BillionDollar Baby

April 16, 2007
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The company that began 80 years ago this summer in the kitchen of Dorothy Gerber has a new owner. Rumored for many months, Nestlè SA, the world’s largest food and drink company, announced it would purchase Fremont-based Gerber Product Co. for $5.5 billion.

This marks quite a profit for current Gerber parent company Novartis AG (like Nestlè, based in Switzerland), which, as Sandoz Ltd., took the company private in 1994 for $3.8 million in cash — 50 percent more than the going price for Gerber shares at the time. Sandoz became part of Novartis in 1996 when it merged with Ciba-Geigy Ltd.

Although far from a surprise, the move has the good folks at Michigan Economic Development Corp. scrambling to make nice with the new Swiss ownership. Switching Novartis, whose U.S. operation is run by Fremont native Alex Gorsky, for Nestlè — known best locally for the water-pumping controversy surrounding its IceMountain brand that has raged for most of this decade — might have the state’s economic development officials on edge. It is probably worth noting that Greenville’s ElectroLux was Swedish, not Swiss.

Gerber allows Nestlè to bulk up its growing health and nutrition segment, which already includes recently acquired weight-loss firm Jenny Craig and Novartis Medical Nutrition. Gerber has a 79 percent U.S. market and could add $8.2 billion to Nestlè coffers.

At press time, neither Swiss company had made any statements regarding whether the acquisition would affect the 1,250 workers in Fremont or the handful of workers at Gerber’s Grand Rapids product-testing facility. There is also uncertainty surrounding the Gerber Life Insurance Co., a subsidiary of the baby-food maker.

As legend has it, the company came about when Dorothy and Daniel Gerber realized that the work of hand-straining solid foods for their 7-month-old daughter Sallycould be done much more easily at the Fremont Canning Co., where the Gerber family produced a line of canned fruits and vegetables. Roughly 40 years later, the couple was likely feeding their now-ubiquitous breakthrough to their new grandchild, Sam Cummings, founder of local real estate firm Second Story Properties.

  • The former Plaza Café at PlazaTowers has completed its renovation, menu rewrite and a significant service upgrade for condominium residents. The only thing it needs for its grand reopening is a name.

“I never realized what a complicated issue this could be,” said Mike Donnelly, general manager of the Courtyard by Marriott hotel at PlazaTowers, which operates the restaurant. “We’ve had three names, and they’ve all come back copyrighted. You wouldn’t think that if there was some restaurant in Wichita, Kansas, with the same name, it’d have anything to do with what we’re doing in Grand Rapids.”

The result of contests, marketing roundtables and resident suggestions, three separate monikers have failed to survive due diligence of the Marriott legal department. A fourth name is currently being investigated.

“We’re continually going through this name game, and it’s really stalling the whole thing,” said a noticeably frustrated Donnelly

Without a name, the restaurant cannot create new signage or any other marketing materials, such as menus or advertisements.

Now split into separate restaurant and lounge areas, the 3,600-square-foot facility has been completely redesigned by architect and WesternMichiganUniversity professor Charlotte Pease. The décor is not the only thing to get an upgrade, as the menu has been entirely rewritten by new chef Ann Wilterink, formerly of the Thousand Oaks Golf Club.

With the already strong selection of steakhouses, seafood restaurants and other high-end fare in the neighborhood — including those right across Monroe Avenue at The BOB — the new restaurant is opting for a menu driven by comfort foods and local ingredients. Most produce will come from local farmers, as well as some meat, pending Marriott approval.

  • The Michigan Film Office is celebrating its first big win since the adoption of the Michigan Motion Pictures legislation, a package of tax breaks for film producers driven by Rep. Bill HuizengaR-Zeeland. Fresh off the No. 1 box-office debut of his figure-skating farce “Blades of Glory,” comedian Will Ferrell will arrive in Flint this week to begin shooting another low-brow sports comedy, this one set in the ailing automotive center.

In “Semi-Pro,” Ferrell plays the owner, coach and player of a Flint-based American Basketball Association franchise in the 1970s. A casting call for 500 extras was announced a few weeks back. The casting director is calling for “normal people” who want to wear costumes from the 1970s or wear wigs with sideburns.

In other film news, CompassAcademy is hosting its 24 Hour Film Festival at Studio 28 on April 27. In the event, filmmakers have 24 hours to write, shoot and edit a film of five minutes or less. Judges for this year’s event include Gedney Webb, an award-winning music editor whose credits include “Chicago” and “The Good Shepherd.”

Saugatuck’s Waterfront Film Festival recently held its first indie screenplay competition. The competition went “indie” this year in support of the legislation, launching the open competition in search of screenplays that could be made in Michigan for less than $5 million.

The eighth annual festival occurs June 6-10 and provides seven venues for screening America’s outstanding independent films.

Not to be forgotten, DeVos-family-funded Internet venture Spout.com, a marriage of online community, film geeks and DVD sales, recently launched its latest version.

  • Not since the November election has there been a need to honor any of the state’s politicos as “kook of the week” on this page. But for their proposal to set aside $38 million from the state’s critically ill budget to purchase iPods for K-12 students, Rep. Matt Gillard, D-Alpena, and House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford Township, can’t be missed.

In the words of Jon Felske¸ superintendent of Wyoming Public Schools, “This is a case of legislators trying to do a nice thing for educators but having no clue about what we’re trying to get accomplished on a day-to-day basis.”     

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