Aerial photo of MSU (photo courtesy of: Michigan State University)
Michigan State University is a sprawling and beautiful campus of leafy trees, ubiquitous green & white team colors, and intriguing experiences, such as visiting the World’s Largest Library Comic Book Collection.
Located in East Lansing, about 1hr 30mins west of Detroit, the school was founded in 1855 as a prototype land-grant university and renamed MSU in 1964.
MSU currently sits on 5,200-acres dotted with 566 buildings. Over 50,000 students attend here. There are 27 resident halls and over 900 registered student groups on campus. Yes, this place is massive. It’s one of the largest universities by population in the USA.
MSU’s Nuclear Physics graduate program ranks # 1 in the nation. Magic Johnson & Sam Raimi attended MSU simultaneously in the late 1970’s. Fun factoids abound.
I’m here visiting the MSU Library, the building which contains the main portion of the comic collection.
Red Cedar River (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
You park on the north side of Spartan Stadium in Lot # 62 W (99 Red Cedar Road, East Lansing). You ‘pay by plate’ by the hour. Then, use the footbridge to cross the beautiful Red Cedar River and enter the library doors straight ahead.
Once inside, the Special Collections Reading Room is on your left. This is where you’ll read the comics.
As the world’s largest library/academic comic book collection, the MSU Comic Collection is a true world resource.
Sure, Mile High Comics in Denver has a self-estimated eight million comic books in three warehouses and a single individual, Bob Bretall, in Mission Viejo, California has over 105,000 comics.
But the MSU Collection is catalogued, indexed, available to the general public free of charge and managed by comic book expert, Randall W. Scott.
Randall W. Scott, or “Randy” as he prefers to be called, is an MSU Special Collections Librarian, Comic Art Bibliographer, and head curator of the MSU Comic Art Collection. Working here almost 50-years, Randy has one of the greatest jobs on the planet: reading and archiving comic books.
Yes, a state university had the foresight to bankroll Randy’s unique expertise and thus, help fund a world-class collection of pop culture artifacts in the form of comics books. We’re so jelly. Randy, I want your job.
MSU’s Comic Book Curator and Head Honcho: Randy Scott
Randall W. Scott, aka: Randy, head of the MSU Comics Collection (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
“I’ve always enjoyed comic books. I like the format of blending words and pictures. I also read a lot of books without pictures. Mainly, I like thinking about how the literary form of comic books works and is evolving. Comic books are different from every other kind of storytelling. And I like the theoretical questions associated with comics and collecting comics.”
“I grew up on a farm in Alpena County in a little town called Hubbard Lake. I like to practice reading in other languages like French, German, Spanish. My foreign language level is fair. But my level of reading comics is pretty good.”
“In the late Sixties, I migrated to Lansing and attended MSU while working at Curious Book Shop, a used & rare bookstore run by Ray Walsh. I was Ray’s first employee and the comics buyer there back when Curious had an upstairs that was all comics. Stan Lee did a signing there once! I met Ray while we were both students at MSU. He was famous for riding his bike around campus in a trench coat.”
The Paper (image courtesy of: Michigan State University)
“As a student here at MSU, I worked as a writer and editor on an underground paper aptly called ‘The Paper’ and toward the end of its lifespan, it became absorbed into SDS, Students for a Democratic Society. There was a national movement for underground papers at that time. Detroit had The Fifth Estate, Ann Arbor had The Sun and so on. In June 1969, we had a convention in Chicago where SDS split and The Weathermen became one of the splits, so I briefly became an original Weatherman before it became the Weather Underground.”
“I have a B.A. from MSU and an M.S. in Library Science from Columbia with a concentration in cataloging and indexing.”
“I started working in the MSU Library back in 1971. I had various jobs, including being a preorder typist, whereby I would send out orders to jobbers to order books. I started cataloging the Comic Art Collection in 1974 when I developed a system for indexing and cataloging them and I’ve been here ever since.”
“In 1975, a high-school student stole our Amazing Spider-Man # 1 comic book. We knew who it was but couldn’t prove it. Today, in good condition, that comic is worth around $100,000.”
“After that happened, I decided to take on the job of looking after the Comic Collection, during my lunch hours, as a volunteer.”
