I talked with JP Bilbrey, President and CEO and Terry O’Day, SVP of Global Operations about the investment. Both say that the plant is an homage the company’s roots and founder, which is a warm, nice thought. More tangibly, what it does is reaffirm Pennsylvania’s role in the company’s chocolate manufacturing for North America. The plant employs technology never before seen in candy manufacturing, O’Day says, including highly automated IT systems designed to keep Hershey’s Kisses rolling off the lines 24 hours a day.
And while automation means fewer workers in the plant,(Hershey is training 700 of its 4,800 Pennsylvanian employees to run it) the company estimates that it will still produce $1 billion in economic gains for Pennsylvania over the course of five years — coming in the form of supplier contracts, payroll and related spending.
It may be cheaper to manufacture in other countries — and Hershey does, its playing a big game in emerging markets like India, China and Brazil — but when it comes to making chocolate there are other things to consider. For Hershey, that means access to fresh milk. Their West Hershey plant consumes between 300,000 and 350,000 gallons of milk a day — mostly from a 90-mile radius surrounding the plants. And they want short commutes for products to retailers.
The new plant isn’t the only way Hershey is employing technology. Come candy seasons (Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Christmas) they now use a proprietary system to place orders for retailers — so they know how much of each Hershey’s product they should purchase. This alone would be unremarkable, but retailers have come to trust the system so thoroughly that Hershey now uses the system to order competitors’ products for retailers too. The combination of trust and efficiency has reaped the company serious rewards — their market cap that has doubled in the past five years, growing 20% in the past 12 months.
Bilbrey affirms that 80-90% of Hershey products consumed in the US are made in the US, and the company boasts more than a 40% share of the American chocolate market. In that sense, the new plant is part of Hershey’s broader strategy — to maintain, if not grow, share in the US, where it already has a prominent presence, while more or less ignoring another behemoth established market — Western Europe, where they see low growth, established competitors, loyal customers and high price of entry.
“We have outperformed our peer group in North America,” Bilbrey says. “And we see North America as a growth story. We worry about a lot of things, but we are optimistic about what is possible.”
That includes upping advertising, Bilbrey says that Hershey spends as much on advertising now as their entire category did in 2008 — Hershey now reinvests about 7% of net sales into advertising. More proof, he says, that the company believes that brighter days lie ahead for America and that Americans will be spending more of their disposable income on candy.