Michael Rice, C'65
Savoring the Flavor of Success
By Lisa Gregory
Michael and Jane Rice
Even as a college student at the Mount, Michael Rice had a passion for what the family business in Hanover, Pa., produced. “We talked about potatoes,” recalls David Davenport, who lived in the same residence hall as Rice in the early 1960s. “He knew what made a good bag of chips and what didn’t. Mike took a lot of pride in his family’s business.”
And he shared the wealth. “When he came back from visits home, he’d bring us fresh Utz potato chips and pretzels,” says Davenport, who along with Rice graduated in 1965 and today is a lawyer. “We all looked forward to that.”
Rice would go on to take that passion and pride and create his own place within the company started by his grandparents. “I always knew this was where I wanted to be,” says Rice simply.
Today, Utz Quality Foods Inc. is the largest independent privately held snack brand in the United States, with sales over $300 million annually. The company produces more than one million pounds of potato chips a week, as well as other products, which can be found up and down the East Coast, from Maine to North Carolina. Utz operates distribution centers in Virginia, Delaware and Philadelphia and built a world distribution center at the Hanover facility in 1997. This was done to handle such national accounts as Sam’s, Costco, Wal-Mart and Target. There are also plans to open a new factory in New England.
“You have to have a certain amount of courage to look ahead and take chances if you want your company to expand and grow,” says Rice. “My father and grandfather did this. And I did it as well. You’re not going to achieve significant advances without taking significant chances.”
More specifically, though, for Rice the success of any business, including his own, is in the details. “You have to know the business from the bottom up,” he notes. “You need to have a real understanding of the processes and how they work in order to improve on them.”
Rice learned early. Growing up, he spent his summers working at the Utz factory. And, when it was time for him to consider college, he decided to enter the business program at the University of North Carolina. By his sophomore year, however, he began to wonder if this was the particular path he wanted to pursue. “I took an accounting course and hated it.” He returned home. “My father put me to work that winter shoveling potatoes in the cellar,” he says. It was food for thought. Rice, an avid reader and great admirer of Thomas Jefferson, decided to go where his interests led him. “He was a Renaissance man,” says Rice of Jefferson. “He was a statesman, lawyer and farmer. I really admired that.”
He enrolled at Mount St. Mary’s to study political science and then pursue a law degree. “The Mount was the best choice for me,” he says. “I was able to do three years of work in two and was well prepared for law school.” He recalls fondly from that time one particular faculty member, professor John L. Morrison, who taught history and political science. “He just did an outstanding job teaching those subjects,” says Rice. (There is now an international studies professorship in Morrison’s name at the Mount.)
After graduating, Rice enrolled at The George Washington University Law School. By the time he received his law degree, he was married to his high school sweetheart, Jane, and the father of a son and daughter. Initially, Rice went to work as a contracts administrator for the U.S. Commerce Department and then later joined the Washington Space and Defense Systems Division of the Control Data Corporation. During his early career, he even thought of joining the FBI. “I was drawn to the mystique,” he says.
He and Jane enjoyed life in the Washington, D.C., area. And Rice’s father, who joined the business when he married the Utz’s daughter Arlene, had the Utz Company well in hand. But Rice’s time was soon coming. When his grandfather passed away from a stroke in 1968, Rice was asked by his father to join the business. He did not hesitate. The young family returned to Hanover and Rice became executive vice president. He took over the helm of the company himself when his father retired in 1978.
At that time, Rice saw an opportunity for growth and plunged ahead. “I knew we could move the company further along,” he says. His innovations have included embracing computer technology eagerly and early on. In fact, Utz was the first in the snack industry to use in-truck computers to prepare invoices, manage inventory and process route accounting transactions. Such ideas made a good company even better.
These ideas often came while he was out jogging or late at night when he would wake from a deep sleep. Rice says he spends a lot of time thinking and admits to doing his best thinking while jogging. Or in the middle of the night, “I’d wake up and some solution would come to me,” he says.
