Maud Borup : On a Mission to Sweeten the World
The Maud Borup story is the sweet success story of two resourceful women. In 1907, before women had the right to vote, Maud Borup founded her candy company in St. Paul, Min. Her confections were sold in the finest department stores and even won the favor of the Queen of England.
Almost a century later, Christine Lantinen purchased the Maud Borup brand in 2005 and made it her own. During her 18-year tenure, she’s transformed the company into a wholesale powerhouse, raising annual revenues from $100,000 to $50 million.
“We are on a mission with a vision to hit $100 million in sales,” Christine said.
Christine runs the company with her husband, Randy Lantinen, who serves as VP of operations. Maud Borup is headquartered in Plymouth, Min. Its main production facility is in Christine’s hometown of Le Center, Min. New plants in Plymouth, Min. and Delafield, Wis. were added in 2022.
Maud Borup products include its popular trademarked hot cocoa bombs. It focuses on three core product lines: chocolates, cotton candy and soft candies in colorful, clever packaging. They are the go-to gifts for many special occasions and can be found on the shelves of retail stores across America, including Whole Foods, Target, Sam’s Club, Macy’s and Neiman Marcus.
As enticing as these sweet treats are, they are only one part of the Maud Borup picture. Lantinen’s ultimate mission is “to sweeten the world in which we live, work and play.” To do this, she’s setting high standards for diversity and environmental responsibility and investing in the communities and people that sustain her business. She’s won numerous awards and accolades for her efforts, including being named the 2022 Ernst & Young Heartland Entrepreneur of the Year and the Fast 50 list of growth companies in Minnesota.
Your roots in Southern Minnesota run deep. Could you explain your connection to the Le Center community?
Christine: I’m a fifth-generation farmer’s daughter. During the great potato famine, my great-great-grandfather came to Le Sueur County and settled a homestead here. My family have been farmers in and around this area for generations. When we bought this building (in Le Center), I didn’t realize that my dad’s farmland butted up to the back of it. I happened to be out back with my dad, and we were talking about moving the dock doors. I said, “I don’t know how that farmer will feel about us backing into his field.” And my dad put his arm around me, and said, “Well, you know, Chris, that’s my field. So, I think we could work something out.” We have deep roots here. This is why we’re here.
We looked for three years, trying to decide where we wanted to have a manufacturing facility. We live in the cities, and we looked in and around the cities, but we just kept coming back to Southern Minnesota and to Le Center specifically. One day my dad called me and said, “I think I just found your building.” This building was in bankruptcy. … They had locked the door and put a note on it. We came down that weekend, looked in the window and said, “Yeah, this is it.” That was the start in Le Center. It was our first manufacturing facility, and we’ve been here ten years. We’ve put two additions on, and we own six adjacent acres so we can keep expanding here. It’s exciting.
What motivated you to purchase Maud Borup in 2005?
Christine: A life changing event. I got let go from my job at a food gift company. I was at a point in life where I thought, “Okay, this is happening for a reason.” I saw it as a window of opportunity for change. I was let go on a Friday. I called the owners of the Maud Borup brand and asked them to meet me on Saturday for coffee. That night, I sketched out a deal for how I could buy a brand with no upfront money. We met for coffee on Saturday morning, and they agreed to it on a handshake deal. On Monday, I was contacting buyers I knew in the industry saying, “A lot has happened this weekend. I just bought this brand. I’m coming in to pitch my product on my own.” Then I scrambled to come up with a small product line in 30 days.
I knew the Maud Borup brand from the previous food gift company I’d worked at. They were selling chocolates to us, I knew the capabilities of the manufacturing facility and what they were known for. So, I bought the brand.
What a gutsy move!
Christine: Yeah, it was a crazy time. I was on autopilot. I was 31 without a plan mapped out for what I was doing, but something told me I would figure it out. I met with buyers and got $2 million in orders in a couple of months. Then I had commitments and no line of credit. But I had relationships with a lot of people in the industry, so I thought that if I couldn’t get money from a bank, I could go back to my suppliers and say, “I need your help with extended payment terms so I can sell the product, make the money and pay you.” That was my backup plan. I needed money that first year and most banks laughed me out of the room. They’d ask, “Where’s your business plan?” I’d say, “I don’t need a business plan. I have orders already.” My dad’s friend ended up pledging a piece of farmland against my loan. He was a farmer and a businessman who helped me along the way. He had money, and he knew what he was doing. He was a great mentor.
How did your husband Randy become a part of the Maud Borup team?
