If you've been living under a rock, perhaps you missed that Blue Bell has been in some trouble for the past few months. Well, now they've received backing from Fort Worth oil billionaire Sid Bass in a move that Blue Bell is characterizing as a show of faith in their status as a stand-up company. In announcing a "significant investment" in the company Tuesday, Bass described Blue Bell as "a quality leader in the ice cream industry."
That seems like an interesting way to describe a company that has been grappling with a listeria outbreak at its plants since at least 2013, according to Food and Drug Administration reports. As we reported in our July 2 cover story, "A Sticky Mess", listeria was discovered in Blue Bell products by South Carolina state health department officials in February. When the listeria was traced back to Blue Bell's Brenham ice cream factory, things really began to go south for the company.
Blue Bell issued its first recall in 108 years of business in March and followed up with a series of small recalls as efforts to clean the factories and get listeria out of the production line failed repeatedly. Finally, Blue Bell’s president and CEO Paul Kruse pulled all Blue Bell products off the market on April 20. By then it was known that 10 people in four states (Arizona, Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas) had contracted listeria, and three of them had died. A Food and Drug Administration investigation subsequently revealed Blue Bell facilities had been testing positive for listeria since 2013. Officials learned through genome sequencing of the disease samples that Blue Bell ice cream had likely been making people sick with listeria since 2010.
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In May, Kruse announced Blue Bell was cutting 1, 450 jobs and furloughing 1, 400 jobs from a workforce of about 3,900 employees. Blue Bell’s estimated revenue was about $680 million in 2014, according to Privco, a firm that provides financial data on privately held companies. This year Blue Bell's revenue could be as low as $500 million, according to the Dallas Morning News. That will be a sharp hit at the company. Considering that, on top of the fact that the company hasn't been able to produce ice cream for going on three months and there's no telling when they'll be up and running again, the Bass investment has come along at an opportune moment for Blue Bell. There's no way of knowing exactly how much the oil billionaire put into the company or why — since Bass hasn't indicated any of those details and Blue Bell is also keeping quiet on that point — but it certainly reads like an incredibly well-timed intervention on behalf of the "little creamery in Brenham" that was one of the top national ice cream companies before the listeria outbreak.
“We are pleased Sid Bass has made a significant investment with our company. The additional capital will ensure the successful return of our ice cream to the market and our loyal customers,” Kruse said in a prepared statement.
Bass was also relatively effusive about the investment (or at least as relatively effusive as one can be in a press release): “We are excited to be a part of the Blue Bell brand and family” he stated. "We believe quality is the principle attribute that ensures the success, growth and longevity of a business.”
The company announced plans to start test production of ice cream at the Sylcauga, Alabama plant on July 20. There's no telling how long it will be before Blue Bell is actually producing ice cream and selling it on the market again. Blue Bell officials previously announced it would most likely take months. Meanwhile, it looks like they've found a new friend with very deep pockets to help them out.