As the company has grown Rice has remained true to the original idea of a family atmosphere, a community of workers. “We’ve grown to 2,200 employees, but we still try to maintain the same atmosphere and family relationships we had when there were only 100 employees here,” he says. Adds his wife Jane, “We began as a family business and have remained a family business.”
Rice admits that it isn’t always easy to interact one-on-one with more than 2,000 employees. But it is certainly worth the effort. Employees who are invested in the place where they work are “more conscientious,” he says. “Say someone is loading boxes of chips on a truck and just throwing them on carelessly. One of our employees will say, ‘Don’t do that. Be careful.’ They care and that makes a difference.”
As does listening to what his workers have to say. This is especially important to Rice. “Some of the best ideas can come from those people who are doing the job on the line or in the field with sales. We encourage, recognize and reward people who come up with better ideas.”
The bottom line to his success and that of the company, though, he feels, is the continuous commitment to quality. This has remained so even as the market has changed, with an emphasis on healthier eating. “You can make a healthier chip or pretzel, but people won’t eat it unless it tastes good,” says Rice of Utz’s reduced-fat, no-salt, baked and multi-grain products. “We’ve worked very hard to develop products that meet that demand. For instance, we use natural ingredients as much as possible. Our customers have a certain expectation when it comes to our products.”
“It’s important to Mike that people know we have an established tradition here that focuses on quality,” says Jane.
She would know best of all. Jane has been a constant at his side professionally and personally. “Jane is an extrovert, and I am an introvert,” says Rice. “When I meet someone it takes awhile for me to get to know them. She’s helped me to be more extroverted and open to meeting new people.”
Jane is also very involved with the company, becoming vice president of public relations in 1983. The two are partners in their commitment to the Utz business but also enjoy time away from the company. Jane, like her husband, enjoys reading. He is drawn to historical novels and action thrillers. She likes inspirational books and most recently read “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne. Rice golfs. Both enjoy collecting art and have developed an interest in Native American art, amassing an impressive collection, including works by Allan Houser, one of the most renowned Native American painters and Modernist sculptors of the 20th century. “I have always been interested in Native American history,” says Jane. “I enjoyed the stories of Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea. We’ve taken so much from the Native Americans. Maybe it’s my way of giving something back.”
The two discovered their love of Native American art while attending a meeting out West. A friend suggested they visit the Santa Fe Indian Market, the largest of its kind in the nation. That was in 1982. Since then they returned every year, until the last few years when other obligations interfered. Their art collection has become so large that most of it is in storage, with pieces chosen and displayed on a rotating basis.
“Jane has a really good eye and great feel for art,” says Rice with genuine affection.
“I see it and want to buy it,” says Jane with a grin. But, “Mike’s the negotiator.”
He adds, “I always say, ‘Let’s step away, have lunch, talk it over and then decide.’”
However, “A good bottle of wine and a nice lunch,” she says, still grinning, “and I can usually convince him.”
The couple is also very committed to the community where their roots run deep. Both give of their time and talents to various activities and organizations. Rice is primarily focused on the local hospital and YMCA. Jane Rice focuses her attention on cancer research and domestic abuse issues. A breast cancer survivor herself, Jane often helps Utz employees by offering guidance, advice and emotional support to those who may be dealing with cancer or have a family member with the disease.
Rice says he is drawn to supporting the hospital because it responds to such a need in the community and is important to so many people. Then there are the family ties. “My father served on the board, and then I served on the board,” he says. His interest in the YMCA comes from not having one growing up as a boy, after the original YMCA was closed. He takes great pride in the facility today, which he describes as “probably the largest service agency in York County,” meeting the needs of everyone in the community, “from little kids to the older folks,” says Rice.
For Rice and his wife, giving is about the community. If the couple makes a donation, say to the local hospital, it is done in the name of Utz’s employees. “Never in our name,” says Rice.
“Giving of ourselves is important to us,” says Jane. “We’ve been so blessed.”
And the future looks bright as well. Their daughter’s husband is active in the company and a fifth-generation family member has expressed interest in continuing the legacy: Rice’s 11-year-old grandson is already making plans. “He tells me that he wants to run the company some day,” says Rice with a hint of pride in his voice.