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Allan Buller joined Worthington Foods as a young ex-soldier right after World War II and served as an executive at the legendary Adventist food company for more than 50 years, until he retired as president and CEO in 1986.
He watched the company grow from a small Adventist-focused business to a nationally valuable brand with a sales volume of more than $200 million and meat substitute products on the shelves of supermarkets across America. He watched the world of business and marketing evolve, as well as the attitudes of people toward vegetarianism. Spectrum interviewed him about his years as an Adventist businessman.
Question: You began your career at Worthington Foods just after World War II. How did you get the job? What challenges did the company face in the late 1940s?
Answer: I began my career with Worthington Foods in 1945 immediately following my discharge from active service in the U.S. Army. James Hagle was the manager of Worthington Foods at that time.
Jim and I had known each other for a number of years prior to my four plus years in military service. We both were alumni of Andrews University (then Emmanuel Missionary College), although he graduated some four years before I did.
Both of us were students from the community at Berrien Springs rather than dormitory students. He was president of the college senior class in 1935 - the same year I was president of the academy senior class. We played ball together, as well as being involved in other activities of mutual interest.
While I was serving as supply sergeant for the 1400-bed U.S. Army 102nd General Hospital and was stationed in England, Jim wrote to me and suggested I visit him at Worthington Foods before accepting employment anywhere else after the war was over. I responded by telling him I was interested in going back to school to pursue graduate studies leading to an MBA.
Jim pointed out that Ohio State University was located in Columbus, and just a few miles from Worthington. He suggested I take a position at Worthington as assistant manager and at the same time enroll at Ohio State University.
When I got my Army discharge my wife and I visited Worthington and decided to accept Jim's offer. We moved there in December of 1945, and I became an employee of Worthington Foods. I enrolled at Ohio State University shortly thereafter, and received my MBA degree in 1952 after working full time and attending classes part time. In 1948 Jim accepted the position of manager at Harding Hospital in Worthington and I was asked to replace him as manager of Worthington Foods.
The big challenge facing Worthington Foods at that time was an adjustment in the mission of the company. During the war years - under meat rationing - Worthington Foods had been busy trying to meet the public demand for a non-meat protein food that could serve as a replacement for meat. There was also a need to expand facilities and to raise capital for that purpose. The big question for the company was: Can we continue to produce and market a vegetarian protein food with no government meat rationing to support the business?
Question: How many employees did Worthington have when you joined the company, and how many does it have now?
Answer: We had less than 30 employees when I joined the company in 1945. When we merged with the Kellogg Co. in 1999 we had more than 500.
Question: The Morningstar Farms brand launched by Worthington in the 1970s has become very well known in supermarkets across America. How did the marketing for the Morningstar brand differ from the marketing for brands targeted at the traditional Adventist market?
Answer: Actually the initial launch of the Morningstar Farms brand was done by Miles Laboratories, which had acquired the rights to market the meat analogs developed by Worthington, along with the technology of how to make them.
When Worthington reacquired those rights in 1982, the product line had already been introduced into the supermarket trade. Of course Miles had to rely on advertising and sales promotion to get things started. They began by selecting the name Morningstar Farms to pique the interest of consumers. This introduction also involved persuading consumers there was a valid reason to use the products. Miles was aided in this by research that had established a link between the consumption of animal fats and the presence of cholesterol and plaque in the arteries of human beings.
Adventist consumers were already aware of the benefits of protein from non-animal sources through the church’s health education programs. So advertising to the Adventist market could be directed toward taste, economy, and convenience.
About this same time young people of high school and college age began to sense the social and economic - as well as possible moral issues - involved in raising and killing animals for human consumption. By the end of the 20th century some 200 colleges and university cafeterias were on Worthington’s customer list and moms around the country were asking: “What can I feed my child, newly converted to vegetarianism, when he or she comes home from school for the holidays?” Mom, why not try a Morningstar Farm chicken or hot dog? They contain no animal fat, they taste good, they’re good for you, and you can get them at your local supermarket!