MSU Comic Collection: At 350,000 items, it’s the World’s Largest Library Comic Book Collection
MSU Comic Collection (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
Randy and I head downstairs, one floor below the Reading Room.
The Comic Collection is housed in long rows of electronic Spacesaver mobile storage units. The lights are on 120-second timers, thus, if there’s no movement for 120 seconds, the lights go off.
“We have the main core of the collection here. Then we have about 700 shelves of international comics at an offsite, remote storage warehouse.”
Russell Nye: Creator of the MSU Comic Collection
Russell B. Nye circa 1978 (photo courtesy of: Michigan State University)
“The MSU Comic Collection started in 1969-70 when MSU professor Russell Nye donated 6,000 comic books, mostly 60’s-era Marvel superhero comics, to the university.”
“Around 100 of the comics were his, the rest were from some of his senior students who donated their collections to him for his new Pop Culture course.”
“Nye taught in the English department from 1941-79. He was an early proponent of Pop Culture Theory and I had him as a teacher. Nye was a gentleman, always wore a suit, taught 19th century American Literature and had an inquiring mind.”
“At the time, comics were deemed ‘inappropriate material’ by academia. However, Nye was respectable, he had also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1945, so they couldn’t deny this pop culture scholar’s donation of comics.”
Comic Buyer’s Guide issue # 1 (1971) image courtesy of: Michigan State University
“Comic books had already been around for over 100 years and it took them that long to get academic recognition. I did Independent Study with Nye and wrote a paper called ‘Comics in Libraries’ where I argued for their inclusion.”
“Prior to this, academic libraries had been reluctant to collect and study comics, which they foffed off as ‘subliterature’. It was revolutionary times. The spirit of the time was to open things up and do what hadn’t been done before.”
“Nye wasn’t thought of as a radical but being a proponent of putting comic books in libraries was definitely a radical idea at the time. It’s hard to fathom now because it’s more commonplace. Now over 50 libraries have permanent comic book collections.”
It’s a Midwest thing: Michigan and Ohio Lead the Charge
Bowling Green University’s Popular Culture dept. (image courtesy of Bowling Green University)
“Ohio’s Bowling Green University started a Pop Culture department around the same time. The Journal of Popular Culture started in 1967 at Bowling Green and was edited by Ray Browne. They now have the Browne Popular Culture Library, which is the world’s largest collection of pulps, dime novels and ephemera.”
“In 1977, Lucy Caswell started the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University, which is now the world’s largest repository of original cartoon art.”
“It was a Midwest thing. We started putting comic books in libraries, then NYPL followed suit after a few years and now it’s a global thing.”
“In 1978, the Russell B. Nye Popular Culture Collection was officially titled as a branch of the Special Collections. This collection includes the Comic Art Collection, 10,000 volumes of sci-fi (mostly monographs), probably 5,000 books, magazines & fanzines, and loads of Popular Fiction (ie: dime novels, pulps, detective, westerns, etc).”
MSU Library’s Carolyn Blunt (c. 1973)
A Taste of the Goodies
Young Allies # 1 (1941) photo by: Ryan M. Place
“The hardest part of being a Comics Librarian is cataloguing. Cataloguing is a daily, ongoing process. On January 1st, 1981, we stopped using the filing index card system.”
“Every year we get deliveries of 12 to 20 boxes of comics sent via UPS. Gerber invented mylar comic sleeves. I order these babies 5,000 at a time. Cataloguing all this stuff takes time.”
“We have 7 copies of the original Obadiah Oldebuck here, the first comic ever created.”
Obadiah Oldebuck, the first comic book ever printed (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
“We have the personal microfilm collection of Detroit comics guru Jerry Bails and the #1 CAPA-Alpha (1964).”
“We have all sorts of comics: Young Allies # 1 (1941), Walt Disney Comics and Stories No. 1 (1940), Wonder Woman # 1 (1942), R. Crumb’s Zap # 1 (1967), etc.”
“We have about 600 Underground comics, 10,000 volumes of Manga, 1 million comic strips donated by Dick Webster, and large holdings of Eclipse, Marvel, DC, Fantagraphics.”
“We have the King Features proof sheet collection from NYC (1930’s-1990’s).”
