Business

Fort Worth billionaire Sid Bass invests in Blue Bell Creameries

Blue Bell ice cream rests on a grocery store shelf in Lawrence, Kansas. In the wake of a deadly listeria outbreak in ice cream, the Justice Department is warning food companies that they could face criminal and civil penalties if they poison their customers.
Blue Bell ice cream rests on a grocery store shelf in Lawrence, Kansas. In the wake of a deadly listeria outbreak in ice cream, the Justice Department is warning food companies that they could face criminal and civil penalties if they poison their customers. AP

Blue Bell Creameries is getting a little help from a Fort Worth billionaire.

On Tuesday, the struggling ice cream maker announced that Sid Bass has become an investor and partner in the Brenham-based company, which was forced to halt production this spring after being tied to a listeria outbreak.

“The additional capital will ensure the successful return of our ice cream to the market and our loyal customers,” said Blue Bell chief executive Paul Kruse in a statement, saying it was a “significant investment.”

Blue Bell recalled all its products in April after its ice cream was linked to several cases of listeriosis that caused three deaths.

The company plans to begin trial runs of ice cream production at its Alabama plant later this month but has not set a date for resuming sales of ice cream to the public.

Bass, who lives in Fort Worth, has made high-profile investments outside of his family’s oil and gas business before, most notably in The Walt Disney Company, which helped the family entertainment company revitalize itself in the 1980s.

In the most recent Forbes ranking of billionaires, Bass ranked No. 325 with a net worth of $2 billion. Recently, Bass settled a lawsuit over a failed Nevada real estate development.

“We are excited to be a part of the Blue Bell brand and family,” Bass, 73, said in a statement. “Blue Bell is the quality leader in the ice cream industry. We believe quality is the principle attribute that ensures the success, growth and longevity of a business.”

Through his office, he declined further comment.

Blue Bell opened its first creamery in Brenham in 1907 and, until the recall, was selling ice cream and other frozen treats in 23 states. It is an iconic Texas treat that grew to become the third-best selling ice cream in the U.S. behind Nestle, which makes Dreyer’s and Edy’s products and Unilever, maker of Ben & Jerry’s and Breyer’s ice cream.

Doug Renfro, president of Fort Worth-based Renfro Foods, said the Bass investment brings stability to the popular Texas brand.

“You keep jobs in Texas, which is great, and you maintain product integrity,” Renfro said. “We’ve all seen situations where an iconic brand is bought by a larger company and they start cheapening the recipes and it’s no longer the product that you had has a child.”

In May, the company announced that 1,450 workers would be laid off and another 1,400 would be furloughed as Blue Bell shut down plants in Texas, Oklahoma and Alabama. Its ice cream products had been linked to 10 listeria illnesses in four states, including three deaths in Kansas.

The exact size of the Bass investment was not disclosed. The privately-owned ice cream maker likely needed the cash infusion as it tries to restart production, said Michael Sherrod, the William M. Dickey entrepreneur-in-residence at Texas Christian University’s Neeley School of Business.

“Right now, money is only flowing out and has been for months and months now, so any cash reserves they have I’m sure are severely depleted,” Sherrod said. “They’ve been looking for somebody like Sid Bass to play that white knight role so they didn’t have to sell out.”

Sherrod said private equity firms were probably looking at Blue Bell since the company has a solid brand and reputation among consumers despite the listeriosis outbreak. Blue Bell was estimated to have about $650 million in annual sales prior to the recall of its ice cream products.

Andrea Ahles, 817-390-7631

Twitter: @Sky_Talk

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