Question: Why did Worthington put so much effort into the Adventist market over the years? Didn’t that restrict the company in some ways?
Answer: In all the years we were in business we saw the Adventist market as our prime target. In a sense it was our raison d’être.
We began our business with that market in mind and were committed to it from then on.
When we merged with Miles Laboratories in 1970 a provision was included in the working agreement contract to ensure that the Adventist market would continue to be served by the company. After we reacquired the business in 1982 we continued to respect our commitment to the Adventist market. It was important to us, and we wanted our Adventist customers to know they could count on having our products available in the future even though we might merge with another company.
I’d like to point out that during our years with Miles we insisted on maintaining our policy of avoiding the use of meat products and meat derivatives as an ingredient in our product formulations. We insisted on this even though it was pointed out to us, and we agreed, that meat extractive flavors might make our products more palatable to the public taste. This policy did restrict us in some ways, but we felt that our Adventist and other customers who were vegetarian were counting on us to make sure Worthington brand products contained no meat or meat derivatives other than milk or eggs. In this respect we felt we were adhering to the traditional lacto-ovo vegetarian diet preferred by Adventists and others. Had we compromised our position in this matter we might have increased our sales - but we might also have confused or alienated our customers.
Question: How would you describe Worthington’s connection to the Adventist church?
Answer: As a private company and as a chartered corporation Worthington could have no direct connection with the Adventist church. But individuals who were shareholders, employees, or members of the board of directors could be, and were, members of Adventist churches nearest their homes.
For example: George T. Harding III, MD, one of the principal founders of the company, was an Adventist, a graduate of Columbia Union College and the Loma Linda College of Medicine. Beginning in 1948 and continuing for several years he took a leave of absence from Harding Hospital as its President and served as President of Loma Linda.
James L. Hagle joined Worthington Foods in 1941 as General Manager. He, too, was an Adventist and a graduate of Andrews University, as well as of Northwestern University. He was serving as President of Worthington when it merged with Miles Laboratories in 1970. While President of Worthington Foods Mr. Hagle also served as a member of the Ohio Conference of SDA Executive Committee and the Columbia Union Conference Executive Committee. Later he was elected to serve on the Kettering Hospital Board.
For my part, I was an Adventist graduate of Andrews University. During the 50 or more years I was employed at Worthington Foods, I not only filled every corporate office of the company at one time or another, but also served on the Ohio Conference of SDA Executive Committee for 23 years and on the Columbia Union Conference of SDA Executive Committee for over 15 years.
Most of our key employees at one time or another filled important offices in their local churches. There has clearly been a close working relationship and support to the Adventist church from people who were a key part of Worthington Foods throughout its history.
Question: How did the market for meat analogs change over the years?
Answer: I believe these were among the most important factors in change:
1. A growing public awareness of the possible link between high serum cholesterol levels and the consumption of animal fats.
2. A developing interest on the part of consumers, especially young people, in modifying their diets to eliminate, or at least minimize, the consumption of animal meats because of a perceived moral issue in the killing of animals for human food.
3. As the demand for meat analogs grew so did competition. This led to a significant increase in the number of companies producing and marketing these analogs. Among the newcomers were Garden Burger made by a company in Oregon and Boca Burger made by a firm in Florida. Although Worthington Foods continued to be the leader in the industry, newcomers meant the competition grew keener and larger companies began to see potential for these products.
Question: Did Worthington begin to put emphasis on other healthy foods as time went on?
Answer: Yes, I would say that became of interest to us. Other products that we added to our line included Kaffree Tea™—a caffeine-free tea which we imported and repackaged for retail sale. This tea, known as rooibos or red tea, had been grown and used in Africa as a beverage for decades. We also added a second beverage, Roma™, which was also imported (in this case from Europe), and repackaged it as a caffeine-free alternate to regular coffee. At one time we test-marketed canned mung (soy) bean sprouts and Kel-jel made without animal ingredients as an alternate to the popular gelatin products on the market. Lack of consumer response ended the tests and we continued to place primary emphasis on meat analogs.
