Bill Sarris has been in the candy business for more than 40 years. Upon graduating from college, Bill joined his father’s business and has overseen significant growth while building a Sarris Candies into a regional leader in chocolates.
Sarris Candies was started by his father Frank in the family’s basement. Behind Bill’s efforts, the company grew to include more than 350 employees and $16 million in annual sales.
Today, the Sarris Chocolate Factory and Ice Cream Parlour fill an area the size of a football field with over 100 yards of chocolate, penny candy, ice cream, and plush toys.
In this conversation, Bill and Aaron discuss flying to Europe to buy equipment in the 70s, Sarris’ five channels of revenue, and the strategic acquisition of Gardeners Candies.
Pittsburgh’s best conference to Expand your Mind & Fill your Heart happens once a year.
Bill Sarris’s Challenge; If you find something you like, go after it.
Connect with Bill Sarris
Sarris Candies Website
If you liked this interview, check out episode 306 with Bryan Salesky where we discuss Argo Ai, self-driving cars, and what he learned from the DARPA challenge.
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Watson: “Bill, thank you for coming on down here and being on the podcast.”
Bill Sarris: “Hey, you're welcome!”
Watson: ”I want to start off. The name Sarris to any listener who has spent any extended period of time in Pittsburgh.. he's gonna be familiar because the candies are/have been all over the place. The Hallmark store may be a school fundraiser here and there, but I want to actually go back and take it. Upon graduating, you entered the family business. You were probably around the family business.”
Bill Sarris: “Well before that, yes I was.”
Watson: “But where did you start when you transitioned into kind of full-time work from being a student or a youth?”
Bill Sarris: “I graduated from W&J College in Washington, PA. I always stayed close so that I could come home and work. My dad wanted me.. he needed help. He was the one-man show. I came back after college my plan was just like.. every dad wants their kid to be a doctor or a lawyer, so I went to W & J, planned on going to medical school, and then came back, and I just said I'd rather come into the business. If I don't, it's gonna ruin my golf game.
It was just something that I wanted to do. We wanted to grow. There was a lot of potential at that time. I said, hey, there were just three: my dad, my grandfather, a couple of my dad's sisters, who worked there. So, when I was coming in, you know, it definitely was just a small family business.”
Watson: “Yeah, that's the definition of family business. So, in terms of the vision that you saw, the potential that you saw, for what did you see to be done or that could be done that wasn't being done at that point in time because it was 1975, right?”
Bill Sarris: “It was 1975. Prior to that, my dad was just working in the wintertime when the school season was going. In the summer, timely delivery closed the candy store. It was closed in the summers, so me coming into the business, the idea was originally to start fundraising when I was a senior in high school, when we needed to raise money. So, I said, ‘hey, let's put a little worksheet together and our school will sell some candy.’ We didn't know what was gonna happen, you know? The school needed at that time three thousand dollars. They bought, you know, four hundred kids their yearbooks, our cap and gowns, paid for their prom, and that type of stuff. So, have that come, and say, you know what? There's something here. We need to do fundraising. My dad says, ‘well you can't sell what you don't have.’ I said, ‘I'll take care of that. I said I'm going to Europe. I'm gonna go buy equipment.’ He said, ‘you're crazy, I’m sorry.’ I called the bank, got the money, no problem. So, I went to Europe, bought some equipment, and came back. So, we needed the equipment. If we sold candy, we had to be able to produce it, so that was a gamble.Yeah. But that was the thing that, coming into family business, that the opportunity I had, that my dad didn't. My opportunity was he had some money. When he started the business, he had nothing.”
Watson: “He started it out of his basement.”
Bill Sarris: “He started in his basement. I mean, literally playing around because he saw other candy guys and what they were doing. That really.. the catch was he knew a local candy guy in Cannonsburg that said, ‘hey, can you deliver me a truckload of candy up to Erie?’ So, he jumps in the truck. He said it was snowing, and he drove to Erie. He comes back. The guy gave him a hundred-dollar bill. Now that was way back when. He says ‘a hundred-dollar bill.. I'm warning the candy business.’ That's kind of, you know, one of the reasons why he went into the business. But that made all the opportunities for me.”
Watson: “So you would say that in terms of him having some money? In habit, some options there was a little bit of..he came from a place of ‘let us scrounge to get by. Let's keep this thing alive. Save, save, save.. nested away for a rainy day.’ You saw it partially as an opportunity to say like ‘we can make some investment here. We can kind of our trajectory of growth through making some strategic moves.’”