Rodney Ford scrapbooks (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
“We have 530 scrapbooks of daily newspaper strips. They came all at once from Rodney Ford in Sacramento, California. Over 100 titles from the 1920’s-1970’s. He made the scrapbooks meticulously by hand.”
“We have 17,000 Golden Era comics (1938-52), the first 1,000 of which came from Jim Haynes, a Connecticut racetrack owner who grew up in Port Huron, Michigan.”
“We have the Lexikon der Comics, the only copy in North America. It’s a German language encyclopedia of comics.”
“The list goes on and on. MSU has a tradition of keeping the best two copies of each item. Our triplicates we give to the MSU Surplus Store to be sold, and proceeds of these sales come directly back to the library to continue supporting the collection.”
Lexikon der Comics: German language encyclopedia of comic books (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
MSU’s International Comics @ the Remote Storage Warehouse
MSU International Comics inside Remote Storage warehouse (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
After touring the main collection, Randy drives us to an offsite warehouse in Lansing, about 15 minutes away from the main library. The facilities coordinator, Josh Maki, lets us in.
The warehouse is divided into two massive rooms.
One room contains international comic books on 10 and 12-foot-high steel shelving. The other room is a high-density storage bay of 800,000 books and bound journals. Big blue-box air scrubbers clean the air.
This is but one warehouse in a complex of warehouses. The others are: Folio, Special Collections and RSA. The comics warehouse is RS-F and called ‘remote storage’. Spread across the complex, there are around 1.7 million items.
MSU Remote Storage warehouse (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
“Here we have about 700 shelves of international non-American comics from all over the world. For instance, we have 1,800 comics catalogued from India alone.”
“We have shoe boxes full of two million daily comic strips, plus big boxes of proof sheets, Sunday sections, etc.”
“The most we ever paid was $130,000 for 13,000 European comics in the 1990’s.”
“We get about one international visitor per month, mostly from Europe and Asia.”
“When visiting, please remember that international comics must be requested at least three full days in advance.”
Funding: Where does the money come from?
“I get a little slice of the annual MSU Library book budget. I also have a couple of endowments which provide funding. Our total annual budget is around $40,000.”
“In regard to acquisitions, I have a Collection Development statement that I follow when we want to acquire new material for the collection.”
In addition to the budget Randy receives from MSU, generous supporters also lend a hand by giving funds in support of this collection.
For more information on ways you can support the collection, contact:
MSU Libraries’ Development Office
MSU Special Collections
MSU Special Collections Rare Book Collection (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
Established in 1962, the MSU Special Collections department contains 450,000+ printed works, several manuscript and archival collections, a huge stash of ephemera, and more.
MSU has a massive collection of Sixties Radicalism pamphlets and papers. You can find these in the American Radicalism Vertical File (ARVF).
The Special Collections Rare Book Collection is at the end of the comics collection, behind a vault door, inside a temperature-controlled room.
It contains the Charles Schmitter Fencing archives. And the oldest printed book at MSU: Scriptores Rei Rusticae (1472, Venice). They even have a Book of Hours here.
Randy’s Final Thoughts
Randy Scott at work in the MSU Library basement (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
“Well, I’ll need to retire one day, I suppose.”
“My replacement will need to be enthusiastic about comic scholarship, knowledgeable in the field of comics books and care deeply about growing the collection and understanding how important it is.”
“The MSU Comic Collection is always open to donations of comic books. If you or someone you know wants to donate their collection, they can email or call the MSU Libraries’ Development Office.”
“Personally, I think it would be cool if the library put a little more recognition into the comics, such as the graphic novels. We have a ton of graphic novels, including the first-ever, Will Eisner’s ‘A Contract with God’ from 1978.”
Randy Scott at work in the MSU Library basement (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
“There’s a future in academic comic study. It just depends on administrative attitudes. Currently, MSU offers two minor degrees in Comics.”
“Every February, we host a two-day long MSU Comics Forum here on campus.”
“Visiting scholars with an MSU netID can apply to stay overnight at the Owen Hall Grad Dorm here on campus.”
“Plan a trip. Let us know you’re coming. We look forward to seeing you.”