Question: In the early 1980s you re-mortgaged your home, along with other Worthington executives, and took great personal risk to buy back Worthington Foods, which had been taken over by Miles Laboratories and Bayer AG, in turn. Did you take the right decision? Why did you and the other executives agree to be taken over in the first place?
Answer: An adequate response to this question might require a rather extensive explanation of management philosophies, which could take more space than we have here. But I can say this much: I don't believe any of us who were involved in the reacquisition of Worthington Foods had any doubts about what to do when the opportunity came - even though the cost and risks involved were high.
Former president James Hagle, George Harding IV, the son of co-founder George T. Harding III, and I were convinced we should proceed with the chance we had to reacquire the business. It was the only way the future of the company and its purposes could be met. We pooled our resources, such as they were, and moved ahead. For me the decision meant re-mortgaging my family’s home and using my accumulated retirement funds. James Hagle had the foresight to make sure the name Worthington Foods had been legally safe-guarded. George Harding was willing to use his family's identity and financial resources to support the move.
It proved to be a wise move. The company became even more successful than it had been before the merger with Miles Laboratories in 1970.
Our merger with Miles had come about because we knew of at least four nationally known companies who were seriously exploring the possibility of entering the market with their own brands of meat analogs. A friendly merger with Miles, who agreed to continue making the Worthington brand of foods even though they anticipated establishing their own brand, seemed more promising and more prudent than trying to compete with a company with more resources and more experience in marketing than we had. James Hagle, George Harding, and I all felt we had a moral obligation to protect the interests of Adventists and other users of meat analogs.
Question: Later, Worthington went public. What was the reason behind listing on the stock exchange? Did a new responsibility to shareholders hamper the company?
Answer: When Worthington Foods merged with Miles Laboratories in 1970 both companies realized manufacturing capacity at Worthington would be inadequate to meet the needs of their expected sales volumes. Plans for a new plant at Worthington were initiated and the new factory was completed in 1972.
As the planning and construction moved ahead it became clear that the 10 acres of land owned in Worthington did not provide for any further expansion should it be needed. Miles decided to purchase a food manufacturing facility that had become available in Schaumburg, Illinois, near to its own administrative offices located in Chicago. Miles decided to use the Schaumberg site for the production of the newly developed Morning Star Farms line of products.
About ten years later, Miles itself became a partner in a merger with Bayer AG, a German company that was looking for an American pharmaceutical company with whom they might jointly work in expanding their markets. This newly formed company did not want to continue in the food business, which, in turn, provided an opportunity for Worthington to acquire its own meat analog business back, plus what had been launched by Miles. Worthington Foods chose not to include the Schaumberg operation in its purchase, because it believed it could meet its projected sales for a number of years with production limited to Worthington.
Following our takeover of production and marketing of all analog products we experienced a surge in sales that created the need for additional production capacity. We were able to find land in an industrial park in Zanesville, Ohio, about 60 miles from Worthington. Because no new manufacturing businesses had come to Zanesville for a number of years, the city offered us tax incentives and other benefits to build a new plant there. However, this would have taken millions of dollars of capital, which we did not have at that time. After a review of investment potential among our Adventist acquaintances, we concluded we could not generate enough capital quickly from that resource. Accordingly we decided to explore going public with a stock offering. This proved to be successful, but it also brought new problems.
We soon discovered that public interest in stock investment is more directed toward financial return than to better eating habits. Furthermore, publicly held companies must learn to live with financial analysts, who see their purpose as that of helping companies to maximize profitability for the benefit of investors in the company. This places pressure on company management to make decisions that don't always coincide with management's vision of what is best for their company's customers. Under this constraint we were not always able to do what we felt was best for our customers. Expecting financial analysts to understand and share these ideals was not always practical or feasible.
Question: When did Worthington Food experience the biggest growth?