Bill Sarris: “The difference between that generation and my generation was his investment. He wanted to make money because he grew up and didn't have any. So, he busted his tail to sit there and grow
a small business and to make some money, you know? I came in with the opportunity that we could really grow this thing in different directions, as opposed to just literally making candy yourself and then selling it in your candy store. Yes, he sold to groups or local groups like the VFW and their Christmas parties and things like that. You know, there was an ‘ooh’ there's a big order.
It's funny as we go back and we have records. At Easter time, my dad had a little sheet, and it said ‘could have sold three more eggs.’ Well, he only made 24, okay? So, he goes, ‘sold 27.’ I mean, those records are in there.
So when I came in, again, I'm jumping ahead, but years later, I had to ask him and my mom one day. I said, ‘hey, do you know you know many eggs we’re making today?’ My dad says, ‘I don't know how many, maybe a thousand-five thousand?’ I said, ‘no 30,’ and his response was ‘you're crazy.’
Don't make that many. You're never gonna sell them. I said, they're sold, but that was the difference in the numbers.”
We the generation changed, you know? It just became a bigger business, you know, and stretched out into other areas.”
Watson: “So, let's go back to the first story you said that you go to Europe to go buy some equipment. What has to be more of that conversation as opposed to like, okay, hopping a plane I'm coming back with some equipment?
Bill Sarris: “What did I look like? Well, I had called the bank and said, ‘hey I'm gonna go buy some equipment’ and there was a special company that made candy equipment. That's who I wanted to go see.”
Bill Sarris: “Well one of their reps.. Well not reps, one of their partners broke off and went off on his own. I talked to him and he started a company making candy chocolate coding lines, you know? That's basically what? You run a piece of candy down there. It covers it and goes down. It gets cold and you put it in a box.
So he had said, ‘hey I'll build machines for you and we have to make a deal.’ Now these machines at the time were about $300,000 each. My plan was to buy one when he came back and said ‘I'll make you a deal. I need to get my equipment in America.’ He says, ‘I'll give you three machines that you can put in your place. Three.’ He says, ‘I want $75,000, but I want it in cash.’ I said ‘I'll be back.’”
Watson: “Gotta make some calls.”
Bill Sarris: “I flew home, went back to my dad, and he said, there's some famous words, ‘you're crazy’ and I went back, went to the bank, and got a document that said it was okay to carry that cash. I carried that cash back to Germany and handed it over, and three months later they ship three pieces of equipment over.”
Bill Sarris: “Yeah, so that was pretty strange carrying that on the plane and, you know, you have a little bag. You know, with a note in there from the bank. You have to go through customs, and everybody wants to look in the bag.
It wasn't an issue. Now we had equipment that we had to go sell so that we could hire employees to run the equipment.”
Watson: So, what you're saying is you kept one of the pieces?”
Bill Sarris: “No, we kept them all.”
Watson: “You kept them all. You had to sell the candy, right, to validate the cost of production?”
Bill Sarris: “Yes. Those machines.. and it was, you know, surprisingly it didn't take long.”
Watson: “Well, I would imagine that if your dad was making a note saying like ‘we could have sold more I didn't have the supplies,’ there's a degree to which, in that kind of time period, late seventies and in the 80s, your capacity to just produce a that scale was a differentiator relative to the market. If every kind of neighborhood had a candy store of sorts you were hitting a capacity that those other stores couldn't necessarily get to?”
Bill Sarris: “Yes, and what we could do was that if somebody needed chocolates or needed candies, whether it was another candy company, in a sense to sit there and say ‘Hey. You know, I need this. I'm selling stuff to this group of stores, and boy I need these items.”
You know, my question was ‘when do you need them?’ We could do that quickly. That really helped in our growth. People said yeah word-of-mouth in your vendors and other people said, ‘you know what, if you want something, you're stuck, call him. Call him. He'll get it done for you.’”
Watson: “That's a great reputation to have.”
Bill Sarris: “‘Oh you know what.. we still do it.’ That has not stopped. That's it. That's really one of our key things that we do for other people. It’s that we're able to do something very quickly.”
Watson: “Gotcha, cool. So, moving forward a little bit, I guess, not even moving forward. You even alluded to it already. The sales in schools and a portion of the proceeds associated with those sales from you know kids listening to their neighbors or the aunt or the uncle or whoever for the school funding.. can you talk a little bit more about how that model works and how you grew that?”