MSU Comics Forum (courtesy of MSU)
Donate your comic collection to MSU by emailing Randy Scott and the library development office:
Search the MSU Comic Collection here
Randy’s Comic Index
Russell B. Nye Popular Culture Collection
MSU Comics Forum
Map of MSU Campus
Library of Congress has 150,000 comic books
MSU logo (image courtesy of: Michigan State University)
Ryan’s Final Thoughts
Having toured the collection multiple times, I feel it necessitates its own building.
Due to the size, importance and future growth potential of the collection, MSU should consider centralizing the entire collection under one roof exclusively.
You could also add a museum component to this, complete with display cases, regular events and periodic in-person signings.
Ryan’s Recommendations on Visiting the MSU Comic Collection
While visiting MSU, you might want to make time to check out the following:
1.) Brody Square (241 Brody West) campus food hall
Brody Hall (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
Brody Hall (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
Park in the Kellogg Conference Center parking garage (219 S. Harrison Rd.) for $1.50/hr. Walk directly across the street to Brody. Up on the 2nd floor is one of the most ingenious campus food hall concepts ever created.
Brody features 9 to 12 food stations. For $10.00 per person it’s all you can eat, all day long. And yes, this is open to the general public.
They have a wondrous array of food featuring things like:
Burritos, sushi, spicy crab soup, Cajun fish with mashed potatoes and gravy, Hudsonville ice cream (get the Cake Batter with chocolate syrup), 15 breakfast cereals, pepperoni pizza, vegetable spring roll, miso soup, mango slush drink, pasta with spinach and alfredo, breadsticks, and more.
Also impressive is their automated tray system. You walk over to a moving wall of empty metal racks and slide your tray in and it disappears into the back for the cleaners. Every university in the country should replicate this food hall model.
2.) MSU Dairy Store @ Anthony Hall (474 South Shaw Lane) 9am-8pm
MSU Dairy Store (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
MSU Dairy Store (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
MSU Dairy Store grilled cheese (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
Park out front at the meters. 8 minutes per quarter or use your credit card.
This is an ice cream parlor open to the general public and run by the MSU Department of Food Science. All the ice cream is made right here at MSU. You can even buy half-gallon tubs!
I recommend trying a double scoop of the Sesquicentennial Swirl and Dantonio’s Double Fudge.
Also try the Grilled cheese on sourdough with a cup of soup.
3.) Curious Book Shop (307 East Grand River Ave)
Curious Book Shop (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
Curious Book Shop (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
Park directly behind the store. $2.25 for 90 minutes maximum.
Opened in 1969, this is a used & rare bookstore with a large sci-fi section.
The store is owned by Randy’s friend Ray Walsh. Ray has done a tremendous number of good things for the book community over the past several decades.
Ray puts on the annual Michigan Antiquarian Book & Paper Show. You can usually find Ray himself a half mile down the road, running his other bookstore, Archives Book Shop (519 W. Grand River).
Some Other Cool stuff in Lansing:
Potter Park Zoo (1301 South Pennsylvania Ave, Lansing)
Zoobie’s Old Town Tavern (1200 North Larch Street, Lansing)
Lansing Brewing Company (518 East Shiawassee St, Lansing)
Meat BBQ (1224 Turner Rd, Lansing)
Randy Scott (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
MSU Special Collections gift of Jim Haynes (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
MSU Comic Collection cataloguing (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
MSU Library basement (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
Comics Librarianship Handbook by Randy Scott
Comics Librarianship Handbook by Randy Scott
Randy Scott at work in the MSU Library basement (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
“Embrace what makes you special.”-Dave Zilko
Most people have heard of Garden Fresh Salsa. What many people don’t know is how difficult it was for former vice chairman Dave Zilko and founder Jack Aronson to grow Garden Fresh from a bankrupt startup into a $231 million-dollar business.
I’m sitting at Fuel Leadership headquarters in Downtown Birmingham with Dave Zilko.
Dave is now CEO of Fuel and graciously invited me to talk with him about his life. I read his amazing tale ‘Irrational Persistence’ and was very impressed by his uncompromising perseverance and it’s an honor to be here.
Dave is a Detroit entrepreneur and business veteran who helped grow Michigan’s own Garden Fresh Salsa into the dominant # 1 fresh salsa brand in the world. All the odds, however you look at them, were stacked against Garden Fresh but they prevailed over seemingly impossible odds.