Answer: It all depends upon what you mean by growth and how it is defined. I’ll respond in general terms. When we completed our new plant in 1972 we achieved a 250% increase in production capacity. When we completed our second plant construction at Zanesville we more than doubled our 1972 capacity in the production of frozen foods. Our production of frozen foods represented the major portion of total production and sales. The total number of employees peaked by 1990 when both the Worthington and Zanesville plants were in operation. As our technology and efficiency improved, production increased without an increase in the number of employees. From 1960 to 1970 our total sales volume increased 1,000% but in real dollars the increase between 1970 and 1980 was greater than it had been in the previous decade. This was also true for the decade 1980 to 1990 over the preceding decade. In capital investment, we never stopped growing.
In summary I would say that our history of growth was geometrical in nature, rather than arithmatic. Profitability did not keep pace with production and sales increases, but we did continue to show increases in earnings as well. The year 1945 was the only year we did not show a profit and that was due to a post-war adjustment. In 1945 when I joined the company we had annual sales of less than $200,000. By 1999 our sales volume was approaching $200,000,000.
Question: How did the challenges the company faced in the 1990s differ from those in the 1940s?
Answer: Challenges in the 1990s differed from those in the 1940s because we had become committed to meeting the interests and needs of the public rather than to a segment of it.
A second area of challenge had to do with the increase of competition or possible competition from large companies who were beginning to see potential in what we were doing.
A third area of challenge was in the field of finance. It had become necessary for us to expand in order to meet market demands. Raising capital was a real challenge. This is why we decided to go public with stock in our company. This, in turn, brought pressure from stockholders who were more interested in profit than in sound nutrition principles.
Question: When were you the busiest? What did you enjoy most about your job?
Answer: The most intense activity I experienced at Worthington Foods came during the time between August 15 and October 15, 1982. Those were the weeks we were preparing for the reacquisition of the company after 12 years affiliation with Miles Laboratories.
I was the Worthington representative in negotiations. It had already been decided that I would serve as the President and CEO of Worthington Foods after the company became ours again. The familiar phrase "the buck stops here" seemed to apply. I was busy trying to raise capital while adjusting to line authority after years in a staff position. Putting together a management team for production, marketing, research, human resources, and finance took all the time and energy I could muster. There were development and communication of plans to be shared with customers, vendors, employees, prospective shareholders, etc.
During this time my attaché case containing details of plans was stolen from my locked car. My prayers were answered in recovery of these valuable documents.
Life was a bit hectic but with God's leading and help we began business as Worthington Foods on Monday following the closing of business as a division of Miles the previous Friday. A big factor in making this possible was a decision on the part of every employee to accept our invitation to continue working for the company vs continuing with the former parent company. Regaining control of the company and helping it to become a private company once more and successful beyond our expectations was the biggest thrill I experienced while I was a part of Worthington Foods.
Question: What has been Worthington Foods best selling product of all time?
Answer: I’m not sure I can specifically answer this question because different products were leading sellers at one time or another. I can say this much: Our reputation as a vegetarian food producer began with our early product, Choplets. This was a meatless steak-like product made from wheat gluten. The name was adopted and registered as a trademark by company management after it was suggested as a name by George T. Harding IV, son of the company’s co-founder and just ten years old at the time. George’s family had just completed a meal at which Choplets were served and the question was asked, “What name shall we choose for this product when we’re ready to begin marketing it?“ George suggested his choice of names and Choplets went on the market in health food stores, Adventist book centers and campmeetings and rapidly became a favorite of many consumers - so much so that in time it began to be used as the generic term for any wheat gluten steak made and sold by any company.
Choplets thus became the best-selling vegetarian product made by Worthington. Even New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel served Choplets during wartime rationing. Later when Veja-Links, a meatless “hot dog” were introduced, they took over the number one spot for a while. In time frozen vegetarian foods came into their own, and because we were able to make them available to the public in supermarkets they took the lead in sales.
Question: What is your own favorite Worthington food?
Answer: My favorite Worthington food when I first joined the company was Choplets, but they are not now made the way we used to make them, so they no longer are my favorite. I guess my favorite among the products currently made would be Morning Star Farm Grillers.
Question: When did you step down as Worthington’s chief executive?