Bill Sarris: “What started to be again a local school Cannon Macmillan, where I graduated from, kind of was the key. They started selling candy.They take a sheet they get 35% of the profits, and with the same prices in our store and all that. It was an opportunity for people to buy candy and not come right to our door. That way all the kids would deliver it. The kids would do that and would distribute it, but the key was when either let's say the band. One high school band was selling candy, and the band directors talk.”
They go, ‘man, you got brand new uniforms? You got this? Where'd you get that?’ ‘Man we got this program here. We sell candy during the holidays.’ ‘Wow, you do? ‘Okay, there's the guy go see.’ So, it was more word-of-mouth.”
Then I was going out with a sales guy and, you know, knocking on the door. It was word-of-mouth. You get one, then the next one, then the next one, and the next two. It became, you know, a pyramid. That really grew quite fast. That became a big part of our business.”
Watson: “So if you were having so many referrals and inbound, does that mean that in terms of scaling up the team, you were investing in operations and the actual production of the candy? Where was the investment coming from outside of that machinery?”
Bill Sarris: “The investment was just coming in people. It was about finding employees okay that could come in quickly and do the work. At that time, it was done right, having family and friends in there and doing that. But eventually, you were able to make more, and my goal was to make full-time jobs.
That was really a key because before that our candy was seasonal. I always said, ‘Whenever school starts, that's your season. When school is in, that's kind of the candy season.’ We call it that cuz summertime is not a candy season. The less clothes people wear, the less candy they eat.”
Watson: “That makes a lot of sense.”
Bill Sarris: “Very simple. Very simple. As soon as you start putting a lot of clothes on, you can eat more candy.
So, fundraising was a big key in our growth. That got us to expand quickly, and the only place you could get candy at that time was in our store or through a fundraising group, and that was a good sale both ways until later on. That was how we did it for a while.”
Watson: “Gotcha. Well, you said for a while and then later on that change. Can you explain that?”
Bill Sarris: “Later on, there was an opportunity for a friend of ours. Candy people were very friendly back then. They worked together. They helped each other out. They went on vacations together. I mean, it was a very close community. So, a person in Pittsburgh who was dealing with Giant Eagle, they had three spots in Giant Eagle, and the father passed away. Well, the daughter came to us and said, ‘hey, it's November. I gotta get out of Giant Eagle. They need a supplier.’ Of course, my dad says no, man. Well, fundraising in our store, we don't want to do that. I said, ‘we don't have a choice. We got to help this girl out.’
So we did, and we had said, ‘well, how much candy are they selling?’ She says, ‘well, they do about $5,000 per store for Christmas.’ Well, we went in there, those three Giant Eagles, and it was fifty thousand each store.”
Watson: “That’s a bit of a misestimation.”
Bill Sarris: “Well one thing was, we were able to supply them. That's one thing we were able to do. So, they were thrilled. That's how we expanded. What started as going into Giant Eagle was the first grocery chain that we were dealing with. Again, 3 stores, then we did 5, then we did 7, and we did 10. You know, it wasn't like a boom all at one time.”
That was how we stepped into another area of business, when we were host selling and that expanded.”
Watson: “Gotcha. Now does the wholesaling represent a majority of the business that Sarris is
Bill Sarris: “It's a part of the business. What we do is, I was using my hands, you know, because we have corporate sales. We have our retail store, we have fundraising, we have private labels. I'm probably missing something, but there's the big four.
So I always said it. We try to keep them relatively important. Because if you lose a finger you know you can still golf. Okay.. you can still go so you don't put all your eggs in one basket.
The hotel end is a big, growing part. We're out in a lot of stores, you know? Let’s expand again. It's word-of-mouth where you have Hallmarks and you have, you know, Giant Eagle, then you know the grocery Shopping and Saves. You have just everyday self owners that own stores and that one premium chocolate. So, we've got probably thirteen hundred stores, okay? 800 stores that we actually service. We do the servicing in every one of those eight hundred stores.”
Watson: “What does that entail? I'm not particularly familiar with retail.”
Bill Sarris: “When we go into a store like Giant Eagle, we say all we want is a location, that's it. We want to pick the location with you. We need the square footage that we ask for, and our people will place your orders. We will restock everything, keep everything going, and you don't have to do a thing. They don't do anything and we have 100% guarantee of the stock. So, you know, it’s phenomenal. They don't have to do anything, and we manage it all. That's really the key to it's worth, so service-oriented, and every part of the business that we do. That's a big key that I have, you know competitors, in a sense can't do that.