Reading Irrational Persistence is akin to taking an MBA course. It’s an honest account of real-world experience and it doesn’t get any more authentic than personal experience as told from an entrepreneurial fighter’s perspective.
If you’re thinking of starting a business, you should read this book. It should be required reading for all MBA programs as a real-world case study.
Business can be warfare. Entrepreneurial Warriors need to suit up for battle, while forging an advanced morality, so you’re not heartless or slimey in your dealings with others. Business is the Art of Aligning Compatible Relationships for Mutual Profit.
When Dave and Jack pooled their resources together, they were millions of dollars in debt.
However, they were talented, hardworking, had great products and assembled a great team and they were able to grow Garden Fresh into a $231 million-dollar company, which they eventually sold to Campbell’s in 2015.
The success of Dave Zilko will change your conception of what is possible if you’re a hardworking and persistent entrepreneur.
Dave Zilko is an enterprising Detroiter. He received his B.S. in Finance from Michigan State University, and his MBA in Marketing from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
He’s an operating partner with Huron Capital and serves on various boards like Forgotten Harvest (USA’s largest food rescue organization), Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville Enterprises charity arm Singing for Change, Grow Michigan venture fund, the WSU Ilitch School of Business and more.
Dave Zilko went thru hell to get where he is. In the early days, he was up to his eyeballs in student loan debt, selling marinades and life insurance and cracking hundreds of thousands of eggs by hand.
This is his tale.
“I was born and raised in Warren, Michigan, grew up at 11 ½ Mile Road and Van Dyke. I have wonderful parents and was the first one in my family to go to college. Worked my way through school. I used to be a bagger at Great Scott (now Kroger) for $2.14 an hour.”
“In terms of money management, I’m self-taught. I saved money on my own because I really wanted to go to college. I had paper routes when I was 12.”
“Always been drawn to writing. I was even the editor of my high school newspaper. Putting my personal story on paper in book-form was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my entire life because it’s tough knowing what to include and not include.”
“My ultimate goal with the book is to help aspiring entrepreneurs understand just how hard it was and how long it took to build a successful business. We struggled hard for over a decade to build the company.”
“After MSU, I spent a life-changing summer in France and fell in love with the food and wine culture there. Came home, did an internship at GM in Downtown Detroit. Then went to Washington, D.C. for grad school. I lived in Georgetown and had a great time.”
“After graduating, I decided to follow my passion and start a specialty food company called American Connoisseur, where I started making marinades. My first order was for 96 cases. Only problem was I had nowhere to make them.”
“So, I found a spot in Sylvan Lake, Michigan, a tiny medieval dungeon of an office, and got right to work. The good people at Discover credit card company soon discovered that I couldn’t qualify for a loan, so I asked my girlfriend to help me out. She thankfully did and yes, we’re married now.”
“After that I bought Mucky Duck Mustard Company. The owner, Michelle Marshall, was retiring and she owned a forklift, which we badly needed, so I bought the company from her with an $108,000 loan from my dad. Michelle originally started the company in the 1980’s at her house in Franklin, Michigan.”
“Mucky Duck is a British pub-style mustard, so eggs are an ingredient. For years, every day at 5 a.m., I had to personally break eggs for the mustard. I estimate that I’ve broken over 800,000 eggs over the years. Mucky Duck won the world championship of mustard one year and I still own the company.”
“11 years later, after my lost decade, I met world softball champ and Detroit entrepreneur Jack Aronson in 2002 at a food industry show at the Javits Center in NYC. Jack and I were both in debt, both Detroiters, both food lovers and we became friends immediately.”
“Jack is an amazing individual. He’s an energetic dreamer and unrepentant softball fanatic and I’m proud to be his friend. Together, we made Garden Fresh Salsa internationally popular.”
Garden Fresh Salsa: You get what you pay for
Salsa originated centuries ago among the Incas and Aztecs. It wasn’t called “salsa” until 1571 and it wasn’t brought to the United States until 1916 when they started making it in New Orleans. Jack started Garden Fresh in 1997.
Fans of Garden Fresh Salsa say, “it’s worth it, it’s like you made it yourself.” Garden Fresh uses all-natural, high-quality ingredients which creates a memorable and almost addictive flavor profile.
