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New Ventura Foods Chief Aims to Double Size

BY SHERRI CRUZ

Richard Mazer has taken over as chief executive of Brea-based Ventura Foods LLC with a goal of making one of Orange County’s biggest private companies bigger.

Mazer said he is looking to double the size of what he calls a “big little company” in five or six years. Ventura Foods, which makes Hidden Valley salad dressing and other food products, counts yearly sales of $1.5 billion and employs 2,500 people, including some 200 in Brea.

“It might be an ambitious goal,” Mazer said. “But I think it’s possible.”

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Along with salad dressing, Ventura makes oils, shortenings and other products for the food service industry, selling to wholesalers, larger chain restaurants and big retailers.

Customers include Burger King Corp., Wendy’s International Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Sysco Corp.

Ventura competes with different companies by product. In oils, Illinois-based Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Minnesota’s Cargill Inc. are rivals. In dressings, Ventura faces off with Kraft Foods Inc. of Illinois and Ohio’s T. Marzetti Co. For margarine, it’s Europe’s Unilever PLC.

Irvine-based Golden State Foods Corp., another big private company here, also is a competitor in some areas.

“Their focus is McDonald’s,” Mazer said of Golden State, which is a major supplier to McDonald’s Corp.

Ventura has about 12 plants, including three in California. One is in Industry, where the company used to be based before moving to Brea in 2003. Two are in Los Angeles.

Ventura doesn’t do any production at its Brea headquarters.

About two-thirds of Ventura’s business is in food service, a segment that has grown faster than retail in recent years, according to Mazer.

Ventura sells big packages of products , 35 pounds of shortening and the like.

In tonnage, shortening is Ventura’s biggest selling product, Mazer said.

Ventura has about 70 percent of the market share for peanut oil, used to deep-fry turkeys, he said.

Thanksgiving turkeys help to make the fourth quarter Ventura’s busiest, according to Mazer.

Some of Ventura’s products are sold at stores, including Hidden Valley and LouAna cooking oils.

Ventura is a joint venture of Tokyo’s Mitsui & Co. and CHS Inc., of Inver Grove Heights, Minn.

CHS, formerly Cenex Harvest States Cooperatives, is one of the largest cooperative marketers of grain and oilseed. It has about $11 billion in sales.

Mitsui, with $28 billion in yearly sales, markets a variety of products and services, including chemicals, food and technology services. The company also has commercial real estate and homebuilding arms in Orange County.

Mazer said the board meets quarterly with the owners. Representatives from Mitsui are based in Brea, he said.

Ventura plans to come up with products through research and development and by acquiring businesses, according to Mazer.

The company is eyeing large business units of companies with national brands, he said.

Ventura also recently came up with a vitamin powder mix for milk that’s marketed to nursing homes and hospitals. The product could find its way to store shelves, said Mazer, who became Ventura’s CEO late last month.

The company has three culinary centers, including one in Industry, which develops products. It also sponsors a program for would-be chefs at the Culinary Institute of America’s Napa Valley school.

Mazer said he expects Ventura’s annual sales to grow faster than the food industry, which is growing at about 5 percent annually.

Ventura’s sales hinge on inflation and the value of the dollar, according to Mazer. Inflation is a concern, he said.

The cost of doing business in California doesn’t help either, Mazer said.

“There’s a bright spot with our new governor,” he said. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger “seems to be addressing the problems.”

As with other companies, Ventura’s workers’ compensation insurance rates have gone up, Mazer said. But the increase has moderated from prior years, he added.

Even with California’s woes, Mazer said he wouldn’t rule out building another plant here. Nor does he have any plans to leave the state.

If Ventura builds a plant, it would be automated, requiring little labor, he said. He’d consider Nevada for a plant but said he would have to weigh the costs of transportation. That could give the edge to California, he said.

Mazer said there hasn’t been a lot of fanfare for him as the new guy. He replaced Jack Davis, who’s now retired after 40 years with the company.

Davis hired Mazer as chief operating officer eight years ago. Mazer said he doesn’t foresee any drastic changes.

“I may do a little streamlining,” he said, “but not much.”


Sherri Cruz writes for the

Orange County Business Journal.

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