Again, we're local. Now you know I say local. We go about 150 miles that we service, and do this in these stores, so, you know, outside of that is a different story.”
Watson: “Gotcha. Yeah, that was one of my notes, it's kind of mid-atlantic region Ohio, West Virginia, and Western PA.. being able to serve that area. What's fascinating there is the brand name. I even kind of thought about how you know the names of the last names that would be familiar to someone who grew up in Pittsburgh, like I did. Sarris is one of those names where I can picture the exact square footage. that You probably know the like dimensions down, but if I walked by it in the Shop and Save right where I grew up, I can picture exactly that kind of area that you can see the brand.”
Bill Sarris: “It's a key that we want to be very consistent on. It’s building the brand and keeping that brand.”
Watson: “If you think about the decision that those retailers are making, you're not a headache because you're servicing it yourself. There is a brand. There's a demand, particularly, in the one half of the year when people are wearing more clothes to have that candy. So, it becomes a very easy decision for them to keep you in stock and to keep you in that position, because there they've got 18 other things that they're trying to deal with, and Sarris is there selling.”
Bill Sarris: “Correct. They don't have to put any labor into it or anything. There's no cost other than space. Space is valuable, you know? Every little space is valuable in those stores, so to let us operate the way we do is really important.”
Watson: “So when you think about the brand, you eluded the brand in the last answer. You know, every single part of packaging is distinct. The coloring is distinct. It's got to be good candy. When you brought in some of these pretzels here, we're probably gonna devour these as soon as or maybe even before you leave the building. That's a huge part of the brand. It being, you know, tasty and delicious and people wanting to continue to consume it. What were the other considerations beyond that as you thought about
building the Sarris brand? How else have you thought about that as the company has grown?”
Bill Sarris: “We're starting to stretch a little bit in areas that our brand is not familiar. So, we're going out there. We're recently working with some brokers. I know when I say recently, I'm saying in the last four months.
There's two brokers that we’ve hired. There's one in Kansas City, and there's one up in the Buffalo area. The Buffalo area is doing a piece and going into some chains with specific products. Now they don't know our brand, so we have to go in there and make sure we try to get people to taste it. So, we do tastings. Hopefully they like that taste and they're gonna go buy that, cuz candy is very regional, okay? Everybody grew up okay with a certain candy.
It's like I'm spaghetti. No matter how bad it is, it's my it's mom spaghetti, and that's what everything is compared to. So is candy. Candy is regional for us. To go in an area and not have a brand and know people don't know our brand makes it very difficult to build that territory.
Unless you go into, and what we're doing, you go into places like you know, Century 21/C 21s in New York. We're working with them. They're gonna do some stuff for Easter specific products. Now what we forced them to do is that we have to make an impact. You can't just throw a couple boxes of pretzels or a couple eggs on a shelf. There has to be a reasonable amount so that our brand statement is there, and that's the key again. It's the, you know, the color, the packaging, the things that people are going to remember and hopefully go back and say, ‘man that was good.’ You have to go try that, and that's, you know, the-word-of-mouth is a huge key when you're not in our own little area.”
Watson: “As a retailer, they're, you know, they maybe have their certain areas that are mainstays that they're selling in a certain square footage. Then with another part of their square footage, they're always testing to find the other thing that will sell better than the other things that they're trying in their space.”
Bill Sarris: “They are any place you go. Any retailer that you go to, we look at it. Do you go to Target and you see a wall of chocolates from everywhere? You know, from Europe, you know, you ask everything. The things you never heard of but they're key to selling is that they sell more afterwards on sale than they do during the holiday. Well, I don't want to deal like that. I don't want to stick my product in the center with that other stuff. I need to stand out.
I want the candies over there. I want to be over there on my own little hole. I need that niche. Otherwise, we don't do it. We have to keep our brand. The word brand is just so important, and it's difficult sometimes to get salespeople today convinced that you know what, I don't care about them selling. I care about the brand. The brand will sell eventually, okay.”
