A Sweet Legacy: For generations, the Holder family has been part of the ice cream business and part of the Mount.
By Lisa Gregory (Originally printed in the Fall 2008 Mount Magazine.)
“Summertime and the living’ is easy,” as the song goes. Unless you are a member of the Holder family, that is.
Then summer means lots of people eating lots of ice cream. And, in that case, your family business, the Hershey Creamery Company, is bustling. In fact, during the summer months, the Pennsylvania company, busy year round, must double its production. Not that the Holder family is complaining, sitting atop an ice cream empire that sells to more than 25,000 retail outlets in 20 states and is one of the largest ice cream manufacturers in the northeastern United States.
“It’s ice cream. It’s fun. When I tell people I make ice cream, they always have a smile on their face,” says Walter Holder, vice president of manufacturing and a Mount alum, who along with family members took a break this past summer to talk about the family legacy of making ice cream, running a successful business and attending the Mount.
For more than 100 years the Hershey Creamery Company has been making ice cream, with the Holder family involved for much of that time. The company was originally started in 1894 by Jacob N. Hershey, who is no relation to the Hershey Food Corporation family, as the company is always quick to point out. However, the Holders have been active in the company since the 1920s, when their grandfather’s business, Meyer Dairy Company, merged with the Hershey Creamery. Actual Holder ownership of the company didn’t take place until the mid ‘60s, when Walter’s father gained ownership through stock purchases. “He saw a good opportunity and took it,” says Tom Holder, brother to Walter and vice president of sales and marketing. “The rest is history.”
The Holder family has been affiliated with the ice cream business for almost as long as they have been affiliated with the Mount. “Our uncle Monsignor Walter Shaull was a graduate of the college and the seminary back in the 1940s,” recalls Walter, who is a 1972 graduate of the Mount. His sister, Mary “Missy” Holder Holtzman, finished her senior year at the Mount and graduated in 1973 as a member of the first class of women. The most recent Holder to come to the university is Mike, Walter’s nephew and Tom’s son. Mike is currently a senior majoring in business.
The family’s relationship with the Mount has been a fruitful one, made all the more significant with Hershey Creamery recently becoming involved with two marketing classes on campus. The company offered students the opportunity to conduct a real-world competitive analysis project for it.
“We have real ties there,” says Walter of the Mount.
Becoming an Ice Cream Man
If you were a Holder in high school and college, you worked summers at the company, as well as holidays, explains Walter. “When I graduated from the Mount, I didn’t just roll into the corner office,” he recalls.
The process is long and involved, with family members learning the business from the ground up, including the production line. But most are eager to do so. Family members currently employed at the company include not only Walter and Tom, but their older brother George, who serves as president, and their sister Mary, as well as sons and daughters, grandchildren and in-laws. “Fortunately, we all like each other,” smiles Walter. “We all get along. We are a business, but a family first. It’s fun coming to work and spending time together.”
But, most importantly, “We trust each other’s judgment,” adds Walter.
Young Mike is among the latest to eye a permanent position with Hershey Creamery after graduating from the Mount next year. His desire to do so goes way back. “I remember in kindergarten, the teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. I said proudly, ‘I want to be an ice cream man!’ The kids all giggled, imagining me in an ice truck driving around selling ice cream.”
Mike no doubt will have the last laugh as he and his older brother, who joined the company in June after graduating from college, look to the future. “We joke that by the time we retire we’ll have extended the business into California,” says Mike. “We just hope to do as well as my dad and two uncles have done. It’s important to us coming into the business to keep it a family business.”
But even as Mike and his generation look to the future of the company with great anticipation, they are forever mindful of the past and what those before them have built. A key to the company’s success, notes Walter, is its determination to “control our own distribution.” According to Walter, “We have our own people making the product, delivering it to the store and putting it away. As a result we can maintain the highest quality. This was how our grandfather did it and how our father did it. It’s our philosophy, and we feel it works to create a better product.”
Adds his brother Tom, “You have to understand that we have people who have been eating our ice cream for 60 years. They are loyal customers. But they have certain expectations.”
This makes the future all the more challenging for the next generation of Holders. “I think about how we will be losing so much knowledge and experience when my father and two uncles decide to retire,” says Mike. “We have mighty big shoes to fill.”
Sharing the Mount Experience
When it came to attending college, young Walter and his siblings were told by their father that “he would pay for it if we chose a Catholic school,” recalls Walter.
That was an easy choice for Walter, who had already decided he wanted to follow his uncle and namesake, Monsignor Walter Shaull, at the Mount. Walter remembers those days fondly. “The Mount gave me a very good head start on my career,” he says. “It was just a wonderful four years in my life.”
Then when it came time for Mike to consider college, he, too, decided to join his great-uncle and his Uncle Walter at the Mount. Like so many others, “I took a tour of the campus and fell in love right away.” He found combining his work experience with his studies especially beneficial. “What I’ve learned during my summers and holidays working at the company has helped me in class, and what I’ve learned in my classes has helped me at the company,” he says. “It’s been a really good fit.”
Walter and Mike, along with Mike’s father Tom, often enjoy getting together for Mount activities and events, including basketball games and the Mount’s appearance in the last NCAA tournament. “I meet up with friends of mine from the Mount, and we get together with Mike and his friends,” says Walter. “It’s a great time.”
He adds, “Here it is 35 or 40 years later and you still feel connected to the place.”
The Sweet Life
The Holders know ice cream, having observed the eating patterns of consumers throughout the past decades. In fact, during the Great Depression the company was the first to offer prepackaged pints of ice cream, making the frozen treat more convenient and readily available to the public.
And despite the endless variety of flavors available today, the company has seen staples such as vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and butter pecan consistently sell best. Vanilla leads the way, says Walter. “People like to doctor it up themselves with different toppings.”
New flavors are introduced by way of flavor houses, with Hershey Creamery purchasing the flavors and even the packaging. Moose Tracks, for example, was originally a Hershey-only flavor. “We made that name brand famous,” says Zach Waite, who is an executive brand manager at Hershey and the son-in-law of the oldest Holder brother, George. “Other companies carry it now, but ours is still one of the better ones out there and a top 10 flavor for us for the past 10 years.”
Not so popular was the company foray into the energy drink industry. “We were the first to offer a frozen energy drink,” says Waite. However, the company quickly discovered that most consumers do not go looking into the freezer section for energy drinks, and the product was scrapped. Just a minor bump in the road of the company’s frozen treat journey.
As for personal favorites, Mike says, “We don’t make a bad flavor.” Spoken like a true Holder. However, he does go on to add that through the years he has had his preferences, from chocolate chip cookie dough to now peanut butter cup. “Who knows? When I’m Uncle Walt’s age I may have a different favorite,” he says.
Speaking of Walter, he has a taste for black raspberry. “That’s always been a favorite,” he admits.
And each day at 3 o’clock will find him making his way down to the lab and bringing back a bowl of ice cream to eat in his office. “I’m never going to get down to my fighting weight doing this,” he chuckles. “But I have a sweet tooth. I can’t help it.”
Who can blame him? After all, it’s ice cream—or as the Holders like to say, it’s Hershey Ice Cream.