Christoffs salad days include plenty of his own dressing
"I've had a lot of jobs," admits Christoff with a laugh. He is one of the co-owners of salad dressing manufacturer Litehouse Foods Inc., which is headquartered in Idaho but has a key plant in Lowell.
As a student at Western Michigan University, the Lowell native was planning on a career as a dentist, but instead got a degree in food marketing in 1968.
Then he joined the Air Force. He was accepted for flight training and rose to the rank of captain, piloting KC135 air refueling tankers supporting reconnaissance missions by the legendary Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. He also flew helicopters and F4C fighters. He served in the military for about seven years and today is an avid private pilot.
Wendell L. Christoff
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Cascade Township
Family: Wife, Helen; grown son, Nathan
Business/Community Involvement: President/CEO of Michigan nonprofit Safe Water Team; zone coordinator, Rotary International; finance board, Spectrum Health; past president, Junior Achievement, Lowell Rotary Club and Thornapple River Association; vice chair, Association of Dressings and Sauces; forum officer, Young Presidents’ Organization.
Biggest Career Break: When his father offered him an opportunity to rejoin the family business after he completed his military service.
As an officer of the Atlanta-based Association of Dressings and Sauces, Christoff said there are about 48 manufacturing companies in the organization. Litehouse is among the 15 largest, and one of only four major makers of "fresh" (refrigerated) salad dressing. The two largest are Marie's and Marzetti, with Litehouse at No. 3 and Naturally Fresh No. 4.
Litehouse, which also has plants in Utah and Idaho, makes dressings, sauces, dips and cider, and also sells imported premium-priced freeze-dried spices. It markets 800 or more separate items in packaging ranging from 2,000-pound totes to individual-use packets.
The Lowell plant, on a quiet street on the northwest edge of town, employs about 160 people. It made more than 5 million gallons of salad dressing last year. The entire Litehouse opeation employs more than 600 and has revenues of about $175 million a year. The company has bought out seven other sauce and dressing companies over the years.
The Lowell plant has its roots in a mom-and-pop business called Shurich, started in 1932. It only made one product — French dressing — until Christoff's father bought the business in 1951 from the widow of the founder for $1,250. It was located on Lowell's Main Street where the Huntington Bank is today. The Christoffs had sales of less than $5,000 in their first year.
"My father was the first employee; I was the second employee," said Christoff. He was 7 years old, and his job, after school and in the summer, was to fill the bottles. At one point, his dad also made and sold Jell-O salads. He also sold Hula-Hoops and packaged sponges, and worked at the state prison in Ionia and at General Motors.
"We did everything to stay alive," said Christoff.
The salad dressing was originally called Colonial Days. The company soon started making horseradish that it called Chadalee Farms, after Christoff's grandparents' farm near Lowell. "A lot of people thought we started with horseradish because we were so well known for it," he said.
There aren't many large-scale horseradish processors in the U.S. A little more than 20 years ago, Christoff helped organize an association of horseradish processors across the U.S. for marketing and lobbying purposes. Its membership includes almost all the big processors. At the start, there were about 15. Now there are only eight.
Today, Litehouse-brand horseradish is made at a plant Christoff owns in Ohio.
In 1974, after his service in the Air Force, Christoff re-joined the family food business, C.J. Christoff & Sons. There were only five employees when he started full time. He started in sales and moved up through administration, finance and operations. Soon, the company was known as Chadalee Farms.
Chadalee Farms underwent major growth through the 1970s, with Christoff responsible for six acquisitions that expanded the business into many other states. In 1980, he was named president, and then CEO in 1985. In 1986, he and his brother bought the company from their parents.
During the 1990s, a supplier told Christoff about two brothers in Hope, Idaho, who had a growing refrigerated dressing business like his, called Litehouse. Edward and Doug Hawkins named their salad dressing after the family restaurant where it had been created.
By this point, said Christoff, the growth and acquisitions at Chadalee had clearly positioned the company to grow further, and he figured a merger might give the business what it needed to compete on a national basis.
"I wanted someone with solid Christian values to build it with," he said. The Hawkinses had a family business like the Christoffs and their values were in sync. The two companies merged under the Litehouse name in 1997.
After the first 10 years, Christoff and the Hawkinses evaluated their partnership with a view to the long term because they were approaching retirement age. Christoff said they knew they could easily sell the business, but they didn't want to see it broken up and moved elsewhere. "We wanted the companies to remain in the communities they are in," he said.
The solution was an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, which Christoff and the Hawkins brothers set up in 2006. Thirty percent of the company is now owned by the employees.
Christoff now has food processing businesses in a few other states, plus plants in Thailand that make sauce for seafood. He and his son, Nathan, opened the first Thailand plant about 10 years ago and just opened a third plant in Bangkok. Christoff now travels to Asia on extended business trips two or three times a year, he said.
Some of the workers at the Litehouse plant in Lowell have been with Christoff for more than 30 years. When he walks through the plant — which he doesn't get to do as often as he would like because of all the traveling he does — he doesn't get far before some old friend flags him down to shake hands and chat.
Christoff has obviously put a lot of hard work into his business ventures, but it hasn't always been a breeze. In the late 1980s, Christoff bought an apple juice plant in Iowa. Shortly thereafter, in February 1989, CBS' "60 Minutes" did an alarming report about the alleged cancer hazard posed by Alar, a chemical compound farmers sprayed on their apples. The scare went nationwide and a subsequent overreaction by consumers nearly killed the apple industry for more than a year (and led to the banning of Alar). Christoff's plant, too, was dead in the water.
"We made it through, but it could have gone the other way," he said. Litehouse cider is still alive and well.
Today, the business challenge is rising costs. Litehouse is particularly vulnerable to increases in vegetable oils — a worldwide commodity — being driven by the federal government's attempts to increase the ethanol content in gasoline. That takes corn — a lot of it. Litehouse uses a great deal of soy oil produced by Zeeland Farm Services, but the diversion of corn oil from food to fuel tends to drive up the prices of all vegetable oils.
At 67, Christoff could easily pass for a much younger man, and his high energy and exuberance are obvious. "I will retire when it isn't any fun anymore," he said.
He said he has many people to thank for his success.
"We've got a lot of really great people who made me look good for a lot of years," he said with a laugh.