Shortly after Dylan Lissette graduated from college, he got married and moved to Hanover, Pennsylvania, to work for his wife’s father at their family business: Utz.
"He said, 'I'll hire you, but you're going to have to start as low in the organization as possible,'" Lissette recalled.
That ended up being in the growing chip maker’s retail outlet store and in its mail order department in 1995. Lissette moved up through the ranks, working in marketing, key account customer sales, overseeing regional operations and then running sales and operations.
"So I just worked my way up through time, which I think ultimately, at the end of the day, made my understanding of the business much greater as opposed to coming in at a higher level," he said. "I think it made the other associates not feel like, here comes this guy who married the boss's daughter and then jumped into some position that was perhaps not deserved at the time."
Almost two decades later, Lissette became CEO in 2013 and prioritized M&A in his tenure. From cheese balls to potato chips, Utz used its acquisition strategy to continue growing the company, which produces more than 3 million pounds of snacks per week.
Utz bought Good Health Natural Products in 2014, Snikkidy in 2015, Golden Flake in 2016, Inventure Foods in 2017 and Conagra’s direct-store-delivery snacks business in 2019. Last year, Utz also completed a merger with Kitchen Cooked and bought Snyder of Berlin.
This year, all that culminated into an even bigger move. Lissette led Utz, which will turn 100 years old next year, to a deal with blank check firm Collier Creek Holdings and then took it public on the New York Stock Exchange.
Acquisitions made under Dylan Lissette's leadership
Utz buys Good Health Natural Products
Utz buys Snikkidy
Utz buys Golden Flake
Utz buys Inventure Foods
Utz buys Conagra's direct-store-delivery snacks business
Utz buys Snyder of Berlin
Utz buys Kitchen Cooked
Utz buys H.K. Anderson
Utz buys Truco Enterprises
Lissette said the company began talks with Collier Creek last year. Utz decided on this deal with the special-purpose acquisition company because he said it provides capital while allowing the company to still create its "own destiny" instead of being sold to a big CPG company.
"We're approaching close to about a billion dollars in sales. We have spent the last 10 years doing a lot of organic growth, a lot of M&A... to increase the size of the platform, to become more national, to develop more unique brands," Lissette said. "We ultimately knew that our path, to continue on as one of the larger snack food platforms in the country, was to become public and to have a public company balance sheet to be able to use equity if we needed to incentivize top management, to really compete ultimately against the larger salty snack CPG companies."
Utz hasn't had a negative sales growth year in more than 40 years, but the deal with Collier Creek allowed Utz to pay down debt it acquired through acquisitions over the years. The company will also keep its base in Hanover. Lissette said, "We've always run the business as if you take care of the business, the business will take care of the family."
Growing its snacking empire
Robert Moskow, analyst at Credit Suisse, wrote in an analyst note recently that Collier Creek could help Utz boost efficiency and reinvest in marketing to help grow the family operation.
"Utz is now poised to enter a new chapter of expansion and productivity through recapitalization and reinvestment," Moskow wrote. "...We also see opportunity to add value through M&A, where Utz already has [a] good track record and the industry is ripe for further consolidation."
Utz has already made acquisitions since going public. Its first was buying pretzel brand H.K. Anderson from Conagra for less than $10 million.
Lissette said Utz could innovate with the pretzel brand’s products and branding to increase profit. He said H.K. Anderson has the potential to go from a $10 million brand to $15 million then $20 million.
"Even though that's small, $20 million in a year or two could be $40 million five years from now. That's sort of the way that we tackle it, and we make sure that we can integrate it, we make sure that we're paying the right price, so that it's accretive to the overall business," Lissette said.
Then in November, Utz announced it was buying Truco Enterprises, a manufacturer of tortilla chips, salsa and queso under the On The Border brand from Insignia Capital Group for $480 million.
Utz is also innovating its existing brands. The company debuted Good Health Organic cheese fries and puffs in October to further its better-for-you portfolio.
Lissette said Utz is currently the fourth largest salty snack company in the U.S. and wants to keep moving up the rankings.
"It's like the little engine that could — just continuously keep trudging along, battling it out, working really hard, growing our sales, growing our share, coming up with new ideas, marketing them, branding them, and just doing it with these sort of ultimate goals that over time, as a pure play salty snack company, we'll just continue to move up the metrics of market share, of relevance, of scale and that we hope will sort of ignite a flywheel," Lissette said.