Answer: I stepped down as President and CEO of Worthington Foods, Inc. on January 1, 1986. I was succeeded by Dr. Dale E. Twomley who had joined the company some three years earlier as the intended successor. Before that he was serving as head of the business department at Andrews University.
Under Dale's leadership the company continued to grow at a rapid pace. He was instrumental in negotiating the acquisition of the Loma Linda Food Co. and later the purchase of land in Zanesville, Ohio, and the subsequent construction of a new plant in that area. As president and CEO he also took a lead role in negotiations with the Kellogg Co. when it acquired our business in 1999.
Question: What kept you at the company for over 50 years?
Answer: I enjoyed my work. I felt the company was responding to a genuine need on the part of its customers. My employer wanted me to stay. I felt the company had a promising future. Our family liked the community in which we lived. All of these had an influence in my continuing with the company for so long.
Question: What would you say is the secret of Worthington’s success?
Answer: I believe the secret of our success is not really a secret. Founders and owners, management, and key employees all believed in the mission of the company. The principles that guided these people were (a) honesty and fairness to employees, stockholders, and vendors, (b) a commitment to our mission, and (c) a faith in God.
Question: What do you see in the future for Worthington Foods? How can it remain competitive as so many other companies get into the meatless food market?
Answer: From a legal point of view the future for Worthington Foods now rests in the hands of the Kellogg Co., which now owns Worthington.
Our Worthington board members decided that the Kellogg Company is better prepared with greater resources to be competitive than we were at the time we sold the business to Kellogg.
I will be disappointed if Kellogg management does not aggressively protect its investment in what has been a promising vegetarian food business. The fact that Worthington Foods and Morning Star brand products continue to be made available in greater variety than years ago is
some assurance of this.
Question: Can you tell us an interesting story from your years with Worthington Foods?
Answer: I’m sure I could identify a number of things that happened during my career that reflect human interest rather than business concern, but there is one that stands out as perhaps being a good example. I call it “The story of the $40,000 tree.”
When I first joined Worthington Foods in 1945 a new factory building had just been completed. In front of it stood a tall and impressive white oak tree. At the time I had no idea of its age, but it looked quite old. Obviously the tree had not been moved or damaged by any recent construction activity. It remained undisturbed for the next 27 years, generously providing squirrels with an annual supply of acorns.
By the time we merged with Miles Laboratories in 1970, it had become obvious that a new and larger factory was needed. The Miles Company hired an architect and assigned one of its engineers to supervise construction. I was asked to serve as chairman of the building committee
The architectural firm had a set of building plans ready for us at the first official meeting of our committee. The first thing I noted was that no white oak tree appeared on the drawings. The architect’s explanation was, ”We feel it needs be removed so the main entrance to the building can be located in that spot.” When I suggested we keep the tree and change the entrance, the architect responded, “Because of the time already spent in preparing plans, it could cost as much as $40,000 to change them.” The Miles engineer added this comment, “I think changing anything at this stage might require approval by a higher authority than this committee has.”
We shortly adjourned the meeting, but I didn’t feel satisfied. At that time Dr. Walter Compton was President and CEO of Miles Laboratories. I had not known him before our merger with his company, but my impression of him was that he placed aesthetics above dollars. I decided to write a letter to him explaining my concern about cutting down a tree that had as much size and history as the white oak standing on property that had just become a part of Miles Lab. I explained that I had arranged for a horticulturist from nearby Ohio State University to give us an estimate on the age of the tree.
His report stated that it in his opinion the tree was standing when George Washington and his troops were fighting the Revolutionary War. That would make it the oldest living thing in Worthington. Dr. Compton’s immediate response was, “We must save it!”
The tree is still alive and well and stands in all its majesty where it sprang from an acorn. Lightning rods and a plaque have been installed. If the tree had a voice I’m sure it could tell us a great deal about how Worthington came to be settled and what life here was like when Indians lived here. Who knows how many Indian children might have played under this very tree?
Allan Buller lives with his wife in Ohio. This interview was conducted via email over a number of months in 2008 and 2009.
A well-written short history of Worthington Foods can be found online at: http://www.answers.com/topic/worthington-foods-inc