KC-based Russell Stover to be sold to Swiss company

07/13/2014 8:34 PM

07/14/2014 10:39 AM

The Swiss maker of Lindt chocolate has agreed to buy Kansas City-based Russell Stover Candies, the storied U.S. boxed-chocolate maker, the companies said Monday.

Terms of the definitive agreement were not released, but a Wall Street Journal report had said the deal would be valued at about $1.5 billion.

A spokesman for Russell Stover declined to comment to The Kansas City Star on Sunday.

Lindt & Sprüngli AG, the Swiss company, called the pending purchase the “biggest and most important strategic acquisition” in its nearly 170-year history. When completed, the purchase will make Lindt & Sprüngli the third largest chocolate maker in North America. It was among several confectioners that placed bids for the privately held Russell Stover in recent months.S

“This ... is a unique opportunity for us to expand our North American chocolate business and will greatly enhance the group’s status in the world’s biggest overall chocolate marketplace,” Lindt chairman Ernst Tanner said in the announcement.

Russell Stover also makes Whitman Sampler chocolates and the announcement said its sales were $500 million, including those through 35 proprietary stores. It employs about 2,700 year round.

Monday’s announcement said Russell Stover’s headquarters would remain in Kansas City.

Lindt’s brands include Lindt and Ghiradelli. It has 9,000 employees in Europe and the United States. With the Russell Stover acquistition, Lindt expects its North American sales to top $1.5 billion.

Russell Stover was formed in 1923 when Russell and Clara Stover started making homemade candies in Denver. In 1960, Louis Ward bought the chocolate maker from the founders and expanded the business.

The Ward family was ranked the 124th wealthiest this year on the Forbes list, with a combined net worth of $1.8 billion.

In 1993, the Wards acquired Whitman’s Candies, which has been in business since 1842.

Russell Stover and Whitman’s combine as the nation’s third-largest chocolate maker, according to their website, trailing only Hershey and M&M Mars.

Production of the combined companies’ mostly handmade treats generates between 80 million and 100 million pounds of chocolate each year. They operate factories in Abilene and Iola, Kan., as well as in Colorado and Texas.

A candy plant in Clarksville, Pa., closed in early 2002, and one in Tennessee stopped production in 2005 but continues to operate as a distribution site.

Clara and Russell Stover first sold their handmade sweets under the brand Mrs. Stover’s Bungalow Candies. The Kansas City connection began a year later when one of the couple’s first five stores opened here.

By 1928, Kansas City was home to the fast-growing brand’s first factory, and all of its operations moved here in 1932, according to the company’s official history. The name changed to Russell Stover in 1943.

Russell Stover’s growth allowed it to become a publicly traded business, and that opened the door to its current owners.

Louis Ward, who had made boxes for the famous chocolateers, bought a controlling stake in the business in 1960. His sons, Thomas and Scott Ward, began to run Russell Stover as co-presidents in 1993 — the same year they acquired Whitman’s Candies. Louis Ward died in 1996 in Kansas City.

The Kansas City area has benefited from the family’s business success in part through the philanthropic work of the Ward Family Foundation. Its regular contributions to Kansas City parks have repaired facilities, maintained landscapes and otherwise improved the public spaces.

The family also has worked with others, for example partnering in 2004 with a group of anonymous donors to help finance $12 million in construction and renovations for the University of Kansas athletic programs.

The company’s gift boxes were made famous in the film “Forrest Gump,” in which the title character, played by Tom Hanks, says as he eats the chocolates at a bus stop, “My mama always said, life was like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re gonna get.”

The Star’s Mark Davis and The New York Times contributed to this report.

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