In June 2015, Campbell’s bought Garden Fresh for $231 million dollars.
$231 million dollars is a lot of money. Picture 231 piles. Each pile has $1 million dollars. What’s harder to imagine is how incredibly difficult it is to generate that kind of money. Especially from an originally bankrupt startup making salsa in the unlikely city of Ferndale, Michigan, which, being a small Midwestern city, had zero salsa street cred.
Garden Fresh Salsa was launched by Jack Aronson in the back of his now-closed restaurant, Clubhouse Bar-B-Q (22016 Woodward, Ferndale, MI). Jack was making the salsa in 38-lb. batches inside 5-gallon buckets and had $4.6 million dollars in annual sales when he met Dave.
In 2002, when Jack formed a partnership with Dave, their goal was to get to $10 million dollars in ten years. Instead, Dave helped get them to $110 million dollars. Garden Fresh became the #1 brand of fresh salsa in the United States, making up 31% of all US salsa sales.
Then they became the largest brand of tortilla chips sold in deli’s, and after purchasing Inkster-based Basha Hommus in 2007, they became the 3rd largest hummus manufacturer in the US.
“Jack Started making the salsa at Clubhouse. One day, Jim Hiller of Hiller Markets showed up, he tried the salsa, loved it and started carrying it at his 6-store grocery chain. That’s how it got started.”
“When I joined Jack in 2002, we did everything together. Jack and I were strategically in sync. For the first 5-years, I was in the plant daily. Then gradually, I handled deals and traveling, while Jack handled operations, which was getting the products made and to market.”
“Our absolute uncompromising commitment to high-quality helped create an almost legendary brand loyalty among customers. For instance, some analysts told us that we could save $213,000 per year by not hand-peeling the onions. We didn’t listen to them because we refused to compromise the integrity of our flavor profile.”
“Also, to this day, 75 tons of Garden Fresh salsa are made daily in 5-gallon buckets. Back in the old days, it took us 20 minutes to make 6 pints of salsa. Now, assembly lines make 6 pints every 9 seconds. That’s 1,500 pints of salsa every 10 minutes.”
Garden Fresh: Turning Points
“Bringing in a Creative Director to get the branding right was essential, as was the strategic pivot to become a full-service deli supplier. We bought a tortilla company, a hummus company, we did the Margaritaville deal, etc. We were on a roll.”
“Another huge turning point was the introduction of the High Pressure Processing (HPP) machines. HPP helped Garden Fresh become the world’s largest fresh salsa company.”
“Jack has always loved fresh, natural ingredients and hated preservatives like sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate. However, we had a big problem.”
“Garden Fresh had managed to get into Costco, which is an enormously difficult thing to do in and of itself, and within 18 months, we were the #1 salsa. Costco was our largest customer, they were buying $20 million dollars’ worth of product annually.”
“Problem was that our products were literally exploding on the selves at Costco. We had to make larger 48oz. Costco club format bottles of Garden Fresh salsa and we couldn’t keep the salsa fresh for a long period of time, so gases would build up and they would explode.”
“HPP changed everything. HPP machines apply 87,000 pounds of pressure to food, killing all bacteria, which makes the food last 5x’s longer. No preservatives are needed. HPP machines are developed by Avure in Columbus, Ohio and manufactured in Sweden.”
“The machines are not cheap. They’re $2 million dollars each. And they weigh 105,000 pounds each! You have to have at least a 6-inch thick concrete floor just to support them.”
“In order to get the machines, we had to secure an Industrial Revenue Bond. When I showed up to sign the documents, I found myself in an office, staring at a large conference table. On the table were 43 stacks of paper, each stack about 6-inches high. It was worth it because HPP’ing the salsa changed everything.”
Garden Fresh: Sold to Campbell’s for $231 Million Dollars
“It was not easy to sell Garden Fresh to Campbell’s because we had worked so hard building our company over the years. Myself, Jack, his wife Annette and their 5 kids worked there. Jack grew the company from nothing. We were very attached to Garden Fresh.”
“However, we felt we had taken the company as far as we could. Competing for shelf space with giants like Nestle and other Fortune 500 companies is wicked. For instance, recently, Nestle, the world’s largest food & drinks company, paid Starbucks $7.2 billion dollars to sell its coffee. These are monster companies with inconceivably vast resources.”