Watson: “Well that's the challenge with incentives. You know a salesperson that's on a you know a quarterly sales goal or some sort of yearly quota is strongly incentivized to kind of see things through a short term lens. Beyond just having your name on the actual packaging, there's a degree to which when it's a family business, when you've been in it for a while, and you intend to maybe not just bring it yourself to pass it onto the next generation. You are gonna over-optimize an over- index on that long-term reputation and brand. Perhaps even at the sacrifice of some short-term revenue.”
Bill Sarris: “But their long-term revenue is so much better. Yeah, okay, it's like an investment over long-term. You're gonna make much more than you would in one short little bang, and yes, does it happen? Sure. Do okay in other things, but you know on the brand end, to build that brand we have to keep certain standards.”
Watson: “Yeah, so another question that I wanted to ask you about while I had you was that you mentioned the grocery stores. I've seen it in both Giant Eagle and Shop and Save. I remember seeing it in Hallmark, but Hallmark has had some hard times, and in general across retail there, it's a slightly overblown media fabrication. The retail apocalypse and these stores and malls and not being what they once were, with the advent of the internet, and the explosion of direct to consumer brands that are kind of built as e-commerce being kind of the initial or the first assumption of a channel, and then, you know, Warby Parker has a store now. I sense a trend. They have physical retail locations, but they're starting internet first, and what's fascinating to me is they have to invest. I was just looking at the Casper Mattress IPO they have to invest boatloads into marketing to try to build a brand out of nothing, whereas a company like Sarris that might not have the same like starting DNA of selling things online has that brand equity that's been built up over 50 years that can be tapped into. and My question to you, and all that is
navigating this transition, maintaining relationships with retailers, I'm already having the relationship with a lot of schools as part of their fundraisers as you think about the digital side and the e-commerce side of a chocolate business how have you been thinking about that?”
Bill Sarris: “We've done quite a bit with online sales, and it goes back of course when there were people that you had to get on the internet. It was called ‘internet in a box guy,’ and it was thin on boxes and stuff to plug in. There was an advertising agency that we were using at the time. The guy's name was John Juno. He passed away. He said, ‘hey, you need to have a website.’ What? I didn't even know what he was talking about, okay? ‘You need a website. You need email addresses. We're gonna do this. They're gonna do direct mail, but you're gonna get people. I'm gonna put an order form in this mailer and you're gonna put a phone number, and you're gonna put this website thing on.’ Their ‘website thing’ I called it.
They're gonna be able to go on there, and they're gonna place an order, and you're gonna get the order. You're gonna send it up. I said, ‘alright let's try it.’ So, that time it was way ahead of our time.
Everybody didn’t have the internet okay, we called it mail order. It was something because the brochure we sent out was a candy store in your mailbox, so you got a catalog, and then you could call and you do that. So, on the digital end, we've been doing it for years. It's a big part of our business that we sit and do that. Especially because you got a lot of transients that leave Pittsburgh.
Okay, they're gone. They're out. You know them to sit there and go ‘oh my God, you got a website. That's great! Let me order some candy.’ The only problem with sending candy online is Florida/Arizona. The heat, that's of course packaging, and that's ice packs, and things like that. That was the other finger on the business. It was the digital end, which we just been doing and that continues to grow.”
Watson: “Yeah, I would imagine so, and the craziest thing about that is that's where brand becomes even more significant because maybe I come in the grocery store. I'm just looking for candy, and it catches my eye, and I go over there. I don't necessarily know what it is that I'm picking up. For someone to come to the website and for someone to make that online order, it really has to effectively be the brand that brought them there. They remember that candy they had as a kid.”
Bill Sarris: “Correct. It's the only way, you know, you're not gonna get people/strangers that are calling them. Facebook's big for us in communicating with, what do we want to call them, fans.
On Facebook, we do a lot of email stuff and a lot of promos and stuff, and that's the art, basically. That's our customer Instagram. We do stuff on there that’s small. You don't sell there or even on LinkedIn. It's more of a connection than it is a place where you're gonna go. Somebody's gonna buy something, yeah, but you're out there, and that's really what it is. You are out there and somebody's gonna see something, okay, and you might get lucky and get a new person that says ‘hey, let me try that.’ That's something that we do on our end, to sit there and say ‘you know, what we're 100% guaranteed. You try it, you don't like it, give me your money back.’ So does it happen, yeah. Occasionally, somebody will say, ‘oh you know what, I'm used to dark chocolate. I don't like milk chocolate.’
No problem, you know? It's not a problem, but you can't mean that that type of thing is going to grow continuously. You're not gonna get away from the digital stuff. That's where you know, that's the Amazon.”
