Rick Janes has worked with nuclear weapons, runs a farm for rescued horses, and he’s even invented not one, but two, cereal flavors.
So what attracted Janes to Russell Stover Candies?
“I love making candy,” Janes chuckled. “It’s a cool process to be a part of.”
Janes, 55, was hired as the plant manager in Iola’s Russell Stover plant last January, and has guided the candy-maker through a difficult year, stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent labor and supply shortage.
“The labor market has been so darned tight with the pandemic,” Janes said. “Some of the things that prevented people from coming back to work, from extended unemployment benefits or the fear of trying to work around the coronavirus, have been challenging.
“But the reality of the business reacted to that,” he said. “Unfortunately, we can only do what we can do.”
Janes estimated the shortages cost Russell Stover as much as $80 million in lost sales in 2021, “just because we couldn’t make enough candy.”
It’s not a local phenomenon, he noted. “That’s global.”
JANES grew up in Wisconsin — his ancestors helped establish Janesville there — and went to college through the Reserve Officer Training Corps.
He earned a degree in biology and chemistry, and embarked on a military career, where he mostly worked with an artillery unit on “special” weapons. (Read nuclear).
His work was vital enough that his unit, based in Germany, was situated where it could be anywhere on the globe within 24 hours.
“You know those movies where they have those authenticators to have to get into the safe?” he asked with a grin. “It was like that.”
With his military service in the rear-view mirror, Janes embarked on a career in the private sector.
It just so happened that the vice president of Post Cereals was a former Vietnam helicopter pilot, and was keen on finding former military officers for leadership posts.
Janes got his start with Kraft Foods, and after a series of promotions, moved to the Mars Candy company.
He was promoted to plant manager in Wisconsin, where he specialized on ingredients for such things as powdered milk and yeast extract for a variety of uses, from whipped cream and coffee creamers to breads, soups, candy and the like.
His chemistry degree played a major role in his career.
“I’ve taken a recipe from a piece of paper, and created an $80 million expansion,” he says, matter-of-factly, including the creation of two flavored cereals.
“When you look at the side of an ingredient deck of the food you eat, you’d be shocked at the yeast extracts, milk powders, stuff like that. All that stuff is powder.”
It was while at one plant for Post Cereals that Janes managed a plant that made such products as Grape-Nuts Flakes, Honey Bunches of Oats, and two new products, Honey Nut Shredded Wheat and Cranberry Almond Crunch.
The work was enjoyable, but the industry was also unpredictable.
Twice, economic downturns led to layoffs, which led to uprooting his wife and daughters to make a living elsewhere in the country.
He had just been laid off from a plant in Colorado, when his wife’s father died in Wisconsin.
“Four hours after we were back from Wisconsin, my dad passed away,” he recalled.
So another drive led to a transformative conversation between Janes and his wife.
Yes, they’d been able to make a living, but being uprooted constantly led to a question.
“She asked ‘What’s our legacy gonna be?” he said. “We’ve been bouncing all over the world.”
They agreed on two things. They loved horses, and they really wanted to set roots in Texas.
“We painted this vision for us, and how we wanted to interact with the community,” Janes said.
They invested in what fit both roles, buying a former veterinary clinic and turning it into a horse rescue farm in Salado, Texas.
“We bought it as a retirement project, which is still about 10 years out,” Janes said. “My daughter and wife run the farm.” (His daughter competes professionally in rodeo events.)
The Janeses established the horse farm as a nonprofit facility.
“We rescue horses off death’s door and repurpose them,” he explained. “It’s kind of a higher calling.”
Not only have they saved scores of horses, the Janeses also work regularly with special needs children.
“We use horses, not only for boarding and training, but really re-engaging with kiddos, trying to get them off the PS4 and into an agricultural-type situation, and enable kids from that perspective.”
RUSSELL Stover is owned by the Swiss-based Lindt, which also owns the San Francisco-based chocolatier Ghirardelli.
And while Russell Stover struggled with the aforementioned COVID-19 slowdown, both Lindt and Ghirardelli thrived over the past year.
Janes suspects both of the other companies were able to ramp up production because of their reliance on automated systems.
Russell Stover is different, because so much of the product is hand-manipulated, Janes noted.
From its first days of existence, Russell Stover’s niche in the candy world was its ability to customize orders. If a store owner wanted a specialized display, or maybe a strawberry-flavored confection, all they’d have to do was ask the company’s salesmen.
“Oh, sure, we can do that for you,” the company usually responded.
The diverse product lines became a tradition, even after the company sold from the Kansas City-based Ward brothers to Lindt in 2014.
At its peak, the Iola plant produced as many as 800 different types of products.
“Now, we make significantly less than that,” Janes said. “Since we didn’t have enough labor, we’re more of a ‘piece’ plant. We’ll make individual pieces, place them into a shipping box and ship them someplace else for somebody else to bag them up.”
The manpower shortage has continued.
Currently, the plant has 320 or so employees. “We could probably take 120 to 140 more,” he said.
TO HELP cover the workforce shortage, Russell Stover entered into a pilot program through the Kansas Department of Corrections last April, in which female inmates at the Topeka Correctional Institute — Janes calls them residents — are bussed to Iola to help with the candy making process.
The program has met all of Janes’ expectations, and then some.
“It is awesome,” he said. “These are very highly skilled, highly trained people, and a lot of them have been in manufacturing environments before, and a lot have worked with food.”
Since its inception, the program has led to more than dozen inmates earning full-time employment with Russell Stover upon their release.
Janes points to one such prisoner, who helps with molded candy, and has taken a leadership role at the plant.
She will be on parole in less than three weeks.
“She’s already gotten an apartment here, and she’ll have $16,000 to $20,000 in her pocket when she gets here. Her restitution, her child support, her fines have already been paid.”
Inmates who work inside the prison walls typically earn 65 cents an hour, and no more than $30 a week.
At Russell Stover, the inmates start at $14 an hour, which can increase as their responsibilities grow, with that money going toward fines, and then placed into a savings plan.
They also have a permanent job, if they so choose, with a subsequent raise.
“It’s a seamless process,” Janes said.
“We’ll tell them, ‘Hey, here’s an enabler for you to do things differently,’” Janes said. “We’re giving them these new sets of skills.”
A liaison with the Department of Corrections also reaches out to local landlords prior to an inmate’s release to help secure housing in the Iola area.
“There’s always gonna be stuff that happens,” but thus far at a much lower scale than with the general workforce, Janes noted. “It’s really been a blessing, not only for us, but for them as well.”
FOR NOW, one of Janes’s biggest priorities is workforce satisfaction.
“I’ve been here almost a year,” he said. “One thing I see, really preventing us from growing from attracting people, is our turnover has been pretty significant.”
“We’ve spent over $1 million just to improve the environment,” he said, from making sure equipment operates efficiently, “but mainly investing in people.”
Janes said he hopes to invest an additional $7 million or more in the coming months and years.
“We’re changing the culture, not only to attract, but to retain those people. We’ve historically under-invested in the people and our process,” he said. “We’re really gonna transform this facility to a place where we become a preferred employer.”