Christine: Randy was working in banking at Wells Fargo. When we had our son, he took paternity leave. I delivered Bishop on a Saturday and was back to work on Monday. After paternity leave, we decided Randy wasn’t going back to work at Wells Fargo, and that’s when he came on board, taking over the books. We both worked from home, and we shared an office. I printed off two pieces of paper. One said “Money” and one said “Magic”. I divided the office and put “Money” over his desk and “Magic” over mine and said: “Here’s the deal. I sell it and get the purchase order and then it’s all you. You make sure it gets produced, gets to the store, gets billed, and gets paid.” The business still operates that way. I drive the front-end operations making sure the sales team is ready, and we’re pitching new product and coming up with new ideas. He’s the back end of everything. He’s making sure we implement it. And, we still sit right by each other.
How has Maud Borup changed under your leadership?
Christine: Maud Borup was a regional brand when I bought it, and the goal was to take it national. We did that in a short period of time. The question was: How do we keep growing on a national level? The previous owners were selling in stores to individual customers, and we changed that model to selling wholesale, 5,000-unit MOQ (minimum order quantity). We’re really focusing on those core relationships in the industry, finding a positioning of our brand that matches with the retailer, and then developing product for that retailer to create a great relationship on a much larger level. The retailer has the distribution. I could spend an hour of my time having a conversation with someone to cater a single party, or I could spend an hour of my time meeting with a mass retailer and potentially sell a $2 million program. Fortunately, my background had trained me on how to prepare for a mass retailer meeting and how to manage large accounts. Our strategy was to go after that wholesale business, and that will continue to be a main goal of ours. Finding the right retailer relationships is really important. They have needs. How do we make them successful with great products? How do we make them feel good about the relationship and service the account well? All of that can lead to a great long-term relationship.
Who are your customers and where are they located?
Christine: When we purchased the brand, it was positioned as being very high end. Our goal was to go after the mid-tier market, to be viewed as best in a good, better, best scenario. Fortunately, we’ve become an omni-brand where we are at Neiman Marcus and Macy’s but we’re also at Dollar General and Walmart. There is a strategic approach to what we’re presenting, hitting the right price points. How do you scale down for a dollar store so that you’re hitting lower price points and still be careful that you’re not cannibalizing another customer or hurting their reputation or business? How do you balance those relationships? It’s being careful of that positioning and really letting buyers know you’re conscious of it. The ultimate goal is to protect their brand as you hope they’ll do for you, too.
Are your customers in the United States or do you sell internationally?
Christine: We are in the U.S. We’ve done some business in Canada, but it can get complicated with long transit times to get to some of the northern provinces. There are additional freight costs to get the product there and then there’s translating packaging as well. So, we’re focused on the U.S.
Maud Borup has grown exponentially since you purchased it. How do you fuel that growth?
Christine: It’s been 30 percent growth a year on average. Some years we’ve grown 70 percent, some years we’ve grown 15 percent, but on average, it’s been 30 percent growth. Our goal is to hit $100 million in sales. We’re fully invested in putting the infrastructure in place to do that. This year we’ve put over $15 million into equipment and new facilities. We needed to make that change because a year ago we couldn’t keep up with our orders. We had $3 million in business we couldn’t get out the door. There was the pandemic, and we couldn’t find workers. Meanwhile, orders were off the charts with very little notice, everyone was committing late, and the time to get some components suddenly tripled. Everything was working against us, and it was all unforeseeable.
We had been looking to acquire for a couple of years and didn’t want to do it during the pandemic because there was a lot going on. But after last year, we made the decision to make some big moves this year. We acquired a plant in Delafield, Wis. and took over a stellar food grade facility in Plymouth, Min. We also decided to segment our manufacturing: Le Center will primarily focus on chocolate, Plymouth will be cotton–candy, and Delafield will be soft candies. We’re putting that structure in place for growth.
How many employees do you have?
Christine: Our current headcount is 260, but we were over 300 a couple of months ago. We’ll probably get down to 230 at our lowest point in the season, then we’ll start ramping up for Halloween on May 1st. We’ll be back up to over 300 employees again for fourth quarter production.
It’s a struggle to find employees. Le Center’s population is only 2,000 people. It seemed like we were hitting the ceiling at around 200 employees. We have a great team there, but we needed to pull (employees) from other markets to meet growing demand. Our new locations have been good for us. It lets us see what it’s like hiring and retaining employees in other markets. Still, it’s challenging everywhere. In Plymouth we onboarded eight people, and they were supposed to come for training. Not one showed up. Not one. We’re seeing things that you just wouldn’t see five years ago. Who doesn’t show up or at least call to say, “I’m not going to show up.” You learn to have thick-skin and not take it personally. We want to say: “Please show up. You will like it here. I just need you to show up.” Hiring remains a challenge.
