Recipe for success in family-owned fluff business

Marketplace Contributor Jan 1, 2016
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Recipe for success in family-owned fluff business

Marketplace Contributor Jan 1, 2016
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This winter may be short on snowfall. But a small factory in New England is doing its part churning out vats of white sweet stuff called Marshmallow Fluff.  

This time of year sticky Fluff is scooped into cheesecakes and frostings. Even high-end caterers pour fluff into chocolate crusts for a s’more like dessert.  Marshmallow Fluff’s “Never Fail Fudge” is a classic holiday favorite.  Still, even with a GPS, it’s tricky to find the small, nondescript Durkee-Mower factory tucked on a side road in Lynn, Mass.

Outside the building, the smell of sugar hangs in the air. 

The air smells sweet outside the Durkee-Mower factory in Lynn, Mass.  (Photo credit: Susan Kaplan)

Marshmallow Fluff’s a family operation. Jon Durkee, an unassuming guy and  the grandson of H. Allen Durkee, runs the business today. And every jar of the sticky, sweet, snowy white goop is made right here, starting with cooked syrup that’s put into 140 quart kettles with egg and flavoring.

I peer into the room where the Fluff’s being made in giant mixers. But when I try to snap a picture Jon Durkee said, “No pictures up here.”

The no pictures thing is serious. The company’s not interested in getting attention and there are plenty of requests. The formula is a family secret, even though as Durkee said, it’s only four ingredients: “corn, sugar, egg, vanillin, which is an artificial flavor. And that’s it. “

The Durkees are pretty tight-lipped about financial information, too. Jon Durkee’s the third generation to run the operation. He said he kind of knew when he was a kid that he’d take over one day. But he’s not so sure about his children who, he said, get plenty of attention about the family biz.

“It’s like ‘Oh your father makes marshmallow Fluff.’ And next thing you know a teacher is announcing it to the class. And they’re just like rolling their eyes, like ‘Oh God, get me out of this,'” he said.

Durkee hopes one of his sons will step up, especially since business is going strong.

George Stalk, a senior adviser and a fellow with Boston Consulting Group, said, “The return on equity in family companies that are going well is huge. It’s like 40, 50 or 60 percent. It’s a huge number.”

And the reason Stalk said,  is because “they’re cheap. That’s what is has to do with. Family companies are incredibly cheap.”

This family business still pumps Fluff into glass jars and plastic tubs on a conveyor belt that looks like it’s from the 1960s. Durkee said much of the equipment is original; that makes upkeep challenging. But the demand keeps that conveyor belt going.

Though you can’t get it everywhere in the U.S., Durkee said Fluff is sold in Russia, Japan, Israel and parts of Europe.

On my way out I asked Durkee if he had a holiday favorite. No contest he said: put a spoonful of Fluff in the bottom of a mug, pour in steaming hot cocoa and watch the Fluff float to the top.

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