Recent News

Sweet spot: Global family vanilla business to share strategies behind its success

Posted in ,   |  March 28, 2023

The family business clearly was in Matt Nielsen’s blood early.

“During the summer or school vacation, I would ask my dad if I could come to the office for the day,” he said. “We were located in the city of Chicago, so my dad would take me with him, and I’d go to the factory and hang out all day.”

Inside that factory, more than a century of work had led Nielsen-Massey Vanillas to create world-leading pure vanilla extracts, pastes and flavors that had become the preferred choice of bakers and chefs.

Nielsen will share his family business success story at the Prairie Family Business Association Annual Conference April 27-28 in Sioux Falls.

“We’re still relatively new to people as a retail brand,” he said. “Historically, we sold only to specialty food stores and not into mainstream supermarkets.”

That’s evolving, along with the family’s leadership and governance. Nielsen and his siblings are shareholders, and the company now has an independent board of directors and a nonfamily CEO.

“It was definitely quite the journey for us going through that process,” he said. “But I’m extremely happy with it and the results.”

The family’s story is a powerful one, said Stephanie Larscheid, executive director of the Prairie Family Business Association.

“We always look to highlight a multigenerational success story at our annual conference that we know will resonate with those who attend, and Nielsen-Massey Vanillas absolutely achieves that,” she said. “The journey to grow this family business offers so many takeaways for others.”

Seeds of success

Founded as Massey’s in 1907 in Illinois by Richard Massey and Otis Kline, the company began by producing aromas primarily for cleaning products.

“Back then they were all ammonia-based,” Nielsen said. “Now, you get a cleaning product, and it smells like lemon or orange. So that’s how it started, and by the time my grandfather got into the business in 1917, we shifted quickly into food flavorings.”

Chatfield Nielsen Sr. became a partner in the 1920s and bought the company outright when Massey died in 1954.

“In the early 1900s, there was a pretty big explosion in food innovation,” Nielsen said.

His father, Chatfield Jr., joined the business in 1958 and became vice president four years later before succeeding his father as president. In 1963, the company name changed to Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, focused on specializing in natural, pure vanilla products. Camilla Nielsen joined her husband on the leadership team in 1979.

“I had a very distinct desire to work with my father in the business, and I remember making the choice around the time I was 13,” Nielsen said. “So everything I studied in high school and college was geared toward going into the business and gaining leadership experience.”

He began working on the production floor when he was 16.

“Unfortunately, my father passed away while I was in college, so I never got the opportunity to work with him, but I was super passionate about going into the business,” Nielsen said.

That was in 1992. His older brother, Craig, had already joined the business as a vice president, and his mother took over as president.

“One of the first things she did was hire a general manager away from one of our competitors,” Nielsen said. “He was one of the few people my dad trusted and respected in the industry, and she hired him to run the business and found someone who was extremely knowledgeable and highly respected she knew would be a good mentor to my brother and then to myself.”

After college graduation, he joined the business with a focus on production. At the time, there were 10 employees.

Today, there are 100 employees and multiple aspects of the business, from wholesale to retail, supporting the food service industry and custom blending. Nielsen-Massey produces five distinct single-origin pure vanilla extracts.

“Manufacturing – selling our products as a food ingredient to manufacturers – is really our legacy part of our business and how we started and is the majority of our business,” Nielsen said. “Food service is about 20 percent of our business, and retail is the newest part. We started it in 1982, and it’s grown tremendously, beginning in the specialty market, and now we’ve been able to translate into mainstream grocery stores.”

While the company continues to be based in Illinois, it also has a location in the Netherlands and was one the first companies to introduce an organic and fair trade vanilla from Madagascar.

Family approach

While it happened organically over time, each of the three Nielsen siblings involved in the business has taken on a distinct role.

“My brother had most of his experience with our vanilla bean sourcing, which is our No. 1 key ingredient, so he travels all over the world to the growing regions where we source beans and leads our sustainability program,” Nielsen said. “For 20-plus years, I did operations; that was the backbone of my experience, so I ran that for the U.S. and the Netherlands.”

Sister Beth joined the company after years of experience in the restaurant industry, “and when she joined, it was a good time to separate our retail and food service responsibilities, so she took on food service and grew into more of a culinary relations role,” Nielsen said. “She has relationships with chefs around the world and talks about recipe development, and when we have new products, they test them, so our roles all happened organically based on need.”

At the Prairie Family Business Association conference, he will detail further how their family dynamics and business growth have evolved to a nonfamily CEO and an independent board of directors, as well as how the family is approaching its fourth generation.

“We still aspire to continue to grow the business tremendously to pass it along to the next generation,” he said. “We’re not growing the business to try to sell it. We’re growing the business to make it bigger and better, and leave it in a better place for the next generation.”

Matt Nielsen will share much more insight at the 2023 Prairie Family Business Association Annual Conference. Click here for information and to register for virtual attendance.