Watson: “What about experimenting with products, so like,what you brought in here that the pretzels, I don't even know how many of these have eaten in my life, but this is an old reliable. This has been a staple of the Sarris product line for a long time as you may be you're looking at reports, maybe it's through testing, what do you think about new product lines that you could introduce versus just timeless classics of the chocolate business that you know the eggs that are just going to continue to deliver for every Easter?”
Bill Sarris: “We always look and see what new products may be taking chocolate and presenting it in a different way. The fad stuff never works for us. That doesn't work for us. Our customers are people that know us have a favorite.”
Don't screw with their favorite piece of candy, you don't. That's what they're gonna go to, okay? With everybody watching their calories, and this health thing, and all that kind of stuff, they're enjoying their candy. They're not gonna take that gamble.
They go say ‘oh I'm not trying that new thing I just want what I like.’ So we kind of stick with the basics, okay? Then we make every type of candy that you can think of. But not the fad stuff that comes. I can't even think of a fad thing that's been in and out. I can't even think of one.”
Watson: “Yeah, it makes sense. I have a good friend, and he talks about Cinnabon. They experimented for a while with like a low carb, low fat cinnamon roll that somebody gets it like the mall or the airport and it's like.. that's not the job of Cinnabon. Cinnabon’s job is ‘I'm having a terrible time, you know, transporting from one place to another, or you know, in the mall I want my indulgence, and I don't need half of my indulgences. I want my indulgences.’ That's the job that you have as a role to play, and these feel like that type of role.”
Bill Sarris: “That's exactly it. This is what you're selling right here. I can't take sugar out of that chocolate because it's not gonna be the same. Okay, I can't use soy instead of milk. I can't. I can't do that. There's beans, there's milk, and there's sugar, and some cocoa butter, okay? I mean there's not that much to it, you know? That's what people want. You can't change that. I can't do it. I can't do that. It is what it is.”
And that's the brand. It's reliable and it's trusted and that's why so many people love it. You know what you're gonna get when you're sitting there doing that.
You've traveled a little bit, where you're driving down the road and you're hungry and you see these little restaurants along the way but you don't stop, and you see Wendy's or McDonald's and ‘you know what? I'm gonna go there.’ You really don't want to go there, but you do there cuz you know what you're gonna get.
You have the other place, you might not get one. So this one ,here, I'll take that. Okay, and again that's their brand. You know their brand. You know exactly what you're gonna get when you go there. It might not be exactly what you want, but you know what you're gonna get.”
Watson: “Yeah. That's a powerful note to end on, Bill. We've got our standard last two questions that we always ask but before we end. Is anything else you were hoping to share today before we ask any more questions?”
Bill Sarris: “You can come and see us. Our biggest thing here is that we want people to come to our store, and we do things all the time to get people in there from murals, to things, and now we're building a whole wall that's gonna be a chocolate waterfall. Come see us, online visit us on all the digital sites from Instagram to LinkedIn, and join me on LinkedIn. I always post a lot of stuff on LinkedIn.”
Watson: “I was impressed by how much you're posting.”
Bill Sarris: “Yeah I got it. That's the only digital thing that I do myself. For everything else, we have our own team that does it. For that one, there's mine, and I just like to have fun with it.”
Watson: “I was gonna make an acknowledgement of that. I do like the way you use LinkedIn.”
Bill Sarris: “Now I think if I don't do something, I'm thinking like they're gonna go ‘oh why isn't he doing something? Is Bill okay? So what's going on?’”
Watson: “Right on. We're gonna link that all in the show notes. We'll have the website, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and all that good stuff for people in the Podcast app. We're probably listing this right now or in the show notes at goingdeepwithaaron.com. Before we give you a chance to issue the actionable challenge for the audience though, I want to ask one other question that I almost forgot about. In 1997, you acquired Gardener’s Candies, which was kind of more of a Central PA based candy company. Can you talk a little bit just about the acquisition that happened but also what you learned from acquiring a business like that?”
Bill Sarris: “When we first found out that they were not doing well ,we needed production because our facilities were landlocked. They had a facility there with the equipment and things, so there was an opportunity there to go in and buy it. When we did, of course, there was a decision. They had stores. Do we change it to Sarris? That gave us an opportunity just to have Gardeners. They had a decent name. A good name, and one of the top online products was their Peanut Butter Melt Away, which was trademarked. Gardner's original Peanut Butter Melt Away which still is a great product that sells, so I mean, that was the key.
