Episode 77 – Featuring Howdy Holmes & Rich Lunak

From Fast Lane to Fast Lane:  How Howdy Holmes Transitioned From Racing Stardom to Running One of “America’s Last Great Businesses” 

Imagine you go to a store to buy some pre-packaged food product, take it home, taste it, and realize that something’s not quite right.  You reach out to the company to complain.  How surprised would you be if the reply you received was a personal phone call from the CEO himself?

If you knew Howdy Holmes, CEO of the Michigan-based Chelsea Milling Company, the parent company of the ubiquitous Jiffy Mix baking mix products, you wouldn’t be so surprised.

(And yes, this happened.)

Such behavior is nothing new for Holmes, who has prided his entire career on doing things differently.  Perhaps this is due to the maverick spirit that propelled him to be one of the rising stars of the CART racing circuit (now known as “IndyCar”) throughout the late 1970′s and 1980′s, competing in six Indianapolis 500 races along the way, finishing in the Top 15 each time.

Perhaps that spirit is why he decided to shake things up upon being named CEO of the Chelsea Milling Company upon his retirement from racing in 1988. This was not a typical “turnaround”, to say the least, as Chelsea Milling was the family business, started by his grandmother (the inventor of Jiffy Mix) in 1930, and run by his father for decades.

The move to put a man whom many thought to be a “clueless race car driver” in charge of the company ruffled a number of feathers within the organization, most of which belonging to other members of the Holmes family.  But Holmes had always maintained an interest in marketing, advertising and promotion, and he knew what buttons to push in order to turn a relatively innocent product like baking mix into a cutting edge enterprise.

Ironically, one of those buttons could be considered “reset”, as Holmes decided to eschew the thought to modernize the look and feel of the product, instead keeping the retro feel intact, save for the government mandate on displaying the nutrition facts on the label.  Another one of those buttons could be considered “mute”, as Jiffy Mix refrains from any and all paid media advertising, endorsements, or couponing, instead letting word of mouth be the guide to getting their point across, and passing the savings on advertising costs onto the consumer by keeping the price of Jiffy Mix very low.

After a while, the skeptics came around, and today, Chelsea Milling is running like….well, the well-oiled engines that Holmes was intimately familiar with in a prior life.  And all because of a “throwback” product that never lost its cool.

On this edition of Your American Story, Howdy Holmes joins Raja to discuss his amazing journey, and the lessons he learned from the racetrack to the boardroom.

-Plus, Rich Lunak, President and CEO of Pittsburgh-based InnovationWorks, checks in with Raja to discuss all of the latest happenings with this leading-edge business incubator.  He also discusses his role in the upcoming Carnegie Science Awards, plus the big news about their new venture fund.

Episode 77