How are innovations in technology impacting your business?
Christine: We put about $10 million into automation this year. Our biggest new line is an automated shell molding line that can make things like our hot cocoa bombs. It’s a process that takes two halves and puts them together to form a shape in 3D chocolate, like a hollow bunny for Easter. We ordered it two years ago from Italy and it’s finally coming in. That line alone cost over $7 million. It’s a completely automated line that snakes around in a 10,000 sq. ft. room. We also brought in a couple of new enrobing lines. This allows us to keep the jobs that we currently have, bring in more automation, and train our team members to run that equipment. These are good things. We’re also going to be investing in more automation for our Delafield facility. We’ll probably put at least another $3 million to $5 million in to increase automation at that facility.
Where are you headquartered?
Christine: Our corporate office is in Plymouth, Min. Most of the directors report out of there. There are 20 of us in that office — sales, marketing, product development, accounts payable and accounts receivable. It’s where our test kitchen is located. Everything we have in our production facilities we have in our test kitchen on a smaller scale. Our initial samples for buyers come out of that test kitchen. It’s also our think tank. We have a big table that we sit around and brainstorm, and it’s right by the test kitchen. So, chef Jessica is always listening to what we’re talking about as she’s tempering chocolate and making cotton candy.
It’s nice having the division between manufacturing and corporate when we’re getting ready for a sales meeting. You often get pulled in many different directions when it comes to manufacturing. That happens a lot in small candy businesses where the actual owners are putting on a lab coat and going out on the floor to make products. I’m not saying Randy and I haven’t done that. We have always been very hands on. But at this point in our business, it’s nice to have a place that allows us to stay focused on new product development and big picture strategy.
The candy business is a competitive business. What sets you apart from your competitors?
Christine: Number one, we are fast and nimble. A lot of large organizations get bogged down by their own internal processes. We stay nimble so we can be quick to market. That’s always been key for us. We’re also different because we are family-owned, and our food is primarily made in the USA in a market where a lot of our competitors are producing candy in China or Mexico. There’s a connection working with a family-owned business; you know who’s making your product, and you know that they’re going to do a good job. I think there is a comfort level for buyers. We really try to drive that home. Then there’s the fact that we’re sustainably focused and woman-/veteran-owned. We can check multiple boxes.
Randy: I think being nimble is what sets us apart the most. There’s a lot to being nimble. It’s not being afraid to push outside of your comfort zone. In the 15 years that I’ve been doing this, I haven’t been comfortable any of those years. We do a lot of repeat items, but there are so many new items or adjustments to the repeat items. My team needs to figure out how to do it. If you change one little thing, it can throw off your whole production line. If I have to add 10 more people, that changes the cost. You have to be careful about all the details.
Christine: Buyers will often come to us with a new idea. They know we’re going to be excited to partner with them, and we’ll figure it out. One year we had Easter baskets, and the corners were supposed to be dipped in paint. But the manufacturer came back to us and said, “We can’t dip the paint on it.” So, we setup our warehouse across town to hand dip the baskets. I called up our team, and said, “Okay, I know we make food, but we have 70,000 baskets that we need to dip in paint. They got it done, and we shipped on time. Chris, our production manager, is absolutely incredible. I’ll send him images of intricate food items like a hand-sculpted cotton candy flower and say, “Hey, Chris, do you think we can make 500,000 of these?” And he’ll respond, “I think we can figure it out.” Our team is full of amazing people that enjoy the challenge. We believe in ourselves, that we will figure it out, and we have great camaraderie where we all pitch in and get it done.
It sounds like you’re having a lot of fun.
Christine: When we prepare for trade shows, we want to have the booth that everyone wants to stop by and see, with new visuals, product ideas, and packaging. Whereas other companies may have had the same style guide for 30 years. We want to have consistent elements, but we’re always having fun with our packaging and we’re always looking at ways to reinvent what we do. How do you make it feel special? It’s a gift, so you want it to be bright, colorful, and fun — memorable and special. Quite often our product is a gift to someone to say, “I love you.” People put a lot of thought into that, even if it’s a $3 purchase. They think about that message and what it’s saying to the person it is being given to. I challenge the team a lot. They’ll come up with a product and I’ll ask: “Who is buying it? Who’s getting it? Have we done multiple food cuttings? Is the overall experience great? We ask a lot of questions, we move fast, and we want to make sure we’re always checking all the boxes.