We went in there, and we kept it. We said, you know what, ‘we're gonna clone it like ours, so if you go there and you see Gardener’s, you'll see our boxes are the same.’ A few pieces inside may be slightly different, but if you'd walk in the Gardener’s right now they may be making Sarris Pretzels. If you come to our place and we're making cherries, we're using Gardener’s boxes, and they're doing cherries, where we are two companies under one umbrella.”
Watson: “Yeah, and you've become integrated- all your systems and processes.”
Bill Sarris: “Yes.”
Watson: “What's curious to me is that Gardener’s, when they were under some rough times, made a choice to come to you versus go to some private equity firm or some other potential avenue for capital.”
Bill Sarris: “They were already sold to somebody else, and then a salesman had come to me and said, ‘hey, did you hear about Gardener’s?’ I said, ‘no, what's going on?’ He says, ‘they sold to I don't know who they were, but they sold to somebody.’
A week later he called. Well, a week later, he calls me and says that sale went through. I looked at my dad, and I said, ‘hey, we're buying a place.’ He said ‘you're crazy.’ I am like ‘we're buying it. We need it. It's perfect for us and it's not that far.’
We went in literally the next day. Him and I went up there and we wrote a check. I said to borrow the money. He said, ‘no, we're writing a check. Let's just get it out of our hands. I don't like to borrow money.’ I'm gonna bar on anything, so that was his thing. We did that, and I mean, we went in and I lived there for two years. I went back and forth all week long. I just stayed there. There were people who thought I was crazy, but I've been in from scrubbing the floors, to cooking in the kitchen, to running the lines cuz I wanted it done my way.
It was a surprise when they'd see me crawling under a machine and fixing something and doing that stuff, and they said that you know he's crazy. Well, no that's what I do. People don't realize I've done all that.
Okay, because I grew up making little bundles of 12 bunnies before I went to bed at night, so you know, it was interesting for people to see that down and dirty, I was in there. I could run the equipment. I could cook everything. I could do that, and scrub the floors. I want somebody who has never scrubbed the floor before and say I'll teach you how to scrub a floor. I don't want somebody coming in and saying ‘oh I've been a janitor for years.’
‘I'll teach you. I want to teach somebody, and that's how you build a great team. It’s your being able to speak from experience, and they become your family, and they love you. They don't like you, they love you. They have a great job. They do well. I told the kid that was 20 years old, I said, ‘you know you're gonna have a 401k. You're gonna get this. You got your health insurance.’ I said, ‘you realize if you're here.. you're 20 years old, by the time you're 65, you're gonna be a millionaire.’ It's very difficult for somebody that's making $10 an hour to understand that. I'm matching some numbers for him. He's gonna put 20 bucks in, I'm gonna put 20 bucks in. ‘So by the time you retire, I'll still be working’, he's gonna be retired.
You know, so it's interesting to go in and buy a business like that and walk in the door, teaching people that you are exactly like them, and that you're working with them. Even though you know you're the boss, you know I'm the guy.”
Watson: “Yeah, it's powerful. This has been fantastic talking with you, Bill. It was great. I really enjoyed it. I want to give you the opportunity to take the mic one more time and issue an actionable challenge directly to the audience.”
Bill Sarris: “What's an actionable challenge?”
Watson: “An actionable challenge means that sometimes people will say ‘go consider all of the options, and do what's right for you.’ It’s very fluffy and superfluous. We're talking about things.. that maybe something you've done yourself or that you recommend other aspiring ambitious people could do in the next day, week, or month that's tangible, you know?”
Bill Sarris: “The message to anybody really is to.. yeah like my kids.. my kids are 40. Now that generation, but the next generation, my grandkids- there's so much going on, so many things, so many opportunities, I don't know which direction anybody wants to go.
I did go find something. Do something you're gonna really enjoy doing- you can't wait to go do it. I don't care what it is. I don't care what it is! You've done it. , I went to school for this, and you went another direction- same thing that I did. So you know, is school important? Sure. It's important, but if you find something you like, and that's just an old saying, you find something you like, go do it. Go after it. Opportunities are just there, out there, there's so much to do especially now.”
Watson: “Yeah, that's a beautiful note to wrap up on. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast.”
Bill Sarris: “It was great I loved it.”