in Le Mars and has worked with Wells since 1980. Company President and CEO Steve Schuster said they are excited that Wells chose another family-owned company to continue the business.

We look forward to the new opportunities with the Ferrero Group. I foresee very little change in the day-to-day operations. We are very excited for the future of our company and the city of Le Mars.

Steve Schuster, CEO and President of Schuster Trucking

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds also sent out a statement about the announcement, saying “I appreciate Mike’s continued dedication to the community of Le Mars and look forward to meeting the new leadership soon.”

A look back at the history of Wells

Wells has been a staple of Le Mars for nearly 110 years, but how did they end up there in the first place? Well, the truth is the company ended up there by accident.

Wells Founder Fred “F.H.” Wells was actually traveling from South Dakota to Chicago when he ran out of money in--guess where-- Le Mars!

And after working as a hog farmer didn’t work out, in 1913 he borrowed $250, bought a horse, buggy, and milk bottles, and the rest was history.

After Fred “F.H.” Wells’ brother, Harry, joined him in Iowa in 1927, they began selling their ice cream across Sioux City.

But a year later, they would sell the company. Following the Great Depression, the brothers wanted to sell ice cream in Sioux City again, but were unable to use the name “Wells.” So they ran a contest in the Sioux City Journal and ended up settling on the iconic name, Blue Bunny.

The family-owned business would continue to grow over the years, and in 1977, current CEO Mike Wells began his career as a route driver while he was in college.

The company would face adversity in 1999 when an ammonia explosion led to Highway 75 shutting down and homes and businesses across Le Mars being evacuated. One worker was injured and 20 were hospitalized by the vapors, but thankfully, no one was killed.

Just a couple of years later, there were worries Wells would leave Le Mars and Iowa as a whole. But after city and county officials agreed to offer them an incentives package to stay in 2003, they began expanding quickly.

A year later in 2004, they announced they would build a new corporate campus in Le Mars, and in 2006, the $26 million corporate headquarter complex was unveiled, bringing over 400 workers from offices across town into one building.

A year after that, Wells decided to focus solely on ice cream after selling their milk plant in Le Mars to Dean Foods, and they changed their official name from Wells Dairy, Incorporated to Wells Enterprises, Incorporated in 2011 to reflect the change.

The next big development would happen in 2016 when the IDEA board approved Wells’ request for a $40 million expansion. This added 6,000 square feet of additional space, two Blue Bunny production lines, and 81 new jobs to the facility.

In 2019 they would expand once again when they acquired Fieldbrook Foods in New York, which owned two facilities in the Northeast.

They also acquired the popular low-calorie ice cream brand, Halo Top, that same year, and used $3 million to redesign and renovate their parlor.

In 2023, Wells will celebrate their 110th anniversary.