Buyers expect to see newness and innovation from us. When we’re not bringing it, we hear about it. I had a Christmas meeting with one of our buyers, and he says, “I’m disappointed, Christine. I’m used to seeing a lot of new items from you.” I’m thinking we have a lot of new stuff. I tell him, “We’ve got this and this and that new.” But he’s a friend, and responded, “No, it’s not like what you’ve done previously. You’re just kind of reinventing things.” Now it’s a personal challenge and I reply, “Oh, you just wait for Valentine’s Day. We’re going to bring it!” Then I call my team and we get to work. We appreciate candid feedback from our buyers. We never look at it as a negative. These great relationships in the industry have been integral to our success. Those are true partnerships.
Randy: After that buyer meeting, I did a lot of research for Valentine’s Day. Christine and I know a lot about product development. I’ll go through online services we subscribe to, look online and start ideating. I get excited about it and build a list with fresh ideas, then run them past her. She’ll yay or nay based on her experience. It’s fun. The other fun part is creating the product names and the additional verbiage on our packaging. For 50 percent of our items, it’s the saying that sells it. We try to match up a unique chocolate set with a catchy saying. We’ll brainstorm a list of sayings. Then you try one saying and it’s like, “Boom! That’s it. We’re going with that.” The creative juices are really what keeps me going.
What are your customers favorite products?
Christine: We have pillars of product. We sell a ton of cotton candy and chocolate covered pretzels. Our peppermint bark is phenomenal. Then there’s the hot cocoa bombs and a lot of oversized gummies. It’s hard to say, because we don’t just make one thing. I’m super proud of everything we put out.
Do you have a favorite product?
Christine: Dark chocolate-covered potato chips, that’s my new favorite.
You’ve won many accolades as entrepreneurs. What are the keys to your success?
Randy: You have to have really strong leadership, which we have. Christine has a clear vision of where we want to go, and she steers us in that direction. You’ve got to be really strong. You can’t have other people tell you where you want to be or where you should be. You have to follow your gut instinct, and she has really good gut instincts. I think the key to our success is Christine.
When you are starting a company, growing a company, you get kicked in the teeth regularly. Every day. How you deal with that is important. When we started, we were not doing as much business as we are now and everything mattered so much. It was a big deal back then. Now I’ve got 20 problems that are huge, and you deal with them completely differently. The key is to keep moving forward all the time and to have pillars of strong business that you can focus on. If I spend a lot of money on a piece of equipment and the business does not come to fruition, I need to repurpose the equipment because it’s not working out as planned. That’s when you look forward and think “I know something good is going to come out of this. Now how are we going to achieve something new?”
Christine: The vision comes first, then it’s my great leaders that get it done. For example, B Corp certification. Karen Edwards took charge of getting everyone in the company aligned with our goals and the many metrics we needed to set up. That became a two-year project for Karen, and she has driven it all. Karen’s husband, Alan, joined us in the last year, and he’s been essential in transforming our Delafield facility. He managed our construction there in addition to racking installation, and other projects to get us operational. He’s out there every week. When you’ve got people you can trust that are going above and beyond every day, checking things off and getting it done, that’s key. It’s a family. It’s a tribe. Everybody contributes in a different way. Great people are what get it done.
Your success has also allowed you to become an advocate for small business in our state and beyond.
Christine: We’re in touch with our local and national representatives. Jim Hagedorn, who unfortunately passed away, was a huge supporter of our business in the First District. We also know Dean Phillips as our headquarters is in the Third District. Congressman Phillips grew up on Maud Borup chocolates. He asked us to testify in front of Congress about the challenges facing small businesses throughout the pandemic. Shipping container costs had gone up 500 percent over the previous year, with no notice. For the same container in the same port, we were paying $30,000 compared to under $5,000 a year prior. These were things that made Congress gasp. They had no idea how much gouging was happening.
The U.S. Secretary of Labor came to our facility, which was amazing. We had Secret Service guarding every doorway. Every opening had an armored vehicle. These connections are so important. I reached out to him recently to discuss something challenging our business. He’s always willing to help.
You are a veteran. How do you capitalize on your military experience in your business?
Christine: I joined the army and went to basic training when I was 17 years old between my junior and senior years of high school. After I graduated, I did my medical training and then I was able to start college. I served for 10 years, I came in as an E-1 and I got out as an E-5 sergeant. There’s so much I learned from my military experience.
Being enlisted is very different than being a commissioned officer. You roll up your sleeves and you get stuff done. You can see that in how we run our company. At some point Randy and I have done most of the jobs at Maud Borup. That hands-on experience gives us a competitive edge over many other companies because we know how things work. When something’s not getting done, we can say: “I’m going to sit with you and we’ll get this on track. We’ll figure it out together.” I think that comes from military experience.
