Food industry veteran Paul Smucker Wagstaff takes Eagle Foods to next phase with acquisition of snack brands

Photo: G. H. Cretors/Facebook

In the food and beverage industry, 100-year-old companies are adapting with the times. Eagle Foods’ acquisition of ready-to-eat popcorn brand G.H. Cretors is one prime example.

With four condensed milk brands in its portfolio (Eagle, Magnolia, PET, and Milnot), the space in which Eagle Foods can thrive in was small. However, it is a small category with not many other competitors. Among buyers of condensed milk, the four brands are iconic, originally owned by the company Borden, which traced its roots back to 1857.

“It’s weathered the time, pre-civil war and through the civil war,” said Paul Smucker Wagstaff, CEO of Eagle Foods. As his middle name suggests, Wagstaff came from another centuries-old legacy name in the industry—The J.M. Smucker Company, founded in 1897.

“It’s sustainable, and [a category] you can rely on,” Wagstaff told FoodNavigator-USA. “Hispanics use the products at a four-to-one basis compared to non-Hispanics.” This means, for every non-Hispanic buyer of condensed milk, there are four Hispanic buyers, a fast growing demographic, who buy it on a monthly basis, according to Wagstaff.

Founding Eagle Foods

Wagstaff had bigger plans for Eagle Foods. It all started when the fifth-generation Smucker left the J. M. Smucker Company in 2014 for his own entrepreneurial pursuits. “I’ve always had an interest in running my own food company, and I always had an entrepreneurial bug in me,” he said.

He partnered with fellow Ohioan and long-time friend Jeff Boyle, an entrepreneur and investment banker, to start their own food company. They found the private equity company Kelso, and then went out to search for businesses to acquire.

Around this time, Wagstaff learned that Smucker’s was selling its canned milk business, which it bought from Borden in 2007. Wagstaff was familiar with the Eagle condensed milk brands, as it was one of the Smucker’s brands he ran while still with the company. He jumped on the opportunity, and established the new Eagle Foods as its own company in the end of 2015.

“From that point, that was our platform business, and we looked for other acquisitions to add-on to this business,” he said.

The Perfect Match: Another centuries-old, family company

Wagstaff said that Eagle Foods’ next step was to get a slice of the booming snack market. Ready-to-eat popcorn in particular has emerged as a leading category thanks to its less indulgent, healthier slant, according to Euromonitor.

In August 2016, Eagle Foods acquired ready-to-eat popcorn brand G.H. Cretors, which has its roots in the family-run popcorn machine company Cretors, established in Chicago in 1885. A member of the Cretor family established the popped popcorn brand in the 1990s, and it was passed down until it was renamed G. H. Cretors—after the original founder of the corn popping machine—in the 2000s.

“So I understand what family businesses are like and what are the dynamics in family businesses. When we met with the Cretor family, we had a connection,” Wagstaff said. He was drawn not only to the history of the brand, but in how the brand differentiates itself by popping everything in-house (instead of co-packing), making its own caramel in-house, and launching original flavors like dill pickle and jalapeno white cheddar.

A new direction for Eagle Foods

Under Eagle Foods, the brand is ready to expand it organic popcorn line. “We’ve launched three new flavors [to the] line of organic popcorns,” Wagstaff said. “We have an organic salted butter, an organic honey butter kettle corn, and an organic white cheddar.” The products were launched in June this year.

The company is preparing to expand G.H. Cretors brand popcorn beyond the club store, where it has been mainly distributed and enjoyed sales growth, though Wagstaff didn’t specify numbers. Outside of club stores, he said that the brand’s all commodity volume (ACV) is at 25%.

With the expertise coming from three different 100-plus-year-old companies, Wagstaff wants to grow Eagle Foods to become a company with a ‘bold’ portfolio in the snack and bakery aisles. He’s attracted to buy ‘underloved brands’ of other big companies, as the case was for the Eagle Brands condensed milk line, and revamping it.

“Our background here, our team has very senior CPG people, so if there is an orphan brand or underloved brand, we can put it in our portfolio [and turn it around] to a leading brand,” he said.

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