“Campbell’s secret internal name for the deal was ‘Project Diamond’. It took awhile to finalize the arrangement and close the deal but eventually we signed the 104-page purchase agreement and Campbell’s added Garden Fresh to their product portfolio.”
“In business, you try to create the best products you can and gain market share. You also have to know when to hold and when to fold and due to uncontrollable market forces, it was the right time for us to exit.”
“After the deal, I did consulting for Garden Fresh for 6 months. Jack still consults with them on occasion. Jack’s big focus now is his company Clean Planet Foods in Clinton Township. Jack and I remain great friends and we still talk at least 2-3 times per week.”
“After Garden Fresh, I joined Fuel Leadership as CEO. Fuel is a video-centric digital media company and we’re bringing a fresh perspective to leadership development. We target millennial professions ages 18-34 and storytelling is our preferred method of communication.”
“How it works is we sit down with an individual for 45 minutes and film them as they tell us about their life and work. We distill the final interview down to 2 minutes. We’ve interviewed over 50 people so far, including AOL co-founder Steve Case and clothing designer John Varvatos.”
“We’re also working on Fuel U. We’re reinventing the university newsletter model to make it more relevant, interesting and easily digestible for busy people. Launching this Fall, four University of Michigan Ross business students will make an UM specific newsletter at Fuel.”
Located in the beautiful art deco Guardian Building in Downtown Detroit, Huron Capital is a private equity company. They have a “buy-and-build” investment model and have raised over $1.7 billion dollars by investing in 130+ companies through 6 private equity funds.
“Huron has a diverse portfolio. I’m an Operating Partner, which means I don’t have a formal association. They buy companies and they send me food deals and I analyze the deals for them.”
“For example, in 2011, they bought Brooklyn-based Victoria Pasta Sauce and I joined the board. They fixed up the company and sold it in 2016.”
“Huron Capital is a class act, both personally and professionally. I met Jim Mahoney, one of their senior partners. He introduced me to the founding partners and that’s how I came onboard.”
Dave’s Final Thoughts
“Sometimes you have to be irrationally persistent to be successful in business.”
“95 out of 100 new businesses fail. So, by definition, starting a new business is not rational, since it only has a 5% chance of succeeding. If you believe in it, you must persist. If you can make it to the 10-Year Mark, you’re doing good.”
“Fresh salsa was an emerging market at the time and we had the best flavor profile by far. Garden Fresh went from $4mil to over $100mil in a decade.”
“I look for the holy grail of American capitalism: emerging markets that are not yet saturated. My advice to you is look for the holy grail and build that company with strategic layers that your competitors can’t match.”
“I’m also a huge fan of higher education. The most valuable thing I got out of MSU was my social development skills. Being immersed in a university environment took me out of my shy protective shell. During my grad school years at George Washington, they had the Harvard Case Study format, where they presented cases that we had to solve. It was there that I truly learned how to trust my strategic instincts.”
“During my summer in France, I came to enjoy European “stealth service” at restaurants, where they don’t interrupt you. The European approach to food is fundamentally different than ours. Americans are optimistic by nature, Europeans are more pessimistic because their countries are older and more experienced. They think tomorrow will be worse than today, so they live more in the moment than we do. Americans are gradually becoming more European though, especially millennials.”
“My wife and I love Chardonnay, good conversation and good food. We also love Michigan. The Traverse City area is especially beautiful.”
“Never thought in my lifetime that Detroit would be where it’s at right now. I’m absolutely thrilled. Detroit was in decline for 50 years, now it’s coming back strong. During my travels, I’ve really cultivated a deep appreciation for the Detroit ethos, people, beauty, low cost of living and all of the amazing resources we have here.”
“I have a passion for business. I love food. I am driven largely by the intellectual stimulation of trying to create value. I love the art of business. There is definitely an underappreciated art to good business practices.
“Part of me is achievement-oriented, I need to be busy and creating value, so I don’t know if I’ll ever fully retire.”
“Whatever you do, in both your personal and professional life, commit to a standard and never deviate from it. It’s better to have clearly defined values and stick to them, rather than compromise your own personal integrity.”
Huron Capital profile
Dave Zilko (circa 1992)