Success in the military is being prepared, period. You’re always ready to go to battle, and you’re always organized and prepared for that event. There’s always a contingency plan. That carries over into how we do business. Leading up to a big meeting or event, there’s a lot of preparation and organization that goes into it.
What do you love about your job?
Christine: There are so many things. I love the beauty of the product. I love creating something then taking it from idea to shelf. Knowing it will be a special gift that comes from the heart is very satisfying. I also love watching our team blossom and grow, seeing employees become leaders. It’s fulfilling. Then there’s making the sale. I’m a saleswoman at heart. I truly enjoy walking in and pitching a product line. It is still one of my favorite things, especially when you hit the mark. You put months of work into a 30-minute pitch and it becomes an adrenaline rush. I Iove the energy, and I love the industry.
Sidebar: Core values provide a foundation for growth
One of the first things you see when you walk into Maud Borup is a list of the company’s core values: promise-keeping, fairness, honesty, respect, compassion, integrity, and diversity. These guiding principles are translated into three languages and woven into the very heart of the company.
“85 percent of our employees identify as being from underrepresented groups. Additionally, most of our employees are women, and the majority of department leaders are women. In manufacturing, that’s rare. DEI — diversity, equity and inclusion – is very important to us,” owner Christine Lantinen said. “About 35 percent of our employees are Somalian. So, when we built a 66,000 sq. ft. addition onto our (Le Center) manufacturing facility, we put in foot washing stations, watering cans and a prayer room.”
As diverse as the faces at Maud Borup are, they share a common can-do attitude and a willingness to learn and grow. These are qualities that Lantinen cultivates and models every day.
“We’re all about being self-taught,” Lantinen said. “So many people here at Maud Borup came in with no experience. We’ve watched them grow within the company and take leadership roles. We try to promote from within, looking for people that work hard, that roll up their sleeves and get it done every day. Those are the people we want as our future leaders, because they’re setting the example for everything that we do.”
Sidebar: B Corp Certification balances people and purpose with profit
Maud Borup is certified as a B Corporation by B Lab, a nonprofit network dedicated to transforming the global economy to benefit all people, communities, and the planet. It’s a distinction enjoyed by only a couple of dozen businesses in our state and indicates the company meets high standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. Maud Borup spokesperson and long-time employee Karen Edwards spearheaded the project and describes the experience here.
Karen: B Corp is a worldwide certification that looks for companies that balance people and purpose with profit through their social and environmental performance. B Corp sets such high standards that of the 213 million companies in the world, only about 5,000 are B Corp certified. There are only a handful in Minnesota, and we are one of them. It forced us to examine ourselves very carefully because it evaluates five areas in depth: how you treat your employees, your customers, the community, the environment, and company processes and governance.
B Corp uses a point-based system to certify businesses. It was a long process, and it was not easy. It took us 26 months, with auditors verifying all aspects of our business and requiring trend reports, policies, and adjustments to our processes. There were a lot of things we were already doing, but not documenting. There were other things we had never looked at before, things that opened our eyes to say: “Well, of course we can do that. Why aren’t we doing that?”
Christine challenged everybody to look at their areas and try to make them more efficient and more eco-friendly. Simple things matter, like our receptionist requesting only one office copy of each vendor’s catalog. Then there were big things like achieving zero-landfill-waste and putting up a wind turbine to help supplement energy for our facility. All of those things add up. For years being environmentally friendly was our goal, and we were doing great things, but we never documented it. We never had the metrics to prove that we were succeeding. We never looked at environmental trends over the years until B Corp.
B Corp required us to look deeper, going back three years and examining trends and asking, “What are we doing? How are we getting better? Are we using less energy?” We’ve made many changes, and each one has made a difference. For example, manufacturing looked at cleaning processes. Now we use a dry-cleaning method, so we’re not wasting water. A lot of paper processes went to electronic processes. We have a policy that paper gets printed on both sides. Then when that paper is done being used, it gets recycled. We took a hard look at what we were throwing away. At one point we were getting two dumpster pickups a day. There was something really wrong with that. After looking at what was in the garbage, talking to people, and reviewing our processes, we realized we were not recycling as much as we should have been. Our recycle bin costs us $40 a month, but if we put all trash in a general dumpster, that’s $500 a month. The goal was to get more out of the trash and into recycling. It’s the smart thing to do both environmentally and financially. In 2022 we achieved zero-landfill-waste with our trash being processed to heat 4,000 homes in the community. The challenge is never over. There are about 40 eco processes that we put in place, and